blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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Panel Discussion
Moderator: Shermaine Jones
captured November 17, 2016

This panel discussion took place in the James Branch Cabell Library on November 17, 2016, following Angela Flournoy’s reading from her 2016 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award-winning novel, The Turner House. The other panelists included Dr. Shermaine Jones (moderator), Ellen Levine (literary agent), and Jenna Johnson (executive editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Dr. Shermaine Jones: So, I want to introduce you to some of our other distinguished guests this evening. We have Ellen Levine, who has been a literary agent for over twenty years. She’s represented many award-winning authors whose works have been international bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Critics Circle Award winners as well. We also have Jenna Johnson, who’s an executive editor of FSG, and she’s actually been here before, as noted, for the VCU Cabell First Novel prizewinner We the Animals, by Justin Torres.

So, I’m really excited to have them here, and we’ll begin the conversation by talking about the process of this book. I would love to know how you generated this idea, Angela, such a complex and thoughtful book. And then, just talking about how you developed it from a concept into the book that it is today and how you worked with your editor. What were some key concerns that you might have had during the development of the process? And then, thinking about how the book has been marketed so we can all get into the conversation.

Angela Flournoy: I should say that I started this book the very end of my first year in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the MFA program there. Before that I’d been writing short stories that were mostly in first person, mostly set in L.A., and were mostly just about me. And they weren’t very good because it’s very hard to see yourself young—I was twenty-four when I started at the workshop. I was in Marilynne Robinson’s workshop. There were so few of us at the last round, we did this experimental round. Everyone was supposed to try to write something that they would never submit for workshop under their own name, and so I wrote both the second and the first chapter of the book. I wrote them in opposite order than they appear in the book, which is this big ghost story and then also this quiet moment of this woman sneaking into her childhood home. Everybody in the workshop definitely knew it was me who wrote it, but it was interesting turning off some sort of doubt in my head. I’d been thinking about the house my father grew up in for ten months before that, and I just didn’t have the guts to actually try to write about it and to render it in fiction. Something about that exercise helped me do that.

So, fast-forward two weeks, and it just so happened that Ellen was coming to Iowa to see if anyone was worthy in the program for her to represent, and I went and met with her. When you know you have something that you actually want to spend a lot of time on, it’s like you know immediately. It’s like the other things you’re working on—they’re not interesting. So, I went to this meeting with Ellen, and I just lied. I was like, “I have two hundred pages.” And so I gave her the premise, and it sounded interesting enough, so then she was asking me, “And then what happens?” And I was just making things up. And then she was like, “Well, I’d love to read it,” and I was like, “Well, I can’t give it to you until it’s all the way done.” But that conversation, I think, really made me think that this thing was real.

Fast-forward another two years (I stayed an additional year in Iowa City after I graduated to work on the novel), I did have the two hundred pages, and Ellen was back in town, and so I gave her the manuscript. I heard from Ellen very soon after, and we agreed to work together. One thing I’ve subsequently found out is that the way that Ellen does things is not the way that, necessarily, a lot of agents these days does things as far as giving editorial feedback to their clients. Ellen has a background in editorial, and we worked on it together for a year before we sold it to Jenna. Then we worked on it a whole bunch more.

SJ: So what was some of the initial feedback that you got from either, since you both worked, in some parts, as editors of the text, and what could you sense about the book that made you feel like it had such promise?

Ellen Levine: So, right away I knew there was something special here. It was such a distinct voice, and the prose was fantastic, and there was so much energy in the book, and the characters were amazing. I just got caught up with them right away, in the whole family story, and I was really taken with the haint. There was just so much to work with, and I was very excited. But I felt that there was work to be done, and I didn’t know how Angela would feel about it, but she was very receptive, and we began to work. I offered some ideas and suggestions. I told her the things that I thought weren’t quite right yet, that weren’t working, that she had to pay attention to. I laid it out for her, but what was great was then she dealt with them in really imaginative, very smart ways. Then, the manuscript came back, and we had to work again. I gave her another set of comments, and she worked again. So, I think we did three drafts together.

AF: When we agreed to work together, there were no sections in the ’40s.

