Thursday, August 3, 2023

Q&A with Reginald Gibbons




Reginald Gibbons is the author of the novel Sweetbitter, now available in a new edition. A poet, his other books include the poetry collection Renditions. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern University, and is an emeritus Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities.


Q: What inspired you to write Sweetbitter, and how did you create your characters Reuben and Martha?


A: I was born in Houston and grew up there. I attended segregated public schools, and while I was in college, on the East Coast, I worked during three summers at jobs in Houston. 


I had different jobs working in branches of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and in a shipping company, and I met community organizers, lawyers, Houston politicos, Vietnam war protestors, immigrants workers (both laborers and desk workers) from Mexico, and others. I absorbed a much greater sense of “race relations,” and I witnessed personally some very bad events during those summers.


Many years later, when I began writing Sweetbitter, I made that book a historical narrative set in the late 19th century and early 20th, because that artistic choice allowed me to speak in the novel about racism as fully as I wished, without presenting the reader with a contemporary account, which would have been perceived by some readers as more political than artistic.


I wanted very much to portray the terrible events and dangers that I saw in my own time, but I chose to narrate those kinds of events and dangers as they had been suffered during earlier times. It seemed to me that those readers who read Sweetbitter might be able to empathize more with historical characters than with contemporary ones.


Q: As you mentioned, the novel is set in East Texas in the early 20th century--how did you research the book, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Somehow or other, Reuben and Martha came alive in my mind in distinctly different ways, since I began the novel by portraying Reuben as a boy, and then I carried him through his youth into adulthood. Having lost his mother, he carried within him her desire to make his way to “The Nations,” but his improvised life did not take him there.


And then I was able to imagine Martha as the least likely person with whom someone like Reuben would ever have met, and vice versa—but nevertheless she was not a young woman who felt hatred.


I suppose that love in the midst of racism is another kind of “love in the time of cholera” (to quote the title of the book by Gabriel García Márquez). But while cholera was a physical disease, racism of course is an attitudinal one, and it has not relented. In other scenes, too, and with other characters, I wanted to show the culture(s)—if I can put it that way—and the effects and dangers of southern/Texan racism.


Q: Is this edition of the book different from the one that was published in 1994?


A: I reread my own novel in 2021, and I realized that with quite a few small touches, I could clarify many details a bit better than I had done. I changed nothing at all about the characters, or the narrative, or the settings, etc. I simply polished the book and—after my extended years as a literary editor—I could not help but notice that too many of my own sentences could be improved!


Q: The Booklist review of the novel said, “This is an adventure story and a romance, but in Gibbons’ hands, it’s that and much more.” What do you think of that description?


A: In fact, Sweetbitter is more than “an adventure story and a romance.” Having grown up in Texas, and having seen a lot of the state when I was young, I wanted to create the sense of the wilds as well as the mood of small towns, the hard and dangerous labor (clear-cutting with hand saws, and sawmills), as well as the power of the wealthy and the intense race-hatred among whites.


I created Reuben as mixed-race because I saw the combination (and contradictions) of the natural world (which Reuben knew very well), and the mixed-race history of Texas—which is complex, violent, and still very volatile among many whites. And I also gave a lot of attention to the stages of life that bring young people to love and family. But in Sweetbitter, all that is, and all that happens, is amidst danger.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: At present, I’m working on short stories, personal essays, and poems. A new book of poems will be published in 2025 by LSU Press, which published some of my earlier books of poetry, and which also reprinted in paperback the original version of Sweetbitter.


I also have had, for far too long, a full draft of another novel that I have not yet been able to complete, because of intricate problems (again including race, among other things) that I myself created as the narrative. I’ve worked and reworked the novel’s perspective, its characters and conflicts, and its portrayal of relations between—in this case—parents and a child. It remains a more difficult novel to figure out than Sweetbitter was. But it’s also much shorter!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I could not help becoming very deeply attached to Reuben and Martha. It was as if—even though I’d created them, and I hadn’t had any living models for them—they were real persons. Which is why I dedicated Sweetbitter to them—the two persons whom I was able to imagine (during seven years’ work on the novel) so fully. I hope they survived and finally flourished in their time. And their children also.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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