An Interview with Bebe Moore Campbell
Novelist Bebe Moore Campbell combines social and political issues with fast-paced fiction aimed at a wide audience. Born on February 18, 1950, in Philadelphia, Moore Campbell grew up in there and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. She taught public school for five years in Atlanta, afterwards in Washington, D.C. She lives with her husband Ellis Gordon, Jr., in Los Angeles. She has a daughter, Maia Campbell, a television and film actress, who was born during her first marriage, and a son, Ellis Gordon, III. Moore Campbell has been a contributing editor for Essence and a commentator for National Public Radio; she has published nearly one hundred articles in periodicals including Black Enterprise, Ms., Parents, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Best known for Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine (1992), a lyrical novel based on the murder of Emmett Till, Moore Campbell has also published a memoir entitled Sweet Summer: Growing Up with and without My Dad (1989), and a non-fiction book, Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage (1986). Moore Campbell’s enormously successful novel Brothers and Sisters (1994) explores the aftermath of the civil unrest following the acquittal of the police who brutalized Rodney King in Los Angeles. Her latest novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir (1998), depicts the relationship between a female talk show producer and her grandmother, an aging singer struggling to extricate herself from despair. In both Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine and Brothers and Sisters, Moore Campbell focuses on interracial relations, the sources of racism, and the ways historical events intersect with personal ones. Readers have found her empathetic portrayal of Lily Cox, loosely based on Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Emmett Till’s murderer, both remarkable and unsettling. In Singing in the Comeback Choir, Moore Campbell tackles painful problems within the African-American community, such as urban blight, drugs, and single teenage mothers. In fictionalizing these issues, and insisting on the need for personal accountability, Moore Campbell hopes to inspire dialogue about racism and the wounds it continues to inflict.
This interview was conducted by telephone between Oak Park, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California, on April 12, 1999.
I was wondering if you have a relationship with your name. Since Moore was your maiden name and Campbell was your first husband’s name, do you usually use both names?
I say Bebe Moore Campbell. That’s how I’m known, and that’s what I’ve called myself since the mid-1980s. [End Page 954]
So you always use both names?
No. Not always. Some of the earlier stuff was Bebe Campbell. Probably the early 1980s, when I think about it. Since the early 1980s, I was using Moore Campbell. Of course, I remarried in 1984 to Ellis Gordon, Jr. So in private life, I’m Mrs. Gordon.
So, in terms of referring to you—would you like both names to be used—Moore Campbell rather than Campbell?
You grew up on the East Coast, and you’ve been transplanted to the West Coast. Do you define yourself as an East Coast person, and have there been any feelings about becoming a person on the West Coast? Do you have any sense of identity change?
That’s an interesting question. I have a sense of—as the Brazilians say—saudade, missing the East Coast. I think my sensibilities are East Coast sensibilities. And yet, my books have begun to reflect my life as a Westerner because the backdrop for the last two novels and the one I’m currently working on is Los Angeles. So, I do feel that Los Angeles is my home. But it’s interesting, when I’m away from Los Angeles and I’m on the East Coast, I don’t miss Los Angeles. When I’m in Los Angeles, I often miss the East Coast.
What would you say is the “East Coast sensibility,” and what does that mean to you?
I think it has to do with a certain orientation toward a hard work ethic that I believe comes specifically from enduring winter. There is a more concentrated black population on the East Coast and more of the historically black colleges are located there. I think African Americans are more cohesive there, especially in the South. Of course, I’m probably generalizing.
Can you talk about your new book a little bit?
I’m doing the outline right now. So far, it’s about sixty pages, and I think this outline’s going to be about eighty-five pages. I’m excited about it. This is my third attempt for a book. There have been three different stories that I have started working on. I’m more relaxed writing it. I’m not pushing myself as hard. And I’m really beginning to like the story, and the characters are evolving, which is what happens in the process of writing an outline. I don’t write it so much as to know exactly what I’m going to do and exactly what’s going to happen because a whole [End Page 955] bunch of it will change. It is a way for me to get in touch with who these characters are. And oftentimes, they are very different at the beginning of the outline. I think I know all the characters, and then at the end, something else happens.
And they change.
So it’s just in the formative stages right now. You’re kind of playing with it.
When did you decide and how did you decide to start writing novels?
Well, I wanted to write novels, I guess, starting in the 1970s. Going back, probably earlier, but I didn’t verbalize it. When I read James Baldwin, when I read Toni Morrison, when I began to read Alice Walker, I had the sense of “I want to do that.” They also gave me permission to feel that I could do that because they were out there. They were role models, people who had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my career had an early component, which was being a free lance writer. So, I wrote for a lot of magazines and newspapers with a sense of frustration because I did want to write novels. And I think that those ten years I spent freelancing crystallized that for me, and in a real sense galvanized my efforts in that direction. I went to writers’ workshops when I lived in Washington—there was one at Howard University taught by the late John Oliver Killens, and there was another one when I lived in Atlanta taught by the late Toni Cade Bambara. I think that the support I got in the workshops really helped me to continue the struggle. Because I was getting rejected all over the place, and if I hadn’t had a group of people who were saying you can do it, we think that what you have to say is important and we think you’re saying it well, I don’t know how long I would have continued. So, I definitely needed that support, that camaraderie from that coterie of striving writers.