EL: That’s right.

AF: To solve some of the questions that you had, I just created an entirely different part of the book. I remember the first edits that Ellen gave me were really just wanting to know more about the characters and about the family and the family history, and those were things that I had vague notions and information about, but that I was lazy slash not confident that I could pull off. Having additional deadlines and forcing myself to do the things that I was hesitant to do was really useful.

SJ: Jenna, do you have any points about feedback that you might have offered and how you guys negotiated that relationship between author and editor?

Jenna Johnson: One of the things that happens when you’re buying fiction is you have this similar experience to reading a book in regular life where you’re all by yourself and you’re reading something and meeting characters and imagining your way along with the author. But then, at the same time, you have a second track going in your head that is asking questions and figuring out if things are justified, and you really can’t turn that off, which is annoying. Even when something’s great, it’s always in the back of your mind. One of the ways that I can test how good something is, is that that second track fades a bit, and that was certainly true with Angela’s book. The first thing you then do, after you talk to the agent, is talk to the writer and make sure that these ideas that you have are within the universe that they’re imagining. There’s nothing worse than working on a book together and having opposite ideas of what it should be. That’s really the first step in how you make sure that you will be able to work together and not even negotiate but have a collaboration, ideally.

SJ: Awesome. Another thing I wanted to think about are what are the responsibilities of a writer, editor, and agent in a digital age as far as publicity goes, and how has social media changed that landscape, and how do marketing strategies also impact this with the developments in technology and so forth?

JJ: There are many ways to get books to readers, and the first question when you’re working with literary fiction is, “What kind of reader is looking for this book, and how do we make sure that that reader can find the book?” And there are lots of ways that we do that. And then the second question you ask is, “What does this author want to do, and what is this author best at? How do we capitalize most on what this author is good at?” Not everybody wants to be on Twitter. Not everybody wants to read in public. Not everyone wants to do a variety of things, so you really have to have a candid conversation, which is challenging particularly with debut novels because, often, writers are so excited to get an agent and to get a house that’s interested in the book that they’ll say they want to do things that maybe they haven’t really thought through. One of our responsibilities as agents and editors is to really have a slow, careful conversation about what people might ask you to do and what it might mean, and how to think about it and what your time is worth. You’re starting someone out, so you want to have a really thoughtful discussion about what the requirements are, and what you can say no to, and what’s possible.

SJ: I’m also really interested in how rich this novel is and how you think about genre within this novel because there is a way in which it’s simultaneously, clearly, a very character-rich book, but then there’s this ghost story that’s also operating. There’s this really compelling scene between Cha-Cha and his therapist, talking about a vocabulary of what ghosts are. Are they hallucinations? Are they actually a different way of understanding reality? I’m interested to know, Angela, what you think about that kind of conversation, and what the ghost is doing in the novel in some ways, so we can engage in thinking about genre and marketing around this book because it does, I think, stretch so many genres in some ways.

AF: The first chapter of the book was one of the first things I wrote, so there was always going to be a haint in this book. I grew up hearing about, particularly, haints. Most of my family migrated from Arkansas in the ’50s, so I would hear these stories from people my grandmother’s age about haints, and they were always set in the South, which is really fascinating because those people hadn’t lived in the South in decades. If you believe in this sort of supernatural phenomenon, how come it can’t go anywhere? Or how come it can’t migrate north with you? We change so much about us when we move locations, when we migrate, especially pre-internet and pre-easy air travel, when it really was like a break from where you were before. And, if you live in a community where everybody’s talking about haints and other nontraditional beliefs, and then you move to a place where everyone treats that as superstition, then you push that down. Your interior beliefs can also change depending on context, and so that’s one reason I wanted to explore what it is to believe in this thing.

But then I wanted to really put it in a twenty-first-century context. So, you have somebody like Cha-Cha who, like the rest of us, the first thing he does is Google. Then, he goes to the library and he tries to figure it out with reason. On a genre level, I really think of it like a realist novel that is realistically depicting how some people exist. People in real life believe in ghosts. And so it’s not necessarily magical realism in the way that the genre has become defined. But if you think about a book like Beloved, that is just realistically depicting the beliefs of the characters. There’s not really magical things that happen outside of the scope of what they believe.

