The power of the American story: "I want to read something that reaches inside me and rips me up and puts me back together"

Two novelists on the pain in black authors' writing, the influence of Toni Morrison, the tradition of storytelling

Published July 24, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

  (Sonia Suter/Gianni Neiviller)
(Sonia Suter/Gianni Neiviller)

It has been five years since the introduction of Dolen Perkins-Valdez to the literary world. "Wench," her debut novel, hit the New York Times Bestsellers List in the winter of 2011 to the drumbeat of both spectacular reviews and the savvy use of what were then fledgling marketing tools, Twitter and Facebook.  Since that time she has written the foreword to Solomon Northup’s "Twelve Years a Slave," the wrenching story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, and her second novel, "Balm," the tale of three people, post-Civil War, searching for healing, has just been released.  Perkins-Valdez is an academic’s academic. A Harvard graduate, she loves the quest, the probing, almost as much as the writing. Her ability to transform well-researched slivers of a country’s pained history into rich, impassioned stories of loss, triumph and community makes her a powerhouse within the sub-genre of historical fiction.

I talked with Perkins-Valdez one early summer afternoon over lunch.  The interview took place in a noisy, dark, American-themed restaurant where we dined on French fries and sandwiches.  Perkins-Valdez, nearly 6 feet tall, has an artist’s sartorial flair.  Large, dark-rimmed glasses frame her narrow face; her hair is an updated and sophisticated version of an '80s mohawk.  Her broad left shoulder is showcased as the slippery strap of a weaved tank hugs her at mid-bicep.  After greeting me with a warm hug, she squeezes her long legs beneath the small booth where I have placed my notes, my copies of her books and my recorder.  Her infectious laughter and Memphis drawl seep out while we trade “do you know” stories.  She is casual and relaxed, yet beneath a thin layer of bubbly is a serious, professorial writer who firms her back the moment I click the “record” button.

When you left Harvard what did you think you were going to do?

I think I thought I would be a lawyer, like you.

What happened?

I published my first short story while in college and that’s where my heart was. After college, I thought about law school for maybe 15 minutes (laughs). I took a year off, went to Japan, and then began my MFA program.

There seems to be a great deal of discussion about the usefulness of MFA Programs.  What did you think?

There were 10 years between my completion of the MFA and the time I sold my first book. There are some writers who were raised in a literary household and began writing early, but it took me a while. The MFA experience was figuring out who I was -- my first stories were set in New England where I went to college.  I had to think through my feelings and relationship with the South and what stories I wanted to tell.

Do you think you did the program too early?

I think many people do.

What would you have done otherwise?

Well, I went into a Ph.D. program after my MFA, so I probably would have attended graduate school because I wasn’t ready to work yet (laughs). Growing up, we didn’t go to the library very much.  I got my books from the paperback section in the supermarket.  My mother would shop and I would browse, so this meant I was reading adult books early.  I was in fifth grade and I had read everything Stephen King had ever written. When I became a mother someone gave me “Goodnight Moon” and I had never heard of it.

That happened to me too!

Really? Why hadn’t you heard of it? What was your early reading experience?

Much like yours, I guess.

I read "Charlotte’s Web," Judy Blume, but not classics like Louisa May Alcott.  I had to be surrounded in my social circle by those books to take notice.

What do you do differently with your kids?  

Everything. My daughter is an avid reader. We read every night together.  Now that I have the baby, she usually reads for herself next to me. But some nights, she still sits in my lap because we have our chair.  And part of the reading experience for her was the cuddles. She’ll probably be 20 years old still in my lap, wanting me to read! (laughs) It’s a form of intimacy between parent and child.  Remember when they were younger and you would try to skip a page? And they’d scream out, “Wait, wait!”


Sometimes you’re so tired, but you do it anyway, because it’s a commitment we make.

So, tell me why did you decide to go to law school before writing?

I wanted to be a lawyer, but that desire to write was always there. I wrote my first book while in my first year of legal practice in New York City. I didn’t get it published. Then, I did it again.  And when I didn’t get the second one published, I gave up.  The ideas for new books would swirl and I would squash them like bugs. And then when my grandmother had the first stroke, the idea for "‘Til the Well Runs Dry" sparked the desire to do it again.  And so I gave it one last shot.

Your experience is very much like mine. I also wrote “apprentice novels.”  It’s a term I got from reading something on Charles Johnson, author of "Middle Passage," and I never forgot it, because I had never known that’s what I was doing. In the middle of it, you’re writing and struggling and when I think back I realized that was my MFA program.  And I tell young writers all the time that sometimes you have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em; the decision about what to send out is almost as important as the writing.

