Monday, May 27, 2013

From the Swamps to the Skies: Preston L. Allen Talks about Every Boy Should Have a Man

My homie Preston Allen’s new novel, Every Boy Should Have a Man (Akashic, 2013) is the most interesting book I’ve read this year. Since it’s still only May, let me rephrase that: it’s the most interesting book I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s not the sort of novel I often read; it’s neither realism, nor sci-fi, nor fantasy, nor speculative fiction, but its own thing, what could perhaps be called an epic fable or fairy tale. Regardless, what has most impressed me is not its style, although it is unique, but its heartthis is a serious book, a throwback to the polemical novels of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick, with a little Jonathan Swift thrown in for good measure.

The confusing title refers to the book’s premise: a world controlled by a race of giants called Oafs, where humans are considered lesser animals. Some roam in the wild, feral but smart, sort of like industrious chimps. Some are kept as pets by the oafs, and these come in dumb or fancy varieties that can talk, sing, or even play instruments. Some are eaten as meat. These categories are not well-defined; an expensive “talking” or “musical” man can be a wealthy oaf’s pet one day and dinner the next if circumstances change. The novel’s main character is a “female man” called Red (her name changes as her owners change, but it is always some variation of Red because of her hair and “frecks,” or freckles), a talking, musical man who is born to a female man owned by a poor boy oaf.

Preston tells the story in an almost fairytale voice, interspersing the main narrative with tales told by bards as songs and passages from “Great Scripture.” The oaf world seems pre-industrial, since they live in villages, and so one has the impression of reading something medieval. A philologist would have a field day with this novelin the oaf world, bears have become beos, horses hoss, cows bovin. Humans are simply referred to as “man,” whether male or female. In their degraded state, humanity’s gender has become irrelevant except for breeding. The oafs go to war and hunt species to decimation. All of these factors contribute to a morally and ethically complex text that questions the boundaries of humanity, gender, and sexuality. What makes one species superior to another? What responsibilitiesto each other and to the planetcome with such hierarchies? Is there some greater force that can survive the mistakes of those in power?

I decided to ask Preston some questions of my own. Though his last novel, Jesus Boy (Akashic, 2010) was a huge successone of Oprah Winfrey’s top ten of the year!—it turns out Preston still has the time to remember the little mans he once knew.

Q: In the acknowledgments, you credit the Earth Ethics Institute at Miami Dade College, “whose class in the swamps inspired this book.” Could you tell us more about that class and how it inspired you?

A: At the college where I teach, we instructors take classes from time to time for such things as maintenance of rank, promotion, and most importantly to stay current in our field.  As you know, in our country things change rapidly.  One wouldn’t want the teacher to know less than the student. 

In my conservative field, English, the only rapid change we see is in the area of technology, and I had taken most of the techy courses that were out there at the time.  So I got to thinking that I might do something different this go round. There was a course called something like “biodiversity and sustainability.”

Ah, I was a schoolboy in liberal, blue-state Massachusetts in the late sixties during the ecology phase, the country’s original “green” phase.  Ah, my eyes were already misting over with nostalgia.  Ah, the good old days in Boston.  Ah, my longhaired, love bead, tie-dye, perhaps high, hippie teachers.  Ah, their optimism.  Studying nature in a classroom?  That would be nice. 

Nice?  Nice?  Are you kidding!  How, oh how, did I miss the words “total immersion?”  Just great.  Nature would be my classroom.

So here I was in the Everglades up to my knees in mossy water, on my guard for alligators, snakes, and other creeping things.  All these dangerous animals. 

And then it hit me.  Man is an animal too.  And dangerous. 

It wasn’t an original thought, and to be honest I had had it before.  But never with such power and such light. 

In this ecosystem, the alligator is the top predator, but man is the topmost predator of all.  Man can take the alligator and turn it into a purse, an amusement in a zoo, an exotic meal.  Now what if there were some intelligent species of creature above man on the food chain?

I remembered as a child in Boston coming home from the pond with a gift for my mother that I withdrew from my pocket dead.  Tadpoles.  And I wondered what species of boy could go down to the pond, pick up a handful of humans and at home withdraw them from his pocket dead. 

What species of boy could bring one of us home on a makeshift leash only to hear his mother say, “Get that stinky creature out of this house!  It’s mangy and full of disease.” 

And what species of boy would pout and say in protest, “But mom, every boy should have a man?”  And that was it. 

As the wildly flying birds sang above my head, I envisioned the novel from beginning to end, the many issues I could explore, the biblical sound of it, the title, everything. 

I had to get it down on paper before I ruined it by over thinking.  When class was over, I sped home.

