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An Interview with Maurice Carlos Ruffin

[Writer]
by Adrian Van Young
July 1st, 2019

“We mirror others, and the more we love someone, the more we mirror them.”

What it might take to write a classic:
Intuitive knowledge of Lolita and Invisible Man
Cinematic lone wolves
Acknowledging that societies produce results 

I first met Maurice Carlos Ruffin on a fall night in 2016, but I’d already been hearing about him for years. In New Orleans, Ruffin is just one of those people, a literary citizen par excellence who puts in face-time at so many events you wonder, frankly, how he does it, and even when he isn’t there his presence somehow hovers near. That night in the Saturn Bar, where two other writers, the novelists Zach Lazar and Yuri Hererra, Ruffin and myself were scheduled to meet for drinks, I was eager to put Ruffin’s name to a face. (Our little cabal has maintained through the years. Every few months usually Lazar or myself will send out an email, “Drinks?” and the four of us will meet somewhere to talk about politics, movies, our lives.) Herrera, Lazar and myself knew each other, but weren’t as familiar as we would be later and so the proceedings were awkward at first—some lengthy pauses, lots of drinks. Ruffin, I remember, arrived by the streetcar, ebulliently threw himself into the mix. With lots of quick, disarming jokes and a barrister’s knack for extemporization, his presence smoothed the bumps among us. At one point or other, I said something weird (what, I can’t remember now) and started backtracking. Ruffin put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “Don’t sweat it,” I recall him saying. “That stuff is what makes us human.”

Soon after that, I asked Ruffin if he would come in to speak to my Introduction to Creative Writing class at Tulane about his story in the New Orleans Noir Anthology, “The Pie Man.” Ruffin’s is a taut, agonizing, pruriently funny story about a fourteen-year old named Baby who wears a court-mandated ankle bracelet following a brutal dust-up between his skate-rat gang, The Might Black Ninja Krew, and a Latino mechanic, who Baby and the rest of the Might BNK misperceive as part of a tide of Latino muscle sweeping through their mostly black neighborhood in New Orleans. I admired “The Pie Man” not only for its precise lyricism (Example: a post-Katrina school library where “…dried gack coats the tile and baseboards. Green paint curdles from the floodwater pox. Rivulets of rust and mold syrup drool down the walls”), but also its sharp noir plot beats and aching, bleak pathos. But only after we began discussing the story did Ruffin reveal it was actually a reinvention of one of my favorites, William Faulkner’s “Dry September,” in which a lynch-mob of vicious racists in the Jim Crow south abduct and kill a local black man accused of assaulting a white woman. In “The Pie Man,” however, Ruffin had smartly replaced Faulkner’s white lynch mob with a gang of aggrieved black adolescents, the doomed and wrongly accused black man with a doomed and wrongly accused Latino mechanic. Even “The Pie Man’s” haunting final passage, in which the protagonist Baby is cosmically implicated for a crime he can never come back from, was an emotional and aesthetic map for “Dry September,” where the leader of Faulkner’s lynch mob stands sweating and “panting,” “…the dark world [seeming] to lie stricken beneath the cold moon and the lidless stars.” This complex layering of literary allusion and subversion only increased my admiration for Ruffin’s story. I couldn’t believe I’d failed to see it. My gratitude expanded still when he revealed the story as his first publication.

That same layering of literary allusion and subversion insinuates itself throughout Ruffin’s complex and devastating debut novel, We Cast A Shadow. The book’s nameless narrator, reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s in Invisible Man, a gifted black lawyer with a wife and a son and a pill-popping problem ushers us into his precipitous existence in an unnamed southern city where he slips through the world by the skin of his teeth, hopeful of being made partner in his law firm. No sooner have we entered the story, however, than its reality saws vertiginously, revealing the world of the novel as an only faintly exaggerated map of our own: socioeconomic disparities yawn, segregating most of the city’s black population into an industrial-strength slum called “the Tiko”; corporate entities court cynical campaigns of faux-inclusiveness; and the medical fad of “de-melanization,” the process by which a black person can become white, runs rampant. In fact, Ruffin’s narrator, as much kin to Vladimir Nabokov’s merry deceiver Humbert Humbert as he is to Ellison’s alien basement-dweller, slowly reveals that he himself harbors what are, in his mind, completely rational plans of “de-melanization” for his young son, Nigel. Nigel’s mother Penny is white (“He didn’t have to attack his hair with noxious chemicals, like I did,” the narrator tells us, “to make it unkink”) and he has a dark birthmark spreading across his face, at first just “a speck, like a fleck of oregano, on Nigel’s eyelid” that gradually widens and darkens to “a silhouette the shape of New Zealand or perhaps the Wu-Tang Clan symbol turned on its head.” Cautiously, as though he doesn’t trust us yet to reckon with the full scope of his internalized self-loathing, the narrator describes his son’s birthmark “metamorphosing” “from wheat to sienna to umber, the hard hue of my own husk, as if a shard of myself were emerging from him.” From there, We Cast A Shadow tracks our narrator as he puts himself through all manner of indignity, absurdity, inhumanity and, finally, loss to afford Nigel’s treatment, as much a harbinger of his own life’s ruin as he is a casualty of the predatory, white supremacist culture that surrounds him. We Cast A Shadow is equally a novel of grand ideas and narrative pleasures. It’s also a heartbreaker; no spoilers here. Suffice to say only that the novel’s final passages find the narrator awestruck and abject before the “memory of [his] darker self, fading into the grasslands of the past.”

