Tea Interview with boice-Terrel Allen
D: Male and female writers writing about the other gender fascinate me. I've done female perspectives, and I'm soon to return to a manuscript about a female character's entire life I started years ago. Arthur Golden did so in Memoirs Of A Geisha, Heinlein played with it in I Will Fear No Evil and Friday, Jane Austen avoided it.
Your Screwball Comedy (which will be reviewed in the next SubtleTea edition) is told in first-person by a woman named Rayla Sunday. (Bravo on the name, by the way.) Tell us about your choice to write a woman. Do you think you succeeded in at least getting close to how a particular woman might think/behave?
boice: I'm always asked why I write from the female perspective, as opposed to your question of my success in doing so. My usual response is because I grew up in a house with three women-my mother, my grandmother and my aunt. But I don't feel that's entirely accurate. I'm sure it's a factor, in terms of my success-which I believe I "get" the female condition. As much as a male can. But who I grew up with is an explanation that makes the most sense to people.
In actuality, I believe it's more of a gift or a sensitivity that I'm fortunate to recognize or harness. I say this because outside of the hard work of writing in general, there isn't an added burden for me to achieve an authentic female voice. Meaning, I don't have to do "method writing" to write my female characters. My best speculation is that I don't view people who on the surface aren't like me as an "other." I don't write as if men are from Mars, etc. Which I believe is how a lot of people feel. Intentionally or not. This concept can also include misunderstandings between races, sexual orientations and not just gender. Although the misunderstanding is often more pronounced in the minority group. As an example, if I'm at a book signing and a man asks me what my books are about, as soon as I let him know that there's a female protagonist, more times than not, he will tell me that his mother or sister or wife/girlfriend would enjoy the book. Why, I wonder, wouldn't a male appreciate a female character? Why couldn't a man relate to a female character? But probably having more female readers than male, I honestly believe I've done an excellent job of capturing the female voice. Not only because of my own confidence in my writing, but by the many women readers who have told me how realistic my female protagonists are. This is perhaps the ultimate compliment.
D: Pearl Buck wrote: "The basic discovery about any people is the discovery of the relationship between its men and its women." Your thoughts on this statement?
feel, in someway, that what Buck is saying here is an examination or
explanation of my writing from the female perspective. I don't have an
agenda of "discovery" in the process, but I am aware of what conscious of
what can happen when my book is in a reader's hands. I believe a reader
brings a subtext to my female protagonist stories that might say, Why does
Allen, a male, utilize female characters? I say subtext is a good thing
because I'm always interested in having my fiction working on more than one
Approaching the Buck statement directly, I don't think figuring out the nature between men and women would spill over into understanding everyone else. In the same way we humans can examine someone else's life and see the mistakes, but can't apply the same insight into our own lives. Even when it's the same diagnosis. The dynamics between men and women would be interpreted as being different than, say the dynamics between blacks and whites, gays and straights, etc. What Buck is saying is hopeful, but unfortunately a pipe dream.
D: Your favorite film(s) and favorite book(s)?
boice: The greatest general influence on my writing is first-person narratives. So I tend to gravitate to these type of novels. The most recent example being Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park, for which some reason I keep picking it up and putting it down to read something else. It's not that it's boring me, I just feel compelled to cheat on Lunar Park with other books. But I always return to Bret.
The other book I'm currently reading is Alice Munro's Runaway. I adore her--even though she doesn't write in first-person often. She was an immense influence on the last two-thirds of Screwball Comedy/Stories Going Steady that I wrote. Although their isn't an obvious or intentional influence on my work in terms of how she constructs a sentence or her style. Her influence on my work is more interior. Munro is primarily a short-story writer, but her stories are often 30-60 pages in length and feel just a full and complete as novels. She's like a Shirley Horn song, she takes her time to get to her destination. But she's never boring or self-indulgent. I learned from her how to allow a story to build and to boil. To trust that my writing is intriguing enough that a reader will allow me to leisurely tell them a story. To not rush. I now add her to the short list of my favorite writers: anything by Gayle Jones and Truman Capote, Junot Diaz's Drown, Doris Lessing's The Diaries of Jane Somers and Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy.
