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News & Features » March 2015 » Sterling Watson: On Writing Suitcase City

Sterling Watson: On Writing Suitcase City

To celebrate the release of Suitcase City, we’re pleased to feature a statement from author Sterling Watson reflecting on how people have received his latest novel.

SuitcaseCity_currentI’ve been thinking about the reactions Suitcase City has received from critics and readers so far. I say so far because of course I hope for more reactions, many more.

There have been some surprises.

My brother, to whom the book is dedicated, wrote: “I have for some time been wanting to tell you how very much I loved your new book. It is beautifully crafted, and I found myself stopping to reread and savor your striking imagery—both of the characters and the Tampa and North Florida scene. Blood is a wonderful villain, and I loved watching him come apart. Teach, on the other hand, made me uncomfortable until the end. It is hard watching a life come apart—but I loved his comeback, as I did the two cops. Beautifully done!”

I wrote to him: “I see from your letter that the through line for you is the fall and rise of the protagonist, Teach. The woman I work for up in Boston just wrote to me that for her it’s the father-daughter story. I think maybe that without quite knowing I was doing it, I created through lines for readers with very different interests.”

For some readers and reviewers, it’s the two cops. One of the reviews mentioned diverse characters. Maybe that’s what I managed to accomplish. I struggled with the police procedural part of the story and tried to keep it to a minimum to hide my lack of firsthand knowledge of such things. So far there has been nothing but praise for this aspect of the story.

As I read author’s statements by some of the wonderful writers published by Akashic, I note some concentration on theme. Of course, opinions about what writers should say about the meanings of their own work run from margin to margin, from I’ll leave that to the critics and the readers, to Malcolm Lowry’s famous long letter to publisher Jonathan Cape about the meaning of Under the Volcano—which, we are told, helped to get the book published.

I have been interested in reviewers’ comments on the meaning of Suitcase City (and of course flattered that they have thought it had meaning).

One reviewer said that I find “lawyers and bankers and other highborn creatures just as compromised as prostitutes and drug mules.” True enough.

I have always been fascinated by characters who, like you and me, are both good and bad. For me as a writer, meaning often lies in the murky depths of lives that mix good and evil, and meaning comes into focus more starkly when characters struggle to understand their own mixed natures and try to become better people. (Yes, I know that in a postmodern world that enterprise will seem hopelessly quaint to some readers.) Some of my characters improve, and some don’t. A writer who works in this area of human complexity must struggle with the possibility of a deterministic universe in which choice is illusion and human striving means nothing in the face of the implacable forces that shape our destinies. Am I a determinist? No, but the struggle to understand and to battle that great collective of forces—heredity and environment, for short—that shapes our natures is everywhere in my work.

In a recent interview, Mathew Weiner, creator of the hit TV show Mad Men, talked about the difficulty of making Don Draper, the show’s much compromised leading man, “relatable.” Weiner says, “Don is a representation, to me, of American society. He is steeped in sin, haunted by his past, raised by animals, and there is a chance to revolt. And he cannot stop himself.”

Many of these things, if not all of them, are true of my protagonist, James Teach. But I’ve taken my picture of Teach in the after-rebellion phase of his life. And just at the moment when he is ready to reconsider, repent, and make his peace with the ghosts that haunt him, it’s not a ghost but a flesh-and-blood man who comes out of his past demanding tribute and revenge. This forces Teach to return to the skills, if not the values, of his past, and those skills are deadly.

Another reviewer noted that Suitcase City, like Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son, features characters who find themselves forced by circumstances (or fate) to play the roles of symbols in a very public drama. The reviewer says: “. . . two of Watson’s characters actually debate what broad-stroke racial symbols they might unfairly be used to signify in print and in court.” Yes, they do, and these passages were great fun to write. Two intelligent men, enemies for the moment, are both completely aware of the dramatic—if not cosmic—irony of the circumstances that have forced them to walk the streets wearing sandwich boards proclaiming their symbolic content. They both know that their actions are vivid public drama, wonderful fodder for the news media, and also socially useful. And both know that the symbolism captures only a part of the truth and that it has as much power to destroy as it has to create. But only one of them cares about the destruction. That’s my protagonist, Teach, who stands to lose everything if he cannot shrug off the symbolic identity conferred upon him by luck, fate, his own rash actions, and his adversary. Some of the drama and the meaning of Suitcase City lies in how Teach manages to do just that.

***

Sterling WatsonSTERLING WATSON is the author of six novels, including Sweet Dream Baby and Fighting in the Shade. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Prairie Schooner, the Georgia Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. He was director of the Creative Writing Program at Eckerd College for twenty years and is the college’s Peter Meinke Professor Emeritus of Literature and Creative Writing. Suitcase City is his latest work.

Posted: Mar 25, 2015

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