Conversations: Dolen Perkins-Valdez
CA: What are you drawn to write about?
DPV: This could change as my career progresses, but right now, I’m really drawn to the past and stories that have been overlooked. I’m really interested in historical excavation. By “historical” that could be 100 years ago, that could be 1000 years ago, that could be 20 years ago. I am open to my conception of what is the past. That’s where I am now — who knows, maybe one day I’ll write a contemporary novel.
I’m drawn to historical excavation out of natural curiosity; I love being in the archives, I love the process of discovery, I love the idea of finding something that has been overlooked. That’s interesting to me. I think we have to figure out what’s interesting to us because when you write a book, it becomes an obsession that can hold your interest for years, so it’s important to me that I find something that holds my interest.
I like to ask questions of history and how we got to this point. I think the only way to do that is to take a few steps back and take a look at what we’ve done before. For example, for my first book, I discovered this resort in Ohio where slave owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses. I had never heard of any such place. I was intrigued because it was the state of Ohio, which was a free state and had a lot of Underground Railroad activity and I wondered why the women would go into a free state and then return south, I was trying to puzzle out that question. The other thing that was interesting to me was that the resort becomes a university for free coloreds [Wilberforce University], for the children of free slave-owners. They would send their children to college during slavery, pre-civil war. Those are the kinds of historical excavations that I’m looking for; I’m always trying to puzzle out something mysterious to me.
CA: What life experiences have informed your writing?
DPV: I definitely think getting my Ph.D. helped. It was originally a way to get my dad to help pay my rent longer; little did I know that that Ph.D. in American Literature would really deepen my understanding literature. It also broadened by depth of reading; I hadn’t read a lot of classic British or American novels, and I was able to go back and read some of the classics like Melville and Hawthorne, and that really broadened my sense of what I wanted to say as a writer, and that surprised me.
In terms of non-Academic influences, I’m definitely interested in pop culture, the kinds of conversations happening right now like the Black Lives Matter Movement, conversations happening around Islam and extremist jihadism, and other cultural conversations, not in the sense of wanting to write about them, but from a perspective of how did we get here.
CA: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received or given?
DPV: The best writing advice I’ve ever received is “butts in the chair.” Just stay in the chair, see things through, develop discipline. I think writing for so many years has been shrouded in an air of mystery. I thought people who wrote well were just born that way, that they were just talented. What I’ve learned is that your writing can still be developed and that talent can only get you so far. So I try to approach my writing from the point of view of discipline.
CA: What would you say to a nonfiction or poetry writer who is apprehensive about, or not convinced that they should take, a fiction workshop?
DPV: I am very much a nuts and bolts writer, and I go through what I call the eight building blocks of fiction. It’s a very process –oriented class. I would say if they’re a nuts and bolts writer, if they’re into thinking about the modal elements of writing, and working through their weaknesses and highlighting their strengths, then I’m a good teacher for them.
CA: This one is a two-pronged question: What are some craft books that you recommend for someone unfortunate enough to not be able to take your class, and what are a couple of novels that are exemplary of the fiction genre?
DPV: Graywolf Press has an excellent craft series for the advanced writer, not necessarily for a beginning writer, but if you’re trying to taking your writing to the next level, I definitely recommend that series. Also, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Also, anything written by Charles Baxter. He is a phenomenal teacher of the craft.
In terms of the novels, you’ve got to go back to the greats. I have a real propensity towards brilliant contemporary authors, but for someone who does all the elements of the craft well, you’ve got to go back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which is a wonderfully built novel. It’s hard to teach, and I don’t teach it anymore, but it’s masterful, particularly considering Nabokov’s first language wasn’t English.
CA: If you weren’t a writer of fiction, what would you be doing?
DPV: My dream is to be a jazz pianist, and anyone who has ever taken my class knows I’m always using music analogies. The musical line is very similar; the way you build up to musical climax is very similar to the way it’s done in literature. I was self-taught pianist as a child, but I think it will have to wait until my next life. Nowadays I tutor my daughter who is an aspiring pianist, and I think I’ll just have to live vicariously through her.
Jewel Edwards is the features editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.