Fiction Spotlight: Ed Pavlić

Ed Pavlić’s début novel Another Kind of Madness weaves an intricate narrative as two people return to Chicago: Ndiya Grayson, who navigates professional life with high-end lawyers, and Shame Luther, carving out an existence as an intense temp laborer. Their reasons for leaving still not behind them, Ndiya’s chance night out and Shame’s self-taught talent for piano twine their lives together. What follows is a clash of expectations that spans continents and explores the deepest parts of why we are the way we are in a tale of visceral human connection.

Poet and scholar Ed Pavlić has published eleven books, including Live at the Bitter End: A Trial by Opera (Saturnalia Books, 2018), Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno (Fence Books, 2015), and the 2013 Poetry Series winner Visiting Hours at the Color Line (Milkweed, 2013). Although Another Kind of Madness, published this year by Milkweed Editions, is Pavlić’s first prose novel, he has published essays, fiction, dramatic pieces, and poetry in over sixty magazines, including Boston Review, Ploughshares, Callaloo, and two issues of Memorious. Currently, he is Distinguished Research Professor in the English Department and Institute for African American Studies at the University of Georgia.

After writing several collections of poetry, Another Kind of Madness is nearly 500 pages of prose, telling a unified story. Was writing a novel similar to writing poetry? How do your experiences writing poetry and prose compare? If there were major changes, how did you adapt?

I began writing Another Kind of Madness in 2009 on my porch in Georgia. I needed to remember Chicago. Living in the Deep South may have triggered that in a way, the Deep South being the regional origin of the South and West Sides of Chicago. I also needed to remember the loss of Chicago, a kind of exile. Truth is my need to write Another Kind of Madness was tangled up with many many needs, too many to list, too many to know. I’m happy to hear that you feel like it’s a “unified story.” Anyway, I’m saying I began writing it in 2009 to say that I wrote and published numerous books during the writing of this novel: two full-length books about James Baldwin’s life and work—Who Can Afford to Improvise? (2016) and “No Time to Rest,” (which awaits permissions from JB’s Estate before it can be published)—and at least three collections of poems—Visiting Hours at the Color Line (2013), Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno (2015), and Let It Be Broke (2020). So, you know, that “critical” writing, the poems, and the novel were all jostling around during that period, pretty much during my forties. That wasn’t always a pretty picture. It wasn’t easy; looking back if feels like it wasn’t possible at all.

I’ve said that I write mainly because so often the world feels too far away. So, I write to bring it closer, for longer, that it tends to come, or to stay. That’s true. But, at times I think my poems can bring the world intolerably close, almost violently close. And I think it’s true that there are times when that’s too much, I need a little distance. Maybe part of the reason Another Kind of Madness accordions like it does has to do with the way I needed it and used it both to do things with proximity and to measure intimacy in a way that poems (my poems) can’t do (or haven’t done) and also to provide a kind of distancing as a relief from the extreme proximity that poems bring about. Even the granular and lyrical critical work that I do can become anonymous in a way that begins to feel numb. So, I think the novel also allows the ideas I’m carrying through and pushing into to both feel and carry their autobiographical weight in a way that neither poems or critical prose allow. 

You know? This might be a very strange genealogy for a novel, but I think this is all true in terms of where Another Kind of Madness comes from and its relationship to poems. I guess you could say I’m no fan of borders, certainly not those between genres. But, maybe I also have my sense of boundaries?

Location is incredibly important in the novel. It influences how Ndiya reacts to the world and how Shame processes his past and identity. Could this important location be anywhere besides Chicago? New York, for example, has a similar historical influence and musicality. Did you ever imagine it in a different place?

