A Character’s Journey From Sympathy to Strangeness, Then Back Again: An Interview With Novelist Chris Leslie-HynanBy Rich Ferguson
July 01, 2015
Chris Leslie-Hynan is a very busy man these days. With the success of his first novel, Ride Around Shining, he has been touring on and off for well over the last year. I caught up with him somewhere around Las Vegas to discuss his novel and also some of the biases and expectations he had to confront when writing about race, class, and envy.
RICH FERGUSON: I recently finished your novel Ride Around Shining (Harper Perennial) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Before I continue with any questions, I was hoping you could summarize the plot of the novel for our TNB audience.
CHRIS LESLIE-HYNAN: Sure. Ride Around Shining is about a white fan’s fascination with the life of his black employer, a professional basketball player. It’s narrated from the point-of-view of its antagonist, so as Jess (the fan) uses his leverage as a chauffeur to worm his way further into the lives of Calyph (the NBA player) and his wife Antonia, the book seeks to explore white fascination with black athletic culture from inside the mind of a man who is both more sympathetic than a traditional antagonist and a whole lot more creepy than he first seems.
RF: How much of the novel was semi-autobiographical?
CLH: Jess’s origins and mine are largely the same — someone raised in the rural Midwest whose first notions of black culture came through watching sports. Much of the fun of the book was shaping a narrator who first seems like a traditional semi-autobiographical stand-in for the writer, then reveals himself to be a voyeuristic misanthrope and a symbol of white strangeness, before at last (arguably) returning to a place where he is sympathetic once more.
RF: What feelings, biases, or expectations did you have to adopt or release in writing a novel about race, class, and envy?
CLH: Lordy. Well, I think it was important to get free from the notion that I could critique the ways that white people are weird around black people objectively. I’m white, so in spite of the fact that so much of the book’s accidental research was watching other white people behave strangely, there was no tackling the subject from without. I had to fuse that with as much examination of my own self as possible or it would have felt false. A white guy can’t critique white culture without a mirror.
RF: I know that you live in Portland, but beyond that do you feel that Portland plays a deeper, more significant role when creating a novel about race, social class, and the nouveau riche?
CLH: Well, we’re the whitest city of our size in America. And until the Timbers were founded and became popular in the last five or six years, we’ve basically been a one-team town, and that team has traditionally been largely black. I first moved to Portland in 2003, during the end of the Jail Blazers era, when the whole city was heaping abuse on Rasheed Wallace for not being who they wanted him to be. Was there a racial component to that? I thought so.
RF: In writing a novel such as yours, did you feel any sense of moral or ethical responsibility in what you were trying to convey?
CLH: Just to not be a coward. To critique from within and not just without. There’s a point in the book where Jess is able to acknowledge a legacy of racism. As a person born in Wisconsin to families from Illinois and Massachusetts it’s very tempting to be like “I’m not from the south, so that’s not me! I’m innocent, that’s not my legacy.” But it’s not that simple.
RF: There were a few scenes in the book that left me feeling, “Wow, that was uncomfortable. That must’ve been difficult to write.” What would one of those scenes have been for you?
CLH: The final scene with Jess and Shida was certainly the most difficult. A white player misunderstands a situation at a party and tries to have sex with a black woman who’s also an employee of a black player. She rebuffs him, violently, and Jess comes into the aftermath with the idea of comforting her. She shows surprising empathy for him, but in spite of his fascination with black male athletes he’s essentially never been close to a black woman before so he freaks out and leaves. It was a brutal scene to write because it’s the one scene where Jess is truly unforgivable, and knows it.
RF: Most of the book is rather serious, but there were a few humorous moments along the way. What are your thoughts on humor in writing, and how did you figure out when and how to use it in your book?
CLH: I’m glad you noticed that. This interview is making the book seem like a work of complete high moral seriousness, which it’s not. This is my first book and I’m not usually reaching for some Crime and Punishment level of heft so I think I owe it to the reader to give them humor where I can find it. For all that a writer wants to move people, on an average day there’s nothing better in the world than making the right person (in my case usually a woman, but not always) laugh.
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Chris Leslie-Hynan is originally from Wisconsin and attended Carleton College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Ride Around Shining is his first novel.