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News & Features » March 2014 » Johnny Temple Interviews Eric Charles May and Bernice L. McFadden

Johnny Temple Interviews Eric Charles May and Bernice L. McFadden

To celebrate the release of Eric Charles May’s debut novel, Bedrock Faith, Johnny Temple spoke with Eric Charles May and Bernice L. McFadden (author of Glorious, Nowhere Is a Place, Gathering of Waters, and The Warmest December, among others) about authorship, collective narration, mainstream literary culture, underappreciated authors, and more. Read the interview below:

Eric Charles May, Bernice L. McFadden

Eric Charles May, Bernice L. McFadden

Johnny: When you read a novel, do you separate the artist from the art? Or is your reading experience informed in part by who the author is?

Bernice: It depends on who the author is. If I have somewhat of a relationship with the writer, I’m on the lookout for the writers’ personal information to pop up in the story line. This also happens even if I don’t personally know the writer, but have read or watched numerous interviews given by the writer. Now, if the author’s book has been hyped by the media and prominent literary figures, I will admit, I prepare myself to be blown away, but that’s usually not the case. I try to read those books a year or two later, when the excitement has died; this way I don’t set myself up to be disappointed. I believe some of my most cherished books were written by writers who were completely foreign to me until I stumbled upon their novels in a bookstore, thrift shop, or on a friend’s bookshelf.

Eric: Those stumblings that you speak of, Bernice, have led to some of my favorite reads too. I remember finding Ann Petry’s The Narrows at a used bookstore in the summer of 1993. Her use of image and scene, her amazing handling of point of view shifts were marvelous, producing a “Where have you been all my reading life?” reaction in me. (When Petry’s in the various male characters’ points of view, their internal perceptions, she really nails it.) What was also really exciting was what I discovered when I got about a third of the way through the book. It had to do with Petry’s third-person voice in the narrative passages. Where had I heard that voice before? Then it hit me—Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker. Which is not to say I thought those authors were following or channeling Petry (The Narrows was published in 1953) but that there is something like the “African American Woman’s Aesthetic” (for lack of a better phrase), a particular way of looking at the world. More a sensibility than a dialect or tone. It was a sensibility I first heard as a little boy sitting in my maternal grandmother’s kitchen listening to her and my mother and my three aunts conversing.

Since 1993 I’ve taught The Narrows several times with great results in terms of the student writing. I brought it to the attention of my colleagues here in the Fiction program at Columbia College Chicago and several have used it with great success in their classes as well. I think it’s one of the best American novels I’ve ever read and one that is sometimes not mentioned when folks start listing Best African American novels.

Another of my favorite finds that I stumbled across is The Illusionist by Dinitia Smith. The novel is loosely based on the small-town Nebraska murder reported in the true-crime book All She Wanted by Aphrodite Jones, which was the story that was also the inspiration for the movie Boys Don’t Cry.

Other discovered gems include The Fall of Rome, a novel by Martha Southgate, and Travel Advisory, a collection of short stories by David Lida.

Johnny: In your novels, locale often plays a very important role. In Bedrock Faith (May), the Chicago neighborhood of Parkland very much shapes and informs the story line and the ways that the characters interact. And in Gathering of Waters (McFadden), the novel is actually narrated by the town of Money, Mississippi. For each of you, were there any books that you read early in life that helped reinforce for you the role that setting can play in literature?

Eric: My approach is that a fictional community is a collection of characters and the attitudes of that collection can be expressed by using the group point of view; that is, personifying my imagined perception of the collection of characters the way I would with an individual character, and letting that collective voice speak.

A huge influence for me in regards of group perception awareness was The Thin Red Line by James Jones. The novel depicts an army infantry company in the World War II battle for the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal, where Jones saw action as an enlisted man. At points he takes on the POV of the company, which he calls C-for-Charlie. On page three, the company is housed in the lower deck of a cargo ship, in anxious anticipation for their turn to leave the boat and get on dry land:

“In the dimly lighted helhole of exceedingly high moisture content, whose metal walls resounded everything, C-for-Charlie scrubbed the sweat from its dripping eyebrows, picked its wet shirts loose from its armpits, cursed quietly, looked at its watches, and waited impatiently.”

For the purposes of my novel, it was just as important to get the right tone for the group perception’s voice. One of the influences for how the neighborhood mentality might sound in conversation came from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Beginning on page 12, the young sisters Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, (living in 1940s Lorain, Ohio) overhear a conversation between their mother and some neighborhood women. The women are speaking about Mr. Washington, a local man who will soon be rooming in the MacTeer house.

“You know him,” she [Mrs. MacTeer] said to her friends. “Henry Washington. He’s been living over there with Miss Della Jones on Thirteenth Street. But she’s too addled now to keep up. So he’s looking for another place.”

“Oh yes.” Her friends do not hide their curiosity. “I been wondering how long he was going to stay up there with her. They say she’s real bad off. Don’t know who he is half the time, and nobody else.”

“Well, that old crazy nigger she married up with didn’t help her head none.”

“Did you hear what he told folks when he left her?”

“Uh-uh. What?”

“Well, he run off with that trifling Peggy—from Elyria. You know.”

“One of Old Slack Bessie’s girls?”

