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.
There’s an active and frequently contentious debate in virtually every field of the arts about cultural appropriation. Now, along comes The Night Language, written by someone who doesn’t share the attributes that place his main characters on the other side of the fault lines addressed in the novel. How did you come to feel that you had the right to tell their story?
It’s true; I wrote about people who are different from me. I’m a straight, white, Jewish male, writing about characters who are black, gay, old, English, royal, poverty-stricken, and dead. What right do I have to step into their lives? For me, the answer was “none.” I have no right to do so. I have a desire to. A curiosity to find among our differences, similarities. I start writing from the assumption that I know nothing and am entitled to nothing other than what I earn by empathy and openness and diligence, and that it would be astonishingly stupid of me to pretend that others have no right to be upset at someone like me presuming to write about them. That goes for the characters in my novel as well as readers. Their stories, and the historical, cultural, political and personal forces that have shaped those stories, don’t belong to me. They’re gifted. Like any gift, I treat those stories with respect and awe. I do the best I can with them and hope to get as much right (whatever right means in the context of making up stories) as possible.
I didn’t barrel headlong into this novel with no fear of getting it wrong or worse, transgressing into the appropriation of someone else’s truth. Just the opposite. I went in–once I understood who and what this novel was truly trying to be about–with humility and no small amount of concern that I would depict the characters with respect, honesty, and dignity. I wanted to tell, in the end, a story about the sort of love I hope we all come to know, that sacrifices and endures despite everything that may be arrayed against it. I came to the story of Philip and Alamayou curious about their lives. They, in turn, came to the story not as pawns subject to the white straight culture surrounding them, but as two human beings fighting for a place for each other.
Ultimately, we give our permission to be someone else when we read or write a story. That’s not the same as giving permission to misrepresent or be misrepresented, or to reduce human beings to stereotypes and caricatures. It’s a bestowing of trust that the author will do their level best to move, entertain, and immerse us in their vision of the world. I hope I lived up to that.
You say, “once you understood who and what this novel was truly trying to be about.” Wasn’t it always what it turned out to be, a love story between the characters of Alamayou and Philip?
Alamayou is taken from the real world and heavily fictionalized. Philip is a fiction in his entirety. In fact, Philip didn’t exist in the first draft or two of the novel, and yet they found their way to each other in the story, and fell in love with each other in a way that neither they nor I anticipated when I began to write. Their love story was entirely unexpected, to them and to me. When I began to realize what was happening between them, I thankfully had the good sense to step out of the way and allow their story to take its form.
So your characters coming to life and speaking to each other in unexpected ways is a good thing, not a vaguely 5150 thing?
Can it be both? When I begin something, I roughly outline, but I can’t possibly know where the story will take itself (and me) any more than I can know where a friendship is going to go in the first moments of meeting someone new. I can only hope that the story and the characters surprise me, or inform me that the early decisions I thought they’d make, they wouldn’t make in a million years. When that happens, I know the piece is alive.
What comes first: the theme, the setting, or the character(s)?
It’s usually a convergence of an image and an isolated fact, a throwaway piece of trivia that sparks something for me. The character of Alamayou existed in history, but he was much different than as I’ve drawn him (in life he was much younger, when he came to Queen Victoria’s court, for example). I found a photo of him when I was researching The Luminist and couldn’t look away from that haunted child’s face. I had to know more about this young boy who was taken by force of war from his home in Abyssinia and brought across the world to an unimaginable city, London. So, that was the image; the small fact was the fact that he didn’t live past age 17 in life (I won’t say what happens to him in the novel), and he was always a lonely figure. Image and fact collided, and the thrown sparks were this: I wanted to write a life for Alamayou that he didn’t get to have in reality. That, of course, meant love, and love isn’t worthy of a novel unless it’s threatened.
Are you always this sappy?
Most of the time.
Agree or disagree: Write what you know.
Disagree if that’s all you do. Write what you know, if that’s where the meaning lies for you, but also try to write what you don’t know and, especially, what you don’t want anyone to know.
Are there pieces of you in your first novel, The Luminist, and The Night Language? Pieces you don’t want anyone to know?
Can I ask –
Give us one of your writerly quirks.
My first drafts are always handwritten. My new novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger, is contained in (so far) eight full legal pads.
Dude, you are seriously old.
Do you mind that it took you this long to get here, to two published novels?
I think I’d mind if I got here and couldn’t remember where here was, or why I came. Wait, what were we talking about?
DAVID ROCKLIN is the author of The Luminist and the founder/curator of Roar Shack, a monthly reading series in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Chicago and now lives in LA with his wife, daughters and a 150-lb Great Dane who seriously needs to stay on his own bed. He’s currently at work on his next novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger.