Matt Debenham writes short stories for people who think they hate short stories–and then fall in love with them

Matt DebenhamMatt Debenham of Westport is the author of the story collection The Book of Right and Wrong, published in 2010 by the Ohio State University Press, having won the 2009 OSU Press Prize for Fiction. In 2007 (nothing happened in 2008) he was awarded a fiction fellowship by the Connecticut Council on Culture and Tourism, and was Peter Taylor Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His stories have been published in The Battered Suitcase, Roanoke Review, The Pinch, Painted Bride Quarterly, Dogwood, and North Atlantic Review, and have been reprinted in Weston Magazine. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a BA from Fitchburg State College. (Author photo by Lisa Jane Persky.)

The Book of Right and Wrong

His stories are said to be for people who think they don’t like short stories. At once heartbreaking and hilarious, the eleven stories in The Book of Right and Wrong capture their characters at the defining moments of their lives. A mother finds herself defending her son’s biggest bully from a tormentor of his own; a young man watches as his cape-wearing former high-school classmate proves himself more adept at making friends; a social worker gambles everything on expediting an adoption—and causes unforeseen consequences for every person in her life; a boy standing in for Jimmy Carter in his elementary school’s mock-election inadvertently starts a bloody playground war; an ex-con single father finds himself on the inside of his town’s social circle, with no clue as to how the game is played.

Matt will be reading from his book at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, at Best Video, 1842 Whitney Ave. in Hamden. He joins JoeAnn Hart, of Massachusetts, author of the novel Float.

Welcome, Matt. Tell us about your new collection.

My collection is called The Book of Right and Wrong. It won the 2009 Ohio State University Press Prize for Fiction*, and was published in 2010. It’s a nice, short book featuring eleven stories. The publishing tagline is “stories for people who think they hate short stories.” Five of them are related, so there’s also a little thread running through the book.

(*I usually have to tell people this was a national prize, because otherwise they think it’s some sort of alumni book award.)

Are there stories in there that called to you more strenuously than others?

“Called to you strenuously.” I like that phrase! Yes. The last piece, “Kate the Destroyer,” started out with me trying to write about an incident that I had when I was a kid. I was really stuck, and then I had the idea to write from the mother’s perspective. That just shook the whole thing loose, and I ended up writing a completely different story than what I’d intended, yet it also better encapsulated what I’d wanted to get across about the mother in the first place. That one, as soon as I made that little jump in perspective, really kind of flew out of me in one night. (The first draft did, anyway. There are always many other drafts!)

Oh the other hand, “Failure to Thrive” had started years earlier as a story about a woman with two sons, one a meth addict and one a cop, vying for control of their mother’s house. I could never get it right, so I left it alone. Then, when I was getting ready to send the book to OSU Press for consideration, I realized what I wanted to do with the story. So I rewrote it for what must’ve been the 12th time and added it to the collection the day before the deadline. And it’s the story that most seems to grab people. If someone emails me or tweets me about my book, that almost-lost story is the one they most reference.

As a novelist, I feel that years pass while I’m working on just one plot. It’s unimaginable to me to have so many plots to untangle and figure out. Do they come to you one at a time, or are you often working on different ones at once?

Yes! By which I mean yes to both, at one time or another. Sometimes I’ll have a few stories going, sometimes it’s only one. There’s a magical thing that happens where I forget, every damn time, what makes a really good story for me – which is, there’s a question I HAVE to find the answer to. For example, I get an image of a guy telling his son to do a terrible thing on a playground. Now I HAVE to know how that came about. Those are the stories that eventually see the light of day. There are other stories that I’ll spend weeks on (or far worse), only to realize too late that, um, there was no fascination or question for me, just a premise I thought was cool. I may never learn that premises, by themselves, are not my friends.

Also, I spent way too long writing a novel. By the end, it was impressively big, and I hated everything about it, especially the characters. It was, go figure, a very premise-heavy book. You really need to love your characters and find them endlessly entertaining and fascinating. One day soon I’ll go back to that novel and rewrite it, but I’m going to need to go in there with a sledgehammer and maybe some dynamite.

