Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Andrew: Welcome to the eighteenth installment of PIXELATED. I’m here with two debut novelists: Angela Flournoy (THE TURNER HOUSE, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) and James Sie (STILL LIFE LAS VEGAS, St. Martin’s Press, 2015).
Both books are stories of place, of narratives that wrap around a single city (Angela’s Detroit and James’ Las Vegas) but extend in their breadth and depth to geo-agnostic struggles: sustaining legacy against hardship, the pressure of the past, identity formation, the terrifyingly ductile future.
In THE TURNER HOUSE, Angela holds a reunion of sorts, with the Turner children returning to their old Yarrow Street home. Underneath a very tangible question (what do with the house, now that its neighborhood is crumbling, and its mortgage is worth next to nothing), lies one too profound to bring to light straight on, one that Angela sends through the prism of her characters: what is price, what is worth, what is value when measuring family, the past, and our lives ahead. In STILL LIFE LAS VEAGS, James’ focal character is a bit younger, but no less embattled with his familial history. When Walter Stahl was a boy, his mother left him and his father, and her absence has only grown stronger with time. But when he meets a pair of siblings, they not only open the city for Walter, but the possibilities of his own life—past, present and future.
Before we get into it, let’s break the ice this way: Where are you? What do you see? Could any two American cities have more differing hues than Detroit and Las Vegas?
James: Hello Angela.
I'm still grokking geoagnostic.
Angela: Hi James
I'm currently in Brooklyn and see nothing but green tree tops out of the window
James: I'm in my study in Los Angeles. It was converted from an open air porch, and it's made of redwood. Windows all along 2 sides, a view of the garden beyond.
So we're both looking at greenery.
Angela: yes! yours is probably prettier than mine
James: I just came back from Brooklyn— Ft. Greene.
Angela: Not far from me -- I'm in BedStuy. I'm also looking at ivy engulfing very old telephone wires.
James: My study is looking a bit ominous, though. Last night two bookshelves over the desk crashed down upon me and toppled the computer. So there is debris everywhere.
Angela: I hope you made it out okay.
James: Something struck me on the way to the floor, and I got a bloody nose. I remember running to the bathroom, thinking, "Please don't let this be a metaphor. Please don't let this be a metaphor."
Angela: haha. It's always a metaphor.
James: Where are you in the whole publication process?
Angela: Well, my novel came out in April. I had a tour, and am still doing tour-like things but really thinking about the next book.
James: Launches on Tuesday (biting fingernails)
Angela: Oh, how momentous!
James: I've keep alternating between dull apathy and sheer panic.
Angela: I remember that very well. The apathy is just the next level of panic.
James: Oh good. Gradients of panic.
Angela: But, you're in for some amazing experiences.
People are going to be very nice to you for the next few weeks, at least.
James: Right now, I'm pouring all my anxiety on what I should serve at the book launch. Incredibly stupid, but there you have it.
Angela: The answer is booze!
Andrew: What are the options?
Angela: And maybe a carb. To soak the booze.
Andrew: Let's settle this right here right now.
James: Well... Veggie spring rolls? Italian cookies? Fruit. A cheese plate, but should the cheese be pre-cut or left to its own device? This is the minutiae currently occupying my brain.
Bellinis, though. Definitely Bellinis. Fits well with Vegas.
Angela: This is a classy affair.
Andrew: James—have you been to Detroit. Angela—have you been to Vegas?
James: Ha! I am needlessly complicating matters.
I know I could just go to the grocery store and get cubes of yellow and white, but...
One of my best friends grew up in Royal Oak, right outside of Detroit. It seemed like all the cool people came from the Detroit area. But I've never visited.
Andrew: (By the way, my internet is struggling. Currently at the Eugene Public Library. There are many people here, 88% of which are on Facebook.)
(So if we disconnect.)
(I will be back soon. After I pull some cords.)
James: (Angela, you're still here, aren't you?) Hello?
Angela: I have been to Vegas! I am from LA, so Vegas is our favorite place to go to wear clothes we wouldn't normally wear outside. A few of my high school friends live there now, but I am still not very familiar with Vegas off the strip.
James: My characters actually live in the dregs of Vegas, far from any tourist destination.
Did you live in Detroit?
Angela: No, my father is from Detroit, so I've visited my whole life. I'm currently in Brooklyn.
James: (welcome back, Andrew)
And is your book a multi-generational story?
Angela: It is, though it spends most of its time with a few members of a very large family
Are you from Las Vegas?
James: No. Visited it first when I moved to Los Angeles, and was alternately repelled and fascinated by the environs.
Andrew: It is just that.
Fascinating & repelling
James: I loved how every important cultural artifact is there to be exploited and merchandised, and yet, the artifacts themselves still retain some power, some attraction, even in their artificiality.
I don't know that you could find two more disparate cities than Detroit and Las Vegas.
Angela: That is true. I've spent time in Caesar's Palace looking at fake Roman art as if it was real.
Well, both Detroit and Las Vegas have an MGM Casino.
Angela: And both are places that you don't really get a sense of from one visit.
James: Does the actual city play a big part in your book?
