Interview: Rashod Ollison


Memoirist, journalist, and music writer Rashod Ollison visited the University of Central Arkansas campus in April, and our creative nonfiction editor Jacqulyn West sat down with him to talk about the South, the mystery and challenges of writing, and the role of truth in creative nonfiction.

Arkana: Part of Arkana’s mission is to explore mystery. What role does mystery play in your sense of home as an Arkansas native?

RO: Living in the South, things always seem to be shrouded in mystery. I wanted to get that sense early in my book, Soul Serenade. There were a lot of stories that people didn’t tell me directly that I got from bits and pieces of conversation, overhearing people, which was all mysterious, especially after my father left the family. I didn’t know much about the background, because I was only six.

When I would ask directly, “what was that” or “when did that happen?” they would change the subject, or say, “go ask your mother,” and of course, she would never tell me the truth.

I was a very precocious child – always the kid in the corner listening and absorbing everything. I wanted to know more – for instance, when my mother was six, there was a domestic dispute between her mother and her [mother’s] live-in boyfriend. My mother’s sister Jeanette was shot accidentally in that argument.

People always talked about that in the family in very veiled ways. There were no pictures of her. It wasn’t until much later as a grown man – after I became a journalist – that I knew how to investigate it and corroborate stories and put things together.

I’ve found, especially after living away from the South for a while, that things in the South always seem to be shrouded in mystery and even mysticism. It’s kind of a passive-aggressive way of living. People don’t really tell you the truth directly – you just have to figure it out. There are pros and cons to that because it keeps you alert and aware. You have to be a keen observer of things.

A: Do you take that sense with you when you leave the region? Does it affect the way you relate to people or the way they anticipate you will be?

RO: People in the Northeast, especially in the bigger cities where I’ve lived, tend to be pretty direct. They don’t do a lot of small talk. Even small talk is pretty direct. I didn’t feel like when I was socializing in the Northeast that I had to work so hard to get to know them as you do Southerners.

I always thought Southern hospitality was something of a myth – it’s a way Southern people can be nosy about you and not reveal much about themselves.

[What I take with me when I leave the South is] being observant, observing the energy around me and being able to ascertain what’s going on pretty quickly, which I learned growing up here, where people just didn’t let you know up front exactly what they were about. That’s something I have definitely taken with me.

A: Your family gave mixed reviews about the fact that you wrote and published your memoir, Soul Serenade. How do you determine what’s your story to tell or what needs to remain private for you or other people?

RO: I struggle with that a lot. I was careful. I don’t think I depicted anyone in just one way – like, here’s the villain, here’s the hero – I don’t write comic books. I wanted to show these people whom I love in a way that was compassionate but very honest.

Southerners tend to be very private. My cousin and my older sister felt like it was an invasion of their privacy to have this book out. And I was like, whatever. I’m dismissive of that because I knew that I did not portray them as villains or terrible people.

There were other people in the family who loved that the book was out and felt that it told the truth. Those people tended to be the more open-minded and educated ones in the family.

I can understand that in my family, it’s a surreal thing to go into a bookstore and pick up a book and see your name in there. There were a couple of folks I mentioned who were minor characters in the book, folks I hadn’t seen in over thirty years who contacted me, and I said, “I didn’t even know you were still alive!”

For a lot of them, it brought back a lot of memories, but I think it was surreal for these working-class Black folks who live their everyday lives, and here’s this book with their names in it, and people who they knew are in it. I can put myself in that situation – I think that would be surreal for me, too.

A: How much do you think creative nonfiction writers have room to play with the notion of truth?

RO: Truth is very subjective – what’s true to you may not be true to someone else. I think with creative nonfiction, you have some room in the details, putting them together, especially if you weren’t there.

With creative nonfiction, the way of manipulating the truth is by recreating a scene or dialogue to give a sense of what it was like. It may not have been actually what happened, but it’s very close to the truth of what happened.

A: What if any role does research play in the novel you are currently writing, and how is that different from writing for a newspaper or writing a memoir?

Writing the novel is much harder. This novel takes place between the span of the mid-1950s and the 1980s. Of course, I wasn’t around in the fifties, so the research I’ve done to authenticate that era is very important.

There are a lot of themes and things I’m exploring in the book and also a lot of creative ambitions I have – I don’t want to trip up the reader with [them], but I’m playing with the idea of improvisational narrative in which one section might end with an idea, and the next section picks up with that idea or the word, and improvise the story in a way. Toni Morrison did that in Jazz.

It challenges me in a way. I still wanted to have a very fluid sense of how the narrative moves along. Almost lyrically, like a song lyric, it keeps moving. That’s what keeps me challenged and writing, but I want it to still be an easy, fluid read for the reader.

