Angela Flournoy interviewed by Alex Gilvarry

Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, is a remarkable tale of a Detroit family and the difficulties and secrets that now separate them. It is a debut of immense power that moves through generations—from the 1940s to the present national housing crisis—to touch upon decades of Americana. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flournoy was one of this year’s “5 under 35” honorees, and the New York Times has called The Turner House “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel” with “a Márquezian abundance of characters.” But Flournoy is by no means a precocious novice. Her novel demonstrates a masterful style, ultimate empathy, and introduces us to a novelist working at the highest level of the craft.

 

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy book cover, 2015Alex Gilvarry: Congratulations on your nomination for your remarkable novel, The Turner House. Where were you when you found out about the nomination?

Angela Flournoy: Thank you! I’ve had an excellent fall season of celebrating, first for the long list then the short list. I was at home at my apartment in Brooklyn when the long list was announced, getting ready to do laundry, when I found out via Twitter. I screamed, and called my mother who lives in Southern California and was very much asleep. Once she figured out what I was yelling about at such an early hour, she screamed too.

AG: Detroit is an often-neglected city, both in reality and in literature. Do you have a personal connection to the city? What drew your imagination there? And how did you land on Yarrow Street?

AF: My father is from Detroit, so I’ve visited the city throughout my life. He was raised on the east side in a neighborhood that is now in similar condition to the fictional Yarrow Street. My personal experiences with Detroit have been largely positive. It’s a city that has faced unprecedented hardship, but it’s also a place with strong cultural institutions and proud traditions. I’d never seen both sides of the city rendered in fiction, so that was something I set out to do in my novel.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Angela Flournoy” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]None of our stories are completely separate from the people around us, so it makes sense to similarly intermingle the lives and viewpoints of characters in a work of fiction.[/pullquote]

AG: Let’s talk about the Turner family. They seem to be intertwined with all aspects of Detroit and American history. Which character came first and how did this family evolve?

AF: Lelah, the youngest Turner child came first. I imagined her creeping around the vacant Turner house at night, using her phone as a flashlight, and I wanted to know why. I had the sense that she had secrets, and I decided that the people closest to her did not know about her gambling addiction. From this first decision bloomed all of the others. I come from several large families, so I wanted to explore the dynamic of being a part of something so vast and interconnected. I initially thought I’d focus on only Lelah the youngest, and Cha-Cha the oldest, but the more I read about the history of black Americans in Detroit, the more I knew I also had to include the stories of their parents, Francis and Viola Turner. This widened the scope of the novel.

AG: There are 13 children in the Turner clan, many our main characters–we follow Lelah, Cha Cha, Troy; then there’s Viola and Francis their parents. Was it intimidating to create such a large family and all of those distinct personalities? It’s no short order for a novelist.

AF: I’ve always loved novels with large casts of characters. In some ways they seemed to be very much like real life. None of our stories are completely separate from the people around us, so it makes sense to similarly intermingle the lives and viewpoints of characters in a work of fiction. The most challenging part was deciding which voices would get the most time on the page, and which would appear less frequently.

AG: I want to ask you about “the haint” or the ghost that haunts this novel. It’s such a great word and I’ve never heard or seen it before.

AF: “Haint” is a southern colloquialism for ghost or spirit; I’ve read explanations of it as a variant on the word “haunt,” or somehow related to the word “ain’t.” It’s the term I was familiar with from the ghost stories I grew up hearing, so I thought I’d employ it in this novel that features migrants from the south settling in the north. I’m fascinated by what aspects of culture are lost in migration, and which aspects linger.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Angela Flournoy” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]I’m fascinated by what aspects of culture are lost in migration, and which aspects linger.[/pullquote]

AG: Who inspires you?

AF: I’m always open to inspiration, and I find a lot of it comes from my peers, or writers who are only a little older. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division, and his honest and love-filled nonfiction has been inspiring to me these last few years. My friend Justin Torres wrote a novel called We the Animals which is a slim, emotional gut-punch of a book, and I learned a lot about language and brevity by reading it. I’m a fan of the visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, and I follow her on Instagram to see photos of her works in progress. They’re a reminder that consistent, incremental work can add up to something beautiful.

AG: Do you have a favorite National Book Award winning book?

AF: There have been so many great winning books. I readJesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones the fall it won the National Book Award, and was immediately evangelical about it. I was living in Iowa City at the time, and I told anyone who would listen that they needed to read this book. I stopped just short of grabbing strangers by their lapels in the street. It is an elegant and urgent novel. I think I read it in 2 days.