And maybe the time isn’t right now for a particular book. I think about Matthew Weiner, creator of "Mad Men," and how he had the idea for "Mad Men" many years before working on "The Sopranos" and other work. He held on to this story about an ad agency, because he wasn’t yet ready, in his own life, to tell that story well enough. I guess you can tell what I’m doing while I’m not writing. (laughs)

When you wrote "Wench" -- the idea was sparked by something you read by W.E.B Du Bois -- did you know this was the one that would break through?

At first, I didn’t know it was going to be a novel. I thought it would be an essay, but I hit a brick wall in my research. I started to imagine what it was like for these women (to be taken to a free state on holiday with their masters) and I called a friend and told her I was thinking of making it a novel. She was excited about the story.

Sometimes you need that affirmation.

Yes, you do. Once I began to work on the manuscript I began to feel something magical. I applied for a grant from the university where I was teaching and they gave it to me quickly.

More affirmation.

And at that point, I decided not to share it. I didn’t want to lose the energy around it. I didn’t want a lot of outside noise and opinions.

So, what about feedback from a writers group? Does that not work for you? That was very helpful for me.

No, I didn’t have a group because I didn’t want to overwork it. But toward the end, I went to a writing conference in Portland, Oregon, and my workshop leader was Colson Whitehead.

I introduced myself to him at a conference and he didn’t seem moved to speak much past hello. But I have a friend whose son took a class with him at Princeton and the students there love him. He seems to show a different side when he’s teaching. What did you think?

Colson is very reserved. It’s like an armor. He has so much going on in his head. He has an amazing mind and he asked me while I was in Portland if anyone had read my manuscript and I told him no. He told me I needed a published writer with whom I could exchange work.  I was scared because I thought the few writers I knew would say no, but the first person I called on the way home said yes.  It was some of the best advice I’ve ever received, because it was time to share. With "Balm," I didn’t feel the need to protect it as much.

Sometimes with other aspiring novelists, it can get complicated.

Yes, my husband, who is not a writer or particularly creative, who is the Virgo to my Gemini, is one of my best readers.

Mine too.

What’s your sign?

My husband is the Virgo to my Gemini.

We’re like twins! (laughs).

And with hyphenated last names!

My husband asks the best practical questions. For instance, “Did they use towels back then to dry off after they swam?”

But there are other people who bring their own anxieties into reading your work and what you want is the most level playing field you can find. In tennis they say your hitting partner should be slightly better than you. In writing, you want someone to read who doesn’t have an ax to grind. Even if it’s another published author, it doesn’t mean they’re the best choice for you. But the exchange is important.

For me, as a debut author, it feels like freshman year again.   What do you think about the level of support among other writers?

Black women writers are amazingly supportive. There is a real community of women -- Pearl Cleage, Tina McElroy Ansa, Marita Golden. Marita told me to never forget faith, family and friends. I have felt the warmth of Marita Golden’s flames on many occasions.

Yes, Marita has been very welcoming to me too.

I remember whining about not being able to go to a writers retreat because I have small children.  How can I go away for two weeks minimum?

Yes, I lament this all the time. I have the MacDowell Colony website saved on a tab on my computer. And I click on it, urging myself to apply, dreaming about the possibility, but I know that at the end of the two weeks, I’ll just be hitting my stride and I’ll have to come home.  

It’s true. So, Marita Golden told me that I can have a writing retreat at my kitchen table. Be creative enough to create the space to write, is what she was saying.  Another friend who’s a journalist has those airport worker headphones and she can go anywhere and write with those things on.  I get distracted easily, so the headphones at the library really help.  To do this for a living, I have to figure out ways to get the work done. If I want to get better, I have to get the hours in.  To be honest, I think I waste a lot less time than I did before having children. If my sitter is there, every hour is money. Every minute counts.

Yes, when 3 o’clock comes around, the day is over for me.

Before I had children, I complained about time. I would be on the phone with a friend, I would shop for 45 minutes at the supermarket. Now, I order groceries online.

But black women writers have been amazingly supportive.  Terri McMillan has been very supportive. She is big-hearted and she walks the walk.

And Bernice McFadden has been wonderful to me.

Yes, Bernice McFadden too. If anything, we lift each other up, because there are so few of us and it’s so tough out there. In terms of the wider writing community, it varies. One of the things that bothers me every year are the lists. I try not to talk about it. But it seems there’s never more than one slot for a black writer. People ask me all the time for recommendations and I can name right now five recent books that I love by black authors.

Which ones?  

"The Residue Years" by Mitchell Jackson;  your book,"‘Til the Well Runs Dry"; "The Turner House" by Angela Flournoy; "Happiness, Like Water" by Chinelo Okparanta; "Citizens Creek" by Lalita Tademy.  It frustrates me.  Members of these book clubs want to know what they should read next and they don’t have places to find this information.  For instance, I’ll say Victor LaValle and they’ll scribble the name and ask how to spell it, because black writers aren’t given the same exposure.

