Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and two works of fiction, the novel Rails Under My Back and the story collection Holding Pattern. His new novel, Song of the Shank, was named a New York TImes Notable Book for 2014. He teaches at the MFA program at the New School.
12th Street‘s Editor-in-Chief, Daniel Gee Husson, caught up with Allen via email to talk about his new book and writing in general.
Daniel Husson: Thank you in advance for agreeing to do this. Let’s start first with a few process questions. Do you have a particular schedule, a time of day, when you like to write?
Jeffery Renard Allen: I keep a set schedule. I get up by six in the morning, make a pot of coffee, then start writing by seven at the latest. I usually put in at least five straight hours, longer if possible. At some point later in the day, I will review what I worked on earlier and prepare for the morning to come. This is a daily routine. Of course, there are times when I’m simply not able to write for a day or two because of travel or other obligations. So you make the necessary adjustments.
At least once or twice a year, I try to get away from home and write extensively. For example, during the decade when I was working on Song of the Shank, on at least seven or eight occasions I would hole up in a modest hotel room in Amsterdam for two weeks at a time and write for twelve hours a day. I always managed to get a lot of work done in Amsterdam, an ideal place for me because first, I can be completely solitary there since I don’t know anyone there, and second, it is a small manageable city with few distractions — a good place to focus.
DH: As a short story writer, novelist, and poet, how do you navigate between those worlds? I guess what I’m trying to ask is are they different in a substantial way, or is it all just writing?
JRA: For me to be excited about any piece, I have to be excited about the language. That is the only commonality I see between genres, for me. I approach each genre differently. I almost always write poems by longhand, and I can usually finish a poem in a few days. With a story I usually work by longhand as well, writing some scenes in full and sketching out other scenes until I have worked out the story’s overall structure. I can usually finish a story in about a month if I work on it for four or five hours each day. The problem is that good story ideas are hard to come by, which is why I have only published about twenty stories. I tend to jot down ideas in a notebook and just do a lot of thinking until I have the bare bones of something I know I can flesh out.
And what is there to say about writing a novel, that monster? All the more for me since I think big, think in terms of big novels, far reaching narratives.
I also find it hard to work in several genres at once, on several projects at the same time. To really make some headway on a volume of verse, I need to write poems exclusively for a period of several months. The same process is true for my stories. Most of the stories I published in Holding Pattern were actually written before I started working on my first novel. Indeed, once I start working on the novel, I work on it almost exclusively.
That said, for the next year or so I would like to work only on short pieces, stories and essays, before I embark on the next novel, which is sure to be a long haul. Novels are demanding because you have to sustain focus and energy for a period of several years. My first novel took seven or eight years to write. The second took ten years.
DH: On to Song of the Shank, which tells quite a story. Talk a little bit about its inception. What made you want to write it?
JRA: Blind Tom had such a fascinating life that I knew from the start that he would be a great subject for a novel. The strange facts of his life and musical career were rich for narrative, but he was of course an unusual person to boot. So I thought it would be an interesting challenge to construct a novel with such a striking and mysterious character at the center — a blind kid, a slave, a musician who was possibly autistic. Then throw history in the mix. Why not take on the challenge of imagining a narrative of this important but forgotten artist?
DH: From the very beginning, there’s an underlying menace because of the backdrop of slavery and the civil war. How do you think that propels the story?
JRA: The Era of Slavery and the Civil War has figured in prominently in many books and other forms of narrative. So the first question was what could I do new here? From the start, I thought I was on solid ground because I could recall no imaginative novel or film with a character with Tom at its center. Then at some point in the actual witing of the novel, I realized that it would be interesting to approach this era as a kind of circle, an eternal return. That is, slavery and war had to be perpetual threats. This meant in part that in my novel freedom and slavery had to coexist, and that my characters had to move through a world that was never at peace. The process involved some about slavery and war as symbolic action, as metaphor. So, for example, in the opening section of the novel the careful reader will recognize how both Tom and Eliza are prisoners in post-Emancipation America.
DH: The novel switches points of view quite often. Was that something you set out to do?
JRA: One of the things that interests me most about the novel is that it is a form that lends itself to multiple points of view. And in Song of the Shank I thought it was important to tell Tom’s story through the eyes of several key characters, through multiple voices, with Tom as the novel’s silent center. In part I wanted to show the powerful impact Tom had on the lives of others and in doing so undercut the simplistic assumption that he was a passive victim of circumstances.
DH: Having Blind Tom as the conduit through which everything happens is very interesting. There are lovely passages describing how he understands the world through tactile sensations and, most importantly, sound. Can you talk about the challenges in writing a character that doesn’t have all his senses?
JRA: Challenge is always possibility. The bigger the challenge, the greater the possibilities. That is, I faced many challenges in trying to construct a believable and engaging character in Blind Tom, but in thinking through this challenge of writing about a blind person, in writing through it, I soon came to realize that blindness is a complex subject, a phenomenon that extends in numerous directions. So I started to explore the metaphoric possibilities of blindness, to see it, as it were, from as many angles as possible. As a result blindness is one of the novel’s key structural images.
DH: It’s clear that certain music was important to you while writing Song of the Shank. I even caught a Jimi Hendrix reference at one point. “Hear My Train A Comin’,” I think. What music inspired you in the process of writing this book?
JRA: Where to begin? I was listening to many African musicians and singers — namely Oumou Sangaré, Soriba Kouyaté, Miriam Makeba, and Cesária Évora, among others — but it would be hard for me to pinpoint how I translated what I heard into words, especially since these great artists were often singing in languages other than the language that I write in. But I absorbed what I heard. And for that reason, their music figured in my thinking and my intellectual and emotional life as a whole. Much of it had to do with the feel of the music, and exploring how that feel helped me work through certain situations in the book especially in terms of how I tried to imagine the island of Edgemere, a setting, a place which was in part based on my travels on the African continent.
In some of Tom’s more abstract musical moments, in my efforts to imagine what he might have sounded like, I drew on the music of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Roland Kirk, and James Carter, even Public Enemy (“noise”), among others. But I also found some affinities between my novel and the lyrics of certain singers and groups, like Jimi and Tool. Some similarities of idea, of concepton. Interesting to think of music as image, as metaphor, to say nothing of sound. Take for example this line from a blues song: “I got the world in a jug and the stopper in my hand.” How rich.
DH: As a student in the Riggio: Writing and Democracy Program at the New School, I am always challenged by my professors to think about the writer in the world. Song of the Shank touches on a lot of political issues, but it isn’t just a slavery and Civil War book. Can you talk about where you think the intersection of writing and democracy lies?
JRA: The imagination might be the purest democratic space there is. So we should welcome all forms of artistic expression. The problem is that we live in a world where certain small-minded individuals think they have all of the answers and would have us all think alike. At the other extreme, we also live in a world where a privileged few who know the importance of free thinking set about to limit access to learning and education so that they may maintain their privilege.
DH: Finally, it strikes me that the characters in the book are constantly
working out opposing forces: past v. present, living v. dead, the city
v. Edgmere, enslaved v. free. What do you think that did to the book
to have so many forces pulling different ways?
JRA: On one level, I wanted the novel to engage the reader by forcing her/him to confront and navigate through certain moral ambiguities in an unjust world. How easy it is for the personal to get lost in the political. How easy to forget that the problems we all face as humans persist from one generation to the next and will continue to do so. Life is about choice, and that why life is always challenging, because it involves a difficult process of decision making. Choice. There is the difficulty of living. And also the beauty.