Any recurring characters or character types in your stories? Or specific themes you feel drawn to?

I keep going back to a character named Miles LaPine, along with members of his family. They’re in those five connected stories in the book, and I’ve since released an independent story called “Challenger” that also features Miles. He’s kind of a combo platter of my own most awkward/earnest aspects, along with a couple of troubled nerds I knew as a kid. Themewise, I like exploring the gulf between a misguided and/or ill-equipped person’s best intentions and whatever reality they’re just not capable of seeing. That gulf is big enough to accommodate a lot of tragedy and comedy, so it’s a good place to play.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

Hoo boy. My process is one of fits and starts. I usually start really strong, writing out a first scene or two, just getting to know who and what I’m writing about. Then I back off for a bit, and I do some thinking. As in: Okay, you know who you’re writing about, now where’s it going? Which used to scare me – why am I just thinking?! — but now I understand this is writing, every bit as much as typing words on a screen. Then I usually start rewriting from scratch. Once I have a finished first draft, I put it aside for a while. When I go back to it, it no longer feels personal, so I have free license to go in and really mess with it. That’s where I’ll change genders, timelines, characters’ objectives, etc. This is usually a multi-draft process.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

I think something in-between? I usually have either an ending image or a climactic image, and I work toward that: How did we get here? Why are these people doing this? My stuff is pretty plot-oriented, so when I have my incident and my people figured out and I’ve done a bit of writing, then I do start sketching out a sequence of events and escalations. I like twists. The “gut-punch,” as my wife calls it.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

Coffee’s good for this. I follow the advice of Ron Carlson, who’s a writer everyone should read. In his book Ron Carlson Writes A Story, he tells you: Do not get up. Stay seated. Ignore the urge to get a drink or do some chore, and instead force yourself to sit there. A few minutes after that is usually when the words will start coming. It’s a little like breaking the will of a captive spy. Your brain finally goes, “Ugh, fine. HERE.” I feel that for a lot of writers, half the job is tricking yourself into doing things.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I came to it pretty late. I know a lot of writers say they knew when they were kids, but while I always liked to write and get reactions to my writing, I didn’t think seriously about fiction until I was in my twenties and well into a public relations career. So: 25? 26?

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I teach as well, in independent workshops as well as for the writing program at Western CT State. I love teaching and would gladly do only that for a living. (IF I could no longer write, that is.) Otherwise, I’d be a good man in a book or video store.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

I really do like all of it. I used to love first drafts, because I viewed that as the “creation” phase, and everything else was the dirty work. But it’s all creation, and it’s all editing. It’s not a linear process for me. Rather, it’s like a busy kitchen, where some people are prepping raw ingredients and others are grilling and plating. (I may have been hungry while answering these.)

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

I like a little messiness, a little weirdness in my stuff. So when I revise, I make sure my words are good – am I finding the one word to do the work of a paragraph? Do my sentences vary in length and intensity, creating a kind of musical flow, etc.? But what I most work on in revision is getting the moments right. Cutting out the extra crap, while leaving in some of those ragged edges. Oh, and I always read aloud. Every draft. This is crucial.

As far as outside readers go, I have two trusted readers. I show them my stuff either when I think I’m done and I know they’ll have smart suggestions, or when I’m stuck and I can’t see my way out of the hole. I’m actually interested in finding a good writers’ group near me. I think that’d be really helpful, both in terms of having careful eyes on my stuff and in terms of having a regular deadline.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

Great question! I’m torn, because I’m driven to read interviews with authors who interest me, yet I’m disappointed when I find out a work I liked was drawn almost entirely from the author’s own experiences. Which is completely unfair and hypocritical of me! I think it’s human nature to want to know these things about authors. And I think there’s always something of the author in the work, whether it’s near-memoir or whether the work reflects some nagging fascination of theirs. When I do get those questions, I’m nice about it, because I completely understand where they’re coming from, and because I certainly can’t claim that there’s no “me” in the book.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I do! I read the AV Club way too much, or I’ll often find myself on AllMusic.com, reading reviews of a band’s entire discography. Or I’ll think, “Beverly Hills Buntz!” and then I’ll be on Wikipedia, looking up the production history of the failed show about a minor Hill Street Blues character. Then there’s Twitter….

