September 15, 2006

Five Questions With Preston Allen

Preston AllenPreston L. Allen is the author of the novels Hoochie Mama, Bounce, Come with Me, Sheba, and the short story collection Churchboys and Other Sinners. His stories have also appeared in several of the Brown Sugar series. Preston is the winner of the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Literature and a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction. He lives in Miami, Florida.

1. The main character in your novel, Hoochie Mama, is anything but a hoochie. Why the name?

One of the things I was going for in that book (as well as in most of what I write) is to explore the idea that we have two identities—an outward one defined by those who know us because of our profession or avocation, and an inward one defined people who know us more intimately. Thus, appearances can be deceiving. We see an African American woman, who is a police officer, and she has platinum blond hair, gold teeth, she wears flashy jewelry and tight fitting clothing. If we are on the outside, we guess at how this came to be. We say, aha, she is a hoochie mama playing at being a cop. On the other hand, if we are on the inside, we do not guess at how it came to be; we see its development from the beginning and, rather, we guess at where it will all end. We say, aha, here is M, a smart, tough girl, perhaps struggling with her sexuality—now she is dressing like that woman she used to have the crush on, now she is trying to be a cop, are these two aims compatible? Where will it all end? The captain, too, and Lambert, are also drawn in such a way that we can see them from both the outside and the inside and compare how these two views clash—but they are the more traditional types of this model we often find in thrillers, the average man on the surface with the perverted secret life, whereas M has no secret life, or is at least not trying to keep something a secret—you simply do not know the real M because, well, you do not know her. All you can do is judge her by her conspicuous dress. And the fact that it is the hyper-masculine world of cops, and you are male and she is female, and you are white and she is black—all these factors are going to play into how you judge that platinum blonde hair and big booty of hers, never mind that she is pretty good at solving murders.

2. Many of your characters struggle with religion and faith. Why do these subjects interest you so much?

I am going to have to attack your question at its core because in attempting to answer it I just now realized that there is something interesting implied in it, something implied in many questions of this sort, that I simply do not hold to be true—the struggle with religion and faith.

I have read many books in which characters struggle with religion and faith. These characters are no longer sure what they believe, and thus you get your tension. Yeah, I know books like this. And I think it is the sheer prevalence of books and stories of this sort (The Thorn Birds, the classic, rip-roaringly humorous Lutheran kid’s rebellion episode written almost exclusively in footnotes in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, even Langston Hughes’ Salvation) that have created a kind of genre of struggle against religion (if you will) which my works are then thrust into and/or judged against. But now that I think about it, my characters do not struggle with religion or faith. My characters do just the opposite. They have almost absolute faith. My characters are true believers. Their struggle is in seeing the world as it is without losing their faith. Elwyn, my classic true believer, a born again Christian, never doubts his faith; in all of his stories, Elwyn struggles to reshape the world to make it fit with his Christian beliefs. Perhaps that’s where the humor comes from. The cynicism. I don’t know . . . when I read sections of the Elwyn stories to church folk, they enjoyed it immensely. They do not read it as cynical at all. Hmmmmm.

I am reminded of the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, and how the little bush man, exposed more and more to the modern world, remained yet a bush man by simply expanding his old ideas to include these new experiences. Never once did he think, “Gee, the things I used to believe are wrong. I must now start to believe in this new way.” No, as far as he was concerned, his Bush was still the center of the universe and all of these experiences were simply a sort of mystical journey that the Gods had sent him on to rid his people of the evil thing that had fallen into it (the evil thing being a Coca-Cola bottle dropped by a pilot from a plane passing overhead).

I understand that little bush man perfectly. I am a churchboy. I know of these things. I have childhood friends who hold Ph. D’s in chemistry, physics, and biology. They are still churchboys (and a churchgirl, too) despite all of their higher education. Can you dig it?

3. Your work also has many lost boys and weak men. Is there a common thread that binds these characters?

The boys will be lost if the men are weak. Are the men weak? Well, they are selfish, ineffectual, childish, okay weak. In my thrillers, such men give birth to psychopaths. In my romance novels, such men give birth to the bad boyfriends or bad husbands. My good men, on the other hand, give birth to the heroes and heroines in all of my novels. You know how it goes—the fathers have eaten the sour grapes and the children’s teeth are on edge.

4. Unlike many of your stories, your recent story, “The Lucky Kiss,” seems to suggest that sex can almost have a redemptive value. Why the change?

That story is actually a chapter from my novel, I Am a Lucky Gambler, in which the woman Missy first meets the gambler P. Can sex redeem you? Well, gambling certainly puts you in bondage. So it’s like this, it’s a fairytale, you are kind of a princess, the evil gambling ogre has imprisoned you, along comes a prince who gives you a magic kiss (and a magic roll in the hay) which frees you from the ogre. You live happily ever after. The end.

Sex does redeem. Couples fight and then make love. Teenage angst is often cured by the loss of one’s sexual virginity. A large number of psychos in literature also have sexual problems—it almost seems that the books are saying, if he could only get laid, then he wouldn’t have to kill people. Hitler, they say, died a virgin. I don’t know . . . in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, the Tooth Fairy killer changes for the better (at least for a while) when he falls in love and has sex with that blind woman). One of the things I do a lot of in my romance fiction is try to pair people up with their perfect sexual match. I think this changes them for the better. At any rate, the book usually ends right after that.

5. How do you juggle the roles of son, father, brother, uncle, and teacher and yet remain so productive?

You mean productive as a writer? Well, it’s like this, I remember being in graduate school on one of those typical South Florida evenings in the fall. It was some sort of tropical storm—driving rain, crashing thunder, wind strong enough to shake the little Mazda I was driving to campus that night. The trip usually took a half hour, but that night because of the storm, it took like an hour and a half. When I got to campus, finally, the place was shut down. Classes were cancelled because of the storm. I was pissed. How dare these people cancel class for a tropical storm! What’s a little wind and rain when I have a story to workshop? I stayed there for another half hour hoping a few people in the class would show up and we could maybe huddle somewhere that was dry and talk about our stories. On another occasion I heard some of my classmates talking about which professors they would register for next term—who was hard, who was easy, and so on. I remember thinking, what difference does it make. Hard? How can it be hard? It’s just what we do. We’re writers.

I guess what I’m saying is that I have a passion for this thing. It is the thing that I do. So I make time to write in my schedule of things to be done—kinda like those guys who make time for the gym—one hour a day, everyday, come rain, come shine. But writing is also my default mode. In other words, when I’m not doing anything else, I am writing, or thinking about writing. So when you see me between classes and it seems like I’m doing nothing but walking to my office, trust me—I’m thinking about a story. When you see me stuck in traffic . . . .

Next week: Malachi Smith
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eemanee said...

clicked the Brown Sugar link and as i waited for the page to load i asked myself, "isn't Caribbean erotica an oxymoron?"

must definitely check out this book.

Geoffrey Philp said...

eemanee, yuh too bad.