Angela: It does. I hadn't planned on writing a "city as a character" book, but the city of Detroit has a fascinating history.
From its early days as a trapping outpost, to the auto boom and decline to today.
And black people's relationship to that history hadn't really been explored in fiction before.
James: It sounds really great. Does your father still live there?
Angela: No, he's in Culver City, though he has dreams of retiring in Michigan.
James: I'll tell him hey.
Angela: I will!
What made you decide to focus on the less familiar parts of Las Vegas?
James: There's something about being able to look at a city as an outsider, you know? I think it allows you to explore it differently than a place in which you live.
You want to get the details right, of course, but you can allow yourself a bit of license, to mold it a bit more to your needs. At least for me that was the case.
The duality of Las Vegas—the extreme wealth juxtaposed with the working class— was what I was looking for. The outer glossy layer and the reality.
Angela: That was the case for me too. I had tried to write stories set in LA and they didn't feel rooted anywhere
James: Maybe now that you're in Brooklyn you can see it from a distance.
Angela: Hopefully. There are plenty of LA stories yet to be told.
James: Plenty of bad quirky wardrobe choices to be mocked.
I prefer the dun shades of New Yorkers, honestly.
Angela: I am always the person in too-bright colors in New York
I guess it is my LA inclination.
James: Your book is about family. Did you get hit with all the "what parts are autobiographical in here?"
(and what parts ARE autobiographical?)
Angela: I have been asked so many times that I sometimes mutter the answer under my breath in times of stress.
James: A mantra!
[I think we lost Andrew again]
Angela: Exactly! But of course, everything is autobiographical in some way, just not in a way that clearly correlates with real life
James: Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.
It's funny... when I was writing the novel, I was only concentrating on the story, how the characters got from one situation to another, what was true for them. And of course the plot had NOTHING to do with me. It had no semblance to my real life. But when I was recording the audio book it suddenly hit me, "God, this is all about me!"
I told my sister (who had read it before) about my revelation, and she said, "Duh, didn't you see that?"
It was almost as if I were tricking myself into not knowing that I was writing out my own issues, like it were a dream that was needing interpretation.
Angela: I think for many writers there's a moment when it's all over where we realize how we're "in" the book.
Mine was also pretty late in the process, even though there are some similarities between my family and the fictional one.
James: Big family?
Angela: Very big, even bigger than the fictional Turners.
Where do you fall?
Angela: well, I'm one of 4 siblings, but my dad is one of 13, and I had 2 sort of adoptive families growing up as well
James: I'm middle. Exact middle.
You certainly get a lot of material that way.
Did your family get on you at all: "That's me!"
Angela: Heh. Some did, but of course, the ones that swore a character was them had not entered my mind at all while writing.
that's how it goes
James: Sneaky subconscious.
I tell my family, "No, actually, it's all ME. Every one of those characters. Me."
Angela: that's how it goes
How long have you been working on your book?
James: (That said, I wish I did fall in love with the hunky living statue performer in the book, but alas, no.)
It took me 3 years to write, and another ten to sell.
Angela: A living statue performer?! I'm sold. Will be picking it up early on Tuesday.
James: At that rate, I should be hitting 70 by the time the next one comes out (knock wood).
HUNKY living statue performer. Greek.
Angela: A 13 year journey
James: And you?
Angela: you should spring for both cheese options.
Took me 4 years to write
Closer to 4 and a half
James: Do you think the next one will take about as long, or do you think you've acquired some craft that will speed you along?
(yes, you can't cube soft cheeses)
Angela: The dream is to write a novel in half the time
James: Yes. I feel the same way.
But I am an agonizingly slow writer. Bad habits, mostly.
Angela: I was typing the very same thing.
James: We should egg each other on. Peer pressure always works for me.
Angela: Well, another thing you can look forward to starting Tuesday is people asking you about the next book
James: Oh God.
Angela: Even before they've read the book in their hands, they'll ask
But that can also be useful pressure
James: "My next book is about the cheeses of the world."
Angela: I would read that too.
Hunky statues and hunks of cheese.
I see a winning streak.
James: Let me write this down...
hunks of cheeses fed to hunky statues...
Angela: What did you find most challenging about the process of working with an editor after 10 years?
James: Well... the process has been lovely, really, but after years of tinkering, then the agent, and the agent's notes, it was in pretty good shape, so I didn't have to monkey too much with it once it sold.
It was more a matter of how the graphic novel sections, which weren't all completed, would look in juxtaposition to the prose portions, and if we had enough sketches and such.
Angela: Graphic novel sections?!
*scoots to edge of seat*
You illustrated them?
Andrew: Oh, I forgot to mention that, didn't I.
James: God no. I can't draw for the life of me. But I get a great illustrator to do them for me, cold called her and luckily she said yes, and stuck with me for those years in the wilderness.
Andrew: People—our time is nearly up.
So, I hate to do this.
James: The graphic novel sections, the sketches, and the stories in the novel are all trying to get at one moment in the family's history, an unknowable moment. It's the narrator's attempt to make sense of it all.
Andrew: Last words.
James: Brie. Fontina. Gouda.
Angela: Casinos, hunks and 2-year novels.