Saturday, October 28, 2023

Q&A with A.D. Nauman




A.D. Nauman is the author of the new novel Down the Steep. She also has written the novel Scorch. She lives in Chicago.


Q: What inspired you to write Down the Steep, and how did you create your character Willa?


A: Like most writers, I have lots of ideas sparking in my brain at any given time. This one found enough mental kindling to catch fire. Though I’ve lived all my adult life in the Midwest, I grew up primarily in southeast Virginia, and the childhood memories stacked in my head provided plenty of fuel for Down the Steep.


One of my earliest childhood memories is of a Klan march. I remember the dusty street, the heat, the hooded marchers approaching, my mother’s hand in a tight squeeze over mine, and my utter confusion: parades were supposed to be joyous, but no one on the sidewalk that day looked happy. There was no band blaring out cheerful tunes, just the clatter of footsteps and rattle of chains. One of the marchers was carrying chains.


Though we lived many years in Tidewater, we weren’t native to the region. My parents were Northerners who’d moved south for my father’s job when I was a young child.


Later in life, I learned that my parents were there trying to contribute to the Civil Rights movement, in their own quiet, introverted, risk-averse way. My father was the pastor of a Protestant church. My mother made sure my sister and I knew she disapproved of the racism around us. My parents often commented on the dismal shacks that Black people had to live in, the separate water fountains marked “white” and “colored.”


Of course, racism is hardly limited to the South, but it was more overt there than in Minnesota, where my mother had grown up. So, I was raised to be keenly aware of social injustice.


Over the years, long after we’d moved to the Midwest, my mother occasionally blurted out, “There were Klansmen in that church.” Whether that was true, I don’t know, but the idea of it stayed with me.


I began writing Down the Steep during the second Obama administration. I did not believe, as some claimed, that the US had become a “post-racial” society. I could feel an undercurrent of racism, misogyny, and other bigotries pushing up under the surface.


Of course, it all erupted when the electoral college put Trump in the White House instead of Hillary Clinton, who’d won the popular vote (in case anyone has forgotten). I was still working on the manuscript when white nationalists marched in Charlottesville; I was finishing it when George Floyd was murdered.


I regard Down the Steep as a kind of thought experiment: How might a white person born into a racist culture overcome their own racism? Since this describes all Americans, including those of color, the question felt urgent. Each step of the way I asked myself, What would be needed to change Willa’s mind?


The process begins when a stranger comes to town, bringing an idea outside of Willa’s cultural bubble. Importantly, that stranger, Ruth Swanson, is a compassionate person, certain of her own moral compass but not self-righteous or disdainful toward Willa.


The process continues when Willa is put into proximity with “the Other.” Slowly she gets to know Langston as a person, rather than a demographic. But it takes a jolt to her old worldview to bump her out of her ingrained thought patterns: she discovers her father is untrustworthy—he is not worthy of her veneration, and he never was.


Released from the confines of her family’s belief system, Willa is free to question, challenge, and outgrow the old bigotry. She is free to admire Langston for who he is.


When I created Willa, I needed to base her somewhat on myself. The most authentic protagonists come from within their creator. Willa’s longing to be like her important father, and her repeated, failed attempts to gain his respect, come straight from my own life experience. Having this in common with her gave me confidence to create a character who, in other fundamental ways, is not me at all.


Initially, writing Willa’s racist thoughts and feelings was a major challenge. I resisted taking that perspective; I even doubted I’d be able to put myself convincingly in Willa’s head.


Soon, however, and sadly, I discovered that channeling the racist beliefs afloat in our culture wasn’t hard. Even for people who strive to be anti-racist, those heinous thoughts and fears are close at hand.


I took refuge in Willa’s moments of critical awareness, when she spots the illogic in the racist beliefs espoused by adults around her. I took refuge in knowing that modern-day Willa was committed to social justice, as I hope readers do, too.


But I still cringe when I reread those early scenes. Even fictional racism is disturbing. Of course, it’s not really fictional, is it? You may have noticed I don’t use the “N” word. There are plenty of stomach-turning racial slurs in the novel, but at least I avoided that one.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Yes, and yes!


Upstairs in my house is an entire shelf of history books, biographies, and culture critiques that I read for Down the Steep. I feel that accuracy is critically important in historical fiction, because this is the way most Americans learn history—through novels and also, especially, movies.