In writing fiction, you’re inventing, you’re researching. Even if I’m not writing, these characters live with me. It’s very different from journalism and even the creative nonfiction with Soul Serenade, because I already had the material. I’ve done the reporting, done the research, it’s just a matter of making that material engaging and writing it.

But with fiction, you’re doing that in addition to creating these characters as people who exist only in your head and you’re making them real. It’s a real challenge. I welcome it. I always challenge myself as a writer. I’m excited to see where it goes.

A: What role does music play in how you put words together and explore narratives?

RO: Music plays a huge role in informing the fluidity, the rhythm of the language, and also the imagery – even more than the literature and writers I’ve been influenced by, because I discovered music first – before I discovered my love of literature and reading.

It’s very authentic to who I am. Music played such a role in my development. A certain sort of lyricism and rhythm just informs it anyway.

I’m also influenced by songwriters – Smoky Robinson, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams – these were great songwriters who wrote songs that had a lot of beautiful details and beautiful imagery. Hank Williams wrote a line about a star falling in a purple sky, which I think is gorgeous. Those types of details you remember – you can paint that in your head. Some of the best songwriters have always done that.

A: Do you have tips for music writers who are looking to capture the feel of music on the page?

A lot of aspiring music writers want to get into it because of the glamour of it. They think, “I’m going to meet these artists, and I get to write about music, something I love.” But to make it engaging and make your mark on it, you have to have strong writing skills.

Studying the craft of writing informs any kind of writing you’re going to do. Books like The Elements of Style and The Lively Art of Writing – these writing rules that you were taught in high school and college – you have to turn to them over and over again as you evolve as a writer. You get better the more you do it, of course.

When writing about music, I think it’s important to not only have a historical context and know what you’re talking about, but also be able to describe the music in ways that appeal to the senses that evoke some sort of imagery, how it feels.

The verb is the engine and the heart of the sentence, and it also gives the reader an idea of what the music feels like. Does the beat or ricochet, palpitate, or thump or throb? Those types of verbs help the reader understand a sense of what that beat is like. Does the melody flow? You look for verbs that get to the heart of what the music feels like, and that gives the reader a sense of the music better than loading it with a bunch of adjectives.

You have to work hard at it, but that’s the challenge. Once you get the right word, then it’s like, oh yeah, that’s what it’s like, that’s the clarity.

I read everything aloud that I write – including journalism – whatever I’m writing, I read it aloud. The ear is a good editor, but also, there’s something about hearing the voice and the rhythm, hearing the fluidity of the language to make sure it doesn’t read as if it’s written.

A: How do you avoid the sentimental and romantic in writing?

RO: In my mind, when I’m writing, I picture myself as two people, especially if I’m writing about an artist or family member whom I love. There’s one part of me who would want to sentimentalize them – that person has to leave the room. The other person is objective and has a cold eye for the truth and detail.

That very objective person who’s looking at this subject that may be dear to my heart is also going to be honest about the assessment of it. When I was writing about my family, it was more liberating to write about who they were and how I experienced them, the relationship I had with them, even if that relationship may have been different with other members of the family.

For me, this is what it was like to be in the same room with my mom, or my maternal grandmother. And my cousins or whomever may have had a completely different relationship with these people. For or me as a writer, I don’t like sentimentality anyway. I feel like it bastardizes the truth. And romance gets in the way.

Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nikki Giovanni – the three main poets I’ve always loved – every writer I love and admire, they always say writing is about the truth. If you’re writing to lie, you’re not helping yourself or anybody else.

Getting to that authenticity, to that truth of what’s going on and what you’re going to write about, comes with the evolution of the person, of the writer.

In my twenties, when I was writing as a music writer, I was more concerned with impressing the reader with my voice or with what I knew. Now, that is completely out of my system because I’ve evolved so much. Right now, it’s not about impressing anybody – it’s about getting to the truth and why this matters or why it doesn’t matter, or complicating the subject a little bit more to show the nuance of it.

For me, it’s more liberating to be honest about the writing, especially at this point in my life. I think that will always be true as long as I live and keep writing.

I always feel like the artistry evolves as the artist evolves. Getting to the truth of the matter and the authenticity of something, I think will come easier to you, because as you evolve, you want to live in the truth, even if it’s scary, even if it’s uncomfortable, and often it is. But you know what the truth is – it does set you free. That cliché is true.

Rashod Ollison is an award-winning music and culture critic and native of Little Rock, Arkansas. He has been a staff critic at The Dallas Morning NewsThe Philadelphia InquirerThe Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., The Baltimore Sun and The Virginian-Pilot. Ollison’s literary debut, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl, was published in 2016 by Beacon Press.

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