Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jesus Boy, Bounce, and All or Nothing

Q: I have read three of your novels now and I enjoyed them all, Bounce, All or Nothing, and now Jesus Boy. I cannot believe that the same person wrote all three books. In Bounce, you write from the point of view of a Dominican teenaged woman, in All or Nothing, you are an insane gambling addicted guy, and in Jesus Boy you are this little Christian piano player. What I enjoyed about them all is that each character tells their story honestly and passionately, but how do you write as a worldly very sexual woman in one book and then write as a young christian man in the next one and make them both believable? I think you would be a very interesting person to meet.

A: Good question. I think I can answer this one because I have been thinking a lot lately about how I do what I do.

I think that my strength as a writer is in my ability to depict or present character compellingly. At any rate, for the most part, my stories are character driven, rather than plot driven. This being said, I approach character in two ways--from the outside and from the inside.

Let's start with the outside, which I do less frequently. When I present character from the outside, I know how he/she looks, talks, feels, sounds. I know his/her thoughts. A character like this is one that I can easily deposit into a plot. So when I have a really dynamite plot, I generally put a character of this type into it. I have done this a few times with short stories, none of which I felt was strong enough to bother submitting for publication. Thus far, I have not done it with a novel.

When I present a character from the inside, I become the character. I am Elwyn in Jesus Boy. I am P in All or Nothing. I am Cindique in Bounce. I could write about them, or write AS them, even if I weren't telling a story.

It has happened several times after I have done a reading that someone has come up to me and asked, "Are you an actor?"

I'm not, but I am performing a script that is . . . me.

My characters, I think, tend to be passionate because I will not tell their story until I know what makes them tick, until I know what they are passionate about. In every story of that sort, I can point to the sections where the character just lets go and reveals who he/she is. For me, these are the easiest and most rewarding scenes to write. The character just lets her rip. I kinda like go into a zone at this point, typing like mad to get it all down on paper. I'm thinking of Cindique where she reveals that she still loves her husband despite the abuse. I'm thinking of P in All or Nothing when he goes to GA and the meeting goes crazy because he starts fantasizing loudly about gambling--actually, I'm thinking of P in too many places--P does it a lot. I'm thinking of Elwyn in Jesus Boy when he admits he has fallen in love with Rev. Jed's daughter but realizes that such a love is doomed because his true love is with Sister Morrisohn. Stuff like that.

What I think unites my characters in all of my books is that they are prisoners in their tragic little worlds and they are self aware enough and brave enough to admit it to the reader.

So once I have a character like that, a character that is so interesting or compelling that you would be willing to spend several hundred pages with him/her, all I have to do is ask the character, "What is your story? Tell me your story."

A character like that provides each story with its own particular style and voice. You pick up the book and it just oozes with the essence of Elwyn or Cindique or P. There is no generic kind of narrative going on. The book reads unique. The book feels unique. P has to tell the story the way he tells it because he is P. Elwyn is Elwyn. I like the way he talks. I like what he is talking about. The story tells itself in its own effective way. That's why I like books like A Clockwork Orange, Charlie (Flowers for Algernon), The Color Purple, and Push (by Sapphire). I like the way they talk, I like what they are talking about. And I mean, you don't have to be extreme like some of the examples I am giving. My characters are not illiterate, nor do they live in a distopian future and speak Russo-English. But the way they speak, once I have discovered it, is crucial to the story they are telling and how it will sound in the reader's ear. Like I said, the story tells itself. It's so beautiful. It's magical. Plot is the real work in a case like this. Plot comes later. Once the magic is in place, it's time to get to work. Plot takes work.

Thanks,

Preston

Sunday, April 25, 2010

New York

I had a blast this weekend in New York, but had an odd encounter with a homeless person.

As many of you know, I am an avid walker--so instead of cabbing it to my gig at NYU, I walked. It was 2.2 miles away from my hotel, which for a brisk walker like yours truly worked out to be about 35 minutes.

Anyhow, as I was trodding down Avenue of the Americas (6th) I bought a Triple Seven scratch off ticket from a newspaper vendor. But I had no coin to scratch off with.

What to do? What to do?

Around 34th Street, I passed a homeless woman seated on the ground beside her cup of change that she had collected from the charitable of heart in the Big Apple.

I said to her, "Ma'am, do you have change for a dollar?" and I pulled out a greenback.

She grunted something that sounded like, "I don't give change."

I said, "I need a penny."

She grunted, "You're asking me for money?"