Accuracy is imperative not just in the details but in the portrayal of the culture of the era. What were the common beliefs, assumptions, values, routines, and rituals in the time period of the novel? What, in that era, did “everyone know”?


Although I easily uncovered specific racist things people said and believed at the time, I still needed to understand how these virulent racists justified their beliefs. What did they tell themselves to keep those beliefs intact?


One insight came from a 1970s issue of The Fiery Cross, the official newsletter of the Ku Klux Klan, which I found online. In it, a newsletter contributor described how he’d come across a “scientific” theory, published in 1910, of why Black people were biologically inferior to whites. 1910 would have been the heyday of the eugenics movement in the US.


This newsletter writer was irate that “the liberals” had been suppressing this information for 60 years. What? The possibility that the theory was long ago debunked did not seem to occur to the newsletter writer. Finding opportunities to blame “the liberals” is a popular strategy for preserving white supremacist beliefs.


One of the most important books I read for Down the Steep was Eli Saslow’s Rising out of Hatred, the true story of a white nationalist’s son who managed to overcome his learned racist views.


Living in Florida, Derek Black was mostly homeschooled and kept in a controlled social environment. He even partnered with his father to do a white nationalist talk show on a Florida-based radio station. Then Derek left home for college. He’d wanted to study medieval European history, and he found a college in Sarasota where he could do so: the New College of Florida.


His prolonged exposure to people from other races, religions, and cultures enabled him to gradually see the flaws in his own beliefs. Ironically, the New College has been a particular target of Ron DeSantis’s “anti-woke” campaign.


Another influential book was Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, which helped me better understand families like Willa’s.


The McCoy family history was one of being stuck in a low social stratum for generations, no matter which continent they inhabited. People like Willa’s ancestors would have started their lives in the New World as indentured servants, perennially lacking the capital, support, or knowledge to rise above their generational poverty.


Willa’s father is able to break that cycle, climbing into the middle class, only because the GI Bill paid for his college education after World War II.


I was not only surprised by much of what I learned in my research, I was appalled by it. In reading Edward Baptist’s masterfully documented history, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, I discovered that, by 1800, the land in Virginia had been so over-farmed that the state’s economy stalled, and so plantation owners turned to another profitable crop: people.


Virginia landowners produced slaves, often by raping Black women, to export to the Deep South. That was a piece of Virginia history I hadn’t been taught in school.


I read several accounts of Nat Turner’s rebellion, which occurred just a few miles from where I once lived. Turner had been taught to read, and in the Bible he found inspiration for his rebellion—for leading his people to freedom. The brutality of Turner’s rebellion was shocking, but I’d known that.


What I hadn’t known about was the brutality of the retaliation—avenging white men murdered hundreds of enslaved persons in Southampton and everywhere else in the South, most of whom had never even heard of Nat Turner. And I hadn’t known that it was after Turner’s 1831 rebellion that most slave states passed laws prohibiting the teaching of literacy to enslaved people.


In reading Charles Clotfelter’s After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation, I learned that the Supreme Court decision to end segregation (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka) was simply ignored in many places.


School districts passed devious little laws to prevent Black children from attending white schools. Private schools exclusively for white children were founded using public money (like charter schools today).


My own high school in Newport News, Virginia, a public school, had been successfully integrated by the 1970s, the student body being about half Black and half white. However, in case anyone is unaware, US schools today are still largely segregated. 

Finally, another mind-bending research experience I had was discovering Tidewater-area newspapers from 1962 and 1963. The library in my childhood town had them on actual microfiche. Those old newspapers included sections called “Women in the News” and “Coloreds in the News,” along with an editorial on whether the poll tax should be repealed.


Much of what I learned deepened my understanding of white supremacy, how it waxes and wanes but never completely disappears. The ideological thread that began with the founding of the Klan in the 1860s runs through our history and is with us today, apparent in white male nationalism and, yes, in the MAGA movement. “The Klan” may sound like a thing from the past, but it’s not. It’s just been rebranded.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Willa and Langston?


A: Ever-shifting. After the rocky start to their acquaintance, Willa gradually becomes more comfortable in Langston’s presence, noticing the qualities that make him unique.


Once Willa begins the process of growing beyond the tight boundaries of her family’s culture, she is thrilled to take a step outside of it with Langston, albeit in her imagination.