I really understand that, because I think writing is usually solitary. I suppose if you’re writing for a magazine or a newspaper, and you’re actually writing on site, there are other people around you. But I think being a novelist must be such a difficult thing if you don’t have people giving you positive support.
I think any of the arts are. I think America is turning into a complete star system. We don’t support those people who are in the striving phase of getting there. We laud and praise you once you’ve made it, but there is no support in place to make that struggle easier. It’s something that you just have to do and figure out on your own.
Do you see yourself primarily as a novelist or a journalist? [End Page 956]
As a novelist.
So, journalism is not really your first love? It was something you did in preparation?
Well, I was never really a journalist. I was never a newspaper reporter, but I did feature articles for newspapers and for magazines.
So, being a novelist is the primary way you identify yourself?
Do you see a relationship between the work you’ve done for magazines, the freelance work you’ve done, and your fiction?
Yes. In fact, I think that now I realize how important those ten years were because the people I interviewed are all stored—people I would not have encountered had I not been assigned to do a story. I can draw from those people as I create real life characters and real life drama.
On that same note, you talked about starting with an outline when you’re writing a novel and having characters that you may start thinking about when you first begin writing and that may change later on. Can you say a little bit more about the writing process? What is your process when you’re writing a novel?
I need a place to think, and I need to get quiet. I need a lot of music, and I need a lot of visual stimulation. I need to go to the art museum; I need to look at paintings. I need to read something that really absorbs me. I need to see a wonderful play. I need to see the best films. I mean, I need to fill up and be inspired in a lot of different artistic ways. And then I need to sit down and let an idea come to me. Think about what I want to say and let it come to me. Usually it will, if I’m quiet enough, and I block out everything else. Then an idea sort of begins to attach itself. It could come in the form of a character first, or a whole story might plop down in my lap. In the case of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, I always had this idea of Emmett Till. It was just there. With Brothers and Sisters, I was sitting in a hotel room in the aftermath of the civil unrest, and the whole story just came to me—just about. Not entirely, but the kernel of the story came to me. So, I have to get up and do my work. A lot of times I don’t want to do it at home or in my office. I might go downtown to the library. I work on planes. I find conveyances a very good place to work. Trains, planes—in fact I was thinking about taking a train trip down to San Diego. Just to go and have that kind of rhythm of the train and no interruptions and do the work there.
You’re in a kind of altered state when you travel, anyway. Especially if you are by yourself, you don’t have any of the customary triggers or interruptions. [End Page 957]
Which is a good thing.
In writing Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, you’ve said the story of Emmett Till sort of followed you around, and you couldn’t let go of it . . .
Yes, I was five when he died. He was a topic, and still is, in my community. He was a reference point. I’d hear my dad talking about him, or he would come up in conversations with my uncles, or somebody would mention him, and I just felt as though I knew this boy. He could have been my big cousin. He was not an historical figure. He was not like Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth or Fredrick Douglass. He was my age just about. So, I always thought of him—the outrageous injustice of the way he died—as sort of symbolic of the oppression of African Americans in this country. He was always in my mind. I felt as if I knew him, and I liked the historical as a jumping off point.
I love historical fiction, and I always love to speculate about how people made choices about what to include, what to change, what to create. Can you talk about that?
I did not want this to be an historical novel. I didn’t want to stay true to the story. I was more interested in creating something similar and then really exploring my premise that racism is a crime for which we all pay—not just the victims, but the perpetrators as well. Carrying this out to the next generation, how this murder continues to vibrate in these lives—that’s what I wanted to do.
What role do you feel your cultural background has played? How do you feel growing up in the black community influenced you as a writer?
Well . . . it’s who I am. If you write what you know, it’s what I know best. My view of the world is from a black point of view, and so that’s the lens with which I see someone who is black, someone who is white, someone who is Latino or Asian. Certain rhythms and smells infused my childhood, just like an Irish Catholic person writing about his or her childhood would have different aromas, different textures. So, it touches everything.
Would you say you define yourself as a feminist or, as Alice Walker says, a womanist?
Yes, I like that one.
A womanist writer? That’s how you see yourself?
I’m pro-woman. But my characters are all flawed males as well as females. I’m not a basher. [End Page 958]
No. I think you really try to create complicated and fully developed characters—except maybe Floyd Cox—and even with him, you make an effort to see him as a whole person. I do like the fact that you include characters from all different economic classes and many different backgrounds. I wondered if you could talk about what you see as the role of class or class struggle in your novels.