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

A lot of writing for me is problem-solving. How do I get from point A to point D without it feeling contrived? Why WOULD she do that? How can I structure this so that when the big moment comes it feels like a gut-punch? I worked in marketing and communications for a long time, and that was always my favorite part of that job. So this act of realizing the implausible makes me happy. Feeling like I got at a feeling or moment that I haven’t seen done that way before makes me really happy. Externally, I love when someone tells me they were so shaken by a story they had to put the book down. I’ve been lucky enough to hear that a few times, and I think it’s a positive! And I hope I never stop getting a charge out of saying “my book.”

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them why not? I’m teaching a morning workshop in Westport right now for people who’ve never written before. And these six people have gotten to the point where they’re all producing genuinely good work. I’ve yet to meet the person who can’t write, even a little bit, with some direction and encouragement. And I don’t view this as some exclusive club. Can everyone be a Jennifer Egan or a Toni Morrison? Probably not, but I’m always shocked, pleasantly so, when I see what people are capable of doing.

How could two books be more different? Lisa Winkler’s success story

lisa author

Lisa Winkler has not one, but TWO books recently out on the market. And they couldn’t be more different. The first is a nonfiction story of one young man’s daring journey, and the second is a collection of essays from women bloggers who share their innermost thoughts and posts with the rest of us.

Here at Books New Haven, we’re always ready to celebrate books by local authors, and Lisa was born and raised in Killingworth, where her father was a poultry farmer and the entire family – Lisa’s mother, two sisters and brother – worked on the farm. After graduating from Vassar College, Lisa wanted to be a journalist. She worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant and the Danbury News-Times, and then married and moved to London. She’s been a teacher and a writer, and is the mother of three children. And now that she’s also a grandmohter, she writes a blog at www.cyclingrandma.wordpress.com.

Welcome, Lisa, to Books New Haven.

tangerine tangocowboy book by lisa

Tell us about your new books.

Tangerine Tango: Women Writers Share Slices of Life is an anthology of short essays by women writers. Most of the writers I met through blogging and I invited them to submit essays, without giving them any theme. I received submissions that span the entire citrus spectrum, from sour to sweet. There are colorful slices of life: some sad, some nostalgic, and some humorous, about parents and parenting, childhood, food, farewell, jobs and journeys.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

After publishing my first book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America, people asked me what my next book was about. I didn’t have one! Though I was looking for ideas. When I hit my one-year anniversary for my blog, Cyclingrandma, in April 2012, I thought it would be fun to put my favorite posts into a book. But that didn’t seem enough. So I invited several writers, mostly other bloggers I’ve befriended through blogging, to join the project. Along the way, a couple other writers contributed too.

Was the subject matter of the book related somehow to your regular job? Or is it
something quite outside your field that called to you?

My first book, On the Trial of the Ancestors, tells the story of Miles Dean, a New Jersey teacher, who rode his horse from New York to California to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to US history.

I met Miles Dean while working as an educational consultant in Newark and
believed Dean’s mission and message would make a compelling story. It’s a story that speaks to animal lovers, horsemen and horsewomen, armchair travelers, and with educators, parents and young people who are part of the African American community or connected with it. It’s available via my website: www.lisakwinkler.com, on Amazon, and in other book stores.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

As a teacher, I’ve witnessed how young people know little of history. In urban areas,
youth learn about slavery and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a few more facts
during Black History Month in February. Yet they have little if any connection with
these historical figures. When I began my own reading after meeting Miles, I became
fascinated with these people whose contributions to the development of the US are
largely unknown. Most adults haven’t heard of these people. American history needs to
include all races and genders to truly demonstrate who built this nation, their struggles
and sacrifices and stories.  A cross country journey in itself is a story. From my research, I couldn’t find any other story of of other modern-day African Americans who have ridden a horse across the country with this purpose in mind. I loved the idea of this young boy
growing up watching western movies and television shows and dreaming that he too
could become a cowboy.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

On the Trail of the Ancestors went through many drafts. It began as a first person
narrative and then I changed it to third person. After trying to find an agent and not being able to find out, I thought I should let it go. But something made me continue and I decided to self-publish the book. I felt it’s a great story that had to be told.