My favorite films are all over the place. I still love Pretty in Pink because it makes me nostalgic for the decade I grew up in and the soundtrack was an early introduction to new wave music. Other movies I always return to are The Talented Mr. Ripley for its haunting story. The Bridges of Madison County because Meryl Streep is my favorite actress. The Color Purple for a host of amazing performances. And Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary because, well, because it's Madonna. One more: Jackie Brown for the great acting and screenplay.
D: In Stories Going Steady's "Interlude: The Colin Powell Ends Racism Project" you satirize the apparent party-line kowtowing of the former Secretary of State, the silly side of sweeping racial reform movements, and interviews with political figures. The opening paragraph describing "the last day of racism" is quite humorous: Powell oversees ridiculous racism eradication measures such as nationwide Confederate flag conflagrations, the tie-dyeing of Klan outfits, and the deep-sixing of Affirmative Action. Powell goes on to advocate "laser eye surgery that prevents people from gawking at interracial couples," liquidation of UPN Network affiliates, and lifetime prison sentences for those "found guilty for the crime of racism." Outrageous in order to amuse and stir.
Perhaps your most apt illustration is the interviewer's gimmick to score the meeting with such an important man as Powell. A "fine journalistic background" doesn't buy Powell's attention, white guilt does! The narrator/interviewer: "After months of investigating his background for my senior thesis, I coincidentally discovered that my ancestors owned his ancestors during the time of slavery. Eureka! I had my foot in the door!" The narrator/interviewer implies a sellout situation in regard to Powell's cooperation with the Bushes. The interviewer: "[Y]ou're a man of integrity of interracial couples, etc., and would never be anyone's pawn. To suggest otherwise is simply un-American." While I understand the implication, it also reminds me of the should factor in racialized politics/political racialism. This manifests as aversion to so-called "conservative blacks" or, more specifically, blacks who vote or lean Republican. An extreme but not uncommon accusation is Uncle Tomism - which, as far as I'm concerned, is equally (if not more) insidious as the "N word" these days. Both words are hammers used to pound individuals into certain shapes. I don't think you go this far in the interlude, mind you. And I'm not a Republican or a fan of the Administration. But the implication about Powell's propriety pops up quite often in political discourse, and it raises general questions.
Ralph Ellison espoused a notion that I hold as fundamental in the face of parties and -isms: "[T]he individual is a minority." Likewise, Rand said that "the smallest minority on earth is the individual." Invisible Man's narrator finds disappointment from from both whites and blacks. He, like Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, feels like a non-entity partly because of lack of respect for the individual. Which brings me to what I called the should factor. When "conservative blacks" are ridiculed or even slammed for their affiliation, a message inexorably is broadcast: There's a certain way he/she should be by virtue of his/her blackness. It's all a collectivist matter, a total subordination of an individual's thought and preference to a bully group/type, a matter of force rather than reason. Ellison: "If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he's lost the battle before he takes the field." (Emphasis added.) David Littlejohn, author of Black On White (1966), wrote: "To take every Negro author...as a spokesman for the Negro is absurd. It is simply to foster the lumping dehumanization, the stereotyping that has been one of the race's most frustrating debasements." Stokely Carmichael accused the 1966 Voting Rights Act as a "measure...intended to register Democrats, not Negroes."
Aren't prescriptive racial politics cut from the same cloth as racial condemnation? Should races keep voting/thinking the same way, as a mass, for something as nebulous and precarious as group identity? Your thoughts on my incoherent blather?
boice: "Colin Powell," along with the other two interludes in Stories Going Steady, were written for Deek magazine. Each issue is themed and my assignment for the celebrity issue that contained this particular story was to write about a public figure as if they never became the person we know them as, yet taking into account all that we do know about them. Still with me?
