The House of Erzulie is, if I may be frank, chock-full of atrocities and lurid trivia. Is it really necessary to include this level of detail? It’s as though you enjoy making your readers squirm.

You mean the bloodshed, body counts, and madness inherent in my work? Or the graphic depictions of rabies and yellow fever deaths? Well, it is a gothic novel in the truest, literary sense of the word, thus designed to be atmospheric and sensationally distressing. We navigate this world using our senses, so stories that lack sensual detail feel “empty” to me. Hollow. I like to provide an immersive experience. Maybe submerge is a better term, for my stories do invite the reader to a sink into the deep waters of emotion. And yeah, I guess I do kinda enjoy making people squirm.

Adelaide Randolph does not meet me at the airport. Instead, she sends the intern, Owen, to fetch me. A scrappy little man-boy who looks as if his mother has just finished scrubbing him up for church waits outside the curb at baggage claim, holding up a sign that reads “Mueller: Belle Rive Plantation.”

He offers his hand and I pretend not to see it. Handshakes are the Devil’s germ-delivery system.

“Hey, I’m Owen. Flight okay?”

I nod as he grabs the handle of my wheelie bag and steers us out to the parking lot, his mouth going the whole time.

I saw Elizabeth Ellen before I’d read any of her work. There was a photo of her on a flyer for a book tour during the fall of 2014, and it piqued my interest so I googled her book Fast Machine.  The search result provided several dozen more striking pictures of Elizabeth and I remember thinking, who is this chick? I found her website and read everything I could find written by her online. My obsession with Elizabeth Ellen was born.

Cleary took rooms in a cottage at the seaside. I was sick in the worst way since I heard what happened to the preacher woman. I cried, and he threatened me. He said he would leave me and, at first, I wished he would. But I beg him not to leave me off nowhere. He says, “Be a good, quiet, brave girl. I’ma take you for a turn by the sea.”

Cleary ain’t no weak man. He can walk in anywhere and tell ‘em what he wants, and they better hurry to give it to him. They may look at him sideways when they see me, but they don’t say a thing.

“Blue the Dog, stay.”

The girl was trying to vomit again, retching, and Blue the Dog was worried, whining with that little huffing noise, his nostrils flaring, his big tail smacking against the leg of the table. The girl had been puking on and off for about an hour, and now, worse, she lay suffering on my porch sofa. I held a cup of spring water to her lips so she could sip, but she wasn’t keeping down even a dribble—her body was being hateful, and making not to stop. She couldn’t calm her singleness: the toxins must be deep in her cells.

The stories in World Gone Missing all explore a central theme: that people don’t become fully visible until they disappear. What brought that theme about?

The truth is I didn’t pick that theme as much as it picked me. Before I even had a thought of a book in my brain, my brother-in-law went missing. Decades later, sadly, he still hasn’t reappeared. Though the opening story in World Gone Missing“Bigger Than Life”—has a similar through-line, I completely fictionalized the characters and specific plot points. What remains true to life is the feeling you get when a loved one seems to vanish into thin air. The best way I can describe it is a sinking, helpless sensation. As the years wore on, I began to see my brother-in-law in new ways. I appreciated his subtle kindnesses and sharp wit, along with his sometimes brash and irrational nature. Thought I’m not sure this would have changed anything, I wish I could have been more compassionate.

From the short story “Here I Am”

I’m the last thing people imagine when they think of a funeral director. For this late night house call, I’m wearing a purple dress and heels to match; my nails are painted lavender. I’m hardly the dowdy thing in black the family expected.

The son hesitates, but shows me in. First, I verify that their grandmother is in fact dead: breath and pulse, no, and doll’s eye test, negative. The old woman’s eyes roll right along with her head. Though the hospice doctor’s been here and gone, you can’t be too careful in this business. Last week, some guy in Mississippi woke up in a body bag on the embalming table. It was all over the news.

Ghosts have always been real. I knew that from my dreams, but I never talked about it because no one else did, so I thought I wasn’t supposed to either. They came to see me in my dreams and sometimes stayed as lingering shadows on the wall when I was awake. The really brave ones got close to me, sitting on my chest and covering my mouth so I felt like I couldn’t scream. Those were the mean ones, the ones that wanted something, but I had nothing but my chicken legs under the blanket. The mean ones scared me, but the regular ones were okay. I tried to think that maybe the regular ones had a good reason to be around, maybe they had lived here too and never wanted to leave. The older I got, the more I was starting to think wasn’t just heaven and hell. Maybe life and death both had in-betweens. I don’t know how that fit in the Bible and being the good Christian boy my momma wanted me to be, but I knew these ghosts had been here. I knew they knew things I didn’t know. They just held their place, waiting.

