Preston L. Allen is a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, and he is the author of Jesus Boy, All or Nothing, and Churchboys and Other Sinners. He has been anthologized in Brown Sugar, Miami Noir, and Las Vegas Noir. Gulf Stream staff member, Brett Kaplan, had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Allen via email about his most recent novel, Every Boy Should Have A Man.
BK: On the cover of Every Boy Should Have a Man, Les Standiford, author and director of the Creative Writing Program at FIU, is quoted: “A tour de force.” (the epitome of what any reader looks for in a novel). Teachers and professors of all walks merit the upmost respect, but when we consider the educator who is also a writer, well, that takes things to a whole nother lever. How are you able to balance your time between Preston the teacher, the writer, and the family man?
PA: The teacher part of the equation is easy because it comes with a fixed schedule that you can work around. Family has no real schedule. Yes, there are parts of it that are scheduled, but no matter what you’re doing, there are emotional aspects of it that have to be taken care of as well as the eye that has to remain open for the unexpected–your child who’s depressed because he didn’t make the baseball team, or who scrapes his knee from a fall, or who suddenly comes down with the chicken pox. My writing–like my teaching–must abide by a schedule. I write in bed on an iPad in the wee hours of the morning when everyone else is asleep. But if inspiration comes, then I must binge. Inspiration came with this book, so I binged big time. Thank god I have an understanding wife.
BK: On the acknowledgements page of Every Boy, you say that the inspiration for the novel came from an Earth Ethics course in the swamps. What about that experience inspired the novel? And prior to this experience, had you been searching for a way to get your observations of all that is wrong in the world on the page?
PA: That’s an easy one. Fear of alligators. Then afterwards considering the irony of that fear. It is they who should fear me. The human animal is the most fearsome predator of all.
Alligator? Heck, we hunt alligator, eat alligator for lunch, make a spectacle of it in our zoos, turn it into fashionable pocketbooks and belts. In parts of the world the supposedly mighty and allegedly fearsome alligator is going extinct because of us. It is we who have to turn around and make laws to preserve it. “Ha. Take that, you bad, old alligator. We humans are pretty scary too!”
The writer in me asked: but what if there were a predator higher on the food ladder than we are?
Whatever this predator is, it must live in cities as we do, have a culture with problems like ours has, have families structured like ours are. And one of those families must have an eight-year old son like I was who brings home a stray dog on a makeshift leash and has his mother tell him to get rid of it because it is mangy, flea bitten, and pissing on the linoleum . . .
A voice in my head whined, “But mom, every boy should have a . . . man!”
BK: Every Boy gives us a closer look at the tribulations that face humanity at the most basic level—from the viewpoint of what we know to be a dog (or man, for the uninitiated)—yet there are so many that it becomes overwhelming. Are you hopeful that someday we’ll all be able to get it together with each other?
PA: I think that on some level cruelty, ungratefulness, selfishness, and self destructiveness are key parts of the make up of the human animal. Then again, so are compassion, empathy, courage, thankfulness, and self-sacrifice. I’m hopeful that someday the more noble parts of our nature will triumph.
BK: Red Locks, our beloved heroine, is sent to war with the oafs (the pretentious, crème de la crème of human beings). It turns out that for oafs, there’s nothing better than the taste of a roasted man. When Red Locks learns this reality, and the reader comes across the lines: “Surely, you cannot eat us! We are your mans! We work by your side in the mines!” we are devastated. It is undermined by our ungrateful nature, but does humankind’s aloof standing above all other life concern you? We really are the masters of our mans, aren’t we? Can we change that?
PA: Yes, we are masters of our mans, but remember in many ways we are oafish. We are pinheads. We are illogical. We are aloof when we should be concerned. Again, I am an optimist who believes in our ability to change, but not so much in our will to change.
BK: Reading this novel is humbling: it gives the everyman the realization that we’re in a ton of trouble if we continue to treat not only each other, but this planet, with such hate and oppression. With that said, I couldn’t stop myself from not wanting to turn each page. Your elegant, yet swift, prose makes this novel “A tour de force,” as some may say. Are you yourself, as is Red Locks, a musical man? Because I can hear it on the page.