For Tangerine Tango, I really had a lot of fun collecting the essays and working with the
writers. Some were a bit more resistant to editing than others, but it all worked out.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?
With any writing, you have to be passionate and committed to the process. With non-
fiction, I think you have to truly become obsessed with the subject to create a book. It’s
not like fiction—you can’t make it up! That said, I also believe it can happen—just don’t give up! It takes tons of patience, fortitude and sometimes luck to get published. With self-publishing there are many options to get your work out, but it’s a very tough (and can be expensive) road. Believing in your story is paramount. If you have passion for it, others will too. Also, there’s no “quick fix.” While an occasional book might sell hundreds of copies the first week, thousands the first month and so on, most don’t. I believe marketing really becomes a personal adventure: why would someone want to read my book? I view it as my journey: one sale, one reader, one book at a time. If you care about the book, you have to put effort into marketing it.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I ordered books from libraries and bookstores and read on the Internet too. I didn’t have
any trouble obtaining the resources. I reached out to several of the people Miles met and
conducted a few telephone interviews that helped my writing.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?
For the first book, I truly believed in the story. I was (and still am) mesmerized by the
journey that Miles Dean took, and the history he brought to life in his travels.
With Tangerine Tango, it was just a fun project and has been a lovely gift book. The
proceeds are going to Huntington’s Disease.

What has happened since this book has been published? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?

The books have been well received and of course appeal to very different audiences. I’m
trying to get On the Trail of the Ancestors into schools. I’ve written a cross-disciplinary
Educator’s Guide that is free to download from my website. I taught these lessons to students when I worked in Newark and they were well received by students and staff.

What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up?

At the moment, I’m not planning anything. I’m always looking for the next idea and
might do another anthology later this year.

The “real” Frank Sinatra from the guy who followed him for 60 years

Sinatra and Me

Sinatra and Me

Okay, not many people were allowed inside Frank Sinatra’s inner circle. But Tony Consiglio–of Sally’s Apizza fame–was a boyhood friend of Sinatra’s who remained his friend and confidant for over sixty years. One reason Sinatra valued Tony’s friendship is that he could be trusted: Sinatra nicknamed him “the Clam” because Tony never spoke to reporters or biographers about the singer. From the early days when Sinatra was trying to establish himself as a singer to the mid-1960s, Tony worked with Sinatra and was there to share in the highs and lows of Sinatra’s life and career. Tony was with Sinatra during his “bobby-soxer” megastar days in the 1940s, and he remained loyal to Sinatra during the lean years of the early 1950s, when “the Voice” was struggling with a crumbling singing and acting career as well as his tumultuous marriage to Ava Gardner. Tony also had a front row seat to Sinatra’s comeback in the 1950s, starting with his Academy Award winning role in From Here to Eternity and a string of now-classic hit recordings. Tony’s friendship with Sinatra allowed him to rub elbows with the Hollywood elite, including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Kim Novak, Ava Gardner, and many others. It also brought him close to the political world of the early 1960s, when Sinatra campaigned for John F. Kennedy and then helped plan the Kennedy inauguration. Tony was even at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, Massachusetts, when the election results came in. Sinatra and Me will shed new light on the real Frank Sinatra from the man who knew him better than anyone.

And who better to tell Tony Consiglio’s story than Franz Douskey, who has been published in over 200 publications including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Nation?  Douskey’s fourth book, West of Midnight, reached number 24 on the Amazon Best-Seller list in 2011 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

SINATRA AND ME: THE VERY GOOD YEARS is the result of eight years of interviews and travels with Tony Consiglio who traveled and lived with Frank Sinatra from 1942 until Frank’s first retirement. The book is Tony’s memoirs of the Sinatra years, as well as never before published photos and letters.