I waved the dollar at her. "If you give me a penny, I'll give you this dollar."

She grunted incredulously, "You're giving me ninety-nine cents?"

I showed her the scratch off ticket. "I need the penny."

She fired back angrily, "I'm not giving you any money!"

"To scratch off the ticket. That's all."

I waved the ticket.

"Oh." She dug into her cup and pulled out a quarter.

"No. I just need the penny."

"Oh." This time she dug in and found a penny.

She gave me the penny. I gave her the dollar. I scratched the ticket. It was close, but not a winner. I gave her back the penny, recycled the ticket, and plodded on.

New York. New York. A beggar won't give you a penny. I thought Miami was tough.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Funny and Touching

A: Professor Allen, I understand why Dennis Lehane (Shutter Island) said on the cover of JESUS BOY that it was hilarious and tender. You touch on all the serious issues, abuse, death, incest, race, faith, betrayal, true love, and even musical passion, in ways that make them resonate with seriousness and importance but without sacrificing your wit. It is amazing that you are able to pull this off. You write so well that you have me laughing at almost the same time you have me crying. I went back and read ALL OR NOTHING and found that you actually did the same thing there, but with an even darker subject, compulsive gambling. Do you do that trick in all of your novels? If so, you are now my favorite writer. And if you do the same thing in your class as a teacher, I am signing up for your ENC 1102 next semester. Thanks for coming to our class. I have to go buy your other books now.

B: Thanks for the comments. Like I said in response to a similar question earlier, I am a student of Ken Macrorie who wrote TELLING WRITING. Being humorous and serious at the same time is not so hard when you look for "fabulous realities," and then let normal human nature do the rest. Go get his book if you can find a copy of it. I think it is out of print, but you can get a copy on AMAZON probably.

Thanks,

Preston

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Old Time Gospel Music

Q: I really enjoyed the book and your class presentation. Come back again. I have a few musical questions for you concerning some things from the book. First, is Chester Harbaugh based on a real musician and is the Chester Harbaugh with Mamie Girl the same Chester Harbaugh that Sister Morrisohn listens to? Second, Elwyn later on in the book complains about modern Christian music and hymns, he thinks modern hymns are too worldly. Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart said the same thing a few years ago, I think he said it about Christian Rock music. How would Elwyn feel about Christian Hip-Hop music?

A: Chester Harbaugh is based on several real country musicians of the forties and fifties who used to sing both secular and religious music. Yes, he is the same person.

Elwyn would not like Christian hip-hop, no, probably not. Changes in music are a minor problem for people who stay in church all of their lives--they of course prefer the older songs that they sang in their youth, not this worldly sounding stuff that the young people are singing. But such changes are a MAJOR problem for Elwyn, who like many people, gets his religion young, abandons it, and then comes back to it over the course of his life whenever he needs to feel centered. Part of the centering comes from returning to our childhood, a time when for many of us things felt solid, certain, and real--things are the way they are, and this is the way they are forever. A return to church is often a nostalgic journey for many of us, and our enjoyment is disrupted by those things in our journey that have changed. Music, like dress (which Elwyn also complains about), is by its very nature subject to change over time. When Elwyn goes to church and hears modern music, church is no longer the church of his childhood and therefore no longer satisfies his nostalgic needs.

Ariel Gonzalez Interviews Preston L. Allen on WLRN radio

Religion has often played a role in Preston L. Allen's fiction, but perhaps never more so than in his new novel, "Jesus Boy." Set in Florida, it follows a group of black fundamentalists who have trouble distinguishing the sacred from the profane. Allen has won praise for his accessible style, raunchy wit, and compassion for human foibles.

Literary contributor Ariel Gonzalez spoke with Allen. He began by asking him why there was so much sex in his work. The interview begins with Allen's reply.

Reading at the Pen Festival 2010

May-June 2010, New York, NY

Preston L. Allen reading at the Pen with Javier Cercas, Siri Hustvedt, Karl O. Knausgaard, Anne Landsman, Thomas Pletzinger, Monique Proulx, Lee Stringer, Christos Tsiolkas, and Tommy Wieringa