 

Alex Gilvarry is the author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant and has been one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 honorees. His second novel, Eastman Was Here, is forthcoming from Viking.

Karen Bender interviewed by Courtney Maum

The characters in Karen E. Bender’s Refund, a Finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards, live in tenuous comfort, struggling across the changing territory of financial plains. An ailing eighty year-old swindler boards a cruise ship with the last of her savings in a red velvet purse. A dedicated employee who went into airport security after losing both her parents in a car crash is told that she’s a candidate for layoffs. A cat causes a married couple to reexamine their relationship when he tells the wife he loves her. That’s right—the cat. Because that’s the thing about the thirteen gripping tales in this collection, as much as they are about the disappointments accrued during our hourly wage lives, they’re also about the moments of grace that get us up in the mornings to go through it all again. We chatted on the phone while Karen was getting take-out and then followed up by e-mail to talk in more detail about her third book.

 

Refund book cover by Karen Bender, 2015Courtney Maum: These timely and disturbing tales about the role of money in our lives move expertly between scenes of hilarity and despair. That’s what I loved so much about this collection—you really capture the way that beauty exists even in our darkest moments and vice versa. Could you talk a little bit about how you decide—instinctively or otherwise—to balance hopelessness with humor?

Karen E. Bender: I tell my students that powerful writing balances at the edge of hope and despair. Humor works in fiction because it is the individual shouting back at the abyss, and the reader engages with the humor and shares a moment of power with the writer. I see everything with a sense of absurdity, as a coping mechanism, really, and it finds a way into my stories even when I try to just write something dark.

One example: the story Refund deals with New York City right after September 11th, which is obviously a very dark topic. But the story has moments of somewhat surreal absurdity that reveal the strange experience of living in downtown Manhattan at that time. A local park is closed for asbestos cleaning, as the parks were covered in toxic dust, and there are signs warning people not to enter the park. Clarissa, the main character, and her young son, walk into the park and her son hurls his ball toward a garbage bin and a sign that announced, “No playing in or around this container.” Clarissa is terrified, but a janitor tells her not to worry—that the container just held rat poison. Then Clarissa observes—“She never thought the term rat poison would sound nostalgic, but she was strangely calmed.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Karen E. Bender” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I see everything with a sense of absurdity, as a coping mechanism, really, and it finds a way into my stories even when I try to just write something dark.[/pullquote]

CM: Your portrayal of parenting in these stories (whether biological or not) perfectly communicates the desperate attachment, the furious exhaustion, the helpless rage against mortality that parenthood can bring. Do you think that being a parent yourself has influenced your writing?

KB: The journey of parenting is deep and gorgeous and complicated—but parenting is perhaps the most cute-ified activity in American culture—the little onesies decorated with hippos one receives at the birth of a child distract you from the immense, helpless love that overtakes you, and also the fact that the child (from the moment she/he decides to be born!) has her/his own clear desires, complex plans. Parenting is about connection and separation and mortality and time; it has made me more aware of everything, really, how the smallest actions and events are just wonderfully moving and profound.

CM: Employment—both the securing and maintaining of it—is central to all these stories. During a writing seminar, I heard the author Benjamin Percy plead with his students to give their characters jobs. What do you think of the way jobs and job hunting is portrayed in American fiction today?

KB: I agree with Percy, mostly because the world of work and job-hunting is so dramatic! I recently taught a wonderful story by Mavis Gallant, (who is Canadian), called “From Zero to One,” (in her collection Varieties of Exile) which is about her character’s experience as the only woman in an all-male office during World War II; one line that I love from that story is “The fact is that I did not know the office was dull.” Andrea Barrett’s story, “The Ether of Space,” (in her collection Archangel), features an astronomer and her work as gorgeous metaphors; John Cheever writes beautifully about the strangeness of the work world of New York City. Knowing what a character’s work (or lack of work) is can really help you ground a story.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Karen E. Bender” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]Parenting is about connection and separation and mortality and time; it has made me more aware of everything, really, how the smallest actions and events are just wonderfully moving and profound.[/pullquote]

CM: Where were you when you got the news of the nomination? You shared with me that this collection’s path to publication was hard and long. Do you have any advice for other writers out there who are working on short story collections right now?

