What happens when you blend a loving portrait of Memphis, speculative and uncanny elements, and some gloriously pulpy imagery all into one highly compelling work of fiction? Well, you might get Nine Bar Blues, the new collection from Sheree Renée Thomas. Thomas’s collection resonates on its own frequency, moving from moments of wonder to those of terror and back again. I spoke with her about the origins of this collection and how she created such a powerful work.
Memphis figures memorably into many of the stories in Nine Bar Blues. Has writing about the city changed the way you relate to it?
Writing about Memphis made me love my hometown more. A city is more than changing skylines. It’s the changing geography of the people who live in it. To write about the city that birthed you is to see that city through a mirror refracted by memory and lived experience. It is Memphis but, on the page and in my heart, it is my Memphis—or more accurately, mine and my parents’, my elders’, and my friends. It is a sum of all the stories I have witnessed and the stories I helped create. Once the city’s landscape is filtered through the imagination, it becomes a winged thing, something new.
Two of the stories in this collection first appeared in anthologies honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and Samuel R. Delany. What are the challenges of simultaneously evoking another writer’s work and creating something that stands on its own?
The first time I contributed fiction to honor a legendary writer, it was in celebration of Ursula K. Le Guin. The collection, honoring her 80th birthday, was edited by Debbie Notkin and Karen Joy Fowler. I remember feeling nervous about the prospect because I respect Le Guin’s work so much. In 2001 I had the good fortune to take a master workshop with her under the second darkest sky in the country at the time, Malheur Field Station. She was as wonderful in person as she is on the page, a generous, thoughtful teacher and very funny. We studied the stars, discussed paleontology and sky lore, and went on a trek in the High Desert to see an ancient petroglyph. It was the highlight of what became a very difficult year.
That summer one of my dearest mentors died unexpectedly and shortly after, New York City, my home at the time, was attacked. Later, when the opportunity came to be a part of this special book, I simply sent a story I thought Ursula might enjoy. If I had tried to evoke her work, I would still be staring at a cursor on a screen. Same sentiment for Gwendolyn Brooks and Samuel R. Delany. I could never! But I could hope. With “Who Needs the Stars When the Full Moon Loves You?” I wanted to share something of Gwendolyn’s deep commitment to capture the spirit of the movement, of the heartbreak and the hope contained in the endless struggle for human dignity and justice. I grew up reading her protest poems and I know from experience that she cared a great deal about connecting with young people. The fact that we as a society are still marching around the same issues she wrote about is just … a crying and a shame. For Chip, I just wanted to have fun, as he clearly does in a lot of his works. I wanted to have fun and freak some B-girl science fictional stuff from back when I thought I’d grow up to be a writer and a hip dancer. Still working on that first dream. Next life for the second one!
Music plays a major role in a lot of these stories, especially “Shanequa’s Blues—Or Another Shotgun Lullaby.” How much of your own taste in music is reflected in these stories, as opposed to music that might work in the context of a specific story? Does listening to music play a part in your writing routine?
Music is a muse. There is usually a soundtrack of some kind playing in the background while I am pre-writing, researching, or laying down the bones of my next work. Sometimes that soundtrack is curated specifically for a project I’m working on. I already know the music that my characters are listening to, or the sounds that impact and shape their lives. Other times it’s white noise. But everything is silence when I reach the end. It’s a different zone, especially during revisions, and at that time, I am just alone with the words and my own thoughts.
Was finding the right sequence for these stories a challenge?
My background is editing, and over time, I have done a lot of communal, collaborative work, but self-editing is another thing. It’s like sharing advice. Sometimes it’s easier to fix someone else’s life than your own. With your own life, you may be too close to it to see the best path through it. With Nine Bar Blues I had the old school hard copy pages tossed on the floor. I took the first and last pages of the stories and placed them in small piles side-by-side. I’m a visual thinker and it helped me get a sense of the beats of each story, the breath and movement in between. I would move the piles to see what certain works said to each other. I never read short fiction collections or anthologies in order. Sometimes I reach back and start from the end, or just pick the titles that intrigue me the most. Then I fill in from there. But for this collection, I sequenced the stories in a way that might work well for traditional readers who flow straight through. Then my editor, Chet and I, talked about the sequence, placing the longer works, the novelettes closer to the back. You could breeze through the shorter works up front and sit a spell once you have been in the different worlds for a while.
As someone who’s long been creeped out by cicadas, “Thirteen Year Long Song” is now firmly etched into my brain. When you’re writing, do you generally focus on what fascinates you or what unsettles you?
I’m so sorry! I am chuckling now because cicadas are truly the weirdest looking insects in the world. They’re so ugly they’re cute. I am fascinated and repulsed by them at the same time. I find their wings extraordinary, the sounds they make a source of comfort with just the mildest bit of dread. When I hear the cicadas, I know its deep summertime, and I’m happy but I also grieve to see the ones who don’t make it. Little corpses covering the grounds like fallen leaves. They have such a short life span but when they’re with us, it’s all about the music and lovemaking. Not a bad way to go if you don’t think about it too hard. So yes, when I’m writing, I do dial down into the things that create questions for me. The writing helps make sense of the things that I love and the things that I fear, the things I hope to better understand. It is excavation and reclamation. And like Capote said, as mysterious as it sometimes is, the beauty of writing is “the inner music that words make.”