Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Q&A with Jeffrey Dale Lofton



Jeffrey Dale Lofton is the author of the new book Red Clay Suzie. A senior advisor at the Library of Congress, he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: Red Clay Suzie is described as a novel inspired by true events—how did you create your character Philbet? 


A: I looked inside myself. I examined my insecurities, my doubts and fears, my failed and my successful relationships, my small triumphs, in short, my life growing up as a gay, physically misshapen boy in a rural, deeply conservative family and community in Georgia.


Philbet was in there, long suppressed. I just had to coax him out, which I did writing furiously on my mobile telephone commuting on the subway (pre-pandemic) to and from my work at the Library of Congress. Creating Philbet was certainly part self-examination and catharsis. But it was also part Southern storytelling, with all that beloved form’s beautiful quirks and wonderful eccentricities. 


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


A: Georgia soil is rich in iron oxides, which gives it a distinctive reddish hue, almost the color of terra cotta. Like our peaches, it says “Georgia” to me. And “Suzie,” well, I can’t give that away. What I will say is that it’s as much a part of Philbet as “fixin’ to,” “over yonder,” and “sad-streak pound cake with a green milkshake chaser.” I dare not reveal more, bless your heart.


Q: The writer James Hart said of the book: “Red Clay Suzie is a tour de force by a rare, imaginative, and important writer—a fascinating gay story of the South, and yet through the magic of this writer’s skill, it transcends its own themes.” What do you think of that description?

A: I was flattered that Jim agreed to read my debut novel, period. I considered that alone an accomplishment. And then when he wrote about it so glowingly, I was moved to tears. My doubt-riddled, follow-on reaction was “Can my fledgling effort live up to such praise?” I guess that’s for readers of Red Clay Suzie to decide. My fate is in their good hands.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Foremost, it is my fondest hope that Red Clay Suzie readers—even those who have never been relegated to outsider status—come to see that bullies are paper predators who have no more power than you yourself give them. They are as scared of life as you, and once you understand that, they lose their sovereignty. 


And I want them to know that whatever imperfections (real and perceived) their body may have, it is beautiful; it is precious. Treat it with kindness and care so it carries you as far as it is able.


I spent so much of my childhood yearning for acceptance, hiding from the world—a world I saw as fundamentally unjust and unkind. Like Philbet, I came to learn that there are caring individuals in those concentric circles of people around you if you will only open your heart and your mind. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I see Philbet’s story as a three-book trilogy. I am well into writing book two, which commences the day Philbet leaves his hopelessly ineffectual family for college life, still a young boy in many ways with heaps to learn about the world and himself, yet determined and resolute.


I don’t know how far along that journey Philbet will take the reader, but I believe that to some extent stories find their own way, reach their own natural end. I will know when we—Philbet and I—are there. I just don’t know right now.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A portion of my proceeds from the sale of Red Clay Suzie will go to support the important, life-sustaining work being done by the Born This Way Foundation and The Trevor Project, two organizations for which I have endless admiration.


Oh yes, and never forget that love, real love, is never wrong. Bravely bestow it on whomever is worthy of the gift. That is what I wish my younger self had known.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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