SJ: One of the things about the text is it stretches such a huge historical span, geographical span as well. So, what was the research like for this book in terms of learning the various spaces? I know your father is from Detroit as well. But the sense of place is so rich. The sense of language is so rich as characters move from rural, urban spaces, southern spaces, etcetera. So, what was the process of doing the research to capture that kind of authenticity like?

AF: Before we get to that question, I’m curious about the genre and the marketing answer.

JJ: To me, this was never a ghost story. I mean, it’s a story that’s haunted, as many stories are haunted. And the ghost always, to me, functioned as part of a complicated family story. All of us have myths in our families. I hadn’t seen adult-sibling relationships laid out in quite the same way, and one of the things that you do in families is retell the same stories over and over again. To me, this was always, first and foremost, an American family story and very much a literary debut. And so, all of the rest of it, in terms of genre, fades away. It comes in more when you’re publishing a paperback. Or, when you’re shifting the packaging for a book, you can think about different markets. With a literary novel, it’s not necessarily about genre so much as it’s about audience or even where a book will be distributed and where it will be displayed. You think about things differently in that regard rather than genre, per se.

AF: Thank you.

SJ: Ellen, did you want to add anything?

EL: One thing that’s kind of interesting was the original title for the book. When we first started working on it, it was called Haunting Detroit, and that was the title that we sent out. It took a while to get to the title that we did get to, and we tried many different titles. But, to me, it was just an amazing family story with characters that were just so realistic you felt like you moved in with them. And then the historical part—it was just so rich, knowing what that generation did and how they came north. As Jenna said, it’s just a wonderful literary novel, just a work of art.

AF: So, as far as research, I didn’t know what I needed for the book. I just knew that I wasn’t from Detroit and, at the very least, I needed to have some kind of working knowledge of the history of the city and urban space and how it is laid out. And so that was accomplished through just going there, renting a car and driving around, but also looking, walking digitally via Google Street View. One of my students (I teach at The New School, at the MFA program), she was telling me that someone had advised her that, if she’s writing about something she doesn’t know about, to write about it first and research second, and that doesn’t make any sense. Say if you’re writing about a community you’re not familiar with, it’s not about authenticity. Why would you handicap yourself? There might be some really cool thing that changes the whole plot that you will only discover if you research deeper into that culture or that time period or that place. I guess some people would think that that is hamstringing their creative process, but for me, I really just drown myself in research, just figure it out while I’m submerged.

I started really broadly with city planning documents and where the streetcars used to be, where people used to live, and from there I discovered two things. I discovered from one book—one urban history planning book—the specific relationship to the city of Detroit and housing discrimination, starting in the ’20s, going through the ’60s, and how that really shaped the way the city changed in a lot of ways, and where people had a hard time moving into and what happened when they moved into those neighborhoods, finally. And then I discovered, secondly, that there are two neighborhoods that used to exist in Detroit and don’t exist in Detroit anymore that black people, particularly when they migrated from the South to the North, it was like the first stop and usually the first place that they rented an apartment. And that was really useful because I felt so much what the people on the internet call “imposter syndrome” about writing about present-day Detroit, a place I’m not from, and just anticipating people coming up to me at readings and saying, “No, that’s not what it’s like.” And so, when I found that there was this place that there’s not that much archival evidence of anymore, I was like, “Oh, yeah. I can just make this up,” and feel a lot more flexible and confident doing that. Then that sent me, specifically, into researching what kind of businesses, what kind of bars were there. For instances, there’s a woman who runs a boarding house in the book. What was the likelihood of that? What would have been the obstacles? You just end up, on a problem-solving level, keeping books close to you so that if you have a question, you can quickly answer it and then get back to just writing the fiction.

SJ: There are so many social issues that you touch on in the book: mental health and the stigma in the black community, addiction, housing discrimination, as you noted in your research. How are these concepts essential to your vision, or are they essential to your vision of the novel, and do you imagine the novel doing any kind of social or political work?

