Subverting the Rule of ‘Write What You Know’

The novelist Angela Flournoy discusses how Zora Neale Hurston helped her imagine characters and experiences alien to her.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Angela Flournoy set out to write The Turner House, a novel about Detroit, with great unease. Detroit was her father’s city, a place she’d visited but never lived, and she felt unqualified to take on a vast, complex metropolis and its people. In a conversation for this series, Flournoy explained how she came to grant herself permission: A line from Zora Neale Hurston’s book Mules and Men taught her that any subject is fair game. Writers always have license, she told me, as long as they’re willing to do the hard work of building fully realized characters.

The Turner House is a family saga, an urban history, and a ghost story. The novel concerns a small house in East Detroit, the couple who bought it, their 13 children, and the supernatural presence that seems to live there with them. When the book opens, in 2008, the city has seen better days, and the house—thanks in part to the subprime mortgage crisis and a flailing auto industry—is only worth one tenth of its mortgage, bordered by vacant lots and squatters’ camps. Moving back and forth through a 50-year period, Flournoy portrays a family against the backdrop of a quickly changing city, asking how we got from there to here.

Flournoy’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, and The New Republic; The Turner House, her debut, is a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she lives in Brooklyn and teaches fiction at St. Joseph’s College. She spoke to me by phone.

Angela Flournoy: I first read Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men when I was in the early stages of writing The Turner House—the story of one family’s relationship, over the span of 50 years, with a house in the city of Detroit. At the time, one of the things I was struggling with was: Who do you think you are to be writing this book in the first place? I mean, who do you think you are?

My dad’s from Detroit, but I’m not from there. And I have certainly never seen a haint—the specifically Southern-tradition ghost that’s in my book—in my whole life. In my research, I found many helpful nonfiction books about Detroit but not much fiction—certainly not a lot of fiction about the everyday, working-class black people who make up 80 percent of the population of that city. So I immediately felt the burden of representation: If I write this book, this will be the book that people look to. Who knows when the next novel set in Detroit and focused on working-class black folks will be? When I realized that, I felt more pressure—and more doubt.

But it wasn’t just writing convincingly about an unfamiliar city and its people. I was also concerned about the supernatural element of my story. I didn’t understand the folkloric background of it; I just knew the kind of stories that had been told in my own family. So I started reading everything I could about African American folklore. One of the books I turned to was Mules and Men, which I checked out of the Iowa library.

The book is the result of Hurston’s anthropological research in the South—she went back to transcribe and collect the stories she heard growing up—as well as an account of her time as an apprentice for “hoodoo” practitioners in New Orleans. It’s important to consider the context in which the book was written: At the time, as far as black literature and black scholarship were concerned, there wasn’t much interest in this material. This was the height of the Great Migration. People were leaving the South and trying to prove themselves “worthy,” whatever that might mean, in the North. Part of that meant not being what someone might describe as superstitious. Not having any spiritual beliefs that fell out of the accepted norms. Not being at all messy. But Mules and Men is a book that’s unapologetically messy.

To me, that’s one of the most appealing things about Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction: She’s never been big on cleaning up black lives to make them seem a little more palatable to a population that’s maybe just discovering them. She’s just not interested in that. Even today, in 2015, I know a lot of writers probably struggle with wanting to represent us in a “good light.” The fact that she didn't care, 80 years ago, is just amazing.

One line from the book, from an early section where Hurston is explaining her methods for collecting folklore in the South, stuck with me especially:

Mouths don’t empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing.

This line changed how I thought about the work I wanted to do. It’s not about having a background that lines up with the characters you’re writing about, I realized. That’s not the responsibility of the fiction writer. Instead, you have the responsibility to be sympathetic—to have empathy. And the responsibility to be knowing—to understand, or at least desire to understand, the people you write about. I don’t think the quote means you need to handle your characters with kid gloves—I think it means you have to write something true by at least having a baseline of empathy before you start writing it.

I immediately put that line on an index card and stuck it on my cork board. It lived above me for the four years it took to write the book. It was a daily reminder that I would never be able to access these characters, or make them feel real, if I didn’t have in the back of my mind that my job is to be sympathetic and knowing. And it reminded me that, if I managed to be sympathetic and knowing, I would be free to do whatever I wanted.

Readers only balk at writers depicting people who aren’t like them when it feels like the characters are types. It’s when you’ve somehow failed to make fully nuanced and three-dimensional characters that people start to say, what right do you have? But when the characters transcend type, no one questions the author’s motives. Characters’ backgrounds, their gender—these things are only aspects of their personality, just as they are for real people. If the writer pulls it off, if they make you see the humanity in the character, that stuff falls away—no matter who you’re writing about.

Of course, it’s hard when you’re worried about representation, or whether or not you have the right. But at a certain point, you have to be kind to yourself as a writer and trust your own motives. You have to have confidence that you’re coming from the right place. You have to allow yourself to let loose, pursue a good story, and create people who feel real. Not good, not bad, certainly not perfect—just real.

It’s also about following the story, no matter how hard it gets, so that the characters have time to go where they need to go. You have the right to write the characters you choose, but you also have the responsibility to see those characters through—to give them time to become nuanced and real. Once you’ve started you have to go all the way. You can’t go half way.

I’ve found that, if I focus on doing the work every day, the imagination part starts to take care of itself. The beautiful thing about imagination is how it keeps opening doors for your characters to walk through. You’ll be surprised—they’ll walk through these doors, if you free yourself to allow that to happen.

I spent four years with my characters in this novel. The ones I felt I did not know the most were the ones I tried the hardest to know. People always say that, in order to get to know your characters, you need to know what they want, what their needs and desires are. But, in this novel, I went about it in a different way: I was very interested in what they didn’t want, and making them contend with that. I thought about the music they dislike, the people they dislike, how they would never act in a crowd. Maybe that’s a negative way to think about people. But I think, in fiction, the magic often happens when the thing you don’t want to happen happens to you.

It’s interesting because, now, when people tell me which characters they felt they knew the best—they tend to be the ones I felt like I knew least. There were certain characters that I was chasing, trying to get to know better. Even though to me they were always hiding, peeking around a corner, readers say they felt they understood them best. Somehow I was able to transmit more than even I understood about them. I guess, because I was conscious of those characters feeling elusive, I tried harder on the page.

The biggest challenge, for me, though, is to not take this understanding too far. I’m someone who errs too much towards the sympathetic. Even when my characters, based on their actions, could probably be called “bad” people, I still try to find the good in them, know it, and communicate that. In revision and editing, that was one of the things I kept trying to take out. Readers come to the book with all sorts of backgrounds, and they don’t need me to communicate how they should feel about a character. They don’t need me to suggest a character should be excused for his actions because of X, Y, and Z. They’ll make their own decisions. So I’ve always challenged myself, especially if I’m writing from a third person narrator, to editorialize less about the actions that are happening.

People are still reading Zora Neale Hurston because she knew how to strike that balance. She has empathy for her characters, she is deeply knowing, but she never sanitizes or romanticizes them. She lets them be real, and we see ourselves in them as a result.