When I think “satire” as a genre of writing, I think The Onion, or McSweeny’s, maybe A Modest Proposal—writing that is upfront and obvious about its satire. But there’s another level of skill when a writer is able to weave in satire without it being the first thought you have when reading it. Jeremy T. Wilson’s debut novel The Quail Who Wears the Shirt is exactly the type of writing that is able to poke fun at human behavior, inject irony and humor into the fabric of a world, and do it all while inviting you into the story as if none of those things are the main attraction.
In Charity, Georgia, people turning into quails has been a common occurrence long enough that entire stereotypes have developed around the poor souls who are now half-bird. Lee Hubbs narrates his own personal story of crime, guilt, and manhood with this absurdist backdrop and it is wholly engrossing. We’re off to the races immediately: Lee covers up his own hit-and-run of his quail-friend Valentine; he fails to donate the $50 he lifted from Valentine’s lifeless body to a church; he gaslights his wife when she confronts him about his affair; he belittles his Black employee; he takes advantage of the kindness of his neighbors; and he is blind to his own privilege and shortcomings.
As much as Lee proves to us that he is a Terrible Person, we’re also rooting for his redemption by the book’s end. Wilson seems to say, through Lee: see how easily we can fall into our own worst impulses? Don’t be so quick to judge.
And it’s funny. Really funny. (Imagine the plume of a quail on the sorriest guy you know; now give him a southern drawl.)
Jeremy and I spoke over email about building a world with absurdist elements, the voice of the south, and how humor can give us a different perspective on life.
Where did you get this idea (people turn into quails! But they’re still themselves) that plays with absurdism so deftly?
Jeremy T. Wilson
Some of our best and weirdest ideas come from a half-dream state, and one morning I woke up and wrote the words “quail people” in the notes app on my phone. I don’t know if I was dreaming about them or what, but there they were. I had already been working on the novel, but something about this image felt perfectly aligned with the cartoonish tone. I also liked the idea of a physical transformation that offered little visible advantage. Human-animal hybrids often result in super strength or the ability to leap buildings or spin webs or whatever, so I thought the relative mundanity of turning quail would be funny. But the mundanity also serves to illustrate how reactionary we are in the face of change, especially change that affects our bodies. While they pose no threat to anyone, the quails still get treated as sub-human freaks.
I was (pleasantly) surprised that the in-world explanation of how/why people are turning into literal birds comes quite early in the book. There are plenty of books that would refuse to give us any type of how/why; can you talk about your impulse to explain the quails so early?
Jeremy T. Wilson
This is always a big question with world building, especially with a first person narrator. The first person narrator is familiar with the facts of their own world, so why would they dive into long expository passages, the dreaded info dump? But the reader is not familiar with this world, so they will want to know what the hell is going on with all these quail people, and if they don’t find out early enough they will get frustrated. Honestly, I’m not even sure I got it right, but any explanation of what’s going on had to be consistent with Lee’s voice and with the scene. I couldn’t have him narrate the whole history of the quailing without a situational context for that narration. So the first time we get an explanation of the quails comes within the context of Lee’s visit to his friend Dawn’s pawn shop. Dawn has a reputation for employing quails, so it feels natural here for him to talk about them in the scene. I also wanted the reader to have a clear image of what the quails looked like early on. And finally, I wanted the reader to know what kind of book they were reading, so in that sense it was important for me to get all this quail stuff out up front.
Georgia and the Southern setting is quite alive on the page. I know you’re from the South; what is it about the area that draws you to write about it?
Jeremy T. Wilson
When I first started writing I wanted nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of some of my favorite southern authors, Larry Brown and Flannery O’Connor being at the top of that list. My stories were sad imitations, all truck-driving blue collar drunks and impish traveling preachers. I might be able to capture a certain style but the stories felt forced and lacked originality. In grad school I started writing mostly realist stories set in Chicago, and these stories—while nothing like my idols’—had a lot more of myself in them. So I gave up on ever becoming a “southern writer,” and once I gave up I felt free to simply write whatever I wanted to write. Without forcing myself to write southern stories, I let the stories tell me what they wanted to be and where they wanted to go. It just so happens that a lot of my stories want to take place in Georgia. I’d say this has to do with voice more than anything. When I hear characters in my head they mostly have southern accents.
The voice of Lee is very convincing. As much as I started off disliking Lee as a person (but love him as a character) he does grow on you. How do you find your way into a character’s mind that’s somewhat unlikeable?
Jeremy T. Wilson
That was really the whole project with Lee. I deliberately set out to write from the perspective of someone I wouldn’t agree with, so in some earlier drafts I took his more distasteful views to an extreme. And I just had a lot of fun inhabiting this wildly different persona. I highly recommend this as a writing activity. But I never once thought of him as unlikeable. I knew people wouldn’t like him, but liking him or not liking him wasn’t really the point. If I think too much about the way a potential reader might perceive my characters, I’m writing from the wrong place. I can’t control that no matter what I do. I mean, the character could be a saint named Joanne and a reader might still hate them because they don’t like the name Joanne. What I can control is trying to stay as true to the character as I can, and that means being honest about what they say and do, even if those things are ugly.
I laughed out loud many times while reading. The comedy balances out the darker moments throughout. Can you talk about how you find your way into the levity?
Jeremy T. Wilson
I’m so glad the novel made you laugh. It’s not like writers can get up and try out our jokes on an audience and fine tune them, so I’m often thinking that what I find funny other people won’t. I think things are funnier when they occur in situations that wouldn’t normally be funny, like the end of The Big Lebowski when they are scattering Donny’s ashes and they blow in The Dude’s face, or any number of satirical interviews like Borat or Cunk on Earth that take the seriousness of the documentary form and dismantle it. These collisions give me a visceral reaction, make me feel ashamed or excited or weirded out and this punctures reality, throws the inanity of our norms into relief, reminds us of just how absurd it is to be alive. I look for that feeling when I’m writing and hope it comes across as funny to some readers. Here’s a recent example. I was reading the ethicist in the New York Times Magazine and somebody wrote in to say that their mother confessed just before dying that they’d killed their grandmother. Sure, this is a stunning revelation, but it’s funny, too, right? Right?
The magical realism is just as fascinating as the mundanity of this story. When you’re not writing, how does your mind observe the world and in what ways does it ask questions that help build the imaginative elements that work into your writing?
Jeremy T. Wilson
The imaginative elements in my stories often come from boredom. If I’m bored when I’m working on something, or the writing just seems uninspired, I tend to toss in something speculative or weird to see what will happen. I like to encourage a sense of play when I write. That’s where I make the best discoveries. The speculative element may not stay in the story, but it keeps me interested and forces me to test the reactions of the characters which helps me get to know them and often leads to the best surprises. As far as observing the world while I’m not writing, well, I watch a lot of sports.
The Quail Who Wears the Shirt
By Jeremy T. Wilson
Published November 7, 2023