An Interview with Jeffrey Renard Allen

by Randolyn Zinn

Jeff AllenRead Jeffrey Renard Allen’s masterful novel Song of the Shank (published by Greywolf Press) and you'll meet Thomas Greene Wiggins, a 19th century slave and musical genius who performed as Blind Tom. The book earned rave reviews, was named a New York Times’ Notable Book of 2014, and was a finalist for the PEN Faulkner Award. This spring Allen was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation award to write a new book and this fall he will become a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virgina. He earned a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been a Professor of English at Queens College and an Instructor in the MFA Creative Writing Program at The New School.

We met at the Cornelia Street Café in NYC last month where our conversation began with a discussion about the style of Song of the Shank.

Randolyn Zinn: Your narrative stance reaches deeply into the heart of whatever you’re describing, be it place, period, landscape or a character’s interiority.

Jeffrey Renard Allen: That sounds about right. I was having a conversation about this with my editor. I said that I have a thick style. Meaning that in this book, in particular, there are a lot of voices. I am an expansive writer and this density happens at the level of the sentence. Or the paragraph. I’m interested in all the avenues of a character.

RZ: You don’t stand back at a distance describing characters; you write from the center of his or her experience and readers are pulled right in.

JA: Yeah, I’m very much about trying to write through the mind of the character, yet have enough liberty to be elastic to do interesting things with the language.

RZ: You don’t use quotation marks around dialogue.

JA: Maybe I have in some stories. But since I began to write seriously, going back to the 80s, I’ve tended to do away with that.

RZ: Why? Because it feels extraneous? Because it’s obvious, as readers, that we understand when a character is speaking?

JA: I think there are a couple of things. Some of it comes from studying writers I like. Joyce was the first person to do away with quotation marks around dialogue. Other writers don’t use them: John Edgar Wideman, a lot of Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy. When you do away with the quotation marks, t forces the reader to pay attention to what’s happening on the page. The writer makes the narration and the action blend in with the dialogue. It all becomes one voice in a way, even though you still have the distinct voices of the characters, their speech. I like that the language can work in such a way that it all blends together.

RZ: So does it now feel old-fashioned to you to read a story with dialogue in quotation marks?

JA: I wouldn’t say old-fashioned. I just find it a convention that doesn’t suit what I’m trying to do. If I’m writing an essay, I tend to avoid using quotation marks in that way, too. As a writer, it forces me to pay attention to the language, to show the reader that this or that person is speaking as opposed to an action or part of the narration.

RZ: Parentheses is a consistent convention in the book.

JA: I stumbled onto that in an early draft. One of the things this book is about – not in any abstract kind of way – is how we can never know the past. There’s always that separation, a kind of imprecision in describing anything. So if I use a word and then put the next word in parentheses, it’s asking the reader to consider the difference between them. Even if they’re synonyms, there are important differences between them. It can be a questioning about how much time has passed, the meaning of a word, or an aside.

RZ: Did your style arise from writing this book or has it evolved over several projects?

JA: It’s been an evolution. When I was first writing fiction in college, I was writing realist stories in a minimalist style that probably originated from my interest in Kurt Vonnegut, who I studied a lot as a young writer. Another writer visited in graduate school and told me I had a plain style. I didn’t want to be known for that, so I started writing poetry to begin thinking about language. At some point, I became a language-driven fiction writer.

To become interested in a subject enough to write a book or story about it, I need to find the point of entry through the language. I need to be excited about the language to get excited about the other things. So my first novel and my short stories were written with an interest in language. When I began to conceptualize and draft this book, one of the things I was thinking about was how it needed to have multiple voices, different types of stylistic approaches, even with Tom at the center.


RZ: It’s difficult to deal with past action in moving a story forward. How do you do it?

JA: I’m Faulknerian in this. Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.“ That’s my thinking about historical fiction. We think about a particular time being over there and we’re living somewhere else. We don’t see any relevance with the past. As much as this an historical novel set in the past, it’s also a contemporary and speculative novel. I’m interested in issues in the book that are relevant now as they reflect back to 1860. This book is about in some way, terrorism, and the responses to terrorism. That’s not accidental. I first started researching Blind Tom when I had a residency at the New York Public Library at the Center for Scholars and Writers. I started on September 10th, 2001. It’s been constantly on my mind.

One of the things I hoped would happen is that readers would find parallels between the setting of the novel and what’s happening today. Or, for that matter, the universals of what makes us human from one age to another. I don’t think those things change all that much.

BLIND TOMRZ: You didn’t have much research to go on for Blind Tom’s life.

