This story first appeared January 17, 2014 Photo Credit Ed Glazar
Brooklyn resident, Marci Blackman, is a literary fiction author of four books and several short stories. In 1999, They wrote their first novel Po Man’s Child, a dark story of family entanglements, failure, and survival. The book has received two awards: The American Library Association’s Stonewall award for Best LGBT Fiction and the Firecracker Alternative Book Award for Best Fiction. Blackman’s second novel, Tradition, was released in June 2013.
They co-edited the Lambda Literary Award nominated anthology, Beyond Definition: New Writing from Gay and Lesbian San Francisco, and has published Bike NYC: The Cyclist’s Guide to New York City.
PrideIndex spoke with Blackman at the conclusion of New York’s bike touring season. They described their work, writing influences, and what’s next.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): It’s a pleasure to speak with you Marci. How are you doing today?
MARCI BLACKMAN (MB): I’m well. I am starting to get a little break in my schedule, so that I can breathe a little bit; I’ve been so busy since the past eleven months.
PI: That’s great.
MB: (Laughs) Yes it is.
PI: What projects are you working on that are keeping you busy?
MB: I do a lot of things in addition to writing. I am working on a novel that I am supposed to have pages to my agent by the end of January. I am not sure if it will be a complete draft. (Laughs) I will see what she thinks of the project and go from there. So that’s one thing. Also, I am a crazy bicyclist. I wrote a book called, Bike NYC: The Cyclist’s Guide to New York City, which is basically the history of New York through the eyes of a cyclist. It is a cool little book if you like to bike ride or even if you don’t, but like history. The reason I wrote that book is because I lead bike tours all over the city and the bike touring season is March through November, so it keeps me very busy. I am pretty wiped out afterwards and ready for it to be over.
PI: I’m looking at your website and I see that you have four novels. Can you tell me about them and where did you find the inspiration for each?
MB: I actually do not have four novels; I have four books. One of them was an anthology of poetry and fiction called Beyond Definition: New Writing from Gay and Lesbian San Francisco that I co-edited with a great writer named Trebor Healey. Healey won last year’s Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist. My first novel was Po Man’s Child. While working on Po Man, that’s when I decided I wanted write books or novels for the rest of my life. My second and most recent novel is Tradition, which was released in June of 2013 on Water Street Press. So, along with the bike book, I’ve published four books, but only two novels, so far.
Now to answer the second part of your question regarding the inspiration for each:
Beyond Definition… came out of my participating in the spoken word scene in San Francisco during the 1990s. It was a pretty robust scene; every night of the week there was a different open mike with a featured writer or poet, so it was a nice outlet to share your work. It was a great work-shopping atmosphere where you did not necessarily take home others’ work to read, but you utilized the audience to critique your own work, and as you read or performed, the audience was pretty vocal about letting you know what worked or didn’t. There were a lot of great writers in that scene, many of whom were not being published elsewhere. but we felt they deserved to be read, so we started this project with Jennifer Joseph, who runs a small press called Manic D and who also facilitated a popular open mic series at the Paradise Lounge at the time.
It was in that same context that I started to write Po Man’s Child. At one point, I stopped reading at open mic because the formats were not set up to where I could read a long enough section of my book for it to make any sense to an audience. When people asked me to feature at their event; I would still say yes, but only if I could read a chapter from my book. Afterwards, it became a thing where every time I had a chapter completed, I’d have a feature where I could present it to an audience and see exactly what worked and where I’d lost the audience. I could go back and rework my material later. It was a nice atmosphere in which to work on my first novel.
The idea for Po Man’s Child came about because there was a big queer S&M scene in San Francisco at the time. As far as the women’s scene went, there were not that many women of color involved, but there were a few, myself included, and we all knew each other. What intrigued me most about that scene was the number of black queers (few as we were) who bottomed or took on the roles of submission to white women. I often thought to myself I could not do that. There are just too many historical connotations at play that would allow me to put myself in that position. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to explore what that kind of relationship might look like and what might go through the mind of a person of color who willingly takes on the role of submissive in a SM dynamic. It dovetails into the idea of slavery and although it happened many years ago, it’s still a shadow over all of us in this country because the issues have never really been dealt with. So that’s what birthed Po Man’s Child. It’s the idea of this “consensual relationship” between these two women—one black, one white—and comparing it to the effects of the very non consensual slavery and the effects on the black woman and her family. So it’s the juxtaposition of this sort of master slave relationship next to this family that is dealing with all of the repercussions of this very real non consensual master slave relationship.
