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.

Prologue: Make Straight the Paths

 Ciara Neal, bleary eyed at the bar, was vaguely aware that her friends had left. In fact, all the customers were gone except her, and still Fran didn’t call closing time. She hovered nearby, clearing off glasses and muttering. Something about a priest. Then a word that managed to penetrate Ciara’s brain fog.

“Did you say ‘vigilantes’?”

“Drink this.”

Fran slammed down a coffee mug in front of her. It didn’t smell like coffee. Didn’t taste like any tea Ciara knew of. Presumably it was the same stuff that Fran swilled down every night. If she had to guess, she’d have said it was brewed from tobacco leaves.

“I’ve been listening to you mouth off all night,” Fran said, “louder and louder with each beer you put away. And here’s what I have to say to you: quit your whining. How many people even have the chance to go to college?”

I turned on the lights and the bulbs clicked to life, trying their best to shine through layers of sticky dust. I ran up and down the rows of the university library’s basement, looking for the chrome bulk that would betray the coin-op typewriter’s hiding place. They upped the cost from a dime to a quarter from Ray’s time to mine. I could almost smell the charred ash when I recalled reading the book for the first time. It had cost him $9.80 to write his masterpiece on saving the power of words from the firemen, one dime and half hour increment at a time.

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.

From “The Three Mornings of José Antonio Rincón”

It is true that if pressed, José Antonio Rincón would have denied enjoying the experience because, regardless of the changes he endured during those three days last April, his basic nature remained the same. That is to say, José Antonio was, is, and will always be a contrarian. During his almost six decades of life on this earth his contrarian nature only grew stronger each year, with roots as reliable and resilient as those of a northern red oak. So if you asked him, did you like it, José Antonio? Was it pleasant? He no doubt would frown, purse his lips, and shout, “No, it was hellish!” However, if you said: Oh, what horrors! How did you survive it all? He very likely would smile and say it was all quite delightful, and he would sincerely express his hope that it should happen again and again and again.

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.

PROLOGUE

Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last stay in Germany (for an ill-fated job in Frankfurt) and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalyptic—flat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.

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.

“I’m wracking brain, Izaac. Who is Stanley Brozek? This name is ringing a bell, but I cannot place it.”

Izaac tapped the paper lightly against his thigh. “I don’t know. Come.”

He tossed the newspaper on top of her galoshes to offer Ludka his arthritic hands, which were still good enough for leverage.

“Take a breath, kochanie, and come with me into the kitchen. I’m going to have a little drink and I suggest you do, too. One drink won’t shatter our wits. Come now.”