KB: I learned about Refund’s place on the NBA Longlist when it was announced on the Internet, along with everyone else. I knew that the Fiction Longlist would be announced at 9 am on Thursday, and I was curious who was on it, so I clicked on the NBA site then. I saw the cover of Refund there, that glimmering gold, and for a moment, I thought I had gone insane. I was out of town, and I called my husband, and said, “Refund is on the NBA Longlist. Can you check? Is it real?” And he looked and said, “It’s real.” And then we screamed.

Yes, the road to publish this book was long and complicated. To writing students, I would say: if you like to write short stories, read them, discuss them in book clubs, engage with them; make them part of the literary conversation. And write what you want. Work hard. Don’t let your work into the world until it is finished. Don’t ever stop.

 

Courtney Maum is the author of the debut novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, from Simon & Schuster/Touchstone; the humor columnist behind Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review.”; and the book reviewer for the 2022-based news outlet, “Sirens” founded by Richard Nash. She also co-writes films with her husband and names products for various branding agencies around the country. @cmaum

Robert Wilder, Winner of the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize

Like many other teachers and writers, I try to find myriad ways to get good books into other people’s hands. Whether it’s a kindergartner struggling over his first sentence, a high school student trying to find her voice in the wilderness of adolescence, or an intellectually starved friend at a dinner party, books are my gesture toward a better life for anyone willing to turn some pages. Reading provides a sustained relationship with our minds and the minds of countless writers trying to pursue thoughts and ideas, beauty and humanity. Winning the Innovations in Reading Prize is a great honor and will give me the energy to keep fighting the good fight.

http://robertwilder.com/

“As both a student and co-teacher in Rob’s classroom, I was awed and inspired by his ability to draw out insights and surprisingly sophisticated opinions regarding literature. He demands a level of intellectuality that his students are eager to live up to and chooses literature and teaches it in a way that expands the minds of his students. Rob shaped my education and life and as teacher and mentor.”
—Rachel, age 25, Davis, CA

“From Rob I learned that my voice, my perspective, and my (mundane teenage) life were worth writing about. Suddenly writing wasn’t only about producing dry, regurgitated papers for class and reading no longer became a drag. Rob’s teaching opened up a whole new world for me to escape into. By capturing my experiences and conjuring up new, impossible ones, I could envision a broader life beyond Santa Fe and a better, funnier, far more talented version of myself. Rob was the first “real” writer I ever knew and remains a model of a true teacher-scholar I strive to be.”
—Molly, age 29, Ph.D. Sociology, Lecturer, UC Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA

readergirlz, Winner of the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize

readergirlz is the foremost online book community for teen girls, led by five critically acclaimed YA authors—Dia Calhoun (Avielle of Rhia), Holly Cupala (A Light That Never Goes Out), Lorie Ann Grover (Hold Me Tight), Justina Chen Headley (North of Beautiful), and Melissa Walker (the Violet series). readergirlz is the recipient of a 2007 James Patterson PageTurner Award and the Association for Library Services to Children Great Web Sites Award.

To promote teen literacy and leadership in girls, readergirlz features a different YA novel and corresponding community service project every month. Each year they conduct a minimum of two additional special literacy projects, one in October in honor of YALSA’s Teen Read Week, and the second in April to raise awareness of Support Teen Literature Day. The latter project is Operation Teen Book Drop (TBD) in partnership with YALSA, and in the first two years, the effort has orchestrated the delivery of nearly 20,000 publisher-donated books to hospitalized teens across the country.

“With this amazing and generous Innovations in Reading Prize, readergirlz can continue to find new ways to connect teens with the best authors in young adult literature, make reading hip and appealing using the latest technology, and inspire a sense of service through our special literacy projects like Operation Teen Book Drop. Our grateful thanks to the National Book Foundation for making all this possible.”
— Dia Calhoun, author and co-founder of readergirlz

“readergirlz is honored and grateful to receive this recognition from the National Book Foundation. As a volunteer organization, this grant will assist our site maintenance and fund further special literacy projects as we challenge teen girls to read, reflect, and reach out.”
— Lorie Ann Grover, author and co-founder of readergirlz

James Patterson’s Read Kiddo Read, Winner of the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize

When James Patterson found out his son Jack didn’t share the same love of books as his father, James took it upon himself to fix the situation, by going out every summer and choosing books he knew Jack would love. He even started writing books for kids to get Jack interested. James decided to take his passion for books and reading to a new level with ReadKiddoRead.com, an easy, hassle-free place where parents, grandparents, teachers, and librarians will find the very best books to turn their kids into lifelong, dedicated readers.