By email, I caught up with Ruffin in the midst of a busy schedule touring for and promoting We Cast A Shadow, maintaining his law practice, and teaching at Tulane. Among other matters, we discussed loners in film, dystopian world-building by sleight of hand, the inevitable outcomes of white supremacy, the unwieldiness of New Orleans as a fictional setting and, of course, Ralph Ellison and Vladimir Nabokov.

—Adrian Van Young

THE BELIEVER: So much of the world building in dystopian fiction is either didactic or over-determined, which is why I was delighted to find you working with such a light touch in We Cast A Shadow. The immediate world of the book—an unnamed Southern city that may or may not be New Orleans—is like this uncanny map of our own. How did you make those choices in your process of world-building? Were there any other texts you looked to as a model? 

MAURICE CARLOS RUFFIN: I didn’t set out to make it a “Speculative Fiction” novel. I only wanted to create a world that was plastic enough to contain the kinds of incidents that wound up in the book. I pondered Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Both of those books employ the light touch you mention. There’s no information dump in the first chapter where the text explains the year, place, and how their world differs from ours. Instead, it’s like descending into a warm pond at night. A little disconcerting, but mostly pleasurable.

BLVR: It’s more or less the world we live in. And I love what you say about that “warm pond at night.” Which describes not only the world building, but also the writing in We Cast A Shadow—its unhurried lyricism and stately pacing. It’s a rewarding style for a novel because, while thematically contemporary, the writing itself seems to hearken back to an earlier time—is moving against the grain of our own. How did you settle on that unique voice and pacing for the book? Do you see yourself, stylistically, as somewhat of an iconoclast?

MCR: I’m definitely an iconoclast stylistically. I don’t try to conform to trends or fads. My writing heroes probably seemed a bit odd in their time. But in hindsight we see what they were doing. They did their thing, and it worked well. I do mine, and we’ll see. I love that reviewers have described the book as both fast-paced and lyrical. That combination is a paradox, and it’s what I was going for because that combination is me. Like a poet in boxing gloves.

BLVR: Lots of people, including Kiese Laymon, have referred to the book as having the feel of a “classic.” I must say I kind of agree. Did you consciously set out to write one—a classic, I mean? 

MCR: I did. I mean to say that I built the novel to be sturdy, to last. So many of the things my grandparents owned were so well-made: their pots and pans, their clothing, their cars. We’re much more “purchase and dump” now, which is ironic since so many people are into recycling and sustainability, supposedly. I read Ellison’s Invisible Man and thought, “it is many decades old, but it is still relevant. That’s what I’d like to do.” I didn’t want to look back and think that I could have done so much more, if I took the time to think deeper. So I took the time, and I thought deeper. I think this is true of anything by Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, or N.K. Jemisin. It’s true of Confederacy of DuncesLolita, and the plays of Shakespeare. People can come back to this book and find something new each time. They can find delight and connection in their teens or 60s. 

BLVR: That’s lovely. Almost a kind of pathos and/or tenderness for your reader in granting them this gift. The parallels between We Cast a Shadow and Invisible Man are plainly evident. And—more so on the plot level, without giving too much away—to Lolita, as well, both of which you quote in your epigraph. How did you envision yourself in conversation with Ellison and Nabokov, respectively, over the course of writing this novel? To what degree did you seek to expand their territories or incorporate theirs in yours?