Q: The plight of mans—kept as pets but eaten as meat as well—echoes the ethical sophistry of our own society, in which we treat pets as family members and yet eat other animals without a second thought. One of the last facets of the Oafs before their destruction is that they become almost exclusively carnivores: “ . . . for oafs in those latter days had become monstrous indeed. They had resorted to a diet almost exclusively of meat (chicken, goat, hog, hoss, bovin, beo, dog, cat, rat, and man-meat whenever they could get it).” Do these allegories reflect your own personal philosophy? Is EBSHAM a vegan manifesto?

A: Vegan manifesto.  Me?  I’m not sure.  Maybe my mind wandered in that direction. 

Yes, lately I have been thinking about my diet.  I tend to believe that it is more animalistic to eat meat that . . . “animalistic” is not the word I want . . . I think that if we devolve to a more primitive state we might tend to eat more meat. 

Look carefully at the list as I wrote it, the order of the animals.  The list begins with animals that usually are eaten for food, then it goes beyond the usual, taking in dangerous beasts as well as vermin and those we consider pets.  Finally, it ends out of desperation with cannibalism. 

Vegan manifesto.  Me?  I’m not sure.  The mans in the novel are herbivores and they do inherit the earth, I guess.  I still eat meat, though not as much as I used to, and when I do, I think about the animal that gave its life for my meal.  Does that count?  At some point I am certain that I will give up eating meat entirely, though mostly for my health and not so much for any other reason.

Q: EBSHAM strikes me as a profoundly religious book, rocketing from a kind of biblical pantheism to a condemnation of the role of religion in justifying war and violence. This is a book with a mission, and I don’t want to oversimplify by calling it environmentalist, globalist, or humanist. Could you comment on what you’re hoping readers will be moved to consider by this book?

A: First of all, I'm hoping that my readers will enjoy the ride. The sugar in the medicine. The dancing and the  clapping at the prayer meeting.  In fact, I hope the message doesn't overwhelm. 

I want them to feel emotion as they're reading.  A connection with the characters.  I want them to read it the way children listen to a fairy tale. The awe, the magnificence, the magic--that's what I want them to be engaged by. 

Maybe they'll stop and think about what it means later on, but when they're reading I want them to be scared of the wolf, amused by the foolish decisions of the two little pigs who did not build their houses out of bricks, and nod their heads knowingly when the house of straw is blown away by a huff and a puff. 

We adults know what it means.  Haste makes waste.  Quick work is not the best work.  Hard work pays off in the end.  We've heard our parents tell us this before.  Just not in a story. 

And a story, first and foremost, must be a story. So here we have a boy who wants a pet. When he gets the pet, he wants to show him off. When he shows him off, the real owner shows up and just like that, the pet is gone.

Like those kids sitting on mats around their teacher, we nod our heads knowingly.  That's what happens when you show off. 

Of course, this pet is a man . . . That must mean something. Hmmmmm. 

We are adults. We know what it means. Be kind to your planet, mans.  Be kind to your animals, mans.  Be kind to each other, mans.  Learn from the oafs, mans, or you'll end up just as extinct as they are despite your sacred texts, ancient wisdom, good intentions, whatever. 

The earth is forgiving and resilient, but it can only take so much. We've been told this before. Just not in a story.

Ah heck, we've been told this many, many times before in a story.  It's my hope that this time we'll listen. Those Boston hippies back in the day made me quite the optimist.

Q: For lack of a better term, I’m calling EBSHAM an “epic fable,” which to me best describes your tone, the straightforward neo-biblical language and musical passages sung by “the bard” that mimic oral narratives. Did this approach come to you from the novel’s inception, or was it a conscious decision you made later? I’m curious about how difficult it was to sustain it without slipping into the everyday speech of, say, All or Nothing.

A: Yes, it's a fable, and hopefully people will take it as an important one.

From its very inception, as you put it, the novel was that way.  I wanted it to sound the way it came to me in the swamp. It's a very simple message, really.  A very simple story. 

I think the problem these days is that many important messages and concepts are written in language that is so complex as to be misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted. 

In Richard Attenborough's epic film, Gandhi, there is a scene after the violence of Muslim/Hindu riot, when a guilt-ridden Hindu comes to the mahatma, falls to his knees, and fervently pleads something like, "O,  Great soul, help me.  I'm going to hell.  I've killed a child!"

And Gandhi responds in a gentle voice something like, "There is a way out of hell.  Go into the streets where there are many children whose parents have been killed in this violence.  Find a boy who is the age of the one you killed.  Take him into your home and raise him as your own."

When the kneeling Hindu murderer nods his agreement and begins to rise, Gandhi stops him with a stern admonishment. "But, it must be a Muslim child!  And you must raise him as a Muslim!"