Well, I think there’s always been that struggle and I think racism, well, race, has superceded class in this country. In other countries, like England, it’s always all been about class—until relatively recently with the influx of the former colonized people coming into their country. Now Europeans are dealing with race as well as class. But I think particularly when you look at the South, you look at poor whites and poor blacks, they certainly had more in common with each other than either group had with wealthy whites. Yet the bugaboo of race was thrown into the mix. So that poor whites and poor blacks didn’t unite along the same political lines. Therefore, that made the struggle more protracted because they didn’t present a unified front. The same could be said in the Northern factories: the way first Irish and then later blacks were used as strike breakers in the early labor wars that were going on. I think in this country what’s silently said to immigrants is that in order to gain the privilege that is inherent in white skin in this society, you have to recognize and join in the devaluation of people of color so that you earn your whiteness through taking on the biases of the people who are already here.
I read so much African-American literature, and I teach African-American literature. I wouldn’t say that you are unique in assigning meaning to the role of class, but I think you do it in a way that’s so powerful and so accessible. A lot of my students come from Gary, Indiana, and other economically strapped communities. Some of my students are on welfare, and a lot of them really struggle financially. I think you capture class struggle in a way that’s fictionally so meaningful to the reader, and I’ve always admired that. That’s one of the things I like best about your work. There are so many levels to your novels. But character is something I’m always interested in. I think your characters, particularly your female characters but also your male characters, are vivid and completely believable—even some of your minor characters. I think you do a great job of drawing supporting characters like Hector or Cody in Brothers and Sisters. They each have a pivotal role in the novel; it’s a small role, but they are still very vivid. Do you have favorite characters or a particular character that you like or connect with in any of your books?
Yes, so many of them. I can empathize with all of them. I didn’t like Floyd and I didn’t like Floyd’s family. But I really was drawn to Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine because of Lily. I mean, I really was rooting for her redemption in the same way that I was rooting that Ida would find her father. I was drawn to Doreen, her daughter. This new generation will look at things a little differently. I like Lionel, who was the cousin up North, who was very plodding; he was a tortoise. I see myself and I see my uncles and my dad as Lionel, a hard working, not really well-educated black [End Page 959] man. You know, that guy who just keeps plugging and slowly he becomes Pascals of Atlanta—that’s a restaurant in Atlanta. The best fried chicken anywhere. He just started with nothing and very slowly, slowly built a huge business. In Brothers and Sisters, I liked La Keesha. I liked her resolve. I liked her weaknesses. I liked her struggle.
She’s a wonderful character.
I liked Tyrone. I liked Esther’s girlfriend, Vanessa.
Yes, she’s wonderful, too. You kind of poke fun at her for being Miss Good Karma, being sort of very LA, but it’s a good-humored sort of mockery. She’s good-hearted and very supportive of Esther and really does, I think, try to give her a point of view that she needs at times.
Yeah, Esther’s rough. Esther’s a little hardened. I guess in Singing in the Comeback Choir, I really like Lindy. I really like Bootsie. I really like him. I really like musicians. I really like old jazz people. Lindy’s kind of like an Alberta Hunter, that Blues woman who had her comeback in her eighties. They’ve had this remarkable life of music and passion. Then it all disappears, and they have nothing financially with which to sustain themselves. I was watching television with my husband yesterday, and we saw a biography of Sugar Ray Robinson. He made money, a lot of money. He was the middleweight champion five times. He was an incredible athlete, but he ended up with no money.
I’ve always had a kinship with blue collar culture. My mother was college-educated, my father was college-educated, but I was surrounded by blue collar people. My uncles worked in factories. My aunts were nurses and factory workers. My grandmother was a maid and a waitress. I still have some of those sensibilities, some kinship.
Toni Morrison has said that she writes completely from her imagination. I sense that to some extent your characters are drawn from experience as well as imagination. Do you think that’s a fair statement?
Yeah, I think so. Lindy has a lot of my grandmother in her. She’s not my grandmother, but she has a lot of my grandmother.
That’s something I thought when I was reading Singing in the Comeback Choir and remembering your grandmother as she’s presented in Sweet Summer—Lindy’s strength, her love of a good party and going out to the clubs—it seemed to me as if there were a parallel there, at least elements.
