BookUp students in University Settlement’s STRIDE Program on the Lower East Side, led by author/instructor Eisa Ulen, read Martha Southgate’s The Fall of Rome this spring. Southgate was generous to answer some of the students’ many questions via email.
Alice Looi (13) & Jessica Nguy (13): What was your motive or inspiration that drove you to write this book
Martha Southgate: I went to a prep school in Cleveland where I’m from. It wasn’t a boarding school but it was a school with a lot of kids who were wealthier than me and a big campus with trees and a barn. I learned a lot there but I was uncomfortable a lot of the time too. That’s where the idea for this book came from.
AL & JN: s there a meaning behind the title of the book? Does it act as a metaphor to the plot/book?
MS: The title is a metaphor for Jerome’s fall from grace. He has abandoned a lot of his original ideals and things he believes in so it’s kind of a fall in that way.
AL & JN: Was any part of this book (events, characters, dialogue) based off any events of your real life
MS: I never knew anyone like Jerome. He was inspired a little bit by feelings I’ve had and a lot by my imagination, just like all the other characters were. My favorite thing about being a fiction writer is making things up. So I do that a lot.
MS: I do think that my view of the world was broadened a little by writing this book. When I finish a book, often I find that I am the most surprised by where the story has taken me and who the characters are. Jerome and Rashid are a 50-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy—obviously, I’m neither.
AL & JN: What did you find most challenging about writing this book?
MS: I had a really hard time figuring out whether to put it into first or third person. Maybe you all talked about that with Ms. Ulen. But I went back and forth a lot on that and changed my mind several times.
Joyce Lao (13) & Janice Ma (13): Can you relate to any of these characters?
MS: I related very much to Rashid. Even though he’s a boy, I had a lot of the feelings he did about being in a strange environment when I went to prep school. Girls and boys do have a lot of the same feelings about many things. I would say he’s the one I’m closest to, even though I’m an adult now.
JL & JM: What inspired you to write this book?
MS: I was inspired by my experience at prep school, though I wrote the book many years after I graduated from high school. Jerome was a surprise to me as a character. One of my favorite things about writing fiction is the way that you sometimes surprise yourself. Coming up with that character is one of those times.
JL & JM: What made you create such tragic figures?
MS: I didn’t know that Jerome was going to be so tragic when I started the book. As I was writing it, I started wondering about what it would be like to write about a character who doesn’t make changes in his life that he should. Because Jerome is so stubborn and sure that he’s right, he doesn’t see that he has a chance at love and a chance to help someone right in front of him. Sometimes people make choices like that that are mistakes.
JL & JM: Since you were in Ohio and currently you are living in New York, have you ever visited Connecticut?
MS: I have visited Connecticut but the town where the school is is a made-up town. I didn’t have a real one in mind.
JL & JM: Have you ever felt out of place throughout your childhood?
MS: I felt out of place for a lot of my childhood. I was very smart and read a lot and sometimes people would say I “talked white” or thought it was weird that I was so quiet and liked to read so much. I often felt out of place because of that. At my prep school I felt different for another reason—I was one of very few African-American students and that sometimes felt uncomfortable.
JL & JM: Have you ever been treated differently?
MS: The answer to that is kind of in the answer to the other question. I’ve been called nigger by white people (although never at my prep school) and people in my neighborhood told me I “talk white.” So I think those are times I’ve been treated differently
JL & JM: When naming your characters do you give any thoughts about the actual meaning?
MS: I usually don’t. If I could write The Fall of Rome over, I’d give Jana a different name. Too many “J” names in one book.
Raymond Wong (12): Why are the characters all boys? If there are girls, there could be a love element! Did you want to leave the love element out? If so, how come it wasn’t all girls because you are a girl? How do you know what it is like at an all-boys school?
MS: I’m going to answer all your questions at once. That’s a good idea—it would have been an interesting book but a different one. As I worked on the story, I started thinking that the love element among the boys and girls wasn’t what I wanted to focus on. At first I did write some of it as set in a co-ed school and I wrote from the girl’s perspective. But that didn’t feel quite right. So then I invented Rashid. The reason I could make a pretty good guess at what a boys school might be like is that the school I went to was a boys school until my class of girls came in. It felt like a boys school with some girls in it. So I took that feeling forThe Fall of Rome.
Jenny Guo (12) & Amy Yan (12): Do the characters in the book have anything to do with your friends and family? We are really big fans of you!!
MS: I’m glad to have such nice fans! The characters in this book are not based on any of my friends or family. Sometimes writers do do that, but that’s not what I did in this book. I like making things up—that’s what I did here.
Sophia Wen (12) & Nicholas Louie (13): Why did you choose to make each chapter a different point of view?
MS: It made it easier to communicate the thoughts and feelings of each character if I could go into their individual heads.
SW & NL: Did Kofi’s death have anything to do with the talk he had with Rashid about not believing in Jesus?
MS: No. Kofi’s death was just a sad accident of the sort that happens to people quite often in New York City or in cities like it. I would never choose to kill off a character because he wasn’t a believer in God or Christianity.
Fiona Liang (11) & Sandy Li (12): How did you feel when you were writing the book?
MS: Because it took such a long time, I had lots of different feelings. Sometimes I got very discouraged. Sometimes I felt angry because when I was revising, I had to get rid of a lot of work I had already done. But sometimes, especially as I got to the end, I felt happy and proud. I’m still proud of it. It was the best work I could do at the time.
FL & SL: When you finished writing the book, did you ever think that it would get published?
MS: I wasn’t sure it would but I sure hoped it would. I remember the day that the editor who bought it called me. I was in the hospital and I had just had my daughter (who is 13 now). I was feeling okay and she was asleep so I checked my voicemail. What an exciting message to get! That was a really great day.
FL & SL: How long did it take you to write this book?
MS: It took me about five years—that wasn’t five years of steady working 40 hours a week though. I had my son while I was working on it so I took a lot of time away then. I also had different jobs—teaching and freelance writing when I was working on it. But I kept coming back to it and eventually, with a lot of revision, I was able to finish.
Winnie Loo (11) & Judy Wu (11): Where do you get your ideas from?
MS: All kinds of places. Sometimes a character will just pop into my head. Sometimes an image will capture my imagination or I’ll get curious about something. The part that’s hard is taking a little idea and sticking with it until it gets big enough. But I always try to do that. If I can’t, then it won’t be much of a book that I write.
WL & JW: Who are you directly telling the story to?
MS: I don’t really think of a specific person when I’m writing.
Benny Loo (13): Were you visiting Chelsea when you got the idea for the book? Did you bring some ideas from your childhood?
MS: No, I made up the school—there isn’t a school called Chelsea that I know of. And I wasn’t in that part of New York when I started thinking about the book. It was something I came to gradually. I thought of Jerome first, many years before I actually wrote the book. Then the other characters came gradually. And yes, I went to prep school and that was very much where I got some of the ideas for the book.
Martha Southgate is the author of four novels. Her newest, The Taste of Salt, was published in September 2011 and was named one of the best novels of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her essay “Writers Like Me,” published in the New York Times Book Review, appears in the anthology Best African-American Essays 2009. Previous non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, Entertainment Weekly, and Essence.