Words on Writing a Novel from Kaitlyn Greenidge

By Raoul Lobo

Greenidge-Side-by-Side-crop

Kaitlyn Greenidge has an MFA graduate from Hunter College, and she teaches at Syracuse University. Her acclaimed debut novel We Love You Charlie Freeman has been called, ‘a provocative and compelling exploration of America’s failure to find a language to talk about race.’ The book follows an African American family that moves to a predominantly white neighbourhood to be part of an experiment involving them raising a chimpanzee as a member of their family. She is working on her second novel.

RL: Now that you’ve published a novel and one that’s done well, do you feel different as a writer?

KG: No. Because you actually have to still do the work of writing which doesn’t change no matter how much or how little you publish. So no, it’s still hard.

RL: But is there is less self doubt?

KG: No

RL: Awww

KG: I know sad to say. You always have to make sure your writing is up to your standards in terms of what you want to write and what you want to say. So it never really goes away. But that’s the good thing about it. It’s always challenging.

RL: How did your MFA help your writing?

KG: I think when I first started my MFA it was a question of craft so really basic stuff like how to plot a story or how do you structure a scene. How do you move a character through space, how much physical action do you have versus emotional action. Just really nuts and bolts stuff like that.

RL: Other than that, what has been your biggest learning from your MFA?

KG: I think it’s to take time on your work and kind of trust in the way that your work is going and secondly, the importance of having a community of writers to work with and talk with.

RL: Was that community ever a competitive space?

KG: Not really because we all write about different things and come at it from different angles, so it’s not really competitive. It’s more like you’re each working on these puzzles and you need help along the way.

RL: Could you share your process for writing your novel?

KG: I started with an idea and then I talked about it with people in my grad program…

RL: But how did you get the idea to begin with?

KG: I was working with an African American site and talking to a lot of people about African American history or American history in general and I got interested in figuring out why those conversations were so limited and so stilted. The way people refused to learn the language or didn’t have the language to actually describe the way in which people were living race in the US. That was a more intellectual idea so from there it was about figuring out the scenes but other times the ideas come from a really specific scene and you try to build it into something larger. I like structuring things, plotting them out, it doesn’t mean I follow it but it’s a nice security blanket when you’re writing.

RL: After putting down the plot, do you write chronologically?

KG: No, I just kind of write all over it and go different places.

RL: And after the first draft?

KG: I go back and see what’s working and what’s not. What needs more information, what feels thin or two dimensional and how you can make it more robust.

RL: What was your journey to getting published?

KG: For me it was pretty straight forward I sent out to an agent, my friend from grad school was already working with her. I worked on the novel with her for a around two years and then sent out to editors and then with Algonquin books, working with my editor Andra there and it just worked very well step by step.

RL: Will you continue to write about race and black history?

KG: I mostly write about black people or people of colour in general. My next novel is about that for sure.

RL: How do you feel about the rise of Donald Trump and the alt right?

KG: Those are things that are core to American culture, in the way America chooses to set up its own rules, communities and societies. Before Donald Trump was elected America was a very segregated culture after Donald Trump was elected we’re a very segregated culture. So I see our current moment as a literal illustration of a lot of the work that scholars particularly black women scholars have done around race and law and democracy that have largely been ignored or dismissed by the larger political zeitgeist. So I hope people start listening to those scholars because those people literally mapped out the moment we are in. And start to think about ways we can get out of this moment if that is something that a majority of Americans want. But I’m not an optimist about that. (Laughs) Please prove me wrong.

RL: The extreme right seems to be on the rise all over the world what do you make of that phenomenon?

KG: I don’t believe that everybody is a good person so it doesn’t really seem weird to me that that would rise up but I do think those people who we’re calling the left, who are a very widely varied group. But the mainstream left like neo-liberalism if we’re going to talk about that, doesn’t really have an ethos beyond protecting an economic system that doesn’t really benefit a lot of people. And until neo-liberalism or what people are calling the left rethinks that as a way for all people to gain prosperity and move forward and have clean drinking water, far right stuff is going to be attractive to people because at least it’s providing some explanation of why if everyone is so equal and if the left really cares about these things, why is the left okay with shitty drinking water for people in other countries. So it’s on mainstream politicians who are ostensibly socially liberal to really think of what it means when you’re saying these platitudes.

RL: Do these kinds of thoughts influence your writing?

KG: For sure yeah. For me fiction is great because it gives humanity to a whole bunch of different people. So that’s what makes me excited to read a book or a short story if its introducing me to a type of person who I haven’t read before, seen before or gives humanity to those we usually assume have none. Nonfiction is a little different for me. I like nonfiction that complicates the received arguments we have on issues or at least questions the logic we use to get to certain positions.

RL: Can you talk about writing characters you don’t particularly like and how you get under their skin?

KG: As a fiction writer you have to decide who you are giving spotlight to and who you are giving attention to and why. One of my professors in Grad school was Peter Carey. He wrote a novel in which one of his characters was a child molester. And he talked about having to make the conscious choice that if you’re going to make a character that does horrible things or has horrible thoughts, that’s a choice you are making so you need to dedicate your time to figuring out what those thoughts are. And since you are a fiction writer you don’t have to do that. So a lot of times especially when you are starting out writing you’ll say I’ll do X character because it’s the craziest character I can think of. And sometimes, and I see this when I’m teaching, you write it and you don’t actually want to be around this person so you write a caricature. But then if you’re going to take it seriously and if you’re going to depict this person you need to be as close to that mindset as possible. So as a writer you have to weigh the personal toll it’s going to take on your psyche and also the toll it’s going to take on the project that you’re doing, because you don’t want one character to take over the entire project unless that makes sense for the work that you’re doing. You need to weigh those things and be as aware of yourself as possible and that comes from reading widely and talking to people widely and understanding where your depiction will land in the wider world.