I know we don’t like to talk about this, but I’ve been to conferences where hundreds of people are in attendance, but many readers will tell me they aren’t interested in reading anything that’s not racy.  Of course, this is one way to sell books.  The other way, I’ve noticed, for black writers, is that they must be in academia to be on those “lists” you were speaking of earlier.

There’s a lot of gray. I know Tananarive Due and she, as a veteran, doesn’t have a clear answer to this either.  There are writers who are really trying to move the form of the novel, like Salvatore Scibona who wrote a novel called "The End." He pushes the boundaries of what a novel can do. And then there are people in the middle who may not be pushing the form and who aren’t selling writing in very popular genres, but who are doing good work. I think I fall in the “murky middle” and sometimes readers and publishers don’t know what to do with black writers who fall in this space.

Do you think that’s true for writers who are not of color?

I think that’s true for all writers, but anything that’s true for all writers, is heightened for us. When I teach, I know that many of my students are not ever going to be writing at the Pulitzer Prize level, but they know how to write a good story and I tell them I’m here to validate this space.  When I was young in Tennessee, we would sit on the porch and tell stories. I had uncles who would drive up to the house and you knew you were about to laugh. A lot of it was lying. (Laughs) Tall tales. I come from that tradition. A tradition of storytelling.  Working the form is great too, if that’s what you want to do, but at the end of the day, the story is important.

I just read an interview with Judy Blume who is quoted as saying she’s not the strongest writer but she is a great storyteller.  Obviously someone like Toni Morrison can do both, but it offered me a lot of comfort that there can be a “murky middle,” for those of us who are storytellers or those who are still honing our craft, even if it’s harder to occupy this space as a writer of color.  

Let’s talk about your new book, "Balm," which, like "Wench," is a historical narrative. What is it that you’re hoping to accomplish with these stories so rooted in America’s past?  

First, there’s the thrill of the research. I love it. I love being in the library and I love that moment when I can feel it and taste it and smell the story. When my characters are walking down the street, I know what the sewage system is like, I know the horses are there, I have done the research.  But I also feel like it was a very painful thing to be African-American at those times. Perhaps it has to do with me being from the South, feeling my parents’ pain, my grandparents’ pain.  I think about my grandfather. He wasn’t a very educated man but when he left the house he would always wear a suit and a hat.  And the way he placed that hat on his head was so dignified. There was a shopping center near my home where all the old men in their suits and hats would stand outside and talk and laugh and play the dozens and sometimes wash their cars. There is something so dignified about those older people despite how they were treated. When I’m writing, I’m trying to access that dignity. With my character Hemp, in "Balm," I wanted to portray a man who, despite all that had been done to him, his desire to be righteous was most important. One of the things I was reminded when reading the work and writings of Edward P. Jones was that slavery was a morally degrading institution. And it was very difficult to be moral.  It degraded everyone that it touched, black and white. Among slaves there was dysfunction and immorality. Even stealing, in many of their minds, could have easily been justified. “Did you steal that watermelon, boy?”  “Well, sir, but I grew it, sir. And you didn’t pay me for it.”  The whole moral universe was turned on its head during this time and for Hemp, his first desire is to be righteous.  When I hear about mammies in the South and white children's belief that their mammy loved them like family, I want to explain that her love for them comes from her desire to be righteous and to be dignified. That’s something fundamental that’s missing in that narrative. When slaveholders looked at Hemp, they saw an animal, but when Madge looks at him, she sees his beauty.

What do you say to the reader who complains of the pain in books written by black authors?  

I want to read something that reaches inside me and rips me up and puts me back together.  That’s the power of the American story.  What saddens me is that this is too often heard about the work of writers of color.  Jonathan Franzen’s books have pain in them. Now, I do think some fiction can be darker than others and that’s a matter of personal taste, but there are a lot of stories that need to be told and they’re not all easy stories.  And yes, there are times when I want a light story too, but when I ask someone to recommend a “good book,” I’m looking for a book that rocks my world.

When you’re writing do you think about a particular audience?

Me. What about you?

Like Toni Morrison said, I strive to write stories that I, as a reader, would love to read.

When I think of Toni Morrison and her influence on me, it’s not that I want to write like her, it’s that I’m trying to re-create the experience I have when I read her work.

With "Balm," as is the case with Morrison’s writing, there is this very deliberate pace to it. It feels as if you are trying to slow the reader down, and unlike “Wench,” where I zipped through the pages, I felt the rhythm of this work … the pictures you draw are so vivid. Did you set out to evoke a different experience in the reader?