Yes. Another Kind of Madness is about exiles and returns, it tracks things about our contemporary world that make questions of origin, questions about “where we’re from,” at least for some of us, and certainly for these characters, exceedingly complex. I think the literary world still often pretends that all of us still have a village somewhere where we neatly “come from” and to which we could return, about which we could write a story. I think this fantasy does the work it does in the literary world largely to mask the ways (and the reasons!) that this isn’t true at all. I think facets of “identity” as administered in our literary and cultural marketplace works like those villages of origin as well. So, these characters all carry contradictory and blurred legacies, personal histories; their lives trace trajectories of ricochets for which we’ve avoided vocabularies. Their “identities” are folded-over, torn along a crease, amputated, grafted—

The result is that “Chicago” becomes super-charged with resonance for Ndiya and Shame, they each avoided the place for their own reasons, many reasons, some of which they know, some of which they hide. Junior, too. . . . And then the story finds ways to put them together (Shame and Ndiya in Shame’s apartment, Ndiya and Junior at Inflation) so that the things they know and the things they hide collide. More ricochets. 

Of course this could be any city, but it likely has to be a city due to the role cities have as the magnets, meat grinders, and expulsion systems in our world. Paris in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, or New York City in Baldwin’s Another Country or even in Go Tell It On the Mountain, post-war Milan in Antonioni’s La Notte, Paris in Godard’s Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, Hong Kong in Kar-Wai Wong’s Chungking Express, even Miami in Barry Jenkins and Tarrel Alvin McCraney’s Moonlight work in very similar ways for very similar reasons. Things that more habitual residents of these cities pass by carry an extreme resonance for the characters. My own autobiographical connections and disconnections from Chicago are the engine of that resonance in Another Kind of Madness

Toward the end of the novel, there’s a significant shift in locale. Characters change subtly in this new environment. How does place transform character? What challenges did you face in writing about different locations?

When the pressures of the collisions cause the ricochets that bounce the novel out of Chicago, yeah, that’s an extreme shift in locale for sure. I wanted to write in extremely local terms, terms in which the city is deeply internalized, its reality emanating from the characters to a great degree. I also wanted to chart the realities and ir-realities of “exile” too. How would characters such as Shame and Ndiya experience that kind of depressurization, being cut loose from a world of colliding resonances and into a place where resonances collide in ways that don’t include them, or at least that include them in ways they can’t even begin to interpret. In Kenya, and in Lamu, Shame and Ndiya risk committing the one crime Junior admits is a crime: seeing without being affected, seeing without interacting. Shame can’t tolerate it; the one vocabulary he has to fight that empty elevator shaft of detachment is work, his labor. But, of course, labor in Lamu isn’t the unionized industrial situation he’s been in; its patterns are far far distant, they see him in ways he can’t possibly imagine. . .but he tries. He throws himself into it. Ndiya is better at floating, but she also happens to be lucky. She hangs out with Malik, an expatriate, and Muhammad the exiled Nigerian. I mean, not to give away the plot, but Shame pretty much gets fired by a barracuda.  

The Kenyan sections are about imagining alternate systems of sophistication and how they interact, how power works. Those sections are also love letters for my great friend Binyavanga Wainaina, who recently died, of course. They’re written into his unique and incredible way of being open to the world, to being an open window in whatever closed system our world thinks it has devised. 

The book is non-chronological and the reveal of the true narrator, who appears all-knowing, comes as a surprise. At what point did you realize who you wanted the narrator to be? Did you ever consider a more traditional third-person narrator?

The narrator isn’t all-knowing but he has lots of ideas. That’s true. That was a strange thing. I should have known it would happen. And, maybe the novel could have been more radically revised to signal who the narrator is earlier. But, I left it pretty much as I discovered it. As I wrote, little by little, I began to recognize things in the narrator. I think I resisted him for a little while and finally, about 120 pages in, I just accepted it, let him come in and talk directly to the reader, explain a few things, and then go back to work telling the story. We talked about editing “him” out and converting it back into a more stable “third-person” narrator. But, that felt like shellac to me, like a lie. The position and skill of the narrator in Another Kind of Madness add to the crush and mesh and tangle of personality and perspective, the kind of overload that goes on in most arenas of our lives, overloads we can’t usually handle and so reduce, betray, blame, and lie about all the time. Basically, I think we treat the complexity and mystery of our experiences (especially other people) like spoiled and tempestuous teenagers treat their parents. Mostly we have no respect, we react like puny puritans. The narrator in Another Kind of Madness helped me not do that. 

