What, in four words or less, is your debut short story collection all about?

Lust. Revenge. Betrayal. Justice.

 

Do you think it’s unusual to have ‘unflattering’ portrayals of women and queer people of color so dominate a story collection?

I feel like the terms ‘flattering’ and ‘unflattering’ are sort of like terms used by a fading star to direct a photographer to a ‘more flattering’ angle. To one’s ‘best’ side. When the reality, in all its brutality and force and honesty, is just so much more dazzling to me, and really beautiful.


The last time we talked we learned you were born in a log cabin and the illegitimate son of the Queen of England, what good that did anyone is hard to say, but I see you have another book coming out. Quite the coincidence.

I’ll say, and thanks for asking. Yes, it’s a horseracing, record collecting, and insane asylum novel called Whirlaway. It’s also about psychic evanescence, which is existing and not existing at the same time. It’s a funny book, I’ll add, but what else would you expect from the illegitimate son of an English Queen?

 

I understand you’ve used an unreliable narrator for perspective. What are you thoughts on this? Have you done this before?

Never intentionally. And I don’t like it as a rule. In my opinion, the writer should be doing the heavy lifting for the reader, being as clear and succinct and accessible as possible, but in Whirlaway my narrator is an escapee from a psychiatric hospital, a diagnosed and heavily-medicated schizophrenic, so I really had no choice. Poetry is supposedly the art of indirection, the way spaces become bridges and that sort of thing. Also at the heart of Whirlaway is a death mystery, and I found an unreliable narrator quite useful for this.

Your novel The Italian Party is about someone trying to manipulate an election using some very sneaky methods. Are you about to be subpoenaed?

I don’t think so, but it’s a pretty weird coincidence. When I started writing the novel in the summer of 2013, I came across a couple of passing references to how the U.S. had influenced Italian elections starting in 1947 and going forward through the 1950s. I found that very intriguing—I remember pausing in my reading when I came to the phrase “opinion moulders” and staring out the window and thinking, I can imagine bribing someone after an election, but how do you actually throw an election in a foreign country??? The idea was so odd to me that I decided to boil it down to one not very well-trained American trying to sway one small election in one town (Siena), and to make it very hard for him, for all the comic reasons that come to mind in terms of how bumpy it is to try to get anything done in Italy.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

As with many writers, you majored in English literature in college. But unlike most, you did not go on for an MFA. Instead, you went to law school and have been practicing full-time for the last three decades. Why did you take that path? Does that say something about your opinion of MFA programs?

It’s true I came to my writing life, in some sense, rather late. Other than my creative output in school publications, I published my first fiction—as an adult—at the age of 39. I am now 58 with 10 published books to my name, two of those as editor. And my first poetry collection will come out this November. All the while I have been practicing law, the last 27 years with the California Department of Justice. I’m currently a supervising attorney in the Consumer Law Section.

Can you talk about the genesis of Here in Berlin?

The idea began as an inquiry into the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. I wanted to find the interesting stories from this globalism—the relationships and children, complications and dislocations—that always accompany political upheaval.

 

Was Berlin your only, or primary, destination?

Originally, I thought of doing a book in three or four parts with stories set in Berlin, in Chile, in Vietnam, and Angola—all places where Cubans have studied, were politically involved, or fought wars. Berlin was my second stop, after Chile, and I couldn’t get enough of the city. I knew pretty quickly that it was where the whole novel would be set.

This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. My guest today is the acclaimed author, writing teacher and online entrepreneur whose debut novel, This Is How It Begins, is the best novel I’ve ever read in my entire life—

Stop it! That’s private.

 

… Joan Dempsey, welcome to Fresh Air.

[Groan.] Now I’ll never meet her.

 

Oh, come on. Terry Gross isn’t reading your TNB Self-Interview.

Unless she’s actually considering an interview with me.

So, are you sitting comfortably?

Yes, thank you.

 

Then I’ll begin. Your novel, When It’s Over, is set in World War II. Does the world really need another WWII/Holocaust novel?

Certainly, a lot of fiction is set in that time; it’s such a rich, complex period, and I think it continues to fascinate us. There are so many stories to tell. I am always most drawn to those that show how the lives of ordinary people were impacted by momentous historical events. But I think When It’s Over offers some unique perspectives. First, it highlights the lives of refugees who fled the Nazis and managed to reach England during the war, and the prejudice and xenophobia they encountered. While the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII has become well-known over the past few decades, not many people are aware that the British interned Germans as “enemy aliens;” many were Jews and Communists who had narrowly escaped being interned by the Nazis. Another aspect is the Progressive political movement that swept Britain during the war and which led ultimately to the stunning landslide defeat of Churchill’s party in the 1945 election, right after VE day. As someone in my writing group said: how was it possible that Churchill, the great war leader, lost? That aspect of the war has been largely ignored.

What’s one memory that came into your mind recently that you haven’t thought about for ages?

Weird memories come to me all the time – it helps to have siblings who like to remind you of the various horrors of your life – but the one that came to me today was from when I worked at an infomercial company in the 1990s. I think about that time fairly frequently, actually, because every time I see someone who looks like Ed McMahon – which, living in Palm Springs, is pretty frequently; he has a lot of doppelgängers among the retired golfing set – I remember how I worked on his ill-fated Miracle Fryer (the miracle of which was that there was no frying involved – it was a pan that you baked chicken on). But I suddenly remembered the day I realized that the company I was working for might be involved in something nefarious – there was a cult involved, and a defective exercise device, which I recognize doesn’t sound like two things that go together, and it turns out, well, they don’t – and so I emailed the one person I’m still in contact with from that job to confirm that a strange meeting happened where it was announced we would no longer be getting free bagels and snacks…which everyone then intuited was some very bad, bad news for our jobs. (Well, that and because there was talk the government was coming to seize our computers and that we should all delete our Napster accounts.) (It was the 90s.)