I’ve had several housekeepers—and they’ve all been Salvadoran women. I have a character now, and she’s a Latina. I’m certainly drawing from [End Page 960] the Latinas in my life. I know some college-educated Latinas, but they don’t come to my house—I don’t see them twice a week. There was a guy, an older Mexican guy, mean as a snake, who did a lot of tile work for us in our backyard, and he had a son working for me, and I saw him one day kick the son. The son is in his twenties. He was just a very brutal man. Our gardener has a kid who is ten and this kid works. And I’ve asked him, when is he supposed to be in school? School here is on tracks, and he could very well be off in April or March. That’s what Fernando says. Be that as it may, this kid is doing more than I think a ten-year-old kid should do. But then I think about my uncles. And they probably did the same kind of stuff out in the fields when they were his age. None of my uncles has ever been in jail; none of them has ever been on drugs. And I’m thinking, who am I to tell this man that his kid needs to be out playing. That’s easy for me to say, but I don’t live in a neighborhood where the gangbangers are trying to get my boy. It may be that the best, safest place for him is handling a piece of equipment in my backyard. I don’t think he’s old enough to handle it. Maybe that’s safer than being left to his own devices. I don’t know. But certainly, I am, in this book, drawing from those experiences. I’m drawing from these Latino people who come into my life.
Alice Walker writes about how her characters visit her. Aside from just sort of observing and listening to people around you, do you have a sense of visitation with your characters? Do they speak to you?
Even though I know you spent considerable time in the South, growing up, when I speak of visitation, I’m thinking of people like Lily and like Floyd, whom I have the sense you didn’t encounter that closely.
I saw Lily and Floyd on “Eyes on the Prize”—the flash of Carolyn Bryant, the woman that Emmett Till allegedly whistled at or flirted with and Roy Bryant, her husband. I saw them on “Eyes on the Prize,” and they had footage of the trial. I was watching it one night—the jury decision was announced where these two men were found not guilty. Even though later on when they sold their story to Look magazine or Life magazine, they admitted that they had killed him. But by then, they couldn’t be retried for it. And they kissed, Carolyn Bryant and Roy Bryant, and the kiss struck me as very erotic, very inappropriate—kind of a flaunting kiss. And to me the kiss said—this woman was saying—“I got a man who killed for me.” I thought to myself, what kind of woman needs to say that? What is she all about? Of course, you’ve got to go back to childhood for that. And that’s what drew me into the story. It wasn’t Emmett Till; it was Lily and Floyd Cox—but mostly Lily—who drew me into the story of Emmet Till. I was intrigued. Where did this come from? How did this happen? I guess I knew that bottom line—that this kind of violent racism has more to do with a dysfunctional family than it does with hating people who don’t look like you. Or at least it has as much to do with it. [End Page 961]
I think low self-esteem, self-hatred, those aspects of humanity, come up a lot in your work, in probably all three of your novels. But perhaps it comes up more in the first two, although I think it’s also a theme in Singing in the Comeback Choir, to a lesser extent.
I think certainly with Lindy.
And add into that guilt because she’s guilty about her mothering skills or what she perceives as a lack thereof. Ted the talk show host certainly falls into that category. I think you would be surprised in Hollywood how many people who are very successful have a lack of self-esteem.
And there seems to be a clear relationship in your books between that self-hatred or low self-esteem and both racism and classism. They intermingle and interlock, I would say. Do you have a favorite book, of the novels?
I like the language of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. I really think I did a good job with the language. I enjoyed researching Singing in the Comeback Choir. I just listened to so much good music. Saw films and read books about singers and music. So that was fun. Then I enjoyed the fact that Brothers and Sisters was so popular. There are aspects of each one. I loved some of the characters in Brothers and Sisters, and some of the really nitty gritty life-in-the-city problems that these people confront and have to grapple with.
Do you have a favorite author? You mentioned Baldwin and Morrison.
Toni Morrison is my favorite author and, of her books, Sula is my favorite.
Why is that?
I don’t know. Sula’s just a gem. That book is just so rich. I read it from time to time, and I always find new things to be bowled over about. It’s just so lyrical and it’s painful, and yet it’s triumphant. I just think it’s a fabulous work of fiction.
I really love her early books, more than her later ones.
Toni Morrison keeps evolving. I dig that about her.
The Bluest Eye is my personal favorite, but I love Sula and Song of Solomon, too. [End Page 962]
I love Beloved. I would say Beloved is probably my second favorite.
Would you say that Morrison is probably the biggest influence on you?
She’s probably the biggest influence.
I was interested in the fact that Singing in the Comeback Choir is somewhat of a departure from the two previous books. You have said that the history in the book is “a little quieter,” but not based on a specific historical moment or event. You seemed to be more concerned with relationships among African Americans than on interracial relationships. Did you make a conscious decision to do that? Or did that just sort of happen as you started working on it?
I guess it just sort of happened. You have Maxine and her boss who did the talk show, and their relationship, but certainly, the pivotal action was taking place on Sutherland Street and that North Philadelphia community. And that did begin to supercede and override everything else. So, it kind of just happened.
What would you say you were trying to achieve in the novel?
I was charging the reader not to give up, saying if you really want it, you can always have a come-back. A neighborhood can come back, a marriage can come back, an old lady who smokes and drinks, whose voice is worn out and rusty, can come back. If you really want it.
