Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Q&A with Ellen Barker




Ellen Barker is the author of the new novel East of Troost. She has worked as an urban planner and for consulting firms focusing on urban infrastructure. She lives in Northern California.


Q: What inspired you to write East of Troost, and how did you create your fictional narrator?


A: On a trip to Kansas City a few years ago, I went back to my old neighborhood and drove by the house where I lived until I went to college and my parents moved away from KC.


The house was derelict, abandoned. I looked in the windows and saw ceiling plaster on the floor. The yard was overgrown. It looked like it would be the next house to be torn down. I wanted a better future for that house, so I wrote it a back-to-life story.


By that time, I knew about the “Troost Wall” that was intended to maintain racial separation. I wanted to tell that story in novel form, and this book gave me a way to do that: both my lived experience there in the 1960s, when racial tensions were at their peak, and in the 2000s, when the effects of that “wall” are still felt. Novels are a powerful way to convey truth.


It didn’t start out to be a first-person narrative, because the main story is completely fiction, but I found that it was easier to convey what was going on when I wrote it as though I were the one moving in, dealing with the fallen plaster, worrying about crime, trying to build a new life among all these past shadows. So I just let myself imagine what I would think and do.


And all the past narrative, what happened in the 1960s, is my own history (at least my memory of it), so it made it easier to write the fictional part when I wrapped my own personality around the memoir-ish part.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I never heard the term “East of Troost” when I was a kid in Kansas City, but later it became a thing, when Troost Avenue was so obviously the racial boundary. The white population, including my parents, gradually left, and east of Troost became a place white people were afraid to go.


It’s also where they built a new expressway from the suburbs to downtown. Buying the houses to demolish for the expressway greatly disrupted the neighborhoods, the schools and churches and businesses, starting when I still lived there. I have to think the route was chosen purposely to run through the “Black” area east of Troost.


So for me, naming the book after the “bad” part of town was a way to thumb my own nose at the whole “look-down-your-nose” attitude, past and present. And not just in Kansas City, either. My husband and I lived for about 10 years in the Belvidere neighborhood of Lowell, Massachusetts. Beautiful neighborhood, large homes, tree-lined streets, and all white by the way.

But Lowell has a reputation in the Boston area of being dangerous. People I worked with actually said things like “I don’t do Lowell,” and refused to come to our annual Christmas party. Some who did come insisted that our house was actually in Andover, not Lowell, because when they got there it didn’t fit their preconception of dangerous Lowell. So I channeled that while I was writing, too.


Q: The author Beth Lisick said of the book, “Barker has written a book that should give women of a certain age and privilege a lot to think about. What happens when you try to go home again, and what can you learn in the process?” What do you think of that assessment, and how would you answer those questions?


A: I think the book should give everyone a lot to think about, especially those of us who can afford to live anywhere we like. It’s easy for us to make judgments about other people in other places, even well-meaning judgments.


The narrator in this story is going back but also looking forward. She knows it will be very different. What she learns is what I imagine I would learn: that it’s hard and that things are not clear-cut. So much isn’t!


One of the things I really want people to think about is white flight. We don’t hear the term anymore, but it still happens. In a 2019 article in, former first lady Michelle Obama said that the “white flight” she experienced growing up on Chicago’s South Side is continuing to destroy neighborhoods today.


In her case, white families abandoned her once-diverse, middle-class Chicago community as more Black families moved in. She said that it’s still happening today as immigrants move into communities.


It’s still a relevant topic. I wanted to put a little first-hand narrative out there, even though the narrator was a teenager at the time, to give a little insight into how it happens and how no one wins.


Q: What do you think the book says about the legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement?


A: That we believed too much in the changes that it brought about. We thought we’d flipped everything. We thought that we, the white baby boomers, saw things clearly and that the fears and prejudices of prior generations would fade away.


We were just so wrong. We took our eyes off the ball, and when we looked up, it was like seriously? How can “driving while Black” be a thing in 2022?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: When I finished this book, I was bereft. I missed Josie and the other neighbors. And I wasn’t sure that the narrator was really going to stick it out. So I kept writing, and that book will be out in spring 2024. This one takes off in a new direction. Then I think there is one more follow-on.


I’m also working on an entirely different story, with different characters, that takes place in St. Louis, and another in California, where I live now. I love writing.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! We’ve talked about all the heavy issues that underlie the story, but I wrote the book to be entertaining as well as enlightening. The narrator struggles, worries, and then laughs at herself for agonizing over something as silly as a vacuum cleaner.


She has a goofy German Shepherd sidekick who is afraid of stairs. The owner of the hardware store where she buys all her home-improvement supplies teases her about everything but gives her a contractor discount.


Her colleagues in other states argue with her about whether Kansas City is in Kansas or Missouri—because yeah, people have argued that point with me, along with how Missouri is pronounced.


It’s Missour-ee in the cities, Missour-ah in the more rural parts. In some places, the last syllable is so soft you have to know it’s there to hear it at all.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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