Prior to this story I'd never tackled satire. When I decided upon Powell as my subject, I loved the concept that I could point out the ridiculousness and inconsistency of racism through a person whose political views I don't share. Yet, I still understand and/or share the burden (if that's the correct word) of racism with Powell because we're both African-American. As an example, in the story it's mentioned that Powell "speaks well." A term you would often hear whites say about him. Why wouldn't he? He's college-educated. He's worldly. But yet you don't hear that said of his white counterparts. Which illustrates, once again, the shaky ground that racism sits upon. This comment is supposed to be a compliment. It is and it isn't. I've personally had the same thing said to me. I have two degrees, written several books, I should speak well.
To directly answer your questions, I disagree with the notion that there's only one way to be black. Which, unfortunately, is how minorities are far too often viewed. Even amongst their own. But isn't human nature to expect every to think like we do? I've been the object of this because I don't always use black protagonists in my writing. An article from last year focusing on the double book chastised (kindly) me for not having an entire volume of characters who were obviously black. The writer is black also. This kind of disturbed me because I wasn't aware that there is only one way to be black. I grew up middle-class in the suburbs which is a different experience than someone who grew up in the inner city or someone who summers on Martha's Vineyard in a cotillion dress.
So no, I don't agree with a group identity. There is so much diversity in the black race. The only thread that perhaps run through African-Americans is dealing with racism.
D: Give us a spiel on your Rattlecat enterprise.
boice: I've always considered myself to be punk in spirit. If punk means not following the crowd or not sitting around waiting for an opportunity. And of course, the DIY ideology is authentically punk. You want to be in a band, but you only know three chords? So what. You want to make music, but you can't play an instrument? Buy two turntables. For two years, from 1998-2000, I sent out the manuscript for my first published novel, The Daughters of a Mother,to dozens of agents and publishers. To no avail. Which by the way, can make an artist start to question their talent, even though it was often letters describing my manuscript, as opposed to the actual book, that were being rejected. I remember sending over a dozen letters on a Monday and receiving rejection slips for every one by Friday. They were in the mail system longer than they were on someone's (intern?) desk.
The final rejection letter I received was a so-called "positive rejection," which meant they thought my work was great, but it wasn't right for them. This was when I decided to research self-publishing, which up to that point I had always considered to be a last resort. In my research, I realized that it was a win-win situation. People would actually be reading my work and it still left the door open to be traditionally published.
By the way, I hate the term self-published. I prefer self-released, which is what bands say when they put out their own CDs. I think self-published still has a stigma attached to it.
Currently, Rattlecat is a tool to release my own work and not to publish other authors. I've put out one anthology, Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Fiction & Poetry by Multicultural Writers, but I want to become more established before I start releasing titles by one author.
D: I'm a jazz lover, from the transitional era of Jelly Roll Morton, through Duke, Brubeck, Rollins to Miles, Coltrane, Sun Ra, Coleman, etc. I see jazz as a synthetic and transcendent treasure wrought from a predominantly blues base: an artistic salvation for races and nations. Blues the prophet, jazz the messiah, I say. I have a (perhaps naive) belief that jazz's coolness proven to young folks could help rejuvenate healthy culture.
Do you dig jazz? Your thoughts on the art?
boice: I'm a major jazz fan. I've been one since I was very young. My first exposure was from grandmother whose favorite jazz consisted primarily of the jazz vocalists like Billie or Ella. In terms of traditional jazz, I think jazz vocals is a perfect entry because people who say they don't understand the instrumental can still get the essence of it. Late in high school and particularly in college, I started to turn my attention towards the instrumental greats, particularly Miles. I worship Miles. I hold him responsible for teaching me how to listen to jazz. I'm a fan of all his periods--bop, cool, modal, fusion, etc. I'm also a fan because Miles was the coolest motherfucker to ever walk the planet Earth. Miles is also an influence because of his style, his restlessness as an artist to never repeat himself. Every artist, regardless of their medium, should have that as a goal. Regarding my public book readings, I'm influenced by jazz in general. No two book readings are the same. I never stick to what's on the written page. I'm constantly rearranging and adding things on the spot, which is the very essence of jazz improvisation.