The title to me is so evocative. Did you see yourself as having a specific audience for that book and was it different from the audience you’ve had?
You know I never think about my audience when I’m writing. I think about it before, sometimes after. I know my audience to be diverse, but predominantly African-American women. I know I have a lot of people who are not black women who read me, but black women are my core audience. So, I guess when I’m writing, I’m thinking about me. I’m just trying to please, surprise, and delight me.
Do you feel like you’ve reached your audience with the book? Do you feel you’ve had a good response to the book; has it been received positively?
It’s been mostly good. Now I think there were people who were looking for Brothers and Sisters, part two. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. The reviews were mixed. I got some wonderful reviews; I got some bad reviews; I got some okay reviews. So, I think that people bought the book and enjoyed it. It didn’t stay on the Best Seller List as long as Brothers and Sisters did, which was a disappointment, of course. But it’s a different market. A lot of books didn’t stay on as [End Page 963] long as their predecessors. The feedback I’ve had, you know, the reviews and the people coming up to me, I think people got something out of it. I think it did find its audience.
The relationship between Maxine and Lindy is something that I haven’t seen in many novels: the mutual support and the tough times they went through when Maxine was trying to get Lindy back on her feet and the conflicts between them. I found that really moving and unique—the grandmother/ granddaughter relationship.
I enjoyed that, too. I enjoyed Lindy. I mean I really did.
She’s a very salty character. You talked about Lindy as somewhat reminiscent of your grandmother. Are there autobiographical elements in Maxine?
Oh, yeah. Coming from Philly, growing up in a row house in North Philadelphia, going to Los Angeles, being successful, the ambivalence with which she took these trips home. Feeling ambivalent about the neighborhood where she grew up, former teacher, feeling somewhat guilty about success. I mean, I can identify with all of that.
You also probably identify with being in a completely different environment, in Los Angeles, not only a different economic stratum, but a completely different culture. There are a lot of questions, problems, within the African-American community that you tackle in that book, drugs, gangs, the issue of single teenage mothers, and you do seem to suggest pretty clearly that the solution to some of those problems resides within the African-American community. I wonder whether there might be those readers who would take issue with that and say you are blaming the victim.
Oh yeah, sure.
I wonder if you’ve gotten that criticism and how you would respond to it.
No one has ever said that to me, but I just think that at a point . . . if you find yourself in the victim role too often, you have to focus on what you’re doing wrong. I think that is one of the things that the African-American community has to grapple with as we go into the millenium. There are some things we’re doing wrong. There are some ways of thinking that we need to correct. I’m sure there are people who take umbrage to some of the premises of all the books that I’ve written. But my job is just to put it out there.
You can’t be writing to try to please everybody. It wouldn’t be creative. Brothers and Sisters—you think there are people who would take umbrage at that novel? [End Page 964]
Ah . . . yeah—the whole notion of this black woman blaming another young black woman for stealing from the bank. There were people who certainly didn’t like the depiction of this guy Humphrey whom they perceived as almost a rapist, didn’t like the fact that he was going after Mallory. In Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, the fact that I wasn’t blaming this white family, that I was empathetic. Some people objected to that.
I got kind of an amusing comment from one of my students last semester about La Keesha because she really identified with La Keesha and was just incensed that La Keesha didn’t decide to sue the bank. My student was really surprised that La Keesha didn’t do something in retaliation. It’s funny because I didn’t see her that way.
No, I don’t see her as having that kind of savvy, doing any of that. She’s too fragile, in the working world, to do that yet. But I see her as someone who could grow into that.
Are there other things that you wanted to talk about or to say in relation to Singing in the Comeback Choir ?
I want readers to see the metaphor of this broken down jazz singer very much like this broken down community. Both still having the ability to sing, to soar. Both have music left in them. That’s truly my hope for a lot of the inner cities that dot the landscape of America, that they can be resurrected.
I think all of your books end on a positive note, even though it’s not a simplistically positive note. They have happy endings, but they are very hard won happy endings. A lot of things get lost, and a lot of anguish and conflict occurs along the way. This is one aspect that I really like and actually think is not all that typical in African-American literature—a lot of books end with deaths and tragedies because that’s a part of life, and that’s really what’s happening. Has there been any kind of conscious effort to do that?
