Character Studies: An Interview with Clarence Major by Abby Frucht

Clarence Major was a finalist for the National Book Awards (1999). He is recipient of many awards, among them, a National Council on The Arts Award (1970), a Fulbright (1981-1983), a Western States Book Award (1986), and two Pushcart prizes—one for poetry, one for fiction. Major is a contributor to many periodicals and anthologies in the USA, Europe, South America, and Africa. He has served as judge for The National Book Awards, the PEN-Faulkner Award, and twice for the National Endowment for The Arts. Major has traveled extensively and lived in various parts of the United States and for extended periods in France and Italy. He has lectured and read his work in dozens of U.S. universities as well as in England, France, Liberia, West Germany, Ghana, and Italy. In 2021, he published two novels, Thunderclouds in the Forecast (2021, TriQuarterly) and The Lurking Place (2021, Manic D Press).

Abby Frucht: Since the early 1970s, you’ve lived, traveled, and worked throughout this country and the world, publishing eleven novels, two collections of short fiction, 16 books of poetry, and ten works of nonfiction as well as a collection of your widely celebrated drawings and paintings. Your two most recent novels, Thunderclouds in the Forecast and The Lurking Place, take place in California in 1975 and in New York City and Mexico 1968. Of all of the many eras, movements, breakthroughs and turning points that have taken place over your fifty-year writing lifetime to date, are there times, places, and events that speak most urgently to and through you and your fiction? How much liberty do you take with the moments that compel you?  Have you ever invented a place? Does an imagined future interest you?

Clarence Major: There is no single place that speaks most urgently to me, except perhaps Chicago and New York City; Chicago because I grew up there, attending classes at the Art Institute—a place very important to me; and New York, a place where I continued to develop, evolve, and learned how to become the person I wanted to be. Place is important to me in the making of fiction. If I had not lived in Colorado for so many years and visited New Mexico a lot, I probably would not have written Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar. I have lived in California now since 1989, and I visited California before ’89 several times. Thunderclouds in the Forecast, and my forthcoming novel, Glint of Light, are both set largely in California. Knowing the place is key to my selecting it as a setting. Have I ever invented a place? Yes, Lorena, California, is a fictional town in Thunderclouds. In this particular case, I did not want to use a real city or town because doing so would have come with limitations to the fiction-making. By inventing a town, I gave myself freedom to invent things necessary to advance the story and to give it the type of atmosphere I was looking for. Although I like the novel 1984 and other such novels, I’ve never considered writing futuristic fiction.

How much liberty do I take with “the moments that compel” me? I assume you mean with subject matter. I often start a story based on something that really happened in real life, but successful fiction can’t be based on facts or real events. I forget facts and allow the fiction to take over and take me where it needs to go to be successful.

AF: The narrator of your novel, Reflex and Bone Structure, who has a “tendency to skin-dive beneath the surface,” thinks that he should strike a better “balance between the surface and the lower depths…We begin with the body and end with the body. Anything else is theory,” while alternatively the protagonist of My Amputations doesn’t “really meet anybody.  Just the surfaces of people. He couldn’t detect any reality beneath these surfaces.” The tension between surface and depth are not only motifs in your characters’ ways of moving through the world (and makes for fascinating conversation in your essay, “Thanks for the Lunch, Baby: Clarence Major has Lunch with James Baldwin”) but in your writing style itself, in which your characters engage, in real time, down to the molecule, with the various accoutrements of their days—we know what they eat, what they wear, what they buy and sell, how many dimes they get in change, what they listen to and what they say and don’t say to each other—while whole eras personal and historical seem to unfold around them as if in the spaces between the details. Do you think that the big things in life are contained by the small things, or the other way around? Is this realism, what you’re doing? Or is it part of the vision that you choose to bring to life?

