Today, I’m delighted to welcome Donnelle McGee to Virtual Book Club, an interview series in which I put questions to authors about their latest releases. If you would like to pose a question, you’ll have the opportunity to do so at the end.
Donnelle is the author of Shine, a novella, and Naked, a collection of poetry. He earned his MFA from Goddard College. He is a faculty member at Mission College in Santa Clara, California. His work has appeared in Controlled Burn, Colere, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Home Planet News, Iodine Poetry Journal, Permafrost, River Oak Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and Willard & Maple, among others. His work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is now releasing his first novel, Ghost Man (UK release date 10 November, available for pre-order now).
“Ghost Man is the story of contemporary American marriage and masculinity in crisis. Julius is a modern day Odysseus struggling to find his way back to Grace, his Penelope. In laconic chapters that read like poetic snapshots, we are shown piece by piece the deepest layers of their psyches. McGee’s skillful prose trains an unblinking eye on the difficult complexities of life, love, and sexuality to weave a narrative whose clarity, precision, and honesty shed a compassionate light on the darkness of an uncertain existence.” – Wendy Chin-Tanner, TURN
“Donnelle McGee writes with an incisive grace and insight. Uncompromising in its exploration of grit and themes of history, weaving noir into the literary, Ghost Man is an exciting and timely book. With some Chester Himes and some Walter Mosley and hints of Mat Johnson and Victor LaVelle, McGee has made a style all his own. A strong debut.” – Chris Abani, THE SECRET HISTORY OF LAS VEGAS
Q: Donnelle, have you always felt driven to write?
Beautiful question. Since I can remember I have. As a kid I stuttered a bit. I had a difficult time getting my words out. Even though I knew what I wanted to say there were times that the words just wouldn’t leave my body. I turned inward at a young age and learned that I could write my thoughts down. And this fear of being mocked, or laughed at didn’t exist on the page.
As I got older I found a love for reporting. I enjoyed writing news articles for my college newspaper. We were lucky to have a daily student produced newspaper at San Jose State University. Writing every day allowed me to learn much about compression and finding dialogue in the stories I wrote. And from that came poetry — came fiction and characters. This love for illustrating for the reader the many facets of life — both the dark… the raw… and too the beautiful is something I thrive to do in my work. The drive to write for me makes my body twitch at times. There is much to share.
Q: I know that you are soon to release your first novel, Ghost Man, but first I want to talk about your poetry. There is a great tradition of telling stories in verse. Do you see yourself predominantly as a storyteller or a poet?
Poetry… those beats in our bodies. The poet and the storyteller are one I believe. Every poem I have written digs slightly and at times deeply into a story… a moment… a narrative. Meaning, my poems are stories — some short and others long.
My poetry collection Naked is a memoir in verse. However, each poem while linked can too exist on its own. It wasn’t planned this way but looking back at my two books of fiction, Shine, and now Ghost Man, in both books one of the characters — both women — are poets. For me the characters speak to me in their voices and I follow their steps/rhythms and trust the words.
Q: Is there one question your writing brings you back to again and again? Do you think you’ll ever find an answer that satisfies you?
In my work there is always this question of if I am really naked on the page. Am I truly vulnerable? As the writer, have I given the reader glimpses into worlds never stepped into, or if the reader has been in those worlds then will my narrative hold them as they read my words? The answer that moves me is – I don’t know. Yet, I do know that my words are real and seek transformation. Once a book is out in the world it is up to the reader to pose her own questions. And in that is beauty; the book and the questions it garners lives many lives.
Q: I am often asked how much of me is in my characters. The characters in poetry are sometimes less obvious, but do you write in character or as yourself?
My poetry collection was purely autobiographical. Thus, whenever I was used in a poem, that was me. The shape of Naked demanded this. In terms of my fiction I write in character. Meaning, I let the characters take the page. I let their voices, quirks, and fears lead the narrative. However, if we flip this, because good fiction is always seeded in non-fiction, then I too am a part of the characters I create and write about.
