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.

As an illustration of what I was up against at Napa State Hospital, what they used to call an asylum for the criminally insane, my fellow inmate Arn Boothby, an angry three-hundred-pound paranoid schizophrenic who regularly “cheeked” his meds, tried to kill another inmate one day in the client convenience store by grabbing his throat and throwing him through a glass display case. I was standing in line to buy a pack of breath mints at the time and can attest to him saying, “P. S. I Love You,” as the blood spread across the tiles. Boothby was tackled by two psych techs; a staff nurse and hospital police converged within minutes to beat in Boothby’s brains behind closed doors. Boothby told me later they would’ve killed him had not Dr. Fasstink inadvertently intervened. Boothby went to jail, vacation time for most of us at NSH, and I didn’t see him at the card game for a few months. When you’re surrounded by murderers, bank robbers, arsonists, and child molesters you’ll play cards with just about anyone.

Your book is dedicated To Ceci. Who’s that?

She’s my mom.

 

So why not say, To Mom?

My sister and I have always called my parents by their first names. It’s always been the most natural thing for us—I think I tried calling them Mom and Dad once, and it felt weird and impersonal. When I was nine, one of my teachers asked my mom if “Ceci” meant “Mom” in Spanish, because she kept hearing us call her that. I thought, it is our word for Mom.

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.

2.

Michael and Scottie stood out from the moment they strolled down the gangplank of the sleek ocean liner that carried them and their possessions to Italy. They seemed to have stepped right out of an advertisement for Betty Crocker, Wonder Bread or capitalism itself. He was twenty-four, handsome, always in a nicely cut suit, camera around his neck. She, barely twenty, was a knockout. Blond, pretty, quick to laugh, always in an elegant hat and pearl choker. She had what the Italians call raffinatezza, a word that covers everything that is the opposite of vulgar—a quality Italians deeply aspired to, while at the same time remaining powerless to resist anything gilded, mirrored, shiny or bejeweled. This spring the papers were full of the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, and it was as if Siena’s own version of the royal couple had arrived. Even though there were other Americans coming and going in Siena, those two would become the Americans. Gli americani. Both of them so young, healthy, wealthy and in love. They seemed so free. That was how they seemed.

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.

“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.

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.