To hear Franz Douskey talk about how he convinced Tony “The Clam” Consiglio to open up about Frank Sinatra, listen to this podcast. http://www.tantor.com/share/FranzDouskey_interview_final.mp3

And come to see Franz Douskey and hear a reading from the book at 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 13 at the Gateway Community College Library, New Haven, second floor.

Welcome to Books New Haven, Franz. Tell us about your book.

The focus of the book is Tony Consiglio, who co-founded Sally’s Apizza in 1938 with his mother and his brother Salvatore, then traveled with Sinatra, worked with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, worked on JFK’s campaign for president in 1960,  and the Inaugural Ball in January 1961, and was a regular visitor at the White House. On occasion he brought Judith Exner, who was having  simultaneous affairs with JFK and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Tony was friends with with Pierre Salinger, Lou Gehrig, Muhammad Ali, Regis Philbin , Emeril LaGasse, Frank Sinatra’s mother, father, first wife and their three children, Nancy, Jr., Frank, Jr., and Tina.  Every story in the book is a first-hand account by a man who seemed to be everywhere and had the photos to support the stories.

What is your writing process?

I don’t have a writing process because I don’t do one kind of writing.  Early on I did travel writing to support my desire to travel.  Another aspect was a series of interviews with sports figures, such as Willie Pep, Bud Harrelson, Smoky Joe Wood, etc. Also published lots of short stories and some poetry.  When I’m working I’m in a place away from home where only a few people know where to find me.  That is essential.

Was the research for the book difficult?

The research was time consuming and entailed much travel, many phone calls and plenty of dead ends.  What I couldn’t verify didn’t go into the book.

What was the best part of writing this book? What did you enjoy the most?

The best part of working on the book was spending lots of time with Tony.  We visited Frank, Jr., Nancy Jr., we lectured at colleges, visited Emeril numerous times, and even wrote segments for Emeril Live! on the Food Network.  Tony was brilliant, and so much damned fun.  We had a great time together.  Two New Haven bums on the road together.

Did you come across any surprises in researching this book?

There were numerous surprises along the way, too many to mention.  Our early agents wanted us to put in large sections about Frank and the mob, Frank and Marilyn; you know, the usual stuff.  Tony wanted to tell the stories behind the music, behind the night life and the crazy stunts that Dean, Frank, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jack E Leonard and other pals would play on each other.  Also, there were stories Tony didn’t want in the book.  He had promised Frank that there were some stories that he would take to the grave, and he did.

How did you first know you were a writer?

I still have my doubts.  I don’t think of myself as a writer.  I’m just a guy who has had some very amazing experiences, so I have a lot to draw on instead of my imagination.

What have you been working on since the book came out?

Since the book has been published, I’ve been traveling, doing a lot of interviews.  One day there was a “virtual radio tour” and I did 24 interviews starting at 7:23 a.m. and ending at 7:45 that night.  Most of the interviews were live, and some were taped.  Oddly, for a person who likes to be alone, I like doing the interviews and the book signings.  The three that stand out are the Book Party at Sally’s Restaurant that was jammed.  Ruthie, Bobby  and Ricky went all out.  They were amazing.  Tony’s widow, Mary and their two sons, Anthony and Christopher were there and that was very important. But no Tony.  I really regret that Tony didn’t make it long enough to see the book published.

Another fine event was at R J Julia, let’s say the best bookstore in the USA.  We took the tour bus because we had a few friends aboard and it’s a great way to eat and relax while traveling to readings.  I thought there might be ten or twelve people at R J Julia but there were a lot of people, chairs set up in the aisles, and after I told a few stories from the book, people lined up and it took a long time to get all the books signed.  Was my hand tired? Never.  I enjoyed meeting people and listening to their stories about Frank Sinatra and music, in general.  The third best stop was to Imus In The Morning.  Very surprising.  I’m an unknown.  But I got a call and several emails from the producer.  Then Bernard send a great email telling me not to worry and be myself.  Well, I am usually myself, and I had a great time with Imus, Rob Bartlett and Tony Powell.  I had to be there very early.  I hate hassles.  The thought of finding a parking space at Union Station, then the train being on time, then wrangling over a cab contained too many “ifs.”  Just one thing going wrong could screw up the interview.   So, I called my favorite limo service and that was it.  Andrew came to the house in the dark, my wife Sarah and Tantor Vice President John Molish got in, no worries and we got there on time.  Beautiful.  There is no doubt about it, I may not be getting richer in my old age, but I’m certainly cutting down on things that can go wrong.