AF: I really just wanted to write about a family and their particular history with a house like the house my father grew up in on the east side of Detroit, and it was only through the research that I realized these other stories are related to why a house like that would be so important to this family, and why it would hurt so much to have to figure out what to do with it once the neighborhood became unlivable. As a person who writes from character, once I understood that this is part of what drives these characters to have these family meetings and talk it out and send those text messages about what to do with the house, I realized to do justice to the characters, those bigger social-political issues were absolutely a part of it. They weren’t separate.

It’s interesting how, in a hermetical space like a workshop, people can sometimes denigrate political fiction as if our lives are not influenced by politics. Your lives, and even the way you feel when you wake up in the morning, can be affected by what happens in the larger world. There are books, of course, that are quiet necessarily. They’re not about the larger world. But, often, especially if you’re spanning time, they are.

SJ: There are so many rich characters in the novel, and I know I had a personal affinity to Lelah. The novel itself was the house, in that she would leave the room and I’d be wondering, “What is she doing? Is she in the kitchen, the living room—what’s going on?” I’d love to know what everyone’s favorite character was.

EL: I always loved Cha-Cha.

JJ: Cha-Cha was probably my favorite, but I also really loved Tina. And one of the things I loved most about the book is how funny it is and how everyone’s funny. There’s no one comic character. Life is funny and life is tragic, and each of them gets to play a little bit of that, so I think if I had to pick, I would pick Tina.

AF: I don’t have a favorite character. Probably, the character that I identify with the most is Francey, the second born, who drinks a lot of green juice, and she’s skeptical of various ideas. And she reads a lot of books, so perhaps my siblings would say that I am the Francey. It annoys them, probably.

SJ: So, speaking of reading other books, as I was reading the text, there were so many resonances with other works. Clearly, Hurston is directly referenced in the text, but I was wondering about who some of your literary influences are, and how that may have influenced the book, or your aesthetics or choices?

AF: I don’t necessarily think I have a overarching, static group of influences. When I’m trying to figure out a particular craft problem like, “How do I manage a large cast of characters?” I will shamelessly read the same books over and over until I figure out how they did it. I read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov more than once, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which then took me to E.M. Forster’s Howards End. Both of them are very British—a comedy of manners in some way—but there’s all of these people and there’s a hierarchy that is kept as you go through all the POVs. And then, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World—I guess he would be on my, like, static list of favorites. And Toni Morrison everything. For this book, I think because of the way, as I mentioned, that there’s characters who believe in the supernatural, but it’s not necessarily like the narrator is letting that dictate the logic of the book, necessarily—Beloved I did read multiple times.

I’m still in the early stages of a new book, so I don’t know what will be the books that I reread yet, so that will maybe expand who I am influenced by.

SJ: I think I could definitely sense Morrison’s influence, especially in thinking about memory and ways of knowing and what has authority. So, the fact that this memory is so alive to him and to all of the siblings, and some of them who weren’t necessarily born at the time or may not have directly witnessed it—how those oral traditions get passed down. And one of the masteries of the book, I think, is your ability to capture language and the distinctive speech patterns of each character, and I’m interested in how that came about because they’re all so distinctive. There’s that exchange between Lelah and her daughter via text, so there’s multiple types of language that are operating. There’s the body language of the characters at different times; of course, there’s speech, but then, you know, text has such an important part there as well. So, how did you go about capturing language that way?

AF: I come from a really loud, talkative family. It’s something that, when I date people, they have to deal with because they think that I’m always interrupting them because I’m not listening to them, but in my family, if you are enthusiastic, you just cut the person off and you just express your enthusiasm—you just jump in. You’ll still be able to get back around to finish your sentence, but that’s how you express that you’re interested in what they’re talking about. Conversations are not one person talks and then the other person talks and then the other person talks, and so, I’ve thought about what is good and bad about the communication style that I grew up with, and I think that I have always been eavesdropper. I’ve always loved to hang out with my aunties and disappear into the couch and just listen. So, I’ve always been really delighted and fascinated by the various generational changes in speech pattern and colloquialisms used, also.

