I first encountered the writing of Marci Blackman when we shared a bill at the Fireside Follies Reading Series last year. Her new novel, Tradition, follows an man named Gus Weesfree who returns to his hometown, Tradition, for the first time in decades. In precise yet dreamlike prose, past and present overlap, unlikely bonds form, and horrific actions are uncovered.
From the beginning, Tradition is concerned with questions of identity. When they reunite after decades apart, Mabel argues that Gus might not be who he says he is, and questions about Belle’s identity are at the center of much of the novel’s tension. Were these questions something you set out to address in the novel?
Oh yeah. One of the tradition’s I wanted to highlight in this story in order, perhaps, to dismantle it, was the construct of identity. Who are we and who gets to define who we are? Historically, society has claimed that right, with a small opposition on the fringe fighting for the right to define ourselves. If you think about it, every character in the novel is attempting in their own way to break free of that traditional boxing. Everyone except Sister Tremble, perhaps, who is arguably the most tragic of the bunch because rather than breaking free, she’s still trying squeeze into the societal expectation.
The contemporary scenes in Tradition are set in 2007; what led you to choose this particular year?
Both the contemporary setting and the sections in the past are periods in our history when we were on the cusp of change. The Depression and WWII in the past and the eve of electing the nation’s first black president in the story’s present. In both cases, we were staring at blank canvas so to speak. Or at least a new one, with an opportunity to shift direction. After WWII, even with the Civil Rights movement, I think we allowed the opportunity to pass. It remains to be seen what we do with this present opportunity, but it does feel to me that globally we are experiencing an awakening of sorts, which gives me hope.
Did you have a particular city in mind as a model for Tradition?
Not a particular city, but a region. It’s small town southern Ohio, which I chose not only because that’s where I grew up, but also because of its close proximity to Kentucky, the south. A lot of crazy stuff went on in Ohio (still does), but it did so largely without scrutiny because the country was so focused on what was happening in the southern states and Ohio was officially the “north.” In reality, some of the stuff that was happening in Ohio was actually worse than what was happening in the south.
Much of Tradition focuses on what certain characters know about one another. I’m curious about your process here: how much of that did you have established from the outset, and how much emerged in writing the novel?
You know, some of it was there initially. It was the impetus to write the story, but a good bit of it worked itself in the writing. I’m not a writer who works from an outline. Before I begin a story, I need to have a beginning, middle and end (and by end I mean I might plan to finish my journey on the east coast, but I won’t know what in what town or city I’ll end up until I get there), but the roads and routes I take to reach those points generally reveal themselves in the writing. This is actually my favorite part of the process, discovering how I’m going to get where I’m going and which character or characters will be my guides. Of course, in Tradition, I had to do a considerable amount of research as well. Before, during and after I finished writing just to make sure I got it right historically.
Though we see Gus as an old man and as a young man, large sections of his life remain untold. Is he a character you plan to return to in the future?
I don’t know. Maybe. I hadn’t necessarily planned on revisiting the character of Gooch (who originally made an appearance in my first novel, Po Man’s Child), but here he is. To revisit Gus, though, would mean returning to the past and right now I’m enjoying working in the present and future. So we’ll see.
You’ve also written a book about cycling in New York City. Has the experience of riding through cities changed the way that you write about them in your fiction?
Oh yeah, but not just with cities, with setting and place in general. You know, I also rode my bike across the country as well as through most of Western Europe. When you travel around by bike (unless you are one of the pros, which I am not), not only do you feel a place as opposed to merely seeing it through a window if you’re traveling by car or bus, etc., but since you can only reach speeds of 15 – 20 miles per hour (slower if you are carrying weight, meaning pannier bags tent, etc.), you are forced to slow down and take in everything. You forced, to “remember the room” so speak. I think everyone should experience the world at 15 miles per hour.