I like to be hopeful. I like to end where the characters still have work to do, but it’s clear that if you do the work, your life is going to change for the better. Like with Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, if Wydell and W.T . can continue to forge a partnership where they are supporting each other, it’s clear that W.T. can help Wydell stay off the bottle. Then in being his father, Wydell can help his son navigate this gang-studded Chicago landscape that he finds himself in. In Brothers and Sisters, if Tyrone doesn’t go back to school, he and Esther probably won’t stay together. But I think he’s come to grips with the fact that he’s afraid to do it. And so I think he will challenge himself to step up to the plate. In Singing in the Comeback Choir, by the end of the story Lindy does feel that she wants to be in the land of the living. She has rediscovered that her gift is still intact. Not in the same way, in a different way. And she has also seen that she can teach; in the same way she’s helping C.J.’s sister, she can [End Page 965] help him in a different kind of way. She and Bootsie can indeed be mentors to this young, very unpolished kid. There are still some very good things happening in this community because some of the skills that you need to move yourself forward are right here. It’s right next door. If C.J. had money, he could pay for the tutelage that he can receive from Bootsie and Lindy. In a very real way, in terms of the community, the book is also saying that as long as there’s a heartbeat, don’t say it’s dead. Don’t say that this community is dead because there’s still something very vibrant going on around here.
I don’t know if you have any kind of connection with or identification with ethnography or ethnographers, people who study culture—and I guess I’m thinking of Zora Neale Hurston, who was really an anthropologist. Do you see yourself as writing in that vein, as an anthropologist, in any way doing the same kind of thing that Hurston was doing in some of her work? Do you see yourself as a cultural critic?
I don’t know if I’m a cultural critic, but I’m certainly using ethnicity and culture in the books that I write. They certainly play a role in each character. I mean, Floyd is who he is, and he is a poor white man who eats cornbread and biscuits and gravy and goes hunting and chews Red Man and listens to Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. He has this violent ethic that is a family ethic, and racism is part of his culture, and that’s who Floyd is. I’m going to use all that. I’m going to use as much as I know to enhance this character. In the same way that Esther is the product of upwardly mobile parents, who sent her and her sister to a school on the North side of Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s where she felt angry a lot of the time, even though she was getting a superior education. That’s part of who she is. Just as Maxine is a woman for whom loss reverberates throughout her life, and so her husband cheating on her is going to mean something completely different than somebody else’s husband cheating on her because she is so fearful of loss. To me, culture is also personal; it’s not just racial or ethnic. It’s the kind of mores that have come into your life because of the choices you’ve made.
I know you’ve talked about healing as also being something that is important. I saw your article, the conversation with Alice Walker in Black Issues Book Review (March–April, 1999, pp. 32–34). You mention healing as a theme, and it’s something that I have written about related to your novels. Do you see healing as something that’s instructional to the audience? Do you see yourself as trying to help your audience heal through their reading of your novels?
Yes. Yes, I am trying to do that. Without shoving it down the throat of the audience. But I definitely am trying to do that.
Is writing a healing process for you?
No. Writing isn’t a healing process; thinking it through is the healing. Now—praying is a healing process for me. If you take writing as actually [End Page 966] more than sitting down and writing the stuff out but also the thinking through of it, then I would say yes. For example, people have asked me, how could you write Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine? Weren’t you really angry? How could you create such sympathetic characters? Well, I had worked out the anger before I sat down to write it. Now, if you consider that working it out part of the writing process, then so be it. Then writing does help me heal.
And there is a spiritual dimension, or the praying helps you with the process of working through some of the anger?
You’ve kind of implied, and I think I have sensed, that some of your work might be somewhat challenging and sometimes even threatening to certain people, and that you really don’t want to focus on that because that would keep you from writing what you’re writing. Would you say that is true? Do you think that some people are really challenged by what you write?
I think some people are, and some things are more or less challenging than other things. Sometimes I realize when I’m writing something, whooo, this is going to really [laughs] . . . and I try not to focus on that. Because it can be scary, so I try not to focus on that, and just go on and write what I have to write.
You kind of keep those voices at bay?
Yes, I just want to go on and say what I have to say.
In your interview with Alice Walker recently, you said to Walker, “Alice, you always tackle the difficult.” Do you think that’s one of your goals too? Do you try to break taboos or tackle things that people don’t want to talk about?
I don’t know if they don’t want to talk about them. I just want to tackle the things that I think we most need to talk about to heal.
I read Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine when it first came out. I saw it in a bookstore, and I hadn’t really even read anything about it. When I started reading it, for the first few pages I was assuming, I suppose, that Lily was an African-American woman, and it took me a few pages before I realized that she wasn’t. That really struck me, just because I wasn’t really used to having a book by a black writer begin with a white character. That seemed unique to me. And the fact that the book started with her—I loved that, and at the same time, I was kind of taken aback because it was a completely different approach. [End Page 967]
You know, other people have commented about the way that book began. I had one woman say that the first few pages, she kept opening it, and then she’d turn to look at my picture, and then she’d read again, and she’d turn to look at my picture. As if to say, what is she writing about these people for? You know, what is this all about? She said. “Did I miss something?” And the other thought was, “well, maybe she’s white.” She said finally she just went with it. A friend of mine said that she resisted feeling any empathy for Lily until she was having the baby. And then she said her heart went out to her. You know, this is a black reader; she said this is a prototype for the murder of Emmett Till; I don’t want to feel anything. But she said when Lily was having that baby and couldn’t even pay the midwife, she had to go with her.