SJ: The eavesdropping is definitely a part there with Viola and listening and wanting to overhear. So, Ellen, I wanted to bring you in to talk about, as industry veteran, how do you think agents perceive first-time novelists, and what are the drawbacks and advantages of publishing a first novel in 2016 as opposed to the past?

EL: Publishers are always very excited when you present them with a really accomplished first novel and there’s no background, there’s no negative sales track, there’s no history it didn’t work. Just starting fresh with somebody who’s an amazing talent, and there’s so much potential—I find that all the houses I deal with are always interested in hearing about who the next exciting debut is, so I think that’s going to continue for a while.

JJ: One of the reasons that you’re so excited to read a debut novel—it’s not a practical reason; it’s a psychological or sociological reason in that readers love to discover things. You love to be the first person to talk about a particular book, and as an editor or an agent or a publisher, you love to discover someone at the beginning of their career and to imagine the future together. Your goal as a literary publisher in particular is to publish someone’s work, to publish someone for a really long time, and you want to be there at the beginning to help shape that and to make sure that they have the support they need and all of that. Debuts are exciting because you’re discovering something, but also because you’re at the ground level to build something together, which is fun.

SJ: This is obviously an extremely ambitious novel, so what were some of the difficulties that you faced in constructing it, and then what were the more pleasurable aspects of this journey?

AF: Any time two characters are having a conversation, I’m having fun. Any time they’re not, I’m not, essentially. Which means that the most difficult parts, really, of the novel are the Lelah sections because she doesn’t talk to a lot of people. That was harder to figure out—how to make it lively and make it seem like something happens when the stakes are high but the action is minimal. That was a challenge. Also, figuring out how to have the right tone. You have this third-person narrator who sees everything and knows everything and is in everyone’s head—they have to have the right register to be able to do all of these things and maintain reader confidence. But also, I was interested in having a narrator that was a little bit playful and could drop and speak on the same dialectical level as the characters, but then come back up and be really nerdy and booky. I remember in workshop, in the beginning, people were just like, “I don’t understand this voice because it’s very acrobatic sometimes.” But that is good; I think I needed it to be that way, but it was something that I had to tweak so that it wasn’t grating or just completely inconsistent.

SJ: I think the humor, as you mentioned, Jenna, is one of those things that—although there are such difficult issues around the housing crisis ([and] around Viola’s health, addiction, and so forth)—there was something very healing about the return to humor and the return to community. Can you talk a bit about that? And I’d love to hear your reactions to it as well, as readers.

EL: I mean, the humor is there, and it’s kind of subtle, but it’s just in watching these people and the situations that they’re in. So it’s not laugh out loud, but it’s a wonderful, warm humor.

JJ: One of the things about the humor that I found most authentic and captivating is that it’s built up through not just the characters, but the family and the dynamics. Everyone is keeping an eye on everyone, and you can’t get away with much, and so everyone’s serious. Everyone has their moments when they’re being serious, but also, everyone has to have the ability to laugh at themselves or to dance or to see themselves through their siblings’ eyes or their family’s eyes, and I think that felt very familiar and reassuring to me—to see these people keeping each other in line and keeping each other alive at the same time.

SJ: I definitely want to make sure we also get some time to ask questions from the audience.

Audience: I was fascinated with the whole scene of the gambling and how you really got into her mind when she was in the casino. I really wanted to hear a little bit more about why you decided that was her addiction. How did you come up with that?

AF: Like many things in the book, it’s a confluence of various things that I’m preoccupied with at the time. So, I don’t know how many of you guys have been to Detroit, but there was a period of time—it’s different now; there’s been a lot more development downtown and in midtown area—in the early 2000s, there was a time when the best thing to do at night in Detroit was to go to the casino. And they have three major casinos within the city limits, and they have a couple more across the way in Windsor, Canada. I went there to buffets before I could gamble, then I would gamble when I was old enough to gamble, and then there was little nightclubs—there were things for all ages. So, they’ve figured out a way to get the whole family into this casino. So you have three in a city where, at the height of the recession, you had thirty percent of the population under the poverty line. Then you think that this is a kind of parasitic relationship here; you have people who are going to the casino not for fun, not gambling money they can afford to lose, but really trying to come ahead, trying to change their circumstances. When I was thinking about why she would want to be in that house, [I] thought, “Okay, she doesn’t have any money. Well, why doesn’t she have any money?” Obviously, it’s this big, bright place downtown that’s beckoned to her.