Langston is a sweetheart but he’s also brilliant and not a pushover. Initially, he despises Willa as much as she hates him. Over the course of the novel, Langston learns to tolerate Willa, then grows fond of her, much like a little sister.


Q: The writer Rebecca Makkai said of the book, “A.D. Nauman writes with compassion and understanding about characters who don’t always understand themselves--and she keeps the pages turning.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I’m thrilled and honored that Rebecca Makkai took the time to read my novel and liked it so much. I think her description is apt. Indeed my goal was to pack the novel with tension, to keep the pages turning, and also to write with compassion about the deeply flawed fictional people in my book.


All major characters need to be rendered with some degree of complexity and compassion. That said, I struggled mightily with Dick McCoy. It helped to flesh out a backstory for him: he had a terrible, rough, impoverished childhood, abandoned by his father, bullied and neglected.


Like so many men, Dick McCoy didn’t have the opportunity or resources to help himself psychologically. This backstory enabled me to feel some sympathy for him.


If I’ve written with compassion about my flawed Southern characters, it’s because I still feel a strong connection to my former Southern self. Though I now talk like a Northerner and walk too fast, I still have a sense of homecoming and calm when I cross the state line into Virginia.


Place has an enormous impact on our identity; place shapes us. I understand Southern pride, and I understand Southern defensiveness. Southerners feel that Northerners look down on them—because many Northerners do.


Popular culture routinely ridicules the South. Think about old TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Dukes of Hazzard. Think of movies like Deliverance and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods, which is currently streaming on Netflix. Apparently there’s nothing stupider or scarier than rural Southerners.


I often hear Northerners put on a Southern accent when they want to sound like a stupid person. That’s offensive. Imagine if, to mimic a stupid person, I put on a Mexican accent. That wouldn’t be tolerated.


Taking the time to think deeply about and to look from the perspective of those unlike us is not only important for creating characters, it’s critical to any social justice cause.


That said, I want to be clear on one point: in no way am I saying “there are fine people on both sides.” Those were not “fine people” marching in Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and murdering bystanders with their cars.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on another historical novel set in southeast Virginia, this one in Colonial Williamsburg. I’m having so much fun with it! I’ll be querying agents for representation in a few months.


Bird Cages is about newlyweds Cecil and Lucy, who seem like the perfect couple—both smart, civic-minded, deeply in love. But it’s 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression, and they’re moving from Chicago to Virginia for Cecil’s new job, leaving behind family and friends.


Cecil has landed his dream job as a historian on the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, but Lucy has had to quit her beloved teaching post to relocate and become a housewife.


To hang onto his position, Cecil must kowtow to the wealthy capitalists financing the restoration; in the meantime, Lucy grows bored at home, ventures out, and befriends a group of Socialist laborers. She is even seen riding around town with an extraordinarily handsome construction worker.


When Lucy becomes an outspoken supporter of Franklin Roosevelt for president, she draws the attention of wealthy, conservative donor Ogden Bell, who has the power to fire Cecil. Bell believes that Lucy, like all women, is feeble-minded and admonishes Cecil to control his wife. So, Cecil attempts to. Will this once-happy couple survive?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe two things.


First, the location of Down the Steep—Tidewater, the site of the first British colony in North America—is important. I take the time to describe it and its history because they’re meaningful: the residents there don’t view themselves as coarse, nasty racists. Those malicious people are elsewhere—in the Deep South.


There’s another place in the US where people don’t think of themselves as racists—the North, in countless urban and suburban areas. We Northerners and worldly city-dwellers pride ourselves on being woke, and yet somehow the problems in our country persist. Somehow the waves of white supremacy keep coming, the rich get richer, and people suffer.


Second, when I set out to trace the roots of our contemporary American culture wars, I thought I’d find them in the 1960s, that turbulent decade when everyone was fighting for their civil rights.


Of course, I learned that those roots go back to 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to southeast Virginia. Those roots trace back to the original belief that people who are wealthy, male, and of Northern European descent are naturally entitled to more power than everyone else.


This belief has found justification in both religion and science, and it enables the engines of capitalism to chug along unfettered. Capitalism needs racism, sexism, and classism; it needs large segments of the population to feel inferior, because low self-esteem equals cheaper labor, and cheaper labor equals more wealth for the wealthy, who hold the levers of power in the US today.


Racism and misogyny have always been and still are tightly intertwined with America’s particular brand of unregulated capitalism, and that, I think, is what most of us are having trouble waking up to.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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