Book Review: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography



Regular readers know that I believe the key to a successful novel to be the combination of an exciting plot and deep characterization; but if I'm forced to choose only one or the other in any particular book, I think it's clear by now that I generally prefer the former over the latter, in that stories featuring barely-defined characters doing interesting things tend to be inherently more entertaining in my head than ones where interesting people sit around doing nothing. So I'm always excited, then, when I come across the rare character-heavy novel that I end up liking quite a bit; take for example the recently released Jesus Boy by Florida professor Preston L. Allen, author of the previous gambling novel All Or Nothing which also garnered quite a bit of praise, both of which were put out by our pals at Akashic Books, who in the last few years has seemed almost incapable of making a wrong move. I thought today, then, I would take the opportunity to do an actual analytical examination of what makes this such a great character-driven novel when so many others fail so spectacularly at it, as a way of hopefully passing along a few tips to fellow writers out there who are struggling over the same issues; because believe me, Jesus Boy is an almost textbook example of how to put together an intriguing and page-flipping yet plot-light story, and it's no wonder that Akashic signed this despite it having little to do with the subversive culture and hipster characters that define most of the other titles in their catalog.

As you can imagine, step one with books like these is to create a fascinating milieu for your characters to inhabit, which Allen does: he in fact sets this book within the world of radical Protestant churches in rural south Florida with mostly black congregations, the kinds of groups with names like "The Holy Rollers" who consider even Southern Baptists to be timid wannabes, and who create elaborate conservative moral codes for their members which often contradict themselves in their specific rules. And indeed, that's what makes this milieu so fascinating, is that as human beings, the desires of these groups' members often come into direct conflict with the restrictive code of behavior they are trying to maintain; and this is in fact what Allen mostly examines in Jesus Boy, the various ways that the private lives of his expansive cast betray their public lives as the religiously pious, and the ways these schisms affect the long-term lives of these characters over the course of approximately half a century and several generations, from roughly the Jim Crow 1940s to the hiphop 1990s.

Now of course, this particular milieu is also ripe for easy, lazy stereotyping -- after all, it's these organizations that spawn most of our nation's televangelists -- which leads to my second tip concerning such novels, that they require not only fascinating environments but unique and compelling looks at these environments; and this Allen also does, centering the tale around the complex "Jesus Boy" of the book's title, a naturally gifted piano player who was hailed by his church at a young age as a zealous musical warrior for God, and who then struggles for the rest of his life over the balance between his spirituality and his heathen side, complicated even further by his decades-long secret relationship with a MILF-like older church member (during their first tryst, he's 16 and she's 42), as well as his manytimes humorous multicultural adventures at the secular state university he ends up attending. This then leads us to a closer examination of his lover as well, who turns out to have had a very similar experience in her past but that time playing the younger role, which as the novel progresses we learn is tied in complicated ways to the muddled lives of all the other characters, which then drops us down the rabbithole of how crazy and screwed-up all these relationships within the church are, filtered by such factors as pre-civil-rights

segregation, the expectations of "manliness" within African-American society, the disconnect between what we want and what we can have, and of course the all-important public face of respectability that members of the church are expected to wear at all times.

This then nicely leads us to my third tip concerning character-heavy novels, that if you're to attempt a story light on action scenes, it's important to make those scenes count for as much as possible; and it's here that Allen really shines, in that like Michael Chabon, all of his well-placed plot-oriented moments serve as true catalysts for twisting the entire story in a new direction, delivering by the end what's still a deep character study but that is quickly-paced and always inspires you to excitedly wonder what's next, whether that's the occasional fistfight or discovery of infidelity, a flight from the law or the disgrace of a popular preacher. And that of course leads to my fourth tip concerning such books, the one probably best known already, that when you choose to write a story based mostly on character, it helps to give that story a strong sense of personal style as well; and here too Allen is just great, penning the entire manuscript in a way that's both poetic and easy to read, and with a sly humor that complements very well the unhurried Southern story he's telling.

Add all these things up, like I said, and you have that special rare character-oriented novel that reads like an airport thriller, not just lively and entertaining but that gets you thinking about all kinds of subjects for the first time, or at least thinking about them in new ways. As with many recent Akashic books, I suspect that Jesus Boy will be popping up again in one of my best-of lists at the end of the year, and it comes highly recommended today whether or not you're a natural fan of character-heavy stories or fundamentalist Christians.

Out of 10: 9.3

by Jason Pettus

Review of Jesus Boy by Geoffrey Philp, Author of Who's Your Daddy and Other Stories

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to church, Preston Allen writes Jesus Boy, a story about a young Christian, Elwyn Parker, who falls in love with an older woman, Elaine Morrisohn, a matriarch in the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters. In many ways this was a difficult book to review, not only because Preston Allen is my friend and colleague at Miami Dade College, but also because of my own history with fundamentalist Christianity and Preston’s ability to depict the tortured consciousness of a teenage true believer at war with his faith and his flesh:

"At sixteen, I met my first great temptation, and I yielded with surprisingly little resistance, I who had proclaimed myself strong in the Lord. There had been, it seems, a chink in my armor, through which Satan had thrust his wicked sword" (34).