CM: Surfaces of people. Often it is as far as we get in human interactions. I believe the best way to bring a character to life is by concentrating on details—expressions, one or two traits, on the things they tend to do or say. Back when she was an editor at Random House, Toni Morrison and I were having lunch in a New York restaurant, when she said, “Where a character is concerned, I want to know the little things.” A pot of flowers was hanging above her head. She reached up and touched one of the leaves. “I want to know every vein in the leaf.” It was another way of saying what I am trying to say here. All it takes is two or three things to illuminate a character.

AF: Many of your characters, particularly the men, strike me as having chosen, or been allotted, a certain homelessness. Rather than being rooted in place they are principled opportunists—migratory, resourceful, and always quietly responsive to what comes their way. Do you feel that part of what your characters, male and female, look for in each other is home? If so, do they find it?

CM: Sometimes my characters manage to find a kind of home or a home they can be at peace with. This home can be in a mate or a place or both. Sometimes they don’t find that home. I probably have always felt some rootlessness that I lend to my male characters. I was born in Atlanta, grew up in Chicago, and lived in many cities and towns throughout the United States; I’ve also lived in Italy and France. I’m not counting the dozens of places where I spent shorter periods of time such as in Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Mexico, Ghana, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Liberia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Poland, Greece, and other places. Yes, I think there may be some truth in your idea that male and female characters often are a source of rootedness for each other. They are searching for similar things: the comfort of companionship, security in both the other person and the physical place of comfort and contentment they both seek to inhabit.

AF: Your poem The Trip (Chicago Quarterly Review volume 33 2021) envisions a remote mountain village, reachable only by train, whose inhabitants gather at long tables to “eat and talk together about their work and their lives.” Over time, they’ll “grow warm” to the travelers’ presence, but those travelers, I think it’s clear, will reside in the margin. In your recent novel, Thunderclouds in the Forecast, nearly all of the characters, like many in your fiction, strike out on deeply personal as well as impromptu journeys, and it seems to me that rather than aiming for that long shared table with its view of “the river and the valley,” they prefer to carry with them, as if on their backs, a less mythic repast, and “fill their plates from their own, less bounteous “pots and bowls.” I love the way your characters make their own delights, their own fulfillment’s, instead of hankering for those that might be denied them. Which do you think is the more nourishing meal? The one shared by an accustomed gathering of comrades whose resistance might, but just might, give way to a habit of community, or the one that is carefully scraped into being and ladled out among a motley assemblage of lovers and friends?

CM: One often must depend on one’s inner resources. This applies to many of my characters. The gathering at the long table is often a place where the stranger is not immediately (if ever) welcomed. One of the oldest stories in the world is: a stranger comes to town. I am fascinated by this idea. I want to know what will happen. I like dealing with happenstance, with chance. If I start there, the story can take off and go in any direction. I don’t want my stories to be predictable. I like keeping the reader guessing.

AF: One of your favorite artists, Lucian Freud, makes visible, you say, “the thing we call mortality – an abstract concept.’’  Why do you call mortality abstract?

CM: Mortality is not abstract, but the concept of it is. All living things are subject to death. You look at a flower in bloom. It is beautiful. You know that beauty will not last forever. Part of what makes it beautiful is the life in it, a finite life, its impermanence; knowing it is temporary or transient. The same is true of animal and human life. Freud dramatizes human flesh in the tradition of Rembrandt. When I look at a Rembrandt face or body, I see mortality—something subject to ending. Something similar happens when I look at a painting of a naked body by Lucian Freud. His bodies are not nudes in the classical sense—they are naked. That nakedness tells us of their mortality. They are beautiful in their nakedness, like a blooming flower that is going to eventually pass on.

AF: You say in your essay, “The Education of a Painter,” that your earliest teacher, Gus Nall, in encouraging you to draw with more freedom and be “less careful with the line,” advised that you draw from the elbow, not the wrist. “It wasn’t easy,” you write, “I needed to learn to trust something in me that knew more than I knew.” Is there an analogous lesson in your education as a writer, a lesson by which you learned to be “less careful” and freer? Maybe Pissarro’s advice to “use small strokes. The eye should not be fixed on one point,” which you quote in this same essay, might point to an answer (?).