One of my students who is very radical, a political activist—in fact she was the one who wished La Keesha had sued the bank—came up to me a few days ago because my students are reading Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. She said, “Well, I just cried all the way through this book. I think it was from the very beginning when she got married and that was it for her.” She said, “I remember thinking back to my own life because I started having kids when I got married right out of high school, and I never thought about going to college. So just from the very beginning I identified with her.”
I remember a woman once came up to me, and she was furious that I was making this statement that white people were victims. And had suffered. She did not want me to put a face on her enemy. She didn’t want to think of them in human terms. She was very angry.
Well, I think you are also very daring in your characterization of Delotha and Wydell because I think there is an admission that they played a role in what happened, and that’s tearing them apart.
Oh, right. Because with Wydell, if he’d sent that check every month or been present in some way, Delotha wouldn’t have sent the boy down to Mississippi. And she wouldn’t have sent the boy down to Mississippi if she hadn’t been so hungry to try to get more for them to make up for this lack. And then she was having a romance. She wanted to spend some time with this guy and not have this kid underfoot, and you can’t blame her for that, but of course, she blames herself. So, they made some choices as well. Wydell decided he was going to drink and not be a good father, and she decided that what they had wasn’t good enough, and decided to send her son to Mississippi.
And there’s a level of ego with her, too, even though again it’s completely understandable why she hovers over W.T. She expends so much energy trying to support Wydell, yet she gradually starts pushing him away after W.T. is born. Somebody could look at her and say, it’s her fault that the marriage is falling apart, and I don’t think that’s true at all. I think your ability to create characters who feel like people we know is pretty unusual. I really do. [End Page 968]
Again, these people haven’t had a safe place to let out their grief. Not even just the grief of what happened to their son, but Wydell had a particularly brutal childhood in Mississippi. The only place they’ve been able to let this out is with each other, but that was cut short. So they have all this healing to do before they can recover from this tragedy. Because they weren’t able to do that, then Wydell drinks, and Delotha overeats and pushes. Wydell is also Lindy to a certain extent, with her disappointments that take her to the bottle as well. And her disappointments, some of these disappointments that Lindy’s had, she’s caused herself. It’s fine for us all to say, “the evil manager,” but she admits that without Milt, there would have been no Lindy. So this same guy who did indeed steal from her discovered and, in a sense, created her. But she doesn’t have a place to put her anguish over her daughter, her anguish over this career that some of her choices ruined. It was her choice to cuss out club owners and crash the windows and not show up. She did some self-destructive kinds of things. A lot of my books are about owning up to what part of this is your fault.
Like you, Toni Morrison explores her characters from all different angles and accounts for their actions by their personal history and the kinds of things that have been dealt to them as well as by their own frailties. You talk about her as an influential person in your work.
I guess where we differ is that my landscaping is Los Angeles—the diversity here is more than white/black.
As courageous a writer as she is—and who can criticize Toni Morrison—I think your ability to talk about current issues and events that are sometimes extremely uncomfortable is especially important. The whole Rodney King episode, and the civil unrest that followed, is still so raw, and I think that to try to write about those things that are so recent and so excruciating can be virtually as courageous as writing about the past.
You carve out your terrain. I feel that because Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine originated in the past, originated in 1955—the story starts there—I was able to infuse it with a lyricism that I couldn’t do with Brothers and Sisters, which was right there in 1992. Where you are, date wise, timeline wise, really does have a lot to do with the language you can use. I found I succeeded much better when I wrote about the past. I don’t think Singing in the Comeback Choir is as lyrical as Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine either, but it’s a more lyrical novel than Brothers and Sisters. And I think a lot of that had to do with the musical metaphors that were available. So the combination, yes, it was in the present, but you had these old people and you had all this music going on. And that enabled me to do something particularly in the Philadelphia scenes that made it richer for me. But I think in choosing to go into the past, that opens up to you some use of language that is very difficult to do when you are writing a current, kind of popular novel. I’m thinking about The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, that’s the [End Page 969] 1950s. Pete Dexter—he’s a writer out of Sacramento—he goes back in time, he’s not always current. But this last one was kind of present. It’s called The Paperboy, and it is very lyrical. My hat is off to anybody who can do that. Write currently, that’s what I want to do; I want to be able to write stories present tense, well, not present tense but stories that take place now and really happen to be very lyrical in the language. I think I’ve succeeded with Bootsie. Bootsie said some things in some ways that I really liked. He was talking about what it felt like to be in the moment of being a musician, when he was talking to Maxine in the kitchen in Singing in the Comeback Choir. He really had a very rich language, but it was a very simple language. I liked what he had to say a lot of times.
