Andrea Lewis’s short story collection What My Last Man Did won the Indiana Review / IU Press 2016 Blue Light Books Prize (IU Press 2017), and will be launching this Saturday at the Blue Light Reading! In this interview, she discusses research, place, music, and how she knew What My Last Man Did was ready to submit. Be sure to read excerpts of Andrea’s prize-winning collection, and order your copy from IU Press today!
Andrea Lewis’s work has appeared in many literary journals, including Prairie Schooner, Cutthroat, Cold Mountain Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader. Three of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is a founding member of Richard Hugo House, the place for writers in Seattle. She lives with her husband on Vashon Island, Washington. More of her work is available at www.andrealewis.org.
1. What My Last Man Did is a linked collection, excavating layers of family history across time and space. How did you go about determining which stories would be told, and by whom?
The writing began at the end––that is, with the stories set in the 1970s with Hannah and Iris Delgado. Hannah always felt like the natural narrator for those three stories, maybe because Iris is so reclusive; she would never give people all that personal detail!
I wasn’t sure I had a linked collection until I picked up on Louis Paradiso’s background. I wanted him to have a colorful backstory, which became his beautiful courtesan grandmother in New Orleans (who showed up one day in discovery writing). Working back to when his grandmother would be alive landed me in 1895-1901 and in New Orleans. I put her “husband” (they cannot legally marry) in the French Opera House because I love opera. His narrative voice was like channeling some part of myself––I don’t know why, but he was the easiest character, so two stories are in his voice. After I had the later-date and the earlier-date stories book-ended, I decided to try to touch on each decade in between, with Louis Paradiso as the bridge between the book’s two families. At that point, I started determining what blanks to fill in, what year/decade was needed to supply a key event, and what style of narration would convey that.
2. One of my favorite aspects of your collection is the rich sense of place that permeates each story, whether we’re in post-war London or the mangrove marshes of Galveston. Did evoking these settings require much research?
The research was intense. I’ve never been to Galveston and I’ve barely seen New Orleans (and never in 1895!), so all of that was book- and internet-research. I prefer that to visiting a place, which can leave me “tyrannized by reality.” Plus, I’m too introverted to go to places and poke around and ask questions and meet people. Give me an afternoon alone in the library any day.
I was fortunate to be studying with a brilliant Seattle writer and teacher, Priscilla Long (every writer should have her books, The Writer’s Portable Mentor and Minding the Muse). One thing she emphasizes is place, including, for example, making a list of 100 plants native to the place you’re writing about. Also I make lists (lexicons) of concrete nouns for anything possibly related to the place and the characters. (You don’t have to use them all, but you must have the list.) That forms the basis for shoe-horning in as much atmosphere as possible as you go along.
I read books on Galveston architecture, studied old maps of New Orleans, learned the geology of southwestern New Mexico, read novels and watched movies about the Storyville district of New Orleans, googled flora and fauna of Texas, read Lafcadio Hearn’s fabulous book Chita about a hurricane on the Gulf Coast, studied photos of McClellan Air Force Base, corresponded with Cajun dialect experts in Louisiana, read old copies of the Picayune newspaper in library archives (oh, that tiny type!), and researched the 1948 Olympic Games in London. On and on and on. It was wonderful.
3. Music, especially jazz, is a thread running through several of the stories. The collection even takes its title from a song performed by one of the characters. What is required in order to bring music to life through written text?
I’ve tried so many times throughout my writing life to evoke music or express the feelings arising from it, and I find it extremely difficult. Perhaps my passion for music blinds me to the exact language one needs, and I dissolve into sentimentality. I find musical performers––and musical geniuses like Duke Ellington––irresistible and fascinating. I want to understand them, but I don’t. Their talent seems like a gift from another world.
I hope in What My Last Man Did that I was able to “bring music to life through written text.” If I did, it came about by pushing characters into turbulent situations and then using musical ideas to reinforce that. You have to be careful not to “borrow” the emotion of a piece of music and insert it as a substitute for the characters’ real emotions.
I spent a lot of time researching blues songs that the character Cate Paradiso might sing (circa 1917). I also made up some song titles. But “You Can’t Do What My Last Man Did” is a real song, written by James P. Johnson. As soon as I put it in the story, I knew I had the title for that story, if not for the book.
4. Which of the stories presented the greatest challenge in writing, and how did you overcome that challenge?
“Tchoupitoulas” was the biggest challenge. I knew I had to show the central character, Louis Paradiso, as a boy, setting something in the 1930s, but I had no “inspiration” about how to do it. It was the last story to be written for the collection, and it felt like a chore, whereas the others were never easy but a joy. I overcame this with endless hours of discovery writing on the narrator Genevieve St. Victoire. I studied up on the old New Orleans social class, les gens de couleur libre. I had to look closely at Louis’s mother’s suicide, which I had been avoiding. But it’s always the smallest details that save you: When I pictured the blood under Louis’s fingernails (mentioned in the first sentence), it helped a lot. On a structural note, something about deciding on those Roman numerals and subheads––four place names, three of which have the name of a saint!––organized the chaos and set things in motion.
5. What was your process for ordering the stories?
I’m not sure how logical that was. More of a gut feeling. Somehow I knew I did not want to start in 1895 and march forward to the end. That was too linear, but randomness was too random. It seemed that starting and ending with the “present day” (in this case 1975-77) would give the historical stuff a frame that would be meaningful. Very early on, it felt natural to have the Delgado sisters bracket the whole, and I never debated it too much after that.
6. Were there any books that inspired you in your writing of What My Last Man Did?
One of my favorite writers is Michael Ondaatje, and his Coming Through Slaughter was an inspiration, so much so that I set the title story in Slaughter, LA, as an homage. That book also inspired me to make the title story read like many separate jazz riffs, from different points of view (i.e., instruments). The aforementioned Chita by Lafcadio Hearn was a big influence. For linked stories, especially those that go back in history, I admire A Short History of Women by Kate Walberg and Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber.
7. How did you know when the collection was finished and ready to submit?
That was a hard call. I worked with my writing mentor and reviewers and tried to get a feeling for how complete it was. I sent it to some open readings and used the feedback to keep revising. When it attained runner-up status in a few competitions, I assumed I was close and stopped tinkering so much (except for “Castle Bravo” which I tinkered with mercilessly until the very end). When the 2016 Blue Light Books Prize was announced, I felt ready, except my manuscript was too long! I deleted two stories from the original and wow, did that help. It improved the balance of the book overall. I’m so happy with the result. Indiana University Press feels like where it belonged all along. I want to thank the wonderful people at Indiana Review, IU Press, Blue Light Books, and especially the mighty Michael Martone.
If you’ll be in Bloomington on Saturday, 3/25, don’t miss Andrea Lewis, Raena Shirali, and Cathy Bowman reading from their work at the Bishop Bar, 7 p.m.!