The prolific writer of over 40 novels, including Blonde, Black Water and The Wheel of Love, is one of 36 major contemporary writers, including Ann Patchett, Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit, Edwidge Danticat and Karen Russell, to covey what it feels like to live in a divided nation in Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation (OR Books, £19).
In Leander you write: “The racial situation in the city seemed all but hopeless, during the very reign of the first black president of the United States.” Why did you choose to set the story during the Obama presidency, and do you think race relations have worsened since he left office?
The story is extracted from a novel that takes place over a period of time, but ends before the 2016 election. The Obama presidency was our era of hope – and for many Americans, it was indeed a time of great optimism and progress.
However, there was always a counter-movement of retrogressive bigotry during Obama’s two terms. It has been speculated that the gradually declining “old-white” citizenry could not bear to see a person of colour in office, and reacted with bitterness and resentment, to be successfully, if very cynically, tapped in the 2016 by Trump. Racism in the United States is very much a matter of regions. In many urban areas, populations of great diversity live harmoniously together. In other areas, the population has thinned, there are few “persons of colour” except in the media, where they have been demonised on our powerful right-wing media outlets. It should be recalled that the progressive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton received far more votes in the election than the conservative candidate – more than three million. But our antiquated governing apparatus gives disproportionate voting weight to less populated states, which tend to be conservative.
The story is set in Hammond, which is on the other side of Lake Ontario from where you were born in Lockport, NY, in a working-class community. Did you decide to write about racial division over class division for this story because it is a more pertinent issue today?
Hammond in my novel is a fictitious setting which I have used in the past. It is not a “real” place though it is realistically portrayed. The novel from which Leander is extracted deals with racial and social conflict in a typical small American city, but it is not a political novel – essentially, it is about the consequences of death in a family. A woman who has been widowed after a long, thoroughly absorbing marriage must now make her own way in a world that is beginning to seem strange to her.
Having supported civil rights through anonymous donations over the years, your protagonist Jessalyn is keen to support the black SaveOurLives movement in a more hands-on manner, but she is stricken with worry about being perceived as a condescending white liberal. Are her feelings a reflection of your own when writing the story? And do you think collaboration between black activists and white allies will always be problematic?
“White liberals” are eager to help advance the causes of others whom they believe to be less privileged than they are; but those others may well resent the intrusion, and prefer to advance themselves. That was the shock of the Black Panthers and the black Muslim movement generally – after decades of Negroes and liberal whites working together (in, for instance, the NAACP), the oppressed no longer wanted to be “helped”; they wanted to be independent, and to demand their own rights on their own terms. Though this seems to us altogether natural, perhaps even inevitable, it was wounding to some individuals, and raises many troubling questions.
Writers and artists are not obliged to be socially involved. Art can be beauty for its own sake. But there is an art that is activist in spirit, that seeks to change the world in progressive ways. Those (of us) who attempt this sort of art can expect to be resented, perhaps attacked, for our assumptions, from all sides. I think that it is the price we must pay, for the privilege of “bearing witness” – no one has asked for our involvement, thus we must accept criticism.
Jessalyn in my story gives money to the cause – but quietly retreats from a personal involvement. She understands why she is resented – though there is not much she can do about it since in fact she is “white” – having been born “white.” But she does understand, and would not make an issue of it.
Your writing has challenged stereotypes of what female authors write about. Is that sexism still prevalent in the publishing industry?
This is a vast subject, too vast to be dealt with here. There is evidence that there is indeed sexism – no doubt every kind of “-ism.” The publishing industry is far from perfect but it employs many, many powerful women, and many women writers have been treated exceedingly well – critically and commercially.
You have a disciplined schedule, writing for eight hours a day, and your prolific tweeting hasn’t interfered with your productivity. Is procrastination a bigger threat to writers in the digital age?
I can’t speak for writers, generally. Creating any sort of work – any art – is a personal matter.
Hugh Hefner has left a complicated legacy – not least his biggest imitator in the White House. Why did so many reputable writers, including you, like writing for Playboy?
As I recall, a brilliant fiction editor named Alice Turner was at Playboy for many years. Quite consciously and deliberately Alice set out to make Playboy a glamorous rival to the New Yorker – though there were many writers overlapping between the magazines, like Nabokov, Cheever, Updike (Playboy paid more than the New Yorker, generally). I think that more short stories of mine appeared in Playboy than appeared in any other magazine or literary journal – really quite unexpected. Alice Turner was hospitable to different sorts of fictional voices and may have published more daring work than, at the time, the relatively conservative New Yorker could have printed. Also, absolutely first-rate interviews appeared in Playboy by such renowned interviewers as Larry Groebel. These were long interviews, thoughtful, illuminating, entirely different from the usual shallow and surface-skimming interviews that appeared in most publications of the time. It was said that if you isolated the fiction and interview pages from Playboy – which would constitute quite a number of pages – you would have a terrific magazine remaining.