The 2020 Fiction Prize is open until March 31! In this interview, our fiction editor Jenna Wengler sits down with prize judge Angela Flournoy to talk about her writing influences, ghosts, and what makes a great short story.
Angela Flournoy is the author of The Turner House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times notable book of the year. The novel was also a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and an NAACP Image Award. She is a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree for 2015. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, and she has written for The New York Times, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flournoy received her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California. She has taught at the University of Iowa, The New School, Columbia University, Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles.
Flournoy was the 2016-17 Rona Jaffe Foundation Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. She was awarded a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and is currently a Mary Ellen von der Heyden fellow in fiction at the American Academy in Berlin.
The Turner House is in some ways deeply rooted in realism, as it explores the traumatic effects of the 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis on an African American family in Detroit. And yet, the novel opens with a chaotic encounter with a “haint,” and Cha-Cha’s struggle with the haint becomes one of the most memorable storylines in the novel. How did you negotiate the relationship between the characters’ brutal financial reality and the ghost story? Do you think about genre as you write, or does blending genre come naturally?
I think that for many writers genre is a concept you learn or are taught to take into account long after you develop your love of stories and storytelling. I don’t think about genre when writing, I think about the best way to tell the story I’d like to tell, as well as what elements feel real to the world I’m creating for my characters. In The Turner House, many, but not all characters believe in the possibility of a haint being real. My portrayal of the haint is rooted in exploring these characters’ relationships to their own beliefs. I never gave much thought to the conventions of incorporating this “magical” element into the story; I simply considered how it might impact my characters.
This introduction of the haint in the opening chapter of the novel feels like a reference to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. However, in a departure from Beloved, your ghost scene is injected with a sense of humor that continues to crop up throughout the story. How does humor function in a novel that also deals quite seriously with such topics as race, intergenerational trauma, and financial ruin?
The epigraph of The Turner House includes a quotes from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men: “The negro offers a feather-bed resistance. That is, we let the probe enter but it never comes out. It gets smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries.” This, in part, encapsulates my tonal approach to the novel.
If a short story were a house, what would be its foundation? In other words, what elements do you see as most essential to crafting a great short story?
When I think about what differentiates an acceptable short story from a truly great one, it is skin in the game. Where is that kernel of true feeling or insight that elevates all other parts of the narrative?
What are your literary obsessions? What images or ideas do you find yourself returning to again and again?
There are way too many images to name, but I will say that compellingly-rendered human interactions trump abstract ideas for me in most cases.
And finally, what are you reading right now?
I am reaching Romance in Marseille, a newly-released novel by Claude McKay which was written in the 1930s but never published.