Music is so much a part of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine and Singing in the Comeback Choir, and it’s so hard to articulate how music comes to be a part of a narrative and how lyricism is born. It’s a completely different genre, a different art form, and yet it’s so much a part of the community, and it’s so much a part of the language.
Yes, that’s what it is. When I grew up, music was just everywhere. It was in church; it was in my home. My grandmother was singing, records were on the box, watching Bandstand, the radio was playing, we were dancing in the house. So music was just everywhere. I guess it’s a wonder that Brothers and Sisters didn’t have as much, other than the parties that Tyrone went to, but certainly in Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine and Singing in the Comeback Choir there’s a musical metaphor running through the narrative.
Do I hear you saying somehow that for you Los Angeles doesn’t have as much of a musical presence?
I don’t know if that’s what I’m saying. Los Angeles, for whatever reason—even though it’s the backdrop for my novels—there’s a different muse that comes out when I write about LA. Just a different muse. I guess it’s more that I try to capture the city, which is staccato and rushed and crowded and ethnically diverse and crime ridden. In Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, I was in Mississippi and I was in Chicago. Brothers and Sisters was LA. Singing in the Comeback Choir was LA and Philly. So LA’s kind of a new place, and it’s bigger, impersonal. That’s what I’m drawing from.
Maybe it feels like it doesn’t have as much of a history for you.
I don’t have a personal history here, even though in a couple of years, I will have lived here longer than I’ve lived any place else.
How long have you been there? [End Page 970]
I’ve been here fifteen years. I left Philadelphia at the age of seventeen. I’ve spent more years here than any place else. But they weren’t the formative years. In all my novels, wherever I locate them, I want that language, that lyricism. I want all of that as well as a good story and a solid sense of place and well developed characters. I’m saying, for me, it has been easier to do that when I’m writing about the past. I think that’s what it is.
It makes sense in a way because there are memories that infuse the writing, that infuse the narrative. There are just more layers to what you’re thinking about. Looking at your work as a whole, the response that you’ve gotten from readers has been really positive, and you’ve had enormous success. How do you feel the African-American academic community has responded to your books?
Very well in that they are ordering the books in historically black colleges; for example, West Virginia State and Hampton University made Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine their book of the year. Prince George’s Community College formed a community wide book club, and Brothers and Sisters was their first book. They got the electric company to hand out 500 or 1000 copies of the book. They had symposiums and seminars around the book, and there have been papers written, so I think they have been very well received.
I get the sense that you are really comfortable with being in the role of educator or teacher.
Well, I was a teacher for five years, so that’s very much who I am.
So you don’t expect that that’s ever going to change? You don’t see yourself as ever getting tired of teaching people, helping people grow?
But right now it seems as though what you want to do is what you’re doing. You’re pretty much on your path.
I want to write in a much more joyful way. I want to continue to write novels, but I want to write them with a lot of joy, without the tension of “the deadline is coming, the deadline is coming.” You know Alice Walker doesn’t take a contract for her work, and I’ve always thought that I need a contract, and I need a deadline. I think I’m ready to just write the next work, and finish it and say, “who is going to buy this?”
Once you’ve written several novels, is there a lot of pressure from the publisher to keep publishing in a timely way? [End Page 971]
Oh, sure. Although I’m sure they tried to pressure Tom Wolfe, too, but he took his time. What did he take eleven, twelve years? If they feel that you are a money maker for them, they want you to come out with a book and make some money.
But you feel like you can push that back?
I don’t know. I don’t know whether I can; maybe I’d do it faster if I didn’t have that. I’m at the point now where I’d like to see.
Well, you’ve certainly been very prolific over the past decade.
I think I’ve done pretty well.
I can’t imagine that anyone would criticize you for not keeping up with a schedule. Is it that you have all these books inside you that you’re trying to bring out because it’s important, or is it the past history of being a free lance writer and needing to work with deadlines?
Yeah, all of that. I think once I did get the ten years of freelancing under my belt, I was aware of the importance of being timely. The same rule applies as to freelancing a magazine piece. You’re not gonna get paid until they get it. That’s practical, but it’s real.
Do you have any sense of how long it might be before your next book comes out?
Oh, I know exactly when it’s coming out. It’s coming out in 2001. It’s due February, 2001. Then it will come out probably six to eight months later.
How do you want to be remembered? How do you want people to think about your work? What impressions would you like people to have of your work as a whole?
That it helped us, and America, become a better place, we healed some race wounds. My work led to people talking with each other, and we began to dialogue about race. We began to focus on the love between us.
Jane Campbell is Professor of English at Purdue University, Calumet, and author of Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History. Her work has appeared in African American Writers, Obsidian, Black Women in America, The Oxford Companion to Women Writers in the U.S., and The Dictionary of Literary Biography. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois.