I first met Christopher at a monastery on a freezing early spring weekend. I was teaching a memoir class, and he signed up for it even though he'd never written memoir before. I immediately recognized him as a gifted writer and astute commentator on the work others presented at the workshop. I hoped to get to know him, and was thrilled when months later he published a new short nonfiction piece of mine, Bad Memorial Day, in his journal Cagibi, which he co-founded with French-Canadian writer Sylvie Bertrand. And I was just as thrilled when he and Sylvie invited me to appear at their first Cagibi writing retreat, which was a real pleasure—as was this interview on the release of his debut novel, The Good Mother of Marseille, which follows Americans in Marseille, France, whose experiences in that French port city are individual but overlap and speak to universal human concerns about who we are and where we belong.
Christopher and I conducted this interview at the beginning of this year.
Beverly Donofrio (Rail): Why Marseille?
Christopher Shade: I had no epidermis when I went to Marseille in 2013. I was all nerves. I'd just resigned from a very intense job at a media company, and travel was what I thought I needed to jolt myself into a new phase of life. So I designed for myself an itinerary through Europe in the shape of the letter S. I was to stay with friends of friends where possible. I had a suitcase full of books, empty journals, and photography equipment. The plan was for me to begin at Marseille, travel up through Europe, and then fly home out of Amsterdam. But I got stuck in Marseille. Something mysterious pinned me there. I stayed longer than expected. By the time I got to Amsterdam, I was writing feverishly about Marseille and aching to come home so I could settle deeply into the writing work of this project. Each of those other European places I visited had high points, but I'd been seduced by Marseille. I didn't need the letter S. All I needed was to go elsewhere, as all the characters do in the book.
Marseille was a perfect match for me in my condition. When I met her, she also had no epidermis, despite how rough and capable she looked with her tattoos of graffiti and piercings of shiny art objects, how streetwise she seemed. She'd just been designated the year's European Capital of Culture—which I didn't know before I got there—so she was being cleaned up, and tourists were about to pour in to come see. Journalists also. Was I the only novelist? I felt compelled to capture in story something about this year of Marseille's reinvention. I felt that she, Marseille, was all nerves. For centuries the Marseillais have looked to their church on their hill, la bonne mère, the good mother, to protect them. The good mother has watched over Marseille from her hilltop. With this novel, I set out to do this also, to watch over Marseille; to have a long conversation with her and capture it in story form.
Rail: I understand that the people of Marseille have felt for centuries that up there in her cathedral at the top of the hill, Our Lady is looking over, and out for, them. As Noémie, the character—who seems to be the embodiment of heart and compassion in your book—says, "Hard was simply the way of Marseille big and small." Marseille seems to throb with danger, crime, poverty, the tension of people looking for something they can't name, some of whom arrive and plan to leave but don't leave and can't tell you why. You portray Marseille in all its tragedy and complexity so compellingly in your book, and in nearly every story, every chapter, Our Lady is mentioned, up there on her hill, "A constant…A star in the night sky." As you know, I am a Virgin Mary, Blessed Mother, fan. So I have to ask: What does this Good Mother mean to you. Why is she ever present yet passive? Why have you named your beautiful first novel after her?
Shade: I think of your memoir Looking for Mary—and I really do think that somewhere in us there are similar reasons why we have each named a book after her! Perhaps? Mine could just as easily have been named, Looking for the Good Mother. I like how you say that there is tension of people looking for something they can't name. They do this while Mary is a brilliant shining gold figure and presence looking down at them from the top of the church on the hill.
I was very moved by the old saying about the Good Mother watching over the people of Marseille. It was like this for me, growing up Catholic; the Virgin Mary was always with us. During all of my boyhood adventures in Post-Civil Rights small town Alabama. She was everywhere. She was on the walls. A wooden figurine of her was on the desk where Mom graded papers and paid the bills. I immediately felt the pull of that old Marseille saying: la bonne mere; she's been watching over Marseille for centuries. The sense is, you're not alone. On a dark street at night, you're not alone. When a loved one is taken from you—stolen!—you're not left alone. She's up there with you. It's a powerful draw.
One of the many things I was after in this book was the theme that this sense of someone watching over you, it feels like home. Without this sense, we are adrift.
Of these Americans, Noémie is the most alone and adrift—and because she is, she's the unifying and central character, on that path. You're right, the Good Mother is ever present yet passive. There are all kinds of moms—is it good sometimes to be passive as a mom? Noémie wants Marseille to be her home, but it's not so easy to call a place home. Especially when no one, really, is there for her.
About the Virgin Mary, Blessed Mother, as you know I too am a fan. I have to say I am not always entirely sure where the material comes from inside of me, but I feel it when something is working well in a story. I do pull liberally from my own life, my travels. For one, the mother image, watching over a crowd: I was raised by a single mom (coincidentally named Mary), watching over the crowd of us kids. I was raised in a tightly-knit extended Catholic family and community that all had deep appreciation for tradition and Christian values. It's funny, it occurs to me, I could not possibly have written a book called "The Bad Mother of Marseille" about, somehow, a bad mom, because I have so much respect for moms everywhere.
Rail: I knew there was a reason I liked you, the instant I laid eyes on you. So, Christopher, each chapter in your book is named for a character, many of whom have repeat chapters. Part Two—one chapter, 37 pages long—follows a character, Julio, a journalist, who was introduced almost in passing in Part One. Marseille has been designated the year's European Capital of Culture, and he's come to write a story about the place and the people. For him this means asking questions of people, digging deep to get to their stories. But because he is having a breakdown of sorts, he doesn't accomplish this. Did you act as a journalist yourself, asking many questions of people, digging deep to get to their stories?
Shade: I had meaningful, enlightening conversations with many people in Marseille, from residents to tourists passing through, from anthropology students in their dissertation research phase to immigrants who were undocumented. The woman who generously rented me a room, who was the friend of a friend, introduced me to many of her friends. Of her friends, I asked endless questions and asked them to introduce me to their friends. I spoke with everyone I could. Many times, simply introducing myself to a person began an unforgettable conversation. And I took an incredible amount of field notes, and photographs. I came home with over three thousand photographs. Some of these were of the street vandalism and the street art; I was quite taken by these.
Rail: Did you model Julio after yourself?
Shade: I was like that at times in Marseille, carrying camera equipment, taking field notes. And I can certainly see why you would ask this question, but not exactly—this book is all fiction, but there are certainly some obvious pieces of me throughout. Julio, by the way, is named after the Argentine novelist and short story writer Julio Cortázar, a longtime inspiration. Julio the character is actually vaguely, very vaguely, modeled after someone I know who works at the New York Times as a video journalist. Sadly, he and I haven't been able to spend much time together over the years. Because I don't know him super well, it's clear that Julio is mostly a character of my imagination, only very vaguely based on this person I know. And there is much I could say about Julio-as-myself. Part Two opens at the New York Marble Cemetery, an urban cemetery in an East Village interior block, one of my favorite places in New York City. I wrote some of Part Two in the Marble Cemetery, on a stone bench in front of a wall with marble plaques on it marking the vaults below the lawn.
Rail: When did Part Two emerge?
Shade: I certainly wrote Part Two after Part One. I did not write Part Two at the same time as any of Part One. They were separate from the beginning. I knew going into it that the Part Two chapter had a different DNA. It just did. It was a different species of animal in the same zoo. Part One had webbed feet, but this part had toes. Part One had sea legs, and this one just didn't. So, the novel's structural shape seemed to need it: the snapshot effect of short chapters in Part One was by design; the reading experience similar to the travel or sightseeing experience of moving from one thing to the next. I tried to resist that the book wanted Part Two to be different. I tried to weave Julio's thread through the others—once, I even tried to have Julio interviewing Noémie—but every time I tried, the book refused to accept it. The book just wanted this longer, separate, Part Two chapter. Which, of course, is a form that serves the story. And really I don't mind giving the reader some structure. I appreciate the white space of a section break. Like in music, and in conversation. The musical rest, the conversational pause. For effect. The white space is a helpful signal. It says to the reader, hey, pay attention, something's coming at you now and it might be a little bit different.
The very last thing I wrote in the book was not even the ending. It was the scene in Part Two between Noémie and Julio. And it remains for me the most moving and most deeply probing scene in the book. Certainly not the most violent, or seductive. But it's certainly the scene with the most light, the most positive message of hope. It shimmers with magic: hope is possible.
Rail: Can you speak more about your decision to structure the book in short chapters, each named for a character?
Shade: I was in Tarrytown tonight at a jazz club with friends to experience the T.S. Monk Sextet. It was spectacular to see T.S. Monk perform on drums with his band; T.S. Monk is the son of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. T.S. introduced a song that he'd written and named after his daughter, Sierra. The song began with youthful energy—it had swing—and then abruptly it shifted to an unexpected voice, and then it shifted again, and again; with each shift in voice and tempo, everything was vibrantly different and new. It was immensely pleasurable to hear, because each of these fresh moments were new takes on the same world, which in that song was the world of love for his daughter. I hope that readers experience a taste of Marseille as delightful in its variety as T.S. Monk's "Sierra." Also, I simply wanted a shorter work with a faster tempo, which felt right for the urban setting of Marseille. Along with this, I challenged myself to keep putting Noémie in moments of crisis.
Rail: You definitely pulled off what you intended. The structure works brilliantly. You mention "Voice" in your last answer. Recently, in a conversation with another writer, I said, "Voice," and she said she prefers to think of what used to be called "voice" as "narrative stance," which I think is interesting, but I do see a difference. Each chapter in your book is written in third person from the stance of different characters, yet the voice of the narrator, the storyteller behind the scenes, the writer telling the story, is strong, distinct, and consistent. Was this a conscious choice?
Shade: Voice! I love to talk about a writer's unique voice and style, the storyteller. The reader opens to the first page of a book and immediately engages with the storyteller—even before the story. I'm pulling a book from my shelves. It's Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, and it opens like this: "'Quite like old times,' the room says. 'Yes? No?'"
Wow, what a way for the storyteller to start that story! I have found in my teaching at the Writers Studio, a writing school where they place special emphasis on this to impressive effect, is that a big early challenge (one of many!) for writers is to recognize and appreciate the presence of this storyteller. For some, a strong, clear narrative voice and style seems to come so easily, as if they were simply built to do it—and the rest of us writers stand gaping enviably amazed by the mystery in that miracle of creation: how did she write that so easily!? This is exactly how I felt when I first read your memoir Riding in Cars with Boys. I was absolutely knocked out of my chair by the voice. Was that voice easy for you? Did that come naturally somehow? I do like to say "voice" or "unique voice and style" as shorthand for the mystery of that conscious creation. I like the phrase "narrative stance" but it rings a bit technical to me, like one of those phrases that doesn't appreciate how much goes into the work and the deeper mysteries involved—and by mysteries I mean all that we as writers don't understand about what it takes. For The Good Mother of Marseille, honestly the voice and style was a tremendous amount of hard work. I went through multiple rounds of full rework with an incredibly insightful (and patient!) freelance editor, for whom I have such gratitude. And I made some early decisions: this storyteller would know this world, the beauty and grime and vigor of it, and would know well everything about these characters. The storyteller would know some French! Would be able to translate and interpret for the reader what's being said and unsaid. And, this storyteller would subtly shapeshift: allowing for the voice and style to be subtly or not-so-subtly different across character points of view and the storytelling aim of a scene.
Rail: Oh, boy. I could get into a long explanation of the voice in Riding in Cars with Boys, but this is about you and your book, not me and mine. So, I'll restrain myself and only say: The voice came fairly naturally, with a little spicing up that came from imitating a friend, who was much more outrageous than I. Still, the voice was definitely improved by my reading the sentences and paragraphs and pages aloud, and editing for cadence and rhythm.
Speaking of cadence and rhythm: There is an incantatory quality to your narrative voice. You often repeat words and phrases, which gives the prose a quality of both inquiry and certainty. I find this remarkable. Even a little magical. Was the repeating intentional?