PI: Do you still perform spoken word?
MB: Not so much. I would probably do it if a friend requested it; I might dust off a poem or two here or there. I am pretty focused on the long form now. I think my work is pretty poetic. What spoken word and poetry did for me was inform my fiction in a way that taught me not to waste words. To make every word count.
From time to time, I’ll memorize and perform chapters from a work in progress, but I do not perform in the sense of doing a three or four minute piece anymore.
PI: Did you have a reading for your most current novel Tradition? If so what was the audience’s reaction to it?
MB: I had two release parties here in New York – one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. I used all of the readings for Tradition to gather together some of my favorite contemporary writers and performers to introduce them to some of my audience. Also, it was kind of a dream come true for me to share the stage with them. They included Kit Yan, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Quincy Scott Jones, Silas Howard, and TL Cowen among others. Then I did a West Coast Tour of half a dozen shows up and down the coast to Seattle. The audiences/readership reaction has been great. I was not sure what the reaction would be because this book is so different from Po Man’s Child. The protagonists are older people who go back in time in the book, so you spend a lot of time with them as young people. Because the heroes so to speak are people nearing the end of their lives, I was not so sure how compelling their stories might be to a younger audience, but so far I have received really great feedback from all ages. They seem to get the universal themes in the book. The story holds some traditions under a microscope and asks the question: how many of these traditions do we really want to keep handing down generation after generation? While at the same time, suggesting that perhaps there are new traditions we might want to explore instead. It could be a hard book for people to read if they just want what I call a grocery story book (page turner book where they don’t have to think). I think Tradition forces all of us to look at how we treat each other, but if you are not ready to occupy that space, then I am not sure how you would respond. So far it has been received pretty well.
PI: Have you been to the Midwest to promote your book?
MB: Not yet. I am planning to schedule some more stuff for 2014.
PI: Are you a self published author or are you signed with a publishing house?
MB: I am not self-published; I have a publisher. I’ve had a different publisher for each book. Manic D Press published Po Man’s Child and Beyond Definition. Skyhorse Publishing published Bike NYC. And Water Street Press published Tradition. But all of my publishers are small presses –not big publishing houses. I write literary fiction and it’s not the easiest sell these days for book sellers or publishers. It’s like when were shopping Tradition I got a lot of great rock star rejection letters from major publishers who loved the book, but for whatever reason they just did not want to get behind it. They did not know what the target market was for it. The smaller presses have always gravitated towards my work. It’s kind of nice in this way to have. One of the things that have always been present for me is that the editor on each book has loved the book and what I do, so the editor has worked to make the book a better product. And that’s a really wonderful thing to have. I would love to be published on a bigger press because you know there is more money to spread around (although these days I think that is changing), but I am just glad that my work is getting out there and I don’t have to self-publish. I don’t think there is anything wrong with self-publishing. I just believe that I would not be good at it because being your own press is a full time job. I tend to just want to sit in my cave and work on the next book. As for the business end of it and the publishing end of it, I like having an editor and having someone else focus on details like what font to use, who should we hire to design the cover, etc. Then I can just be the writer.
PI: Most authors bring a part of themselves to their work. What part of yourself did you bring to Tradition?
MB: That’s a really great question!! It’s funny; as I was writing this book I had a lot of revelations about that. For Tradition, I feel like every character in this book is part of me in some way. The story has nothing to do with me, but at the same time, it’s arguably the most autobiographical thing I have written. I feel like the people in this book are versions of me in some way. There is the character Gooch and some of the other characters who come down from Cleveland who are trans or live as men. And then there is also the main brother and sister characters of Mabel and Gus; they are also parts of me. They are my family even though they are not my family. When I first started working on Tradition, part of the impetus for the book came from the fact that I was fortunate enough to grow up with most of my great aunts and uncles and grandmothers still very much alive and a part of my life. My dad’s mother died at 98 and my mother’s mom died at 94. My great aunts and uncles also lived long lives. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time around them. My mom was an only child, so she was raised the same house as her mom and her mother’s siblings; they were like her older sisters. And even though they were two generations ahead of me, they influenced my life in a big way. They all came of age in the 1930’s and 40’s. One of them was a lesbian, though she never personally came out to me. I did not necessarily want to write their stories but wanted to write about the time period in which they lived. I wanted to pay homage to that period and what they went through because it has allowed me to live and move through the world the way that I do. So that’s how it started. All the people in story are parts of the real people. My great aunts, my grandmothers, and my great uncles are the people who are in me now, and I exhibit parts of them as I move through the world. I feel like it is the same thing with the characters that are in this book. They are all parts of me.
