Authors / Fiction / Interviews / Nonfiction

“Fiction as a device to bring empathy and understanding”: Q & A with Jerry McGill

Jerry McGill in his novel Bed Stuy (Amazon Publishing, 2021), centered around an interracial love story between an older Jewish woman and a younger African American man,  explores the intersections of class, race, and gender. His earlier work, a memoir, Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me (Random House Publishing Group, 2013) tackles the story of his accidental shooting by a stranger which lead to his becoming a quadriplegic when thirteen years old. In both works, McGill evades any easy sentimentality and writes with a sparse clarity that forces readers to rethink and re-examine inherent assumptions. 

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to connect with Jerry McGill after reading his two remarkable books and to learn more about his perceptions and his process, his influencers and his interpretations. McGill’s willingness to honestly review the social context of his journey as a writer allows us to gain insights into his writing, and simultaneously opens the door for further examination of privilege and social change.

Shoba Viswanathan: Your soon to be released book Bed Stuy has a love story at its center. Rashid and Rachel, as an African American man and an older Jewish woman, make for an intriguing central couple.  But the book is also a story about love; love, affection and caring between family, friends, cousins, coworkers. When and how did you start this book, and how was your work impacted by the public conversations around race in the last few years? Were you limited or empowered in how you got to tackle the story of an interracial couple in a emphatically heterogeneous NYC.

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Jerry McGill: I started this book roughly in the summer of 2013. It was an interesting and fraught time for me in a few ways. The Trayvon Martin verdict had come out and it had a much more damaging effect on my emotional health than I ever thought it might. I thought it an open-shut case and I could not for the life of me figure out how a jury of six women, some of whom I assumed were mothers, could let an obvious murderer of a young boy go free. It hit me hard. Filled me with anger. It was a harsh reminder that black life meant very little in this country. I had been in a long relationship with a white woman – a loving one at that – but lately our differences had been creeping up on me and I struggled with how much privilege I felt she and her family had in contrast to me and people who looked like me. I moved away from the relationship and put my angst into a project about two people from very different walks of life who find themselves in love. I felt empowered the entire way. I grew up in New York City, the greatest and most diverse city in the world. Every character in the novel I knew on some profound level.

SV: Your first book, the memoir Dear Marcus, and fiction Bed Stuy are separated by several years. How did you approach the two projects, did you sense your development as a writer in the years between. 

JM: It’s funny, because truth be told I never wanted to write a memoir. Ever. Fiction had always been my jam. I grew up admiring the fiction of Judy Blume, Frank Herbert, then later JD Salinger, John Irving, Isabel Allende. And playwrights like Shakespeare, August Wilson, and Chekhov. And don’t get me started on my love of film. I had dabbled in fiction writing through high school and college, taking several classes both in school and in private writing groups in Manhattan. 

I never thought I had led a life worthy of memoir. I thought memoir and autobiography were reserved for great lives like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, presidents and artists like Billie Holiday or Paul Robeson. But every now and then someone would tell me they found my own story inspiring or intriguing. Then I went through a memoir-reading phase and found myself fascinated by the genre – the ability to be touched by someone else’s experiences even though the two of you may share very little in common. A fine example – I could not have lived a more different life than Joan Didion, but I found myself deeply touched by her The Year of Magical Thinking. Then came Isabel Allende’s Paula and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. I began to realize that you don’t have to have made history to tell a story that resonates with others. I began to realize that nearly everyone you meet has some story to tell. The trick for me was “how do I tell my story in a unique way that isn’t conventional or boring?” When I came up with the idea to write as a letter to my unknown shooter the words fled from my bony fingers. As much as I enjoyed the experience of writing it I always knew I would return to fiction, which was always my first love. Oh yeah, I’m forgetting what was possibly my greatest inspiration of all – a childhood friend of mine, Dalton Conley, had written a memoir, Honky, and a section of it covered our friendship and my shooting. Hearing about what happened to me and how it traumatized him as well, from his perspective, left quite an impression on me.

SV: Forgiveness and letting go are big themes in your memoir. How did that become the framing of a story that could have been told from a few other angles, with other kinds of emphasis? 