And as if dealing with his hyperactive conscience wasn’t enough, Elwyn’s plight is exacerbated by Elaine Morrisohn’s deliberate pursuit of him, even during church services:

"As she sat down with a satisfied smile on her face, she knew she was being naughty. She shouldn’t have shouted like that, but she was trying to send him a message by shouting like she did during orgasm…She just wanted to rip off her clothes and fly to him. He was so tight and so fresh and so full of juice…he was a lean, strong fresh-tasting black boy—he looked good enough to eat" (77).

But Elwyn wants to be saved. Desperately. Yet the God that Elwyn serves is a God of wrath who is eager to punish sinners, especially women who wear pants or jewelry and who listen to “worldly” music. Growing up in this kind of environment Elwyn becomes a holier-than-thou preacher—an attitude that he exhibits long after he has left the fold:

"God’s people have to be apart. They have to be different. Christians these days—I don’t understand them at all. They go to parties, they drink, they have premarital sex, they wear the fashions of the world. Even the music. These days you can’t tell the difference between a church song and hip hop" (361).

What is remarkable about Jesus Boy is Allen’s use of point of view. He writes as an insider, someone who knows the secrets within the black community and reports the intimacies of people who want to live, love, and praise God. And he does this without resorting to stereotypes or clichés. Allen explores the black family and black religion without the filters of white validation, effectively banishing the "double consciousness" theory of W. E. B. Du Bois. The characters in Jesus Boy exist in a milieu in which whites exist peripherally. Jesus Boy asserts without rancor: This is our story.

And this perhaps is one of the major accomplishments of the novel. Allen uncovers the hypocrisies within the black church in the way that James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain exposed the vision of its adherents—a world divided not along racial lines, but between the “saved” and the unsaved. And because being “saved” requires denial of the most basic human impulses, the “saved” are always in state of guilt over the state of their soul:

"Demons, I was certain, frolicked in my room after the lights were turned off. At night, I watched stricken with fear, as the headlights of passing automobiles cast animated shadows on the walls of my room. Only God, who I believed loved my singing voice, could protect me from the wickedness lurking in the dark. Thus, I sang all of God’s favorite tunes—hummed when I didn’t know the words—in order to earn his protection" (13).

There is much to admire about Jesus Boy. From the cover designed like an old family Bible to the genealogy list of the begetting that took place in Elwyn’s family, the novel has hints of Faulkner with an oversexed patriarch and a family history of incest, abuse, and illicit romance. Preston Allen has truly written what Dennis Lehane has deemed a “tender masterpiece.”

***

Preston L. Allen, a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, is the author of the critically acclaimed novel All or Nothing (Akashic) and the award-winning collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press). His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals and have been anthologized in Brown Sugar (Penguin), Miami Noir (Akashic), and Las Vegas Noir (Akashic). He lives in South Florida.

The Spectator: Review of Jesus Boy

BOOK: ‘Jesus Boy’ by Preston L. Allen

If the church’s name isn’t intense enough, Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon The Waters has an intense set of rules and lifestyle regulations to match in Preston Allen’s latest novel.

The novel follows one Elwyn Parker, a member of the Our Blessed Redeemer congregation who firmly abides by its teachings: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no secular music and no pants for women. But of course the story doesn’t just explicate the strictness of the church; it explores the turmoil running beneath its surface, and the primal urges common to all of its members. These primal urges compel Parker to explore the taboo topics that exist outside of his church’s borders—which means just about everything non-religious that life has to offer.

The book is equal parts an exploration of church-sexy and sex-sexy, and it provides an intriguing, sometimes gripping glance into the psychology of a person wrestling with the nature of religiously-imposed restriction.

Mission Statement

Here's how it works. You email me at PrestonTheWriterAllen@gmail.com, and I will answer all of your questions about the book or the writing process in general. So hurry up and read the book and start sending me questions.

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About Me

Miami, Florida, United States
According to Author's Den: "He cut his teeth on the classics of the golden age of science fiction, the lurid bestselling thrillers of the sixties and seventies, and the Holy Bible (King James Version). He grows up to pen fiction that rages with truth and insight--a master of erotica, thrillers, romance, noir, Preston L. Allen is America's writer. So let it be written, so let it be read."