Back to your question of how much of me is in my characters? In Ghost Man I too have walked in some of the same rooms that Julius walks in. I too have felt the deadening sound of divorce, and I too have sat in rooms with women doing their best to survive. The fierce/tender writer, Chris Abani, said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that the writer must experience in some way what the character he writes about will experience. I was in the MFA program at Goddard College when I heard him say this and his words never left me.
Q: Did moving from poetry to writing a novel feel like a natural progression? Did you find that the way in which you expressed yourself differs?
Ghost Man was the first book I ever wrote. Long before Naked and Shine, which both are rooted deeply in poetry. And both are considered poetry books. I wrote a draft of Ghost Man back in 2006 and then I put it away and focused on poetry in my MFA program. After I graduated from Goddard in 2008 I completed a poetry manuscript that would later become Naked. During this same time I was working on Shine.
I never forgot about Ghost Man and I even sent some query letters out to agents and received a few kind words. However, I knew it needed more revision. I returned to the manuscript in 2011 when my good friend and writer Charles Rice-Gonzalez read it and encouraged me to send it out again. I spent another year reworking the book and when I felt it was ready I sent it off to Bryan Borland at Sibling Rivalry Press (The publisher of Shine) to see if he was interested in the book. He loved it.
I never know what story is waiting to be written. There was not a natural progression in terms of writing poetry then fiction. I write what needs to leave my body when I write poetry. When I write fiction I listen to the characters taking shape in me, or at times they emerge from a song I may hear or from the sadness in the eyes of a stranger. Yet, there is no difference in how I express myself. Writing is writing and for me it must be authentic/lush and full of tension. I hope my poetry and prose capture this spirit.
Q: The protagonist in Ghost Man is Julius Holiday. How would you describe him in five words?
Julius Holiday is a sex addict. But he is so much more. The sexual addiction which runs amuck in his life is just the way he copes with his demons. All of us have demons. And all of us cope in different ways with those fragments in our lives that keep us up at night. Julius turns to the world of pornography/prostitutes/massage parlors to ease his pain. Sex. Touch. And the release they provide keeps him sane.
His five words:
Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
There is a rape scene in Ghost Man that was extremely hard to write. It is a pivotal chapter in the book that explains the estranged relationship between Julius and his mother. It was difficult to write because it is a violent act done to a woman. I reworked the chapter many times. I asked myself is the rape too violent? Am I sensationalising the scene too much? And each time I went back to the page — even when I knew that this scene had the potential to turn off some readers – I knew I had to dig deeper and write the scene as I saw it in my body. It had to be just as I wrote it because it is essential to the story.
Q: Was the decision of how to structure the novel obvious?
I read Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down back in 2005 and I thought how cool it would be to write a book in that same style. This idea of collage — jumping between character to character in each chapter. Ghost Man does differ in that Hornby writes in the first-person in his book while Ghost Man is written in the third-person. However, the same structure is in place. There are three main characters in Ghost Man (Julius, Grace, and Veronica) and I wanted to give each to the space in the book to share their voices.
Q: Man Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan said that The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the book he couldn’t avoid writing. Can you relate that to how you feel about Ghost Man?
I’ve spent many years in rooms with women and men telling and hearing stories about addiction. Stories of how addiction will always erode the self. Break the family and kill you. When I left those rooms I knew a book was in me. Addiction, in whatever form, and when it threatens to erase you, brings you to face the self. So writing Ghost Man was brewing in me for years and it reminds me of the stark realities of being out of control and not confronting your demons until death is on us.
Q: Now that you have published both poetry collections and a novel, how do you describe yourself? (Writer/poet/storyteller)
I love this question. I want to share narratives that move people. I want to write with an urgency and a beat that is authentic. I don’t want to write what has already been said. Fresh narratives. Fresh words that dance on the page and lets the reader engage with the characters. I would describe myself as having to let those stories out — whether in the shape of a poem or prose — that need to be shared. Perhaps, that makes me a storyteller. I don’t know. I like all three.
Q: Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Ghost Man is available for purchase at Sibling Rivalry Press.
It is also available at Amazon.
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