What’s next?

There are four books done and in line for publishing.  Tantor has rights of first refusal.  One book deals with Memphis, Tennessee, its music and musical icons, some of whom I knew and a few I still know.  There’s a huge book on the history of one year: 1968.  As mentioned those books are done, but I tend to never be finished with a book until it’s in print.  And there is one very intriguing project just being put together.

The Black Russian–a true story of a black American’s amazing adventures

The Black Russian

The Black Russian

Vladimir Alexandrov, of Hamden, grew up in New York City in a Russian emigre family and wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology from Queens College and The City College of New York, he decided that he’d learned enough about the natural world but didn’t understand himself or other people. His solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities, which resulted in his getting a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton. After teaching in the Slavic Department at Harvard, he moved to Yale University in 1986, where he continues to teach courses on Russian literature and culture.

He is the author of a new book out this month, a book that is garnering plenty of advance praise. Booklist, in a starred review, called the book “magnetizing and unforgettable.” And Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer prize, said it was “a spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable.

We are thrilled here at Books New Haven to welcome Vladimir Alexandrov to our pages, where he has graciously told us about the process of writing and researching this fascinating book about a character who was very real but whom most of us have never heard about.

Vladimir Alexandrov will be giving talks throughout the country. For more information about his interview schedule, click here for the events page of his website.

And now, Vladimir himself:

Tell us about THE BLACK RUSSIAN.

This is a biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872-1928), the remarkable son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a millionaire impresario in pre-Revolutionary Moscow and was the first to import jazz to Constantinople. Although famous during his lifetime, he is now almost completely forgotten.

How did you come across the original story of Thomas, and when did you know that you were going to write his story?

Seven years ago, while preparing to teach a graduate seminar at Yale on Russian émigré culture between the world wars, I was reading the memoirs of Alexander Vertinsky, a singer who was very popular in Russia before the Revolution, when I came to a remark that made me stop. Vertinsky described how he landed in Constantinople in 1920, which was the first stage on the bitter road to exile for many Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, and then began to perform in an entertainment garden that belonged, as he put it (I translate from his Russian), “to our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the owner of the famous ‘Maxim’ in Moscow.”

I remember that I was so surprised that I put the book down. I had never heard of this  “Tomas,” and the idea that a black man with a Russian first name and patronymic had been famous for owning an entertainment venue of some sort in pre-Revolutionary Moscow seemed wildly improbable. People of African origin were always very rare in Imperial Russia; in fact, the best-known one, Abram Hannibal, lived in the 18th century (and is well known because he was the ancestor of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s great national writer). The well-documented visits by such prominent black Americans as the writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, or the actor and singer Paul Robeson, did not take place until the Soviet era years later.

Who was this “Fyodor Tomas” and where did he come from? Why did he go to Russia? How did he prosper there to the extent of owning what sounded like a theater? How did Russians react to his being black? How did he wind up in Constantinople? And why, if Vertinsky said that he was “famous,” had he been forgotten?

I started digging through Yale’s vast library, but after considerable effort came up with only a half-dozen brief and contradictory references to this black man. However, I was fortunate in having a year-long sabbatical ahead of me, and dedicated it entirely to a hunt for information through a labyrinth of archives and libraries in five countries.

What I found far exceeded my expectations.