The narrator often shifts focus between characters, when in time the narration takes place, and memories and inner monologues becoming the main narration. How did you keep it all straight in your mind? Did you write it as published or did it come together like a puzzle? How did you balance inner monologue with poetic description and metaphor?

God knows how many times I re-read and revised the sections of the novel over the ten years I worked on it. Especially Ndiya’s sections in the first book, those were the hardest. I think whatever sense of balance you find there is the result of a few dozen reads and re-reads, pen-in-hand, striking out things I could no longer tolerate, adding things that grew into the spaces and trying to create—if not exactly a balance—a kind of rhythm between those different facets of the book. Also, the musical scores that run visibly and invisibly, audibly and inaudibly through the book guided that sense of rhythm: a little Miles here; Blakey enters; more Chaka now; Joyce Sims there; here we need a Chicago House hot-mix; it’s time for some more Anouar Brahem, etc. 

In Shame’s move, modern Cuban artists provide his opportunities. Visual artist José Bedia helps fund the transition, while Italo Calvino gives some direction and, possibly, inspiration to Shame. What drew you to these two artists?

I’ve loved Bedia’s work for years, followed him online. I love how he handles the technological and spiritual legacies and realities of diasporic life. Also, you know, Shame moves by what experience provides: Bedia (and Colleen in Chicago) and Calvino (and Kate in Echoes). All that comes to Shame as he lived, guided by who-knows-what? He didn’t apply and get recommendations. He worked his way through his grief with an open sense of “ok what now?” What’s next? And that kind of openness bears its risks but also represents a real kind of wealth and power in the world, or its energy operates in places (but NOT in the ways) that we claim (maybe hope?) wealth and power operate in our world. Those energies move us but we can’t really steer them; this protects us from our smallness and stupidity and let’s the world—which is smarter than we are—have its say in our lives. Shame won that piece and carried it around behind the seat of his truck. Who knew? Then when everything depends upon something that no one’s thought to deal with, there it is. 

Shame’s different persons encompass him depending on place, time, and role. Ndiya’s person changes as well, slowly and subtly. Both adopt and shed persons as the novel explores personhood: Shame caring for neighborhood children, Ndiya becoming Shame’s “manager,” the piano playing part of Shame, all come and go. Will these characters ever contain these separate persons in a single body and become “who they are” eventually? Is that even possible?

No, I don’t think so. I hope not. Another Kind of Madness is a “soul music” novel. For me that means that the most important things are what’s between people, not what they contain and certainly not what they “own.” So, these kaleidoscopic “facets” that you’re describing all come to the surface “in relation” to something or someone. In this sense, who we “really” are is a relational reality, not an internal or essential one. There’s a singer right now that I like a lot, Lucky Daye. At the end of his song “Extra,” he recites a poem. One of the lines is “There’s no such thing as without you.” Okay a romantic cliché in a way. . . but also a line about the essentially social nature of human reality; we don’t get to be ourselves by ourselves; we get to be ourselves by one another. Okay, now what? Another Kind of Madness asks what happens when the things that go on between us and because of each other (which are real) become more important than the fantasies we have about what goes on “within” us (which are mostly unreal). I love that line in SZA’s song “Prom” where she sings: “Probably true what they say about me.” Like, yeah, all that trash people talk about me? It’s all true. Somewhere in that is a real maturity. At the very least, the basic premise of the novel—as I think is the case with soul music and in its gospel origins—is that the things “within” us are only as real as they are shared “between” us. And, turns out, that reality can be as volatile as it is beautiful. I think that’s the key to following where the book takes us.

Interviewer Anthony Lograsso received his MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University. He has been published in the Zetetic Record and lives in Michigan.

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