CONDUCTED & TRANSCRIBED BY MEL RUTH
This fall, poetry editor Mel Ruth sat down with fiction writer Tananarive Due. Read the spirited and wide-ranging transcript below!
Mel: In my graduate fiction class, we talked a lot about how stories can be character driven or plot driven. Do you think you lean one way or the other?
Tananarive: I am just notoriously biased towards character in storytelling. I’ll use Stephen King as an obvious example. I think one of the reasons a lot of people enjoy his work, people who wouldn’t consider themselves horror fans, is because he creates these compelling characters, and they end up in these unbelievable situations, and it’s the character you fall in love with. Yeah, you remember the cat came back from the dead, but it’s that family you cared about when reading that story.
Mel: Yeah, I haven’t really sat down to read Pet Sematary…
TD: That’s okay, it’s not for everybody.
Mel: But I am familiar with it and Cujo. Those are probably the two I know best.
TD: Cujo’s an even better example. It’s literally a dog barking outside of a car, trying to attack two people. So, if it’s not for the characters, that story would wear thin quickly. You really have to care, is one of the hardest parts to teach. Helping learning writers access their characterization because it’s a combination of POV—having strong POV—and having the courage to go beneath the surface of what a character is saying to what they’re thinking and feeling. A lot of writers try to hold back at a distance. It’s almost as though what a character is thinking and feeling is meant to be a part of a later reveal, and I’m like, “No, I need to know that right now if I’m going to keep turning these pages” (laughs). So it’s a tough thing. I notice frequently that learning writers try to make their characters mysterious rather than give them depth…
Mel: And there’s a place for that–
TD: There is a place for that–
Mel: but not particularly with the main character from the beginning.
TD: Exactly. I think it’s an unease about going too deeply. One of the strongest examples I can think about is with renderings of historical characters. People feel shy about presuming to think what they were feeling, and it’s like, “Hm, no. If you’re writing a piece of fiction, that’s kind of your job. Like I want to know that. This is my chance to get to know this person.” So yeah, you’ve done the research, lay it out.
Mel: So, in my graduate fiction class we are reading My Soul To Keep…
TD: Oh wonderful, great choice (laughs).
Mel: And we talked briefly about how this book, in a way, borrows from vampire lore, but distinguishes itself as separate. Did you deliberately choose not to call your immortals vampires?
TD: It’s so funny. I was so thrilled to get a blurb from Stephen king. It was one of the high points of my career. I was so puzzled by the way he compared it to Interview With the Vampire, I didn’t even think of them as vampires. It was the era of Anne Rice, and they’re immortal, and it was blood related, so absolutely. Unconsciously, it’s all right there. But consciously, in my mind, I hadn’t seen it. Now, with a little time and reflection, I can see I have taken this vampire trope—which to me was not a super attractive because it was so based on European mythology, and I never found vampires to be sexy, and reclaimed that and literally subverted it and made it into something that I found sexy. I even rooted in a made-up Ethiopian mythology and made it not about the taking of blood, but about what it’s like to have an incredible resource in your body that other people are trying to extract from you. In My Soul to Keep, I hinted at it—that’s why they’re so secretive, but in The Living Blood I got to explore what would it be like if you had oil wells or diamonds in your blood, because that’s been the cause of so much conflict in Africa. It was a completely unconscious choice, but in retrospect it makes me laugh because it’s pretty obvious.
Mel: Speaking of My Soul To Keep, I noticed that your writing is really lyrical and metric, with sharp attention to detail and sound. As a prose writer, what do you think your almost-poetic writing style contributes to your work?
TD: Thank you, first of all, for that compliment. That’s a good question. I think I’m sort of a hybrid in style, between my training in journalism—which really puts emphasis on short clear sentences—and my reading of both the canon as it was taught when I was an undergrad at Northwestern, and the old English authors, but also with Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor and all those great writers. I appreciated the beauty and power of lyricism and language and its ability to convey even more power in the events of a story. So, if some of that rubbed off on me, I’m grateful (laughs). My first priority was always to tell a good story and create characters who felt real, and the language is just what sounds right to my ear. I go over it and over it and over it. My way forward in a manuscript is backward. So, even before I want to move on to chapter six, I have been over chapters one through five endlessly to pare down those sentences, to get rid of repetition of terms until it gets to that baseline that feels like the story to me, and then I can move forward and try to meet that baseline again for the next chapter. Maybe that’s why the work sounds that way. I do revise to death as I go, to the point where I usually don’t have to do that much revision when I’m finished. An editor might say I think chapter six should be the prologue, or something like that, but I don’t usually have to go back over long stretches of manuscript because I have been doing that the whole time.
