Sunday, January 1, 2023

Q&A with Jerry McGill




Jerry McGill is the author of the new novel The Color of Family. His other books include the novel Bed Stuy. Also an artist and educator, he lives in Portland, Oregon.



Q: What inspired you to write The Color of Family, and how did you create the Payne family? 

A: I actually wrote a first draft of TCOF a year or so before I ever began my first published novel, Bed Stuy. It was originally a series of short stories, nine to be exact. I had always admired and respected J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories since high school and told myself that one day I would write a similar work but with black culture at the forefront. 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between your characters Devon and James? 

A: Fraught. Fiercely competitive to the point of unhealthy. Not necessarily Cain and Abel, but there is an animosity there which later becomes deep resentment. 

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

A: This is kind of a humorous story. The original title was “The Negro Paynes,” a reference that a colleague made to the family patriarch back in the late ‘60s. I really liked it but it was decided that in 2022 that title was a little inappropriate and I was asked to change it. I didn’t fully agree with the request, but I kind of got it.


After brief meditation I came up with “The Color of Family,” another reference from a dialogue in the novel. 


Q: In our previous interview, which focused on your novel Bed Stuy, you said that with that novel, “I knew how the novel would end, but honestly it ended four different ways before I settled on what is now before you.” Was that the case with this book as well? 

A: That was definitely the case with this book. As previously mentioned, this was a series of nine short stories, each focused on a different family member. A few of the stories were completely independent of the others and there was no overlap in them.


Once I made the decision to structure the work in a more linear form I had to go back and realign everything. Interestingly enough, the last chapter held up as the last chapter, albeit with a few changes. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am working on my next novel, the story of a lifelong friendship between a young black boy and a young white girl who grow up in small-town Maine during the rise of drug use in their community. I am also working on a screenplay set in the black section of Chicago during the 1950s, a coming of age tale involving a young man with ties to the black mob. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: This year I pledged to myself that I would read around five of the novels we consider “classics.” I’m happy to report I read four, but still find myself unable to complete Moby-Dick.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jerry McGill.

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