And the other thing was, I only really saw them at night, before sleep or waking up. Never during the day. Except when I saw Theo’s ghost.

What is your debut novel, The Through, about?

The novel has two protagonists, Ben and Adrian. Adrian is a dual survivor of Hurricane Katrina and childhood sexual abuse. Her boyfriend Ben can’t make a decision about the future. So, one fears her past, the other fears his future. Then, a slave ship appears over their heads, and they have to figure out what to do. There’s a witch named Cut Mary, a doppelganger, ghosts, even a zombie. And a cat that has two origin stories. The Through also involves the town of Okahika, which I can best describe as a Southern ghost town. There’s one Okahika, but it exists simultaneously in every Southern state.

To be a bit less concrete, The Through is about the dissonance between the observable universe around us and the magical universe inside us. Sometimes those two realities fit together, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the observable and magical switch places. So in the book, we see the observable place in Northport, AL, and the magical place in Okahika, a.k.a. The Through, and characters who navigate both spaces.

Fairy tales terrified me when I believed in things. On my fifth birthday, one of Mama’s lady friends, Miss Janice, came over for dinner. We weren’t having a party or anything that year, just a quiet meal at the kitchen table with huck-a-bucks for dessert. Miss Janice taught at a university. I remember her as the kind of lady Mama liked: smart, well educated, not the type to wear makeup. She was the first black woman I’d ever seen with short hair. Over dinner, Miss Janice told us about her travels up and down back roads, through abandoned farms, into the backwoods and hollers of the South. She’d been looking for old people to tell her stories, but not just anyone or any story. Her stories had to be particular.

“All your stories come from one town?” Mama asked.

“That’s the thing baby,” Miss Janice said, “There’s more than one Okahika.”

Tell us about your new novel, The Night Language.

But you’re me. Or I’m me. I – we? – already know.

Only one question in and already you’re a meta pain in the ass.

Fine. The Night Language, out on November 14, 2017, tells the story of two young black men – Alamayou, the orphaned son of the Abyssinian emperor, and Philip Layard, an orphan from London’s streets – who find themselves thrown together by war. They’re outsiders who end up in the court of Queen Victoria. There they experience belonging and love for the first true time in their lives, before the inexorable tide of prejudice threatens to pull them apart.

Chapter One

17 December 1900

Villefranche

 

At last, some daylight.

The sun broke through in the afternoon, following two days of thick black clouds and downpours that had him spending his holiday running from doorway to café canopy. Now, finally, he could paint.

He unpacked his canvas and set up his easel on the path that ran along the blue ribbon of sea between Nice and Monaco. Mixing his oils, he gazed at the vista before him, acquainting himself with the particular shades of sunlight and the way they teased both color and shape from the land. Already he’d painted a good deal of the distant village, and in just two days’ time. A wonderful two days, he thought, in which he got thoroughly lost in his composition while occasionally humming a forgotten adagio. He worked without interruption, oblivious to everything around him. Thinking of nothing, only colors, tones, rims, and borders. Fellow visitors may have passed by him as he worked, or not.

So Improvement is your eighth book of fiction. The last three books—which have done just fine, in my opinion—are books of linked stories. How come you decided to write a novel?

I wrote novels before I wrote stories (I was very backwards that way). At a certain point, I began working on long short stories, and I fell into my own way of connecting them—a minor character in one was major in the next, and the stories were moving toward the same theme. After three books in that form—a form I felt I’d done my best work in—I wanted to return to the novel, to write something with the intensity of a line carried through—while still using the skills I learned in spreading across a web.

My first advance review, in Kirkus, called Improvement, my alleged novel, a story cycle, and I was not at all insulted. Actually, they called it a “kaleidoscopic story cycle”—who would mind that?

Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.

I had an aunt who was such a person. She went to Istanbul when she was in her twenties. She met a good-looking carpet seller from Cappadocia. She’d been a classics major in college and had many questions to ask him, many observations to offer. He was a gentle and intelligent man who spent his days talking to travelers. He’d come to think he no longer knew what to say to Turkish girls, and he loved my aunt’s airy conversation. When her girlfriends went back to Greece, she stayed behind and moved in with him.   This was in 1970.

Kingdom of Women’s main character, Averil Parnell, is the world’s first female Roman Catholic priest. We learn early on in the novel that she’s the lone survivor of a massacre of 22 women who were about to be ordained. Why give her such a traumatic backstory?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. The backstory was part of what came to me with the character. And since it shaped her life, it shaped the plot in fundamental ways. She probably wouldn’t have started to have religious visions, or had an affair with the most unsuitable man possible, if she weren’t so traumatized.