JM: Well I have to say the very idea of forgiveness as a thing that we all have the ability to achieve has always fascinated me. The act of forgiveness is so rich and layered.  I have always considered myself a forgiving person and yet I know that I also have a side to me (I call it my Sicilian side) that believes in revenge. That supports an eye for an eye. But I also know that nothing good can come from the act of vengeance. Nothing changes. I always use the example of capital punishment. If Ted Bundy had killed my daughter I would want him to die a painful death even though the sensible side of me knows that it would change nothing. It wouldn’t bring my daughter back. It wouldn’t change the horrific way she died. Only letting go of the pain frees me up to go on with life. I know this, and yet….It is also interesting because I have the benefit of having a life that turned out very well despite the difficulty of being shot and paralyzed for life as a youth. That reality colors everything.     

SV: In both books you refer to complicated feelings of the sons in each of the books towards the mothers. There’s affection, but there’s also anger. This feels like a less explored dynamic in African American writing. Would you like to set a context for your readers in approaching this?

JM: It would probably take years and years worth of therapy for me to truly address what is the beating heart of this question. What I can say is that I watched this dynamic very closely growing up – the number of African American single moms I grew up with, raising hard-headed boys, and how at the time I underestimated what a challenging role that must have been. And it goes both ways, the anger and resentment. I think that in many ways this anger is based in black self loathing; a self loathing that this society deliberately impregnated within so many black folks when it savagely ripped them from their birthplace and dropped them down into a society designed to demean, debase, and dehumanize them. Did I even get close to answering your question?

SV: You have definitely added great insight to help readers see that dynamic even if it’s a very difficult question to answer. Relatedly, what is the literary tradition you’d locate yourself in? Who are some of the contemporary authors who influence the way you approach your work? 

JM: First and foremost I am a storyteller, one who sculpts fictional situations in such a way as to try to touch and inspire readers to maybe see something in a way that maybe they had not been made to see it before. I am such a fan of fiction as a device to bring about empathy and understanding, and I can only hope for some modicum of success. Every single time someone told me they were moved by my memoir it mattered. It validated my existence in a way. I still dream of telling stories in a variety of ways. I am working on a musical, a play, and a film project. All of these mediums have had a profound effect on how I enter the lives of others. As far as contemporary authors I can tell you the ones whose works I have been most touched by and inspire me daily: Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Tommy Orange, Ta Nehisi Coates, Teju Cole, Isabel Allende, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Isabel Wilkerson jump to the front of my mind. Can Toni Morrison be considered a contemporary? Cause quite frankly, I don’t think I’m here without Ms. Morrison.   

SV: Through the character of Stacie, Rashid’s cousin, you set out the theme of who determines the representation of Black stories in literature, cinema, theater and the arts. Stacie herself manages to find ways to get some traction as an actress and a playwright. Are you hopeful about the direction of the storytelling of POCs? How do we make room for true range in the stories that get to public spaces?

JM: The timing of this question is so perfect because as we speak I believe – and I may be a little off – but I was reading in the Times that every new play debuting on Broadway this season has been written by a POC, which is simply astonishing. When I was growing up I had such a deep love and passion for the theatre and the ONLY time I ever got to see someone like me represented was in the occasional August Wilson production or the rare revival of A Raisin In The Sun.This new atmosphere does give me hope, and we are definitely seeing promising changes like this in film and television as well, so yes, you can color me optimistic. But we still need more people, to quote the great Lin Manuel Miranda, “in the room where it happens.”

SV: What would your advice be to those who are coming to writing at later stages in life and looking for ways to improve their craft?

Well I tell you first what I WON’T advise, and that is applying to MFA programs. Especially for writers of color. They are costly, fiercely competitive, and from what I have heard time and again is that they are not truly set up for your success. There are a lot of great writers who never went through the MFA process. It is not the only path. Not to toot my own horn but I’m fond of the route I took. I diligently read every writer that I respected and then tried my best to read the writers THEY respected. I read so much, and then I decided to take a stab at it myself. And I’m pretty sure my first short story was dreck, just awful. I shared any work I wrote with individuals whose opinions I cherished and respected and whom I knew would be honest with me in their feedback. Then I did my best to emulate, not copy, but emulate those writers whose works I admired. It took forever. And I’m not even certain I’m there yet. But put the time in. And don’t be too hard on yourself.    

Bloom Post End

Shoba Viswanathan is a writer, editor and book critic based in New York.  She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.

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