One sentence that describes this collection?
Snapshots of everyday people, mostly African-American, addressing events in spaces that exist between what they have and what they want out of life.
What inspired the stories?
A few are fictionalized remixes of family lore; others are inspired by an internal question that prompts much of my fiction: I wonder how that would go down? Some began in the site of a memory. Once I create and introduce characters to myself, they typically take over and drive the narratives themselves.
What are some of the common themes?
Striving, obviously. The word has a particular connotation, I think, to African-Americans. It’s about ambition and accomplishment, yes, but also understanding that achieving life goals requires a kind of cunningness; an understanding that the social system you’re in hasn’t been architected for your success so you have to learn how to navigate it differently to make it work to your advantage or to just find your contentment within it. Themes of generational sacrifice and inter-social economic relations also play out in several of the stories.
How long did it take to write?
The oldest story is almost 20 years old. The newest was completed in 2015. There are 15 stories in total. Most of them have been completed in the last 5 or so years.
Are the stories linked?
Some are semi-linked, in that they occupy the same implied cultural space and geographical setting. I wanted to curate a collection of linked stories for a while. I first intended to do a 20th Century story cycle set in my hometown Augusta, Georgia, in the vein of the playwright August Wilson. Augusta is the explicit setting for the title story “Strivers” and the implied setting for several other stories. I also wanted to write something of a Southern male version of Gloria Naylor’s “Women of Brewster Place.” In its current form, the collection harkens a bit to both ideas. A few stories are outside those lenses (see summaries of each story).
What is special to you about Augusta, Georgia?
My family, on both sides, has lived there or nearby since at least after the end of slavery and probably before. I grew up there during the 1970s and 1980s, the immediate post-civil rights era in the South. As kids, we didn’t know much about that, but we grew up with our parents having brand new perspectives about what our options and opportunities could be in the world. That time and place is my demarcation line between a “then” and a “now” alluded to in my story collection, with the “then” representing resilience, sacrifice and hope and the “now” spanning promise and optimism, but also a cautious reflection on the journey: did it pan out the way we thought? Was it worth it? Are we honoring the resilience and sacrifice of those that came before? Where do we go from here?
For a city its size, Augusta had a good number of institutions that helped to sustain a thriving Black working and Black middle class. It had a large military base, a sprawling medical center, an HBCU, a large public school system, several large historical churches, industrial plants, a Black owned life insurance company and a number of small Black owned businesses. It was also historically the summer home to a good bit of white wealth to which a Black service class was tethered. The stereotypes and extreme representations of pathos associated with the Black Southern experience were not so apparent to me during my childhood in Augusta.
What is your favorite story in the collection?
“Glass House.” The central character is a married woman. It was a challenge to step outside of my natural unmarried male-centered POV to tell her story.
Who is your favorite character?
A.D. in “Lester is Late.” He is a voice of wisdom and reason.
Are any characters based on you?
Not directly, but when I write generally, the default protagonist in my head is a Black man who is thinking hard about his lot in his world.
Why do so many characters in your stories drink tea?
It’s what Southerners do. They sit, visit, and drink something, usually iced or hot tea, lemonade or Coke..
What is the art on the book cover?
“Pullman Porter” by D.C. artist Dana Ellyn. It was part of a project she did to commemorate neighborhoods along DC’s Cultural Tourism Heritage Trails. A signature character in the title story “Strivers” is a porter as was my maternal grandfather Peter W. Lamar for much of his career working on the railroad. I grew up steep in the lore and historical narratives surrounding Pullman porters–their dignity, pride and work-ethic; them being a conduit for passing information between regions; their sometimes somewhat overstated roles in creating a segment of the black middle class in some locales. In my story, I wanted to honor and challenge that lore at the same time.
You’ve completed a novel draft—what’s it about?
It’s about a college grad’s entrance into and first year in the real world. It is excerpted in this collection as “The Interview.”