With "Wench" I was writing to answer that one question: Why didn’t they leave?  "Balm" is a meditation on the effects of the Civil War on this country.  Beyond the traditional narrative of North and South, and black and white, which has resulted in the segregation of Southern literature, I wanted to look at the ways families were broken by this war. So, I took the story out of the South and put it in Chicago, so I could look at this more closely. Without the distractions.

At one point in the story, Madge looks at Hemp and thinks that he is so broken he seems a half-person. All of your characters seem like half-persons.

The Civil War was the most devastating war of this country’s history. Tens of thousands died. There was no one not affected by this war.  But what I was trying to do was focus on how we dealt with the devastation in the aftermath of the war.

As in "Wench" there is a relationship between a white woman and a black woman, which is always very complex.  Sadie gets angry with Madge for coping in the precise way Sadie is coping, for trying to make a future for herself that is not much different from the way Sadie is trying to forge her future.  As I read it, I was reminded of the continuing discussion among feminists of the difference between how black women and white women experience the world.  What were you thinking when you brought these women together?

Well, sometimes when you’re writing, the story is leading you.  Madge and Sadie are different, yet they are making a future together.

So, you don’t see similarities in their stories? You see them as completely different?  

Yes, I see them as different, but I see them struggling to connect and managing together.

We don’t often see black women and white women as friends in literature.

In works by white authors we do. In "The Help" there was a relationship that Kathryn Stockett saw as a real friendship.

But always present is the social hierarchy that, for me, puts the friendship into question.

Yes, clearly, but I think that perhaps in the eyes of those writers, these are real friendships. It goes back to the narrative of the mammy being like a mother.

In "Wench," you wrote about a relationship between a black enslaved woman and her white master.  

All of these relationships are complicated.  Even a marriage between “equals” at that time was not without its complexities.  Slavery was so disruptive and nearly every relationship was sullied by it.  Is it possible within the parameters of that dysfunctional, immoral and inhumane paradigm that love could exist?  Maybe.  And she believes she loves him. To her that’s real.

I knew you would say this.

Well, some of my readers really believe it is possible.

That’s the strength of your writing. Tell me about the marketing and publicity side of writing.

I have a good friend, a white woman, who wrote a historical novel that was a huge success. A few months after her launch I called her and said, “When things slow down for you, let me know and we can get together and have coffee.  And she said, "Oh, I’m home now.”  She sold 300,000 hardcover copies. I promoted "Wench" for two years. I kissed babies and hugged grandpas and it sold well, but I worked very hard for it.  I’ve been told that for a sophomore novel I have to manage my expectations. This business loves debut novels. But each book has its own life.  And I’ll have to get out and work just as hard. I don’t know if I’ll get as much coverage for this one. I had a billboard in Times Square for "Wench."


My goal this time is to sell one book at a time. It’ll be slow and steady.

There were five years between "Balm" and "Wench." Have you started on the next one?

Well, I lost my editor in the middle of this book. I had three editors on "Balm." So, the next one will probably go faster. But I want longevity. And I’ve heard the third book is harder to land a deal.

Yet for many authors, it seems the third one is the big one.

Yes, it does seem as if some authors hit their stride at that mark.  When I’m writing, however, I’m never thinking about outside forces. I go into my cave.  And this time when I came out of the cave I realized everything was different than when I was marketing "Wench." The newspapers aren’t covering as many books, the publishers aren’t supporting tours as much, everything has changed.  I would’ve been wasting my time thinking about the market while I wrote this because the market is changing at such a rapid pace. When "Wench" came out, Facebook was still new and I made use of it.  Heidi Durrow and I came out the same year and we hit that same Twitter/Facebook wave.  We hit the New York Times Bestsellers List at the same time. Now, there’s a lot of noise for readers out there. It’ll be interesting to see how we both manage our second books.  She is a writer I respect a great deal.

Do you think the time spent marketing affected your productivity?

Perhaps, but as soon as I stopped, my sales dropped. My husband kept reminding me that the next book was important too. It was hard to let go. I had to remind myself that the first will pick up again when the second is released, but you have to care for your baby because no one else will. And if it doesn’t sell, then there’s this assumption that it wasn’t a good book and that’s not always true.

That’s a difficult mental hurdle to climb over.

"Wench" was in airports, which was almost unheard of for a black author back then.

Are you as excited about "Balm"?

I am very proud of this book. I stretched myself as a writer. I’m at peace with this book.

It is beautifully written.

I feel that too. But I have to fight for this one. It’s a war we’re trying to win. We’re young. We both have 30 years more to write. And if we’re Toni Morrison, 40 years more! To have that oeuvre is a bigger statement than just one book. Some will be better than others.  But when you think of it as a long end game, you’ll worry less of what one person is writing about your book on Amazon.

By Lauren Francis-Sharma

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Balm Black Authors Books Civil War Literature Til The Well Runs Dry Wench Writers And Writing