D: From William Somerset Maugham's The Moon And Sixpence: "...the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success."
Later, in the same book: "'I wonder if I could write on a desert island, with the certainty that no eyes but mine would ever see what I had written.'"
Is writing (and making art in general) intrinsically worthy? Should an artist be satisfied with just his/her own knowledge of his/her art? Or is art's worth/power contingent on society - on other witnesses, an audience?
boice: I write because it's the ideal representation of my true self. I don't remember who said this and I'm paraphrasing, but if you want to know the truth about a fiction writer, don't read his memoirs, read his fiction. So true. For me, to write through a character is the most authentic expression of myself. It's as if under the guise of someone I'm free of all barriers. I think this is why I'm able to write "without an audience," even though at this point I know I'll be publishing my work. At this point in my life, if I were writing my memoirs I might hold back or shield myself. In fiction I lose all of that. Reflecting back on an earlier question of yours, this might explain why I write using a female character. I see this device as a scrim. Anyone who writes understands what I'm talking about. For another writer it might be using the voice of serial killer (Easton's American Psycho) as an extreme, but you can still insert yourself into this character who is "unlike" you. Yet in some odd way writers prove the exact opposite.
D: The flip-side cover of Stories Going Steady features a cool fake album title gimmick: B-TA and the Human Capotes. If I recall correctly, you mention Capote at least once or twice in the books. You dig Capote? Have you seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of him in the recent film? If so, how did you receive it?
boice: Outside of writing, coming up with the concepts for my book covers is my favorite part of publishing. Here's your one chance to convince people to pick up your book (that they never heard of) instead of the one next to it. This is before they even read the jacket copy. You have to visually represent your entire book in a nanosecond. This is thrilling to me. Whenever I enter a bookstore, I always check out the new books table or wall display and pick up the books that beg to be held. I then ask myself, Why did I pick you up? Then I look at another cover and ask, Why not you? This is great practice every time I'm working on a forthcoming book cover.
The "rock star" cover of Stories Going Steady came to me about three years ago. At that point, I was reading tons of books on 70s Punk. What a great visual period in music history. I wanted to be a rock or punk star. Independently, I came up with a title I ended up not using for Stories Going Steady. I won't share it because I plan to eventually use it in the future. It was the type of title that I could come up with a cover of any design. This was when I decided to portray a fictional rock band on the cover. Back to the punk music, I bought the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady album and it just hit me to play off that iconic title. The Human Capotes name was inspired by the Dandy Warhols.
And yes, I do mention Capote. I love to throw in my influences in my books. Alice Munro, Gayl Jones, Miles, Madonna, etc. It's my way of personalizing my work. I loved the Capote movie. I've seen old clips of the real Capote and Hoffman captured him perfectly. But not just in an impersonation way, he captured the feeling of Capote. Another all time favorite book of mine is Gerald Clarke's authorized biography of Capote, which the move was based. Capote participated in the writing of the biography and the same understanding you gained from the book was in Hoffman's portrayal.
D: boice, I think you're a worthy art force and a Pittsburgh asset. I wish you blessings on your path. Any closing words for readers/fans?
boice: Thank you, Dave, for the kind words. What I'd like to end with is to encourage everyone to follow their dreams. Especially if you're an artist. Don't believe anyone who tells you'll fail before you even start. Several people close to me "warned" me about how hard self-publishing is. Those same people can't believe everything I've accomplished. It was never easy, but it's always rewarding, and I'll never regret writing my books. Good luck to all!
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