“That’s the one. Well somebody asked him why he left a nice good church woman like Della for that heifer. You know Della always did keep a good house. And he said the honest-to-God real reason was he couldn’t take no more of that violet water Della Jones used. Said he wanted a woman to smell like a woman. Said Della was just too clean for him.”

“Old dog. Ain’t that nasty!”

“You telling me. What kind of reasoning is that?”

This is also an example of the African American Woman Aesthetic sensibility I referred to earlier. Because the Parkland neighborhood of my novel is middle-class, and because I made the decision early on not to use any profanity, I adjusted the language of Parkland from what’s depicted in The Bluest Eye.

Bernice: I believe that spaces, those designed by man and created by God, can be active characters in a story. I marvel at decades-old trees and wonder if they could talk, what stories would they tell? The oceans, which flow from one side of the earth to the next, what accounts could they share if given a voice? I am fascinated with that which is only often utilized as a canvas, background, or framing device. I believe that it’s this fascination that fed the voice that became the narrator of Gathering of Waters.

Johnny: I have read that Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty (or near-poverty). While this can be seen as fairly shocking, given Hurston’s enormous talent and her outstanding literary output, the reality is that most literary writers have been undervalued by society at large. If you could wave a magic wand to change the relationship that most authors have to mainstream culture, what would you change?

Bernice: The compilation of literary models by American authors, known as the American Literary Canon, is exclusionary, as women and writers of color are woefully underrepresented. My wand would wave away the belief system forcibly imprinted on our psyche which promotes the idea that books written by people of color and/or women are less important, less impactful, and are at best a hybrid of American culture. My wand would do away with those ridiculous labels that categorize our books by skin color and sex.

Eric: I couldn’t agree with Bernice more. The exclusion you speak of, Bernice, is of course just another aspect of the American cultural history that designated that the lives of women of all races and men and children of color were less important than the lives of white males. One of the ways that oppression works is to judge the lives of the oppressed as trivial and unimportant. It’s one of the ways that oppressors justify the oppression: “These people are unimportant. How do we know? They have no literature of any importance.” The way the literary canon was traditionally arranged (and marketed) grew out of all that.

Johnny: Who do you think is the most underappreciated contemporary author? Feel free to name more than one author, if you like. And please say a few words about what you like about this author’s work.

Eric: Hmmm. Tough question. I imagine most of the authors with books on bookstore shelves would say that they qualify for underappreciated status. Okay, for sake of argument I’ll define underappreciated as: “books that are no longer in print but ought to be” or “books I’ve very much enjoyed but when I mention the titles to people, many have never heard of the books.” Like Nabokov, when I think of literature in terms such as underappreciated, I think of specific works of art as opposed to particular authors. Three books that could be considered underappreciated I cited in an earlier answer: David Lida’s Travel Advisory, Dinitia Smith’s The Illusionist, and Martha Southgate’s Fall of Rome. Another is Jill Ciment’s Teeth of the Dog, a not very long (216 pages) dandy of novel set on a South Pacific island in modern times. She’s also written a fine memoir, Half a Life. There’s Catherine Carmier by Ernest J. Gaines (yeah, I know he’s well-known, but when folks talk of his stuff they usually mention The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, or A Gathering of Old Men, or A Lesson Before Dying), Reginald McKnight’s short story collection The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas (love that title), and Frederica Wagman’s Mrs. Hornstien, which is an even shorter novel than Teeth of the Dog. All of these works are engagingly told stories that employ vivid uses of imagery and strong narrative and/or narrator voices. So there’s my list, although I’m sure that sometime tomorrow, three or four or more other titles will spring to my mind.

A final note: the above books are by authors I don’t know personally. If I were to include works by people who are my friends, the list would be significantly longer. I have a lot of talented friends.

Bernice: I think that Kim McLarin (Divorce Dog, Jump at the Sun) is underappreciated. I think her honesty about motherhood makes women uncomfortable. She puts on paper what we (mothers) are all thinking but are too afraid to vocalize. I appreciate truth in writing, even if it makes me uneasy. Another writer, long dead now, DuBose Heyward (Porgy, Mamba’s Daughters), whose most famous novel was Porgy. When we hear Porgy we think of Porgy and Bess and immediately acknowledge George Gershwin, who set the story to music. DuBose’s name is rarely mentioned when we list major writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and I think that needs to change.

***

ERIC CHARLES MAY is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. A Chicago native and former reporter for the Washington Post, his fiction has appeared in the magazines Fish Stories, F, and Criminal Class. In addition to his Post reporting, his nonfiction has appeared in Sport Literate, the Chicago Tribune, and the personal essay anthology Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck. Bedrock Faith is his first novel.

BERNICE L. McFADDEN is the author of eight critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Nowhere Is a Place, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. She is a two-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of two fiction honor awards from the BCALA. Her sophomore novel, The Warmest December, was praised by Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison as “searing and expertly imagined.” McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Bedrock Faith was named a “Notable African-American Title” by Publishers Weekly, and received a starred review from Booklist, who called it “perfect for book clubs.” To read more about May’s debut novel, or to order a copy, please click here.

 

Posted: Mar 11, 2014

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