CM: Yes, there is a writerly similarity between drawing or painting. To learn to trust something in yourself that knows more than you know is key. Some call it instinct—or what the id creates. Skill must be developed first, and that comes with practice and patience. This skill is acquired by way of the ego at work. Once the skill is acquired a kind of instinctive ability operating from its acquisition can be summoned on command. First drafts, for me, from the id, are often done quickly and fluidly. Now, a different kind of mental process takes charge. It’s a kind of editorial mind. My superego, so to speak, now undertakes to revise what the id has created. In the final stage, the superego is in charge. Through subsequent drafts, the writing becomes tighter, more controlled, and hopefully easier and more pleasant to read. James Baldwin once said to me, “A text is just a pretext.” The text recedes as the story shines through.

AF: You write openly of the fiction we call race in some of your essays, but very rarely in your fiction do you address it at all. I love the levity of your fiction, your characters’ way of buoying themselves above all sorts of gravities despite, and in defiance of, the words that might bring them down. Will you talk a bit about this, please?

CM: I deliberately avoid referring to characters by “race’ or ethnicity. If the story requires that the character be defined by ethnicity or “skin color” I find a way to let it happen naturally in the story. For example, one character might refer to another character’s complexion, etc. For too long not defining a character’s appearance meant the character was white since white was the norm. Whiteness is an absence of so-called “race.” As a norm, that absence creates otherness. All others are “other” than white. And other needed to be “racialized,” defined, explained. Now, for the word “race.” Human classification by appearance has long been a misdirected practice. If there can be a definition for what we call “race” that is it. “Race’ was originally another word for “kind,” or “type.” Though used loosely, and carelessly when people are often talking about cultural matters or ethnicity, “race’” long ago lost its original usage as a variant of “kind” or “type” when philosophers in the late 16th century, and later anthropologist, started using it. Shakespeare refers to “a race of saints,” for example. Although it stands on an equally unstable foundation, for me, the phrase “the human race” nowadays seems slightly more acceptable—as a category (or type) of special animal: human being. In any case, there is no marker for race in the genetic code. We’ve long known that the lazy way we use the word “race” is on shaky grounds; and the concept of “race” to refer to various ethnic groups is a negative and destructive social construct, yet we have not been able to replace it with anything more constructive. At the present time, and for the foreseeable future, there is no getting around this word “race.”

AF: US mainstream and independent publishing have changed enormously since you began publishing.  How do you feel about what you see on shelves today, compared to then?

CM: Publishing has always been in a state of crisis of one kind of another. When I started publishing it was difficult to get a trade house interested in a first-time writer. Now, a debut novel seems to be what they are looking for. Some editors publish only debut novels—perhaps they keep hoping for the first-time big hit—a repeat of Gone with the Wind, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or To Kill a Mockingbird. Also, there are trends—there have always been trends. For a long, long time there were mainly white male writers, then there were white women writers, then black women writers. For a stretch of time, it’s African American or Asians or Middle Eastern or South American, etc. Many people love genre books. I don’t believe I’m being snobbish in saying so when I say I prefer so-called serious “literary fiction.” When there is a “white” section of books in a bookstore, I will be content with the “black” section. The black-white juxtaposition (based on the ancient concept of “black” as evil and “white” as good) is not a constructive yardstick. African American writers write in all genres. Books in bookstores should be classified by an acceptable and useful system other than the flawed concept of “race.”

Abby Frucht won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories in 1987 and has since published eight books of fiction. Maids, which breaks from that tradition, reckons in poetic form with Frucht’s memories of the women who cleaned her parents’ house when she was a girl—a doctor’s daughter—on Long Island.  Frucht lives in Wisconsin and has served as mentor and advisor at the MFA program in Creative Writing for more than 25 years. You can find her along with some of her essays at www.abbyfrucht.net. You can find Maids for sale on the Matter Press site.

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