MCR: Ellison and Nabokov are two of my favorite teachers! Those books are formative for me because they dig deeply into being. What is my best purpose in this world? What dreams am I allowed to have? Invisible Man is just about a guy trying to have the American basics: an education, a career, etc. But the American basics are not a given for most Americans. That’s why we call it a dream. The American Dream. My narrator is on the same mission. Then you have Humbert Humbert, who is given a gift in Lolita: Lolita herself. But he blows it. He could have evolved into a truly fantastic step-father. But he allows his base needs to control him. Ellison doesn’t deal with family or love very much, and Nabokov doesn’t deal with the effects of racism or white supremacy. I asked myself what would I do if I were writing in the vein of those two writers. I would have a loving family dealing with the effects of white supremacy. 

BLVR: So essentially you built the superstructure of your narrative, in certain ways, around tantalizing absences in theirs. Do you see your own narrator, who manipulates and cajoles his son into dying his skin white, as being somewhat like Humbert Humbert—someone who could’ve made the choice to be a better man but gave himself over to the degradations of his nature?

MCR: That’s a keen way of putting it. I’ve always heard that jazz is about the notes you don’t play, so maybe I’m playing their silences. My narrator is definitely related to Humbert Humbert, but I like to let the readers judge his choices. And they have! What I’ve heard most often from readers is that he makes a lot of horrific choices, but they get it. On the other hand, Humbert Humbert had no good reason to harm Lolita other than selfishness. The Narrator in my book is facing the same external pressures that we all see in America. Theoretically, anyone might be pushed to do what he does.

BLVR: Except the narrator in We Cast a Shadow is black, which makes his external pressures far more pernicious. On what level do you find his motivations in doing what he does to his family—smothering his son in skin-whitening treatments, serially deceiving his wife—to be understandable?

MCR: I think the Narrator is a good man in an impossible position. He’s confronted by a series of ever more difficult choices that he must make if he is to continue along the path of protecting his son. He is always active in the face of obstacles, but it’s hard to applaud his decisions. Yet, it’s a testament that something is broken in his society that he must do what he does. 

BLVR: So the story of the novel is one of a good man whose goodness is compromised by the demands of an untenable society.

MCR: Societies produce results. Some societies produce a large number of watch-makers or comedians. The society in the book produces our Narrator. I think there’s something broken in a society that encourages a man to change his kid’s racial identity. Individual responsibility is important, but none of us grow to maturity in a vacuum. We’re the sum of our influences. 

BLVR: That’s well put. He’s a beautifully drawn character. He is fastidious and outwardly cheery, an overachiever, but also deeply melancholy. He is a drug addict. And a loving father. How did the arc of his character change as you went about crafting the novel?

MCR: He became more well-defined, more driven, and more implacable. In the early drafts, he was much more of a loner. No family or anything! That meant his stakes were lower. The forces against him were weaker, so he was less active and focused. He has much more of a journey in the published version. He meets so many interesting people and changes significantly as a result of his choices. In TV terms, I’d say his character arc is pretty lo-fi character in the early drafts. But he’s ultra-high def by the time you encounter him. 

BLVR: It’s interesting to hear you say that because even for such an active character when it comes to the mechanism of the narrative, he is still undeniably a loner—or at least lonely. Lonely in his implacability, let’s say. As a reader, your heart breaks for him, because he’s powerless to resist what drives him even as it gradually begins to strip away all those he loves and for whom he’s been striving in the first place—his son, his wife, his childhood friends, his very sense of self. How did you manage to get the narrator’s psychic and emotional isolation to work for the plot?

MCR: I think a lot of novice writers are introverts and create guys like my narrator. But they let their protagonists remain neutral or passive, which makes for a dull story. The Narrator is much more like a loner we find in western films like High Noon or a Japanese ronin like in Lone Wolf and Cub. Or like James Bond for that matter. He keeps to himself, but has a very specific mission that requires him to act ferociously at certain moments in the narrative. So when a choice must be made, he’s unafraid of pulling the trigger, so to speak. 

BLVR: It’s funny you should mention film, because I happen to know from our personal relationship you’re an avid cinephile. And even though it’s highly interior at times, We Cast a Shadow does have a cinematic resonance in how many of the scenes are staged as well as the arc of the plot. To what degree do you find film an influence on your work? Who are some of your favorite filmmakers working today?