PI: Why did you go into literary fiction rather than the commercial fiction?
MB: (Laughs) Another good, question but I don’t know that I chose it. I think it chose me. It’s pretty much what comes out of me, based on the writers that I grew up reading: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Gabrielle Garcia-Martinez, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, etc. Publishing companies characterize the books of those authors as literary fiction. You could line up 10 different people and get 10 different definitions of literary and commercial fiction. I think that literary fiction tends to be more experimental. One of the things about all of these authors I’ve just mentioned that drew me, not just to their work but helped me want to create my own work, was the way they play with and use language. I think that’s what drew me into that genre. There seemed to be no rules; there seemed to be so much more freedom. There is no formula, so I feel that I can take more risks with plot, plot development, and particular language, how I decide to tell a story, and what voice narrates it. I feel that with commercial fiction there is not so much of a focus on that; it just really needs to be a good story. Sometimes the writing is wonderful and sometimes it is secondary to the fact that it’s this great mainstream story that the masses are going to gravitate towards. I often sometimes wonder how much people characterize queer fiction or LGBTQ fiction as literary just because it’s not writing about mainstream people. (Laughs)
PI: Have you ever considered writing a stage play based off a novel or two or three or four of your novels or just off a few chapters of Tradition?
MB: (Laughs) It’s interesting that you’ve asked that question because the marketing person for my publisher Water Street Press asked me a similar question and wanted to put me in touch with a friend of hers who is a playwright to talk about possibly turning Tradition into a stage play of some sort. I really have not considered that or thought about it. I think that I write dialog pretty well and that I have an ear for the way that people talk. But I also love the narrative form and think I would feel restricted if I were writing a play. I would love for someone else to turn it into a play or film.
PI: As you were answering that last question two plays came to mind are Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls and Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories so I am sure that Tradition could work on stage.
MB: Sure it could (Laughs) And what an honor to be mentioned in such company. Actually, I’m friends with Jewelle.
PI: If someone else was to step in and develop Tradition as a stage play, would you stand back and let that person handle everything and simply collect the royalties?
MB: That would be nice, but I would like to be involved in some sort of way. I would like to work with someone who is established in that particular realm, but I would still have to be involved.
PI: What about an adaptation on the big screen?
MB: I feel the same way if it were going to be on the big screen I would definitely want to be involved in the adaptation from the novel to the big screen, but again I really don’t know anything about writing a screenplay. I could learn, but I’d rather work with someone who knew something about adapting stories into screenplays. I would love to see a play or movie adaptations happen.
PI: What are your long term goals professionally?
MB: I’d like see Tradition get some traction. I’d like to see the readership go up. I’m not sure where exactly the readership is at this point, but I still think not as many people know about it as I’d like. I feel like I have at least three to five more books in me and I’d like to fill out my body of work. I’d like to let go some of the others things that I do to pay my rent and survive and spend more time building my body of work. So that’s what I am trying to do right now; re-navigate my life to a place where I am spending more time writing and paying at least some of my bills from that.
PI: Is there anything else you would like to share?
MB: I would like to help to debunk a myth in the publishing industry that black and brown people don’t read. We read. We read a lot. It is merely a question of finding the literature out there that speaks to us. I think that it is awesome that you have this Authors of Note Section on PrideIndex. I would like to take this opportunity to name some other authors of color who are out there tearing s**t up. There is Mia McKenzie who started the Black Girl Dangerous Blog. She just won the Lambda Literary Award for her first novel The Summer We Got Free, which I just read. It’s amazing. And I can’t say enough about Mecca Jamilla Sullivan; she is a scholar and author coming out with a collection of short stories called Blue Talk Love. Look for it. Thomas Glave is another one of my favorite writers who usually writes fiction (I think his most celebrated collection is called Whose Song? and Other Stories), but he just released a nonfiction book called Among the Blood People about being gay in the Caribbean that reads like poetry. There is a lot of good stuff out there and I would encourage people to seek it out and read it!
For more information visit marciblackman.com