JA: At the beginning, that was true. When I first found out about him in 1998, there was only one book-length work about him by Geneva Southall. Then I discovered that its author had written two earlier books about him, but I couldn’t find them because were published by small presses that had gone out of business. Eventually I was able to track them down.

RZ: So was having not much material on Tom a blessing or a hindrance?

Thomas Greene Wiggins

JA: A blessing. In the early stages of researching and writing this book I didn’t know where I was going. I read everything I could about Tom, made notes about what was interesting, and spent a lot of time imagining what could work as fictional scenes. Later, once I realized what was the core of the book, I pulled what I needed from the factual record and then added other things of my own invention. The most recent book about Blind Tom came out in 2009 and I avoided reading it. By that point I’d been working on my own book for so many years, I didn’t want to find anything in it that would throw me off, so I didn’t read it until I had finished a draft that I was happy with. I found some things that were useful. However, for various reasons, the earlier books by Geneva Southall were the most useful to me because they posed questions about whether Tom was an austistic savant, whereas the more recent book by Deirdre O’Connell published in 2009, goes with the idea that he was a savant. She did discover some things about him that I hadn’t previously known.

RZ: So how do you differentiate savant versus a genius?

JA: So the processes of the mind in a genius still involve creativity and imagination, still involve creation. A savant is about imitation, a mechanical imitation, so there is no actual creativity involved, which is an important distinction. One of the reasons that Blind Tom is not taken seriously today by musicologists is because he carries the label of an autistic savant. Musicologists contend there is nothing to study there.

RZ: What do you think?

JA: I really don’t know. What was most interesting from the standpoint of a novelist, was the fact that I had to make Blind Tom into a character who has some agency. He exhibits extreme behavior in the novel. He is a difficult person to deal with and those extremities are what make him into more than just a flat character. I felt I couldn’t write him as a savant because he wouldn’t have the complexity that we all have. Some of the fiction I’ve read about savants I find disappointing for that very reason, kind of mechanical and sociological as opposed to being art.

RZ: Why do you think you were drawn to him?

JA: It’s funny you ask that because I was talking to a writer friend who said, “You are Blind Tom.” That’s probably true, although I don’t know what it means. What I can say consciously – and I’m sure there are other unconscious things at work – is that I thought this would be a good subject through which to explore creativity and imagination. Obviously I have an interest in musicians.

RZ: Right, you’ve written poems about Coltrane and Clifford Brown.

JA: Right. And Tom’s life is a fascinating story. I thought that there were other aspects I could dive into and explore as well. The whole question of blindness and what does blindness mean in terms of race in America? The savant versus genius idea. And the fact that Tom did all kinds of despicable things to further the Confederate cause – was that all part of being brainwashed or was there something else going on? I was intrigued by all of these questions.

RZ: There is a wonderful line about voice in the book. I’m paraphrasing here: When you’re blind you have to put everything in your voice. I felt that that was an important sentence.

JA: Yeah, I can see that. If nothing else, Geneva Southold wrote in her biography of Tom that he was continually enslaved. But I think that he had the music. Even if he had no control of anything else in his life, he had that. He had to put all he could into his voice.

RZ: Was there a moment in the writing of the book when you said, Whoa, this is amazing!

JA: You know how that is. You work hard and finish a section and then read it and say Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that! Whenever that happens, you kind of know. I’ll say this in the most humble way I can, but at some point during the writing I felt like this book could be as good as anything that has been written. At least I can do it in just one book.

RZ: This sentence knocked me out too. “The firewood is stacked like a fragile shrine ready to topple, rolling gods across the floor.” That is an enviable sentence.

JA: Thank you.

RZ: Your sentences pull the reader into its world, like the opening of the book, walking in the grass, seeing the footprints beaten down into the earth. Your writing is continually sensuous.

JA: I hope so. It is a book about love in some ways, even if it isn’t sexual. The love between Eliza and Tom, and also between Seven and Tom, those are the strongest bonds in the book.

I want to say is that one of the great things about being a writer is that you can screw up a lot of other things in your life, but writing offers the opportunity of getting it just right. I didn’t know at the beginning how long it was going to take to finish the book (10 years), but I was willing to put in however much time and whatever it took to get the book right, even though there were times I felt impatient. Putting everything in the voice is part of that. We have very few opportunities in our lives where we can completely try to express ourselves, so I didn’t want to cut any corners. I tried to do the best book I could.

RZ: This is the great gift that art gives us.

JA: It is. If I’m thinking of Blind Tom as an artist – and why think of him as anything less than an artist – so for that reason I had to give him everything I could in the book. Hopefully the novel is true to his life. I feel it’s true to whoever he might have been in my understanding of him – even if it’s my own imagination and creation of him.