MCR: Film is a huge influence on me. I watch dozens of films a year. I’m a visual thinker, and I love how great movies tell incredible stories in a short span of time. They’re the protein bars of entertainment. I love high class art films like the Woman in the DunesBreathless, and Wild Strawberries. I’ll watch anything by Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, Jean Renoir, Miyazaki, or Kurosawa. But I also liked Aquaman and just watched Crazy Rich Asians. It was great. I believe the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman are two of the greatest cinematic achievements of past few decades. Today, I love Barry Jenkins, Boots Riley, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Iñárritu, Cuarón, del Toro, Lynn Ramsay, and David O. Russell. Chris Nolan has yet to disappoint me. 

BLVR: What’s your pie-in-the-sky lineup for a film adaptation of We Cast a Shadow? Actors, director, screenwriter—the works?

MCR: We’re “in talks” so I wouldn’t presume to pick the cast and crew. But I will say that I’m not the kind of writer who would want to be intimately involved in a production. I admire the art and craft of what filmmakers and actors do. I love watching stories leap from medium to medium. I like to let people do their work. 

BLVR: Is it safe to assume, then, you’re one of those writers who more or less relinquishes ownership of their work after it goes out into the world? What has surprised you (good or bad) about the way the book has been received?

MCR: I’m a fan of well-done adaptations. I respect artists in other fields like film, TV, and theater.  I love it when they Surprise me with innovation. Have you seen Handmaid’s Tale? I read the book three times because Margaret Atwood is a stone-cold genius. And the TV show is remarkable! I could easily see my book being a great film or great TV show. I don’t have to write the screenplay or teleplay, but I can definitely do it. I can write anything. I’m surprised at how much people love the complexity of it. People will say, “This book had way more layers than I was expecting. I needed this.” I figured it would take grad students a decade or more to notice the book is teeming with Easter eggs and allusions. 

BLVR: Your confidence is refreshing—especially in the book world, where false modesty reigns. Do you expect people as a matter of course to be averse to “complexity” in literature, even when they don’t mind it so much in, say, TV (Handmaid’s Tale, Atlanta, True Detective)? Where do you think our culture stands when it comes to addressing and appreciating complex narrative works?

MCR: I think people want complexity, but they also want entertainment. l ask friends what are their favorite books they name things like Song of Solomon or the Harry Potter series. They work because they do both so well. I think many writers are literal geniuses but forget the fun part. Our culture rewards writers who strike that balance and that’s what people say I’ve done with Shadow.

BLVR: Good to hear, because that was how I experienced the novel as well. What’s the most complex/entertaining work you’ve encountered recently that really strikes that balance? Moreover, could you ever see yourself diverting from so-called “complex literature” to write something purely entertaining—a more overtly commercial novel, maybe? Are the two ever mutually exclusive?

MCR: Lolita does it for me. When I think of complex and entertaining, I think of Lolita first. It’s still a bestseller decades later, but it’s the kind of book scholars are still trying to untangle. The commercial/literary question is a scale, so they’re not mutually exclusive. I could see doing something more plot-oriented one day. But it would still concern the topics and problems I like to think about.

BLVR: Lolita indeed! They’re some wonderfully thorny topics and problems, race and power foremost among them, obviously. As a white reader, I found myself connecting to the agony of the narrator’s position, more so even his son’s, but also the inability of the narrator’s wife (a white woman) to ever truly understand his predicament—the sadness of that, but also the realness. How did you navigate engaging both black and white audiences in your discussion of race in the novel?

MCR: Realness is my guiding star. With all the characters—but especially the Narrator and his wife—I wanted an honest and plain conversation about racism from their earned perspectives. I think readers can see themselves in these characters. We’re most interested in ourselves, so that makes the work engaging. 

BLVR: I certainly saw myself in the father. Indeed, your depiction of fatherhood is exquisitely painful and tender. How did you go about crafting it?

MCR: I’m not a father, but I am a son. We mirror others, and the more we love someone, the more we mirror them. My father died. But in virtually every action he took, I saw his love for me. From mundane lessons like when he taught me to ride a bike to life-and-death lessons such as the time he rescued me from drowning in a camp lake. I’m not a father but I saw in my father that combination of love and fear that drives the best parents. It was a short step to infuse my narrator with some of that mindset.

BLVR: On a separate note, what do you hope your novel will contribute to the conversation about race in America today?

MCR: I hope my book will spur the passions of anyone who has questions about racism and white supremacy, which should be everyone. My novel is like an airport hub. By entering it, you can take a journey anywhere you choose. On that journey, you’ll get history, politics, even romance, all through the lens of race. At the end of the journey, I want readers’ curiosity to push them to read and encounter other works that will help them understand what we’re all experiencing.

