Jedah Mayberry looks back at his childhood in Connecticut

SONY DSCJEDAH MAYBERRY is an emerging fiction writer, born in New York, raised in southeastern CT, which was the backdrop for his fiction debut released in March 2013 by River Grove Books. He was a top ten finalist for the 2013 Best New Author Award sponsored by the National Black Book Festival. He also garnered honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s April 2012 Family Matters Short Story Contest. He currently resides with his wife and teenage daughters in Austin, TX.7_JMberry cover

“The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle” is his debut novel. It tells the story of the Hopkins family, from irascible patriarch Alonzo “Grandpa Tuke” Tooker on down to altruistic Dottie, dissatisfied Chester, and their sons Langston and Trajan—who are no typical residents of the Thames River Valley town of Preston, Connecticut. This is perhaps most true of Langston, a boy whose peers declare him to be the “King of Preston Plains Middle School”: a vibrant young man dedicated to his dream of competing in Olympic-level Tae Kwon Do, as well as to his growing passion for his beautiful classmate Angelica Chu. Yet when a terrible accident brings Langston’s Olympic dreams to an abrupt close, Trajan Hopkins, the family’s youngest son, must learn to cope alone with the coming trials of adult life: his slowly changing relationship with self-destructing childhood friends, his initiation into the world of women at the hands of a former teacher, and his growing awareness of the risky world outside his family’s circle within the shadow of a Haitian drug lord’s operation and the often-threatening local police who watch over it. Jedah Mayberry’s The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle marks the debut of a striking new voice in American fiction: intelligent, richly cadenced, slyly funny, and deeply thoughtful about what it means to be a son, a father, and a man.

We’re so pleased to have him here on Books New Haven, talking about his book.

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

A story about brothers has been brewing inside me for some time now. I’ve always liked the idea of a younger brother drafting behind his older brother, working to fit his shadow.

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?

I attempted to put something together awhile back, but the story ultimately fell flat. There are countless lessons for an older brother to pass down to a younger brother, insights that the older of the two is still grappling to fully comprehend. I find honesty in that kind of exchange. One is not so far removed from the place the other is in life to relate to his concerns; meanwhile he’s still contending with related concerns – school, friends, family, women/girls. I’ve lifted a few short stories from the original manuscript, but have since put it to bed recognizing that it was beginning to come off as overly preachy. The Unheralded King provided a fresh start plus I learned a ton from that early failed attempt enabling me to approach the storyline from a less heavy-handed perspective.

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

I like to say that I write inside-out. I take some tiny kernel of the story to examine in relative isolation, mold it in place. I work a couple three pieces at a time until the ends of the narrative just begin to touch. From there, I write the story out, end-to-end, fast and rough. Get the story on the page. Then I cycle back and fill in additional detail, tying together any loose ends. I continue this loop, stacking details in relative isolation then knitting together the resulting molehills, until a mountain begins to take shape. (As for mechanics, I generally write on whatever device is close at hand, my cellphone most often. I eventually transfer the content to a more structured document but resort to my phone whenever the creative juices start to flow. I can accomplish in a focused fifteen minutes what could take hours if I were forced to sit down at a particular place/time and write. I would venture a guess that a quarter if not more of the book was captured originally on my cellphone.)

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 start out with a general idea of where I want to take the story, a few potential paths forward at each turn though the conclusion usually remains elusive through to the very end. Midway through KoPPM, I resorted to use of a spreadsheet with automated color coding to map character interactions. Not so much to manage the plot progression, but to ensure that every section of the story serves a purpose, that the pieces fit to create an appropriate level of tension, advance the story in some way. The result resembles a map of some as yet uncharted continent with characters coming and going top-to-bottom along the left margin as the storyline progresses in time from left-to-right. It’s a neat little byproduct that came out along the way to completing a full manuscript. See the plot trace embedded below. Boxes outlined in bold highlight which characters are in conflict in a given subsection.

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?