PA: It’s understandable that my work would have a musical feel. I listened to a lot of music coming up and still do. I write with headphones on. Music is in my bones. In high school I played the clarinet, the saxophone, and, because I was planning on earning a music scholarship, the bassoon. That last one is not true. I played the bassoon because I liked the look, feel, and sound of the instrument. Scholarship or not, I would have played that one. Plus, for six years I got to sit next to the cute girl who played the French horn.
I have been known to tinkle the ivory eighty-eights from time to time. I could already play gospel, but I received my classical piano instruction from jazz string bassist Samuel Adolphus, A.K.A. “Lord Doc,” who, like his model Oscar Peterson, never played a song the same way twice. Whether playing the string bass or the piano, my teacher’s fingers were dazzling with their dexterity and speed. I could read music, but for a kid it required too much effort to be even adequate. I found it an unnecessary challenge that separated me from the music. My real strength, or so I believed, was my ear. When I came to a tricky passage in Czerny, I would rely on my ear and my memory for survival. Mr. Adolphus, who caught this immediately, would demand that I play it the way it was written. But I was getting tired of Czerny and Chopin. I was 13.
One day I mustered the courage to ask him to teach me to play the way he played. And he told me to play it the way I wanted it to be played. Furthermore, he told me, “Play any song. Play it the way you want to play it. Show me what you got, kid.” So I played for him “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and revealed to him a secret. “I am the pianist at my church.” He revealed to me that he too was a church pianist. After that we made a deal that from time to time he would teach me a genuine gospel riff to put into my “by ear” music so that I would impress at church if, and only if, I practiced my sight-reading. I learned many gospel riffs and improved only slightly as a reader of music. So I won!
Now in church I could play the standard hymns, the newer gospel numbers, and when the older folk got the holy spirit and broke into an ancient song that we moderns were unfamiliar with, I could keep up with them so well that the congregants believed I had an encyclopedia of sacred songs in my head.
Of course, if I had learned to sight-read better I might have earned that music scholarship on the bassoon.
BK: Have you heard the saying, “Your subconscious is smarter than you are?” Do you subscribe to this idea? Looking on from the outside, it makes sense to me that revision, as for most writers, is the longest part of your writing process. Do you let yourself pour it all out during the initial drafts, and then go back and get into editing mode? Or, is each sentence agonized over for word-choice and what not during the initial writing process?
PA: When I am at my inspired best, I write like I play piano. I write by ear. I hear the music in my head and I play. The story pours out of me onto the page. At that stage I trust my instincts. Later on comes the hard work. I’ve written at least three novels in under two weeks. It took an average of two years to edit them to the place where I felt confident enough to send them off to publishers where more revision would take place. All or Nothing was written in about two weeks and took nearly three years to fix. Every Boy Should Have a Man was written in a week in the spring of 2009 and I started shopping it in the summer of 2010. Bounce, a self published bit of erotica, was written on Good Friday 2000, by hand, in a car, in a parking lot from 7:25 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but took about a year to fix (this is a story I must address in a future interview). I think the process is lengthy because you not only want to fix the grammar and spelling, correct inconsistencies, reroute straying ideas, clip wordiness, and apply some polish and shine to the vague passages, but also take care that these “fixes” do not disturb the flow of the piece. This process brings to mind the e.e. cummings poem “In Just.” He makes up words and phrases like “puddle-wonderful” and “mudluscious” that probably came to him in on flow of inspiration. How do you fix a poem like this? Capture the feel and flow of the artist’s ideas and at the same time conform to the rules of spelling and grammar? Is fixing even necessary? I’m between Scylla and Charybdis. Sound and feel on the one hand; sense, logic, and to some degree comprehension on the other. For me, that process is the hardest but you reap no rewards if you do not undergo it.
BK: Every boy should have a man, but should every man have a boy?
PA: Ha. Good one. I have to be careful here. You have reversed it. I have to align my metaphors with fixed points. Yes, every man should have a boy, but every man, if by man we mean “animal” in specific and “nature” in general, can get along just fine without a boy if by boy we mean “humankind.” What I’m saying is that nature can get along just fine without us, but we can’t get along without nature. And here is one of the key messages in the book. If we hurt nature we are actually shortening the time we will inhabit the planet. We are working toward our own extinction. The earth is resilient. It won’t go down without a fight. We just won’t be here to witness its victory.
Preston Allen presented at the 2013 Miami Book Fair International, and his novels are available from Akashic Books.