Audience: What was your driving force while you wrote this? What kept you going?

AF: In the beginning, it was just because I was in grad school and everybody was writing something, and then after that, when I moved to D.C., it was fortunate that I had established a relationship with Ellen because I was working, at one point, three jobs. I was driving all around, teaching at community colleges, and I was waiting tables in northeast D.C. And so, one thing that helped me at that point is that there was at least one person who was waiting for pages. I also had a friend (my old roommate from Iowa City)—we would set a “week before” deadline, and sometimes I would be late on that deadline and so it would only be a day before I turned it in to Ellen. For me, at the time, it was very important that I didn’t just write the thing to sell the thing, but that I wrote it because I wanted to write it—and something about having someone who was a writer like me, who was emerging like me, made me feel like, “Okay, well, I owe you these pages, and we’re doing this because this is what you do because we are capital W writers, right? Not capital A authors. We’re just writers, and writers write.” And so, I think the delusions of anybody caring that I’m a writer was part of it, for sure.

Audience: Could you talk about your process? Did you outline this novel, or was it like, it came to you at the writing table?

AF: Neither one. I didn’t really outline. I tried to in the beginning, and I didn’t believe it. I just didn’t believe it. It’s funny: a lot of the things that I said in that first conversation with Ellen—I actually did end up doing those things. But I didn’t necessarily remember them until later, that they were the things I had said. Mostly, the way I write, it’s not like I sit at the writing table and, like, a bolt of lightning strikes me and I have an idea. It’s the result of intense problem solving. It’s like, “Alright, well this person is in a house, and she can’t stay here forever. What are some of the things that can complicate her residency in this house?” I had fictional problems that I had to figure out via fiction how to answer, how to solve them.

Audience: More about process—how does it happen? You wake up, and what happens? When do you write?

AF: It changes. It depends. So, when I was in Iowa City and I was just teaching two nights a week and I had all this free time, I would wake up at six and be working by six thirty and try to work until nine, and then I would eat and take a shower and then work again until noon. I write longhand my first drafts; I write in notebooks, and it’s because that way I can just try to get some work done wherever I am. So, I wrote on trains and on airplanes, but I also wrote before I went to work—I would go to a coffee shop and write—or after I went to work. It’s really changed. I don’t have a routine. There’s been periods of time where things are going well and I have the time where I’m like, “Yes, everyday I’m waking up at this time and I’m writing at this time.” Then there’s periods of time where I’m traveling or it’s the holidays, and I might not write for, like, a month or two. Or three.

Audience: What do you do when you get writer’s block?

AF: When I get writer’s block, I usually read other fiction, or I eat food, or I take a shower, or go to the gym. I don’t really write as much as I think about writing, so I don’t really sit down to write a thing until I have thought about it for a very long time. So I don’t necessarily get writer’s block in the sense of, “I don’t know what I’m writing.” I get writer’s block in the sense of, “I don’t know how to solve the problem that I have created.” And so, yeah, I can try to figure out some tasks that might unlock something, but it’s not the same as, “I have no idea what’s gonna happen today.” Because I don’t want to succumb to that anxiety, I just don’t really start writing until I have an idea.

SJ: Thank you so much. I’d love, as a kind of closing point, to think about where you see your future, your next project, going. It’s obviously going to be very bright.

EL: Angela has started another book, and I heard a little bit of it, and it’s amazing. I know she’s just gonna build on this success; it’s just gonna be huge. And things are still happening with this book—like a TV series in the pipeline.

JJ: When I read this book, I could see future books in the sense that I could see mastery of character and an interest in place. And so, it seemed to me that she wouldn’t write another Detroit novel, but she would write another novel that played with place in an interesting way and used many characters in an interesting way. And that gives you a huge future—when there’s so many things you can do with that, those talents.  

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