RL: Did writing this novel make you more open or understanding of racist people?

KG: No…I mean…well racism is basically a system for dividing up resources in a way that everybody can understand. So, on that level I think it’s important to have some sort of critical race theory to understand why politicians and people in power and people who create stories continually go back to a certain frame work to explain the world, which is what racism is. I don’t think there’s any sort of understanding for a racist person. We all live within a racist culture, we all live within a white supremacist culture, we all live within a culture that at its core really dislikes people of color, so all of us, even people of color, take in all of those messages. I often say to my students that there’s no such thing as pure imagination, that none of us have an untouched mind about this stuff. So when I come at it that way, it’s an interesting challenge to write such characters.

RL: There’s this one character that especially comes to mind, this woman who gives this really patronising and cringe inducing apology to African Americans, how did you write her?

KG: This character was inspired by a lot of the people I grew up with in New England. I went to prep schools where I was one of the only students of color and often the only black girl, around people who swear up and down that they absolutely couldn’t be racist because they voted Democrat and they loved Martin Luther King and they read Toni Morrison. But in their actual actions and the way in which they order the world, it is clear that something is going on.  It was an exploration of that mindset and that way of going through the world. That very wilful blindness of how people are actually living their lives.

RL: Do you believe in the adage ‘write what you know’ and if you had to write something you don’t know how would you go about it?

KG: I don’t believe in ‘write what you know’, another professor talks about ‘write what you want to know about’; which I think is maybe a better way to think about it. I think if you believe in ‘write what you know’ you fall into the trap of believing you know about everything, there is to know about a subject. Your writing can get really flat because you’re thinking I already know all this I don’t need to do anymore research or talk to anybody else and your writing becomes essentially a journal entry. So I think even if you’re writing about something you know, you need to read widely, talk to other people who have experienced the same thing. So you that you can make what you know palpable to the reader. And if you’re writing about something that you have no obvious connection to, then that’s an even bigger point where you have to do research. We are in a wonderful age where you can find out anything about anything very quickly or at least begin to find out very quickly. So for me that’s one of the joys of writing, finding out different things and talking to different people about it and starting to build a world around those things.

RL: Can you tell me what research you did for your novel and what stage did you do it?

KG: I’d say continually. I did research on black sign language. I did research on scientific racism, eugenics and the different theories around the nineteenth century. I did research on apes and language acquisition. So there’s a bunch of different areas I continually looked up on. I looked online, libraries; I looked up different researchers and emailed them.

RL: Since part of your story is set in the past how did you research that time period?

KG: I did some oral histories when I was doing that for work. I did read for the time periods I was writing to get a feel of the different language and voice of that time.

RL: What advice would you have for male writers writing female characters?

KG: I don’t really see that much of difference between men and women when I’m writing. The internal is going to be the same, man or woman; the difference would be how the world you’re building responds to this character, depending on the time period, what country, what city. You start from what is this character interested in, what do they care about, what do they actually do, how well do they know themselves. If you can establish that first regardless of the gender, then you can think about how their actions are going to be interpreted by the world if they are a woman versus if they are a man. Like a man or a woman can get really upset about losing a job and go on a drunken bender, but how are people around them going to react to that and what that drunken bender is going to look like will vary.

RL: What’s one critically acclaimed book that you do not like?

KG: I think I understand why she is critically acclaimed but I have never been able to get into Joan Didion’s work. I find it really opaque and difficult to grab on to. I think she’s too detached for me. But I don’t think that’s a slam on Joan Didion, that’s just my personal taste.

RL: What’s a trashy novel you really like?

KG: There’s a novel that came out maybe like 15 years ago that’s called Bling by Erica Kennedy. It was a really trashy novel about hip-hop moguls in New York in the 90’s. It’s also really fun because she was a reporter for Vibe magazine so there’s thin veiled references to musicians and stuff.

RL: Is that an important differentiation for you when writing, the distinction between literary and pulp?

KG: It doesn’t really matter. I’ve read pulp novels where there have been complex characters and complex situations that they are describing and I’ve read literary novels where the characters are thin and not well thought out. I don’t really see a difference between the two. I think it’s a marketing measure more than anything else.

RL: Is it a bit of snobbery in the publishing world?

KG: Oh for sure. I think it is starting to go away because you have writers like Colson Whitehead, Victor LaValle mixing genres, writing in different genre or just saying this genre is important like Victor does for horror. We’re in an interesting moment because we don’t have cultural gatekeepers anymore. And the ones who were in that role know that it’s a role that’s going away so they are much more eager to embrace all kinds of stuff to keep that sense of authority. So I think we are in a transitional moment which can be scary for a lot of people but I think the good thing is we don’t have to worry about those boundaries, which is something that’s only come up in the last 80 years in the grand time we have had novels which has been 200 years. If you look at the earliest novels they are about people being kidnapped and told in serial form. They’re basically what we call pulp novels now. So I think this is a relatively new distinction that luckily we are starting to move away from to just go back to what’s interesting.

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