I still have a day job. As a result, I don’t have structured writing time. I write as the mood strikes. Perhaps I’m lucky in that way. Still, there are times when it just isn’t flowing. I set the work aside at that point and wait for it to come back to me. Proofreading/editing is another matter. Once the manuscript has reached that stage, I’m usually on someone else’s timetable. I’ll put in whatever time is needed to turn the manuscript back to the editor as quickly as possible. The story is largely laid out by then. However, I find the interchange with another thinking being invaluable in making the story better, knitting those ties a little tighter, clarifying, shifting perspective ever so slightly to add new color, new light to a scene. When all else fails, I slip on my headphones. A little music always helps.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I read something to a live audience as part of a Black History month celebration (some ten-plus years before I managed to get anything published). It was a piece from my first attempt at the brother story. I was amazed to see how the story moved people, the bits they found funny or touching or heartbreaking. Being able to connect with an audience in that way is the first sense I got of where this writing thing might lead.

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

I’d probably teach. Something math or science related to draw on skills associated with my day job and definitely younger students, still full of wonder. I would try to relate what I know on terms they can digest. Similar to what I do with my writing. We tread on some dicey turf in KoPPM with divorce and betrayal and infidelity. I sought to make the subject matter more accessible, to   adults as well as younger readers, presented largely through the eyes of an adolescent.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process?

I keep a running log of things that I call “bits”. I consult my bits file regularly to see if something will fit a new piece I’m working. But, I feel like I’ve developed a good filter (again with the help of the editors) to strike out things that don’t belong. The toughest thing I’ve found is accepting that not everyone is going to relate to everything you write. Any attempt to reach the whole world as your audience will likely result in reaching no one. I read anything I can get my hands on. Some of it fails to move me, either in genre or subject matter. But I’m quick to praise good writing even if I can’t relate to the storyline. I’ll quickly put down anything that panders to the least common denominator in us as readers, fails to surprise me in any way, to provoke some thought on my part.

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

My sister-in-law has proven my most reliable proofreader. She’s close enough to be persuaded to commit the time to give it a careful read, but not sympathetic like a blood relative to pull any punches. She probably saw two or three versions of the manuscript before it reached the final round of edits. She remarked on how much it had advanced during that time, partially based on deficiencies she pointed out in early drafts.

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?

I think of a writer as a blender with a heavy sponge placed at its base. We consume loads of scenery, circumstances, experience. Some our own, some lifted from people we’ve encountered. The trick is to blend it in a way that it’s not recognizable as your own life story yet remains plausible, pulling bits and pieces from true-to-life events. The sponge is meant to hold back anything not suited for outside consumption. Those events might shape the writer’s outlook on family, parents, marriage, life whether or not they make it undisguised into the manuscript.

Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know, and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?

My protagonist’s parents break up in KoPPM. I don’t believe I could have written that piece as openly had my father still been living. I don’t know that he would have been furious. He may even have appreciated the honesty. Still, I would have shaded the story differently to spare his feelings, diminishing its worth.

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?

I force myself to get up, otherwise sleep will not come. Plus, I’ve lost a scene or two in the past to the next sequence of dreaming. I make sure to write things down so that I won’t forget them come morning time.

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

I usually find myself procrastinating during those shifts where molehills need to become mountains. I fixate on something I believe is especially well written. I’ve learned to use one piece to make another piece jealous. I work to bring it to the level of the first so the story can proceed. It’s also been my experience that some of the greatest advances come once I have something in hand to share with someone else. I push to get to this points, put on my thick skin to absorb any feedback then ratchet up the creativity to address any concerns that arise. I take satisfaction in being able to incorporate their suggestions while staying true to my voice/writing style. There were a couple of really nice descriptive passages that arose from a simple request from the editor to “show me more”, to help her see Connecticut and later Princeton.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

My wife refused to read the book before the publishing process was completed. She read it along with the masses and claims to have loved it. She had some questions regarding things she feared might be autobiographical. But she truly enjoyed the read. Seeing those individual reactions is probably the most gratifying, no matter how many copies ultimately sell. Knowing that someone related to the story, got a kick out of it is what puts a smile on my face.

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

Just write. Forget where it might lead, but work on craft. Take a workshop or two. Use the feedback you receive to gauge where you are in your ability to relate a completed thought to potential readers. Then go back to working on craft. Use that early feedback, offered in the relative comfort of a workshop setting, to bolster your confidence through the countless rejections we all receive. Every once in a great while, one of those rejections will include the tiniest bit of constructive feedback. Use that too in making your way forward. Above all else, keep writing. It just might lead someplace.

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