Mel: If I start doing that, I get so caught up in the revision that I never move forward.
TD: Yeah, there is that, believe me. I’ve spent the past two days re-reading my novel instead of writing it. So yeah, I feel you on that, too (laughs).
Mel: During the masterclass, and the reading last night, you briefly mentioned your current work in progress. Would you mind telling me a little bit more about that?
TD: It’s called The Reformatory. I published an excerpt in The Boston Review last January in 2018, to spur myself on with it. It’s based on a real life story from my family. About a year after my mother passed away, I got a call from the Florida Attorney General’s office letting me know that a great uncle had died at this reformatory in Marianna, Florida called The Dozier School for Boys. At one point it was the largest reformatory in the country, aside from having a football team and marching in parades and putting on a show for the town and being the printing press for the town and supplying the corn for the region, there was this really nasty underbelly where boys were being beaten like mules with straps until their clothes were embedded into the skin. I spoke to a man who had this happen to him, so these are not just stories. I’ve talked to survivors of this place, boys who were sexually abused in what was called “the rape room”… There was just this undercurrent of cruelty at this place, to the point where they had a cemetery on the grounds with unmarked graves of an untold number. The reason they called was to ask my permission as a family member to try exhume and determine the cause of death of my great uncle. Which they did, and his remains were found, and they were reburied. According to records, from a stabbing from another student there (or really, I should call him another inmate)—but I have since discovered he also had an ear infection so bad there was evidence of it in his skull. We don’t know exactly what happened, and we don’t know exactly how he died, but this was a horrific discovery. I know it would have enraged my mother to hear about it. When I think about the fact that his brother, this dead boy’s brother, was my grandfather, and how he carried that trauma into his relationship with my grandmother and was abusive to her, it’s just enraging. I wanted to do something in novel form to give this boy a better story.
The Reformatory is, at its core, a really simple story about a twelve year old boy who’s locked up in this reformatory, which I fictionalized, and his 17 year old sister’s efforts on the outside to get him out. The criminal justice system is the antagonist and it comes up in many forms—from the warden, who’s the most outwardly evil character, but there’s this benign evil running through the whole system, even when people are polite they’re pulling you into this horrible oven machinery. It’s to help readers understand the ways in which our contemporary criminal justice system is evil—from the level of policing to the judges to the institutions themselves.
Mel: A lot of work in horror shows where the point of the monsters are to amplify the human horror.
TD: Absolutely. Knowing how many people were screaming in terror in the Bahamas during this hurricane, how many people were screaming in terror on this boat that burned and went down near Santa Barbara… I can almost hear those screams in my head. Remember when ProPublica snuck into one of the immigrant detention centers and recorded these screaming and crying children? That bottled up thing in your head is really hard to process. We can’t have empathy for everybody in every moment or we’ll be paralyzed, the alternative to be numb is also not an option. So, I try to use my fiction to give people tougher skin, so that they can observe horrors a bit more. My whole thing as a writer is to give myself the strength, and my readers the strength, that we can pick a battle and engage with it, and move away from numbness.
Mel: Would you share what your favorite prompt is, or prompts are?
TD: My favorite prompt is what I call the “oh crap” opening. Find access to a scene or a story through a moment of acute—either conflict or crisis, but not necessarily a huge one. In that moment, when your characters are wrapped up in whatever this moment is, use that to access your character. Another one is just simply character sketching. What is your character’s greatest conscious desire? What is your character’s greatest unconscious desire? What is your character’s greatest shame? Sometimes writers lose track of how character objectives and obstacles really power scenes, opening scenes especially. As readers, we access stories through conflict, and even if it’s not a conflict with another person, it’s a conflict within themselves. That’s how we know we’re reading a story.
TANANARIVE DUE (tah-nah-nah-REEVE doo) is an award-winning author who teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. She is an executive producer on Shudder’s groundbreaking documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. A leading voice in black speculative fiction for more than 20 years, Due has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a British Fantasy Award, and her writing has been included in best-of-the-year anthologies. Her books include Ghost Summer: Stories, My Soul to Keep, and The Good House. She and her late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, co-authored Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. She is married to author Steven Barnes, with whom she collaborates on screenplays. They live with their son, Jason, and two cats.
Image Credit: “Beauty of Nature” by Sarah Julia Hwang