There is power in simplicity. If we lived by those simple words, there would be no more war. Go back and look at the "Ten Commandments." Simple words. People understood them.  People knew what they had to do to be good; people knew what they had to do to be bad. 

Compare the Commandments to the many chapters devoted to the hundreds of laws and corollaries and addenda to the laws of Moses in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Their number and complexity make our tax code look like a nursery rhyme. 

Now compare them to the simple parables of Jesus.  I'm not preaching. I'm just saying.

Like I said before, I knew immediately how the book would sound. Furthermore, I was prepared for this sound by my upbringing in the holiness church of my childhood.  I often joke that I'm bilingual as are most of us who grew up in the black church. I speak English and King James Bible.

The real difficulty (wink, wink) was in keeping the everyday speech in All or Nothing and especially Jesus Boy from slipping into the King James. 

Bible stories, fairy tales, parables, fables, and this novel all contain important lessons told in simple language.  They follow the KISS principle.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Q: You write about sex, religion, gambling. You write short stories, poetry, novels. You write realism, erotica, and now—what to call EBSHAM? Speculative fiction? Do you ever worry that readers will be bewildered by your choices, or, perhaps, that editors and critics will not follow you on such a winding road?

A: Thus far, one may argue, that I have been writing so as not to be accused of self-caricature. 

At the same time I've been kicking myself for my inability or my reluctance to write sequels. 

During my erotica phase, after I had written my first short piece "Nadine's Husband" for Brown Sugar (Plume Penguin), I was called on to write a second and said I could not. I had exhausted all of the erotic content in my heart. I always write from the heart.

But my editor waved a good chunk of money at me, and suddenly I felt my erotic heart pumping in my chest. 

When I finished the story, my editor read it and said, "Where is Nadine?  Where is Pam?  These are not the same characters."


So I went back to the computer to accomplish a task that seemed to me boring and unpleasant, if not downright impossible.  To revisit the scene of the crime after the crime has been solved.  Where was the joy in that?  Where was the inspiration?  It seemed like too much work.  It seemed too much like work.  But money is money.

Beat on, my starving artist's heart.  O, the things we do for money.  

What I gave her next was met with the same complaint.  "Where is Nadine?  Where is Pam?"

This time I had an answer:

"This is Nadine's lover's wife.  She suspects that he is cheating with Nadine, and so she sleeps with her best male friend who has been in love with her since childhood.  The best friend she sleeps with is also the best friend of her husband, Nadine's lover.  In other words, the lover is sleeping with his best friend's wife.  In other, other words, the lover, the wife he is sleeping with, and the husband who is sleeping with Nadine were all best friends as children, get it?"

She got it even if you don't, and more importantly, my heart was pumping for these new characters and this fresh scenario. 

Nadine be damned.  "Nadine's Husband part 2" would proceed without you.

She did, however, show up in parts 3 and 4.  With all that money being waved around, one can only delay the inevitable for so long.

But it taught me something about myself and about my writing process in general.  For me, writing is effortless when I write from inspiration.  When I write for work, I write well, but it is, in fact, work.  And I don't necessarily find it pleasurable.

Work writing resides in the head, from which it I can be pulled when needed . . . Because of practice, because of my academic training perhaps, I am able to do this efficiently.

Inspired writing resides in the heart, out of which it copiously flows once the heart is tapped.

I think that with this story, I may have found a key that may tap my heart at will.  I'm not promising sequels, or anything like that, but I'm not ruling them out either.

There are quite a few more issues that can be explored in that magical realm above the firmament.

Amen! I must admit, I’m jealous. If there’s anything one can learn from Preston’s experience (should anyone remember this blog’s original mission!), it’s the importance of keeping yourself open to new passions and writing with them whenever possible. Thanks, Preston, for these thoughtful answers. May the bard continue singing.

A recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction and winner of the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Literature, Preston L. Allen is the author of the short story collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press 2003) and the novels All or Nothing (Akashic 2007) and Jesus Boy (Akashic 2010), which "O the Oprah Magazine" listed as one of "Ten More Titles to Read Now," Dennis Lehane called "a tender masterpiece," and about which the New York Times proclaimed, "no one does church sexy like Allen."

His short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and have been anthologized in Miami Noir, Las Vegas Noir, Brown Sugar, Wanderlust, Making the Hook Up, and Here We Are: an Anthology of South Florida Writers.
His latest novel, Every Boy Should Have a Man (Akashic 2013), which has been called by Booklist "Imaginative, versatile, and daring," is a story about, well, er, um, boys who own mans as pets.
He holds a BA in English from the University of Florida and an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. He teaches writing at Miami Dade College.

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