An Interview with Kim McLarin
Deesha Philyaw: Why do you write?
Kim McLarin: There are a lot of answers to this question, more than I can really articulate. Probably the simplest, most direct answer is that I write because I have to and because I cannot imagine not doing so. Writing is how I make sense of the world and how I live in a world that so very often makes no sense at all. It’s no exaggeration to say that writing has saved my life. There are two famous essays on this topic, one by George Orwell and the other by Joan Didion. Both of these great writers express some of my own feelings about the topic, but the bottom line is that I write because that’s who I am: a writer. I write because God intended me to.
DP: W.E. B. Dubois wrote about black Americans living with a double consciousness. We can say then that black American women have a triple consciousness: black, female, American. What does it mean to you to add “writer” to this consciousness?
KM: How does one separate out which parts of my consciousness come from being black, which from being a woman, which from being a writer, which from having grown up in Memphis, etc.? I do know that writers tend to the view the world in a way non-writers do not. I know for certain, from having covered them as a journalist, that cops tend to have a separate and distinct worldview. In other words, who you are shapes what you see. Landscape is character, said Henry James. So my character was formed by being black, female, southern, post-Civil Rights, poor, and, yes, a writer, and I view the landscape of being human in the world through all of those things. Most of all I try to force myself to really look. The great filmmaker [Akira] Kurosawa said something like, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” That’s what being a writer means to me.
DP: What was the genesis of your latest novel, Jump at the Sun?
KM: I had finished my second novel and then was co-writing a memoir with Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X. I needed to get started on another novel, because I’m always writing a novel. I’m always at one stage or another and this is what came out. I wish I could be more precise than that, but I can’t, in part because once a book is done my mind tends to wipe it pretty much clean from my memory, from genesis to character names. Sometimes when I read a review [of one of my books] or I have to give a reading, I open up the book and I’m surprised at the words there. Did I write that?
DP: Grace, the main character in Jump at the Sun, feels suffocated by motherhood and contemplates doing what her grandmother before her had done: abandon her children. As I read about Grace’s situation, a modified version of an oft-quoted Chris Rock line came to mind: “I’m not sayin’ it’s right, but I understand.” Grace considers what most people consider unthinkable. What reactions to this did you receive from readers, particularly mothers?
KM: Some people simply say nothing, or say, “I read your book,” and then stand there letting the silence ripen to imply their disapproval, which I always find hilarious. I’ve done a couple of readings in which one or two women were nearly trembling — with disbelief? Indignation? Rage? — and they say how much they disliked the protagonist, how inhuman she was, how unnatural. This does not bother me because I don’t create characters to be liked, necessarily. Some of the great characters in literary history are very unlikable — Humbert Humbert, Captain Ahab. But I can also tell you, I get probably six or eight e-mails a month, many more when the book first came out, from women who say, “I loved it. It’s like you were reading my diary, my thoughts, my brain. Thank you. I thought I was the only one who felt that way. I’m not a monster, and I’m not alone. Thank you.”
DP: Do you think Grace is as much of an anomaly as she suspects she is — bored, stifled, and resentful — regarding motherhood?
KM: These ideas about motherhood and maternal feelings being not only utterly natural but completely and overwhelmingly joyful and fulfilling are so ingrained that few women are willing to voice any opposing sentiments, even to themselves sometimes. So who knows? If a woman stands up in a reading and declares that she has never, for one moment, experienced any resentment, boredom or even ambivalence about motherhood, I have to take her at her word. God bless and God speed, I say. Then at least one other woman in the room will raise her hand hesitantly and say the opposite — bet on it. At a reading once, a woman told me she’d gone so far as to get on a plane when her kids were young and flew to Denver to escape. No plans, no friends, just left the kids with their father and fled. Then she turned around and flew home again. All she needed to know was that she could escape if she needed to.
DP: In short, Grace “has it all” but she’s not happy. Some would say this is a common complaint among successful women. How does Grace’s identity as a black woman add to her dilemma?
KM: Because her parents and grandparents’ generations fought and marched and died for her success. Because she knows on whose shoulders she is standing, and she knows how tenuous is the success she and her husband have achieved, and she knows how many of her people have yet to make it that far. For Grace, these thoughts are not theoretical. I can’t remember whether it made it into the book or not, but at some point I had her muse on a young cousin who was in prison and another who was on drugs and somebody arm’s length away who was still struggling on welfare, because that is the reality in many black families. We have made tremendous gains, but those gains haven’t had time to expand and solidify. Despite what America wants to believe, it really hasn’t been that long that black people have been truly free.