BLVR: Realness is your guiding star! Toni Morrison, a writer we’ve discussed admiring mutually, once said, “I’m writing for black people, in the same way Tolstoy was not writing for me…” You seem to be saying, from a place of love and deep concern, that you’re writing for everyone, that everyone has or should have a stake in the abiding social disease of white supremacy. 

MCR: I write for people who like my writing. Seriously though. I write for myself first because I’m trying to understand my life and the life of the world. Then I write for my community, New Orleans, which is mostly Black—even though many people who have Black ancestry pass for white. I write for the South, which is my family, and I want my family to be better. And then there’s everyone else and the question of the obliteration of white supremacy, which must be destroyed by the folks who benefit from it.

BLVR: Yeah, the Morrison quote was a bit out of context, so thanks for rolling with it. You wrote a really sharp piece for LitHub after the 2016 election that, as a white person, I shrank from at first, but have since come to recognize as prescient (“The Effects of White Supremacy Are Non-Transferrable”), which lovingly but incisively interrogated the shock of liberal white America at Trump’s election. What if anything of that same white naïveté/perception gap did you seek to examine in We Cast A Shadow?

MCR: Yeah. I wrote that Lithub piece  after I finished writing the book and after the 2016 presidential election along with a related Lithub piece about the would-be president and white supremacy, which came out election day. They both went viral. I spoke the truth, but I don’t think that piece earned me any friends among my white peers. I remember reading either that or the other piece in an art gallery in the French Quarter that season. Mostly white audience. A few people I know and like a lot. I think the audience was uniformly mortified. No applause. No nods. There’s nothing in that piece that would shock any Black person. It’s just lived experience. But the mixture of emotions I received ranged from shock to shame to anger. Of course, there were a lot of newly angry people then. I don’t know how many of them are still angry.

BLVR: I love what you say about “writing for your community,” New Orleans (the city where you were raised and where you currently live) and its cultural complexities. In spite of what many might think, it’s a difficult city to write about. I say this from my own experience, having fumblingly just set a novel there myself. Why did you choose to set WCAS in a thinly veiled version of your birth city?

MCR: Like any author, I love control of my narrative, and New Orleans is the most unwieldy city in America. I couldn’t have hoped to contain it without fictionalizing it. By shifting the setting, I was able to deploy all my best techniques and have a sense that they would actually work.

BLVR: Ironic in that WCAS is, in some ways, a satire and satire is social critique through exaggeration. So it’s almost like you had to de-exaggerate a city that already exaggerates itself in order for it to work for the book. How was the American South, which you call your “family,” crucial to the satire we witness in WCAS?

MCR: In New Orleans, we wear a lot of literal masks and costumes as well as plenty of metaphorical masks and costumes. If you’re a Mardi Gras Indian, you put on that outfit, which connects you to your ancestors and the Native Americans who fought alongside your ancestors for freedom. If you work tables at a fancy restaurant, you put on a certain bearing to survive your encounters with privilege, entitlement, and white supremacy. In writing the book, I had to decide which masks to deploy where. That’s the art of it: in the deciding. We’re such a strange place. I was just looking at photos of the royal court of one of the Mardi Gras organizations. They were dressed in stockings, wigs, masks, and crowns with the feathers sticking out of the top. I kept thinking, “they think they’re European royalty, just like the plantation owners thought.” And the organizations are effectively segregated. Who needs satire when I can just pull a mask from the shelf?

BLVR: In New Orleans, you recently started teaching creative writing at Tulane. As someone relatively new to the teaching game, how has it suited you so far?

MCR: I love it! Creative writing professors are part of a special class of humans I love, including librarians, booksellers, and editors. All have played a big role in my development as a person and writer, so it’s cool to be teaching. My students are really talented and really engaged. They constantly surprise me with their heart and creativity. And they like snacks as much as I do. So I guess I’m not a bitter veteran yet. But check back with me next semester!

BLVR: I’ll end with a two-parter—of celebration. What are some of the coolest and strangest parts of having had such a well-received debut novel? And, what’s next?

MCR: It’s eerie to do so well. I try keep it in perspective. I ask a lot of veteran writers about their take on what I’m experiencing. They say they’ve never seen a debut author get red carpet treatment quite like I have. They don’t help me keep it in perspective! But the must fun thing has been encountering readers who more or less say that I did my work. I created a complex, entertaining, deep book. That’s all I really wanted. Next up for me is another book! I just sold my short story collection to One World Random House, so be on the lookout for it. I guarantee it will rock your world.

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