“There are millions of kids who have never read a book they’ve liked. There are also thousands of children’s books out there—this site lists the ones they won’t be able to resist,” James says.

Children’s literature consultant Judy Freeman also works on the site, writing a bulk of the reviews. “Our goal is to select compelling pageturners kids won’t be able to put down and make them eager to read more. While we originally thought the targeted audience for ReadKiddoRead would be grownups, it’s been gratifying to see how much kids have been using it as well.” says Judy.

“We’re ecstatic over winning this recognition,” says James. “The site is working. And with the National Book Foundation on our side, I hope many more adults will be inspired to take their kids’ reading habits into their own hands.”

Maricopa County Library District, Winner of the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize

Maricopa County Library District (AZ) operates 17 libraries throughout one of the largest and fastest growing counties in the U.S. Its mission is to provide access to a wealth of informational and recreational resources for people of all ages and backgrounds so that they may have the opportunity to expand their horizons through reading and learning.

“The Library District sees itself as a popular reading library meeting the needs of its customers. Our approach is customer centric,” Harry R. Courtright, the Director, said. On customer surveys, when we asked our customers what they want, they said they come to the library to ‘browse’. We already were thinking about the ‘neighborhood’ concept when the customer surveys convinced me that organizing the libraries into neighborhoods, the way bookstores are organized, would be a good way to meet our customers’ needs.

“Part of the appeal comes from the addition of bookstore-like features, including lower shelves, lounge furniture and grouping topics together…but we took the concept further and decided to drop the Dewey system completely…and our customers like it. It’s comfortable and easy and circulation figures show double digit increases. Customers are reading more. Browsing works.”

“It is certainly an honor to receive this recognition from the National Book Foundation by awarding us an Innovation in Reading Prize for our Dewey-less approach to organizing libraries. It may inspire other libraries to also try new ways to get people reading.”

Read to Me International, Winner of the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize

Read To Me International Foundation is a Hawaii-based non-profit organization devoted to promoting children’s literacy. With the simple mission of spreading the love and joy of reading aloud, its goal is to have every child read to for at least 10 minutes every day. The Fathers Bridging the Miles program operates in the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.

“It is amazing to see the relationships between fathers and their children bloom over books and reading. The children enjoy getting the books in the mail and love listening to their fathers’ voices. We know our program is having an impact when we meet former program participants after being paroled and they are still reading to their children!” according to Pat Mizuno, Program Director.

Lynne Waihee, President of Read To Me International added that “We’ve always known that magic occurs when you put a child, a book and a parent together. It’s nice to know that through our program, children who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity can share that magic with their fathers.”

United Through Reading, Winner of the 2010 Innovations in Reading Prize

Imagine a soldier, stationed in Iraq, entering a tent, dropping his gear, and picking up a copy of Charlotte’s Web to read to his daughter at home. Imagine that child sitting down tonight and listening to her dad read the first few chapters. And then imagine the comfort she feels knowing her dad is safe and well, as she picks up Charlotte’s Web to read the next few chapters on her own.

United Through Reading connects families through good books. Whether they are separated by oceans and continents or simply by circumstance, United Through Reading offers parents who are away from their children the opportunity to be recorded on DVD reading storybooks from more than 220 recording locations around the world. For families separated by military deployments, the Military Program is available on nearly all deployed US Navy ships, on bases and installations around the world, in desert camps in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in more than 70 USO centers worldwide. The Transitions Program makes the same opportunity available for incarcerated parents in local, state, and federal corrections facilities—affecting our nation’s most vulnerable, the children of the incarcerated. The Grandparent Program, the newest program, is currently in pilot stages in San Diego County.

Mount Olive Baptist Church, Winner of the 2010 Innovations in Reading Prize

Mount Olive Baptist is a small church in a rural community in South Carolina where the nearest library branch is 10 miles away. In order to give children more exposure to books, the church membership took the bull by the horns and created their own children’s library by going to garage sales and buying books, dictionaries, and a set of encyclopedias. Books are also brought in from Richland County Public Library in Columbia, one of the nation’s best libraries. Every week, each child in Sunday School gets to talk about what they are reading. Church officials have been wonderfully supportive of this secular activity, and adults are coming in to re-read books they read as children.