DP: The stories of three generations of women are told in Jump at the Sun. What did this add to the novel that could not have been accomplished by focusing solely on Grace’s story?
KM: Perspective. Again, America is a willfully ahistorical country. We are always trying to dust our hands of the past, but like it or not, that dust tends to cling. No one human being stands alone and utterly independent in his or her story. Context is everything.
DP: You don’t take the feedback that Jump at the Sun has universal appeal as a compliment. Why is that?
KM: That’s a misinterpretation of something I wrote in an essay once. My point — boiled down — is that when reviewers and editors and even sometimes readers praise a work by a black writer as being “universal,” it’s really a backhanded compliment, though of course they seldom mean it that way. What they mean is, “Hey, I’m white and I liked this! I could relate!” They mean this work, outside the norm (which is assumed to be white) is accessible to the norm. Which begs the question — why wouldn’t it be? Art is art — that which explores the truth of the human condition, what it means to be human in the world. Good art is always grounded in some specific slice of humanity. No one ever praises Philip Roth or John Updike or even some of these hot young white-boy writers like [Dave] Eggers or [Jonathan Safran] Foer for being universal; their universality is assumed. It’s assumed that their experience –that of the middle-class Jewish sex-obsessed male [Roth] or upper-class WASP sex-obsessed male [Updike] — is not only interesting and accessible to, but also meaningful to, all comers, regardless of race, class or creed. Or at least all “intelligent” comers, those educated enough and sophisticated enough to “get it.” Which for me, in Roth’s case is true, but in Updike’s (and Eggers and Foer et al) less so. I get them, but I do not relate. Updike is not universal to me, though I certainly appreciate his artistry. Not to mention his productivity.
DP: What is the highest compliment someone could pay you as a writer? As a mother?
KM: Compliments are such slippery things. I suppose the highest compliment one could pay me as a writer would be to buy a book — and then another one. As for the mothering, only my children can speak to that with any authority, and they won’t really be able to do so until they’re thirty or more.
DP: Has the way you respond to criticism changed over the course of writing three novels?
KM: I’m sure my skin has gotten thicker, but after a decade as a journalist and a lifetime as a black woman, my skin was already pretty tough. Does it still hurt? Of course; I’m human. But the older one gets,the more one realizes that criticism is almost always more about the critic than the critiqued. That helps a lot.
DP: Where do you find affirmation and support as a mother, as a writer?
KM: In both cases, from God, from family, from friends. I have a formal writer’s group for the writing and an informal mother’s group for the mothering, and I rely on both.
DP: You’ve said, “Being a writer demands a lot of time inside one’s own head, one’s own experience of the world. Being a mother demands just the opposite. I find it very, very challenging to reconcile those twin demands.” How do you reconcile them? What advice do you have for other mother-writers who are striving to reconcile them as well?
KM: I reconcile them as best I can, day by day. And the next day I get up and do it again. As for advice, I try never to give it. No one ever really listens to advice anyway. I know I don’t.
DP: You took the title, Jump at the Sun, from a Zora Neale Hurston quote. What were the origins of your other titles?
KM: Taming it Down is, roughly, from a great, great Gwendolyn Brooks poem, a mock epic, “The Anniad.” Meeting of the Waters comes from the name of a place in Brazil where two rivers meet.
DP: Kim McLarin. Novelist. Reluctant blogger. What were your reasons for discontinuing your blog? What did you learn from the blogging experience?
KM: Blogs are interesting, but they are an incredible consumer of time. You can stumble into the blogosphere and not be seen or heard from for days — and that’s just reading them. For me it was a simple matter of time management. I only have so much time to devote to writing, and I’d much, much, much rather put it toward what I feel is my real work. Blogs are ephemeral. Novels, perhaps, have a chance to last.
DP: What can readers look forward to in future novels? What’s next on your writing plate?
KM: I’m working on a nonfiction project right now, but once that’s complete, I plan, God willing, to get back to a novel I have simmering on the back burner. I have some idea what it will be about, though I don’t discuss it, because among, other reasons, it can change in the writing. Man plans, and God laughs.