But I didn’t know that I’d actually be able to write Thomas’s biography until I reached a  tipping point in my research—finding two dossiers about him in the National Archives in College Park, MD, after the archivists there had given up and told me that what I was looking for had probably been destroyed. These dossiers led me to sources about Thomas’s youth in Mississippi, and to archives in France and elsewhere.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

How a person refused to accept limitations imposed on him by others, and how he repeatedly reinvented himself in exotic settings far from home. How a black American could find acceptance in tsarist Russia at a time when Jim Crow was on the rise in the United States. How, in the end, the long arm of American racism did manage to reach Thomas in distant Constantinople after he had survived wars and revolution in Russia.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

Searching for information about Thomas was fascinating because it was a detective-like hunt that took me to foreign countries. The process was also addictive because every time I found some nugget of information, the thrill of it made me want to re-experience that thrill again. I recall moments in various archives when I held a folder of documents in my hands that might contain information (I didn’t know for sure, but I was following a lead)—and savored the moment before opening the folder.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

To make it easier to get started in the morning, I don’t stop work the previous evening until I’ve briefly sketched the next paragraphs in the narrative, or in the argument, that I’m fashioning. Rereading that on the following morning helps me re-saturate myself with the ideas, words, and phrases that filled me when I stopped, and functions as a kind of ski jump into the future passage.

If I’m writing a narrative, I put together a detailed chronology that is several hundred pages long, consisting of the events that are my focus, as well as whatever I am correlating them with from history. This linear “story” can then be rearranged into the book’s “plot,” or the actual sequence of events in the final narrative, which will frequently differ from the “story” (which can be useful to do for effect). But if I’m writing an analysis of literary works, or making a literary theoretical argument, I use hundreds of index cards that I sort into little stacks by category, and arrange on a large dining room table, in as big a grid as necessary. Then I shuffle, reshuffle, and rearrange the cards and stacks until the sequence works.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I searched everywhere I could think of, and often followed what seemed to be promising leads that turned out to be dead ends. For example, I asked or hired people to check archives for me in places as far flung as Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and Ankara; and I was prepared to go there myself if it turned out that they had materials related to my quest (they didn’t). But by being as thorough as I could—by weaving my research net as finely as possible, and by casting it as widely and deeply as possible—I was able to enhance my own “luck” and found a lot of information.

Your book reads like a novel, and tells a story that most people never knew existed. How was that process of weaving together the facts to make a story?

It’s very gratifying to hear that readers find the narrative compelling, which was/is a very important goal for me.The abstract principles of building interest and tension are well known; but achieving this successfully in practice is difficult. It’s of course essential to suggest that something important is coming, and then to withhold the details to make the reader want to find out—in short, to create curiosity. It’s also essential to give the reader a sense of the people or person you’re writing about in a way that will make the reader care. This is also something that is easy to set as a goal, but hard to achieve. I also wanted to understand the kinds of cultural and historical forces that buffeted Thomas and that he had to overcome, struggle with, or escape. For example, I was able to explain why he chose to apply for citizenship in Russia in 1914 by looking at the reactions of Russians to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. It was thus very important for me to grasp the timing of certain large-scale events through which Thomas lived.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

That I was able to bring back to public memory one of the most remarkable black Americans in history. And more broadly, that I was able to tell the story of a man who reinvented himself repeatedly in most unlikely locales in order to become himself as fully as possible.

Were there any surprises along the way—either in the research or in the writing? Did you find sources who were unexpected?

All the time. For example, just being able to find Thomas’s grandson in Paris was a surprise and an adventure. And so was discovering that much of what he believed he knew about his grandfather was sheer invention (probably by the grandson’s father, i.e., Thomas’s oldest son, who was born in Moscow). Another example of a surprise was when I went to the French Diplomatic archives in Nantes, hoping to find information about Thomas in Constantinople, and found a cache of letters from a lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to get Thomas to pay royalties for the French music that was played in his Moscow establishments. The letters showed how cunning Thomas was as a businessman who wanted to protect his interests (and how he ran circles around the lawyer).

When did you first know you were a writer?

“Publish or perish” has been the mantra of academics forever, so I’ve been writing ever since graduate school. However, what I tried to do in The Black Russian differs greatly from the kind of writing I did in my academic books and articles. I could no longer assume that my audience would be other academics with an a priori interest in what I wanted to say (if they were in the same field as me and wanted to “keep up” with the scholarly  literature in it). Now, I would be vying with all sorts of books trying to capture the general-interest reader’s attention. Trying to write in a way that would appeal to a general reader was a challenge, but an exciting and compelling one (even when I despaired that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off).