Shade: I'm moved to hear you describe it this way. I have always been circular in my writing, and I think there are signs of this even down at the sentence level, even down at the word I choose to follow a word. By circular I mean the repetition, I mean for readers to come back again and again to things they have experienced earlier in the story. We recognize the familiar; we appreciate it, we want more of it. So I think the short answer is that the repetition I do is a way of trying to imitate our own real, larger, circular lives. And at this point I'm not even aware of when I do it, except in revision—in revision, I may see repetition and try to smooth it out to be more subtle. As for cadence and rhythm, like you said you did for Riding in Cars with Boys, I also read paragraphs and pages aloud. There is really so much more to say about repetition and choices in cadence and rhythm, about what experiences in life lead a person or do not lead a person to a heightened level of awareness of these. I mean, when is it repetition in life, when is it routine, when is it ritual? And what of these distinctions? I'm thinking of the Catholic services of my boyhood—very much a celebration of repetition! And holidays: Thanksgiving dinner. Family traditions. Allowed to open one gift—only one!—on Christmas eve. And recipes: the "family recipe" for banana bread. And hiking the same mountain again and again: Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. Maybe the reason a person wants to repeat things in life is for the assurance that he is this person because he does these things; he does these things, therefore he is this person. Each time he repeats, he affirms again something about himself, a part of who he is in his own eyes.
Rail: The details, Christopher, the details! As a fellow writing teacher, I consider the last part of your answer—where you paint for us wonderful pictures using distinct details—gold. Thank you. Now, I have just one more question for you. There is a sketch done by a street artist, Monsieur Rousse, that appears in several of your stories. The sketch depicts a moment in my favorite chapter, in which a character named Russ turns his back on love, literally flees from it. This sketch appears in several chapters and prominently in the last chapter. Can you speak about the significance of this sketch?
Shade: That's a wonderful question—that sketch makes appearances throughout and all the way to the last chapter. Art seems to be everywhere in this book! There's an early scene in which paintings of old Marseille, maritime scenes, and Mediterranean ports bring out emotions for an older couple from Alabama. They have to sit down and cry. There's another special moment, much later, when Corey discusses a Matta painting named, simply, Alabama, concerning civil rights. Artwork is discussed and encountered many times. But the sketch by Monsieur Rousse has special emphasis. I have painted all my life, and have had such appreciation for art of all kinds. During my twenties in Alabama, I was very inspired by the work of outsider artists, and one of these was Bill Traylor. Born into slavery, Traylor was emancipated and died in Montgomery in the late '40s. I understand that it was late in life that he began to draw. And I understand that he would sit in doorways in downtown Montgomery and sketch on whatever pieces of paper blew by in the breeze. He drew on those scraps of paper vaguely primitive shapes of animals and people. A man wearing a tophat. Dogs and horses. Two dogs circling. People on the streets. In sketches, he captured stories of people moving about downtown Montgomery. That image of artist as witness to the world around him, and pulling from what's inside of him, has always moved me powerfully. It's not at all about drawing a perfect picture. It's about evoking the "now" within a context of our own personal histories. In the novel it is not so subtle that Monsieur Rousse is a Bill Traylor figure: in The Stationer chapter, Corey mentions to Madame de Rouen that Monsieur Rousse is the Bill Traylor of Marseille. I look at a sketch by Bill Traylor, these nearly hundred years later, and I get emotional. I am instantly taken to an experience that respects differences in cultures and time periods, and has tied up in it all kinds of specific things that the observer cannot possibly understand, but an experience that has in it something universal and vital that ties us all together. This is what I hope art does for us, and will do. It helps us understand each other.
Local readings/book launch events
Thursday April 11, 2019, 6:00 pm
Rizzoli Bookstore, 1133 Broadway at 26th Street, NYC.
Author in conversation with authors Joseph Salvatore and Leigh Newman, with book signing to follow.
Book Celebration with The Writers Studio
Sunday May 5, 5:00 pm
Zinc Bar, 82 West 3rd Street.