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“To discover the heartbeat of a work”: a Conversation with Quincy Flowers

Lit Youngstown’s summer intern Danny Gage asked novelist Quincy Flowers a few questions about his work and writing life. Quincy will be a featured writer at the online 2020 Fall Literary Festival September 24-26.

DG: Do your different experiences at the University of Houston and NYU influence your perspectives while writing?

This is an interesting way to put this question. I almost missed this part about different experiences and moved forward by describing how my experiences at UH and NYU, together, influence my writing to this day, which they positively do. But yes, they influence my writing in very different ways.

NYU’s Graduate Creative Writing Program was housed within the English Department when I arrived and was part of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which has specific requirements for graduation and full-time student consideration. All students in the program received special removal of one course requirement every semester so that we were taking two courses instead of the mandatory three. The argument was that we needed to have time to write. Part of what we were being offered was space to create.

A workshop course was required of everyone. One also got to choose upon acceptance into the program if they were in it to receive an MA or an MFA degree. My goal by then was to get a PhD so I opted for the MA. MFA students were required to use their second course to take a craft class, so that every semester, for two years, they would take a workshop and a craft class. MA students received a unique invitation to use their second course each semester to take any other course in the entire Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Since I knew I was going to get a PhD, I took literature courses, which at NYU, were taught by faculty who were leaders in their field; who authored specific literary theory being taught globally.

These two privileges afforded me the space to be creative, and a study that put pressure on my conceptual attitude, which forced my writing in a direction that risked new worlds, because I needed newer worlds than I had been making in order to contain the new questions my work began to ask. I could hang out with the academics who were asking some really important questions about knowledge and perception and fiction’s role in the truth. while my peers were focused on craft strictly, I was beginning to write my own fiction to grapple with those theoretical aspects, which gave me permission to put my characters in different situations than I had been putting them.

On the whole, the University of Houston was a continuation of that, but it was way more academic. There was no way around the three classes, and there was no way around selecting the classes that provided the study that would enable me to pass three doctoral exams, and defend my dissertation; which, while a creative dissertation, had to be defended with a deep knowledge of the literary history that influenced it. The PhD students at UH knew what they had signed up for, but the MFA students had an entirely more traditional academic experience than if they had been at NYU. They had to study literature and write scholarly papers and had no choice about it.

Anyway, my experience was one that allowed me to write until I got done with course work and had to begin to prepare for the exams, which took so much out of me. Even though my dissertation was a novel manuscript, I couldn’t write fiction, including preparing that manuscript for publication, for nearly four years. I wrote every day, but nothing was good. I had lost my rhythm.

All of that is the set up to my explanation of how my writing is currently influenced by these two very different experiences, and I will say that I am glad that I took the pause in order to study how texts get read, and material and immaterial worlds get perceived.

Once I regained my rhythm, which  NYU was mainly responsible for allowing me to find in the first place, I am also playing that rhythm across the hundreds of models of texts that I have experienced, including various literary movements and styles, which UH is responsible for allowing me to come to know. I think NYU helps me with trusting the first passes of work. Knowing that it is important to get it down and keep it moving, and that the more I practice writing, the better I connect with those instantaneous word choice and character choice and situational choices that get the problem on the table, because I trust that the UH training has prepared the editor in me, to came back through and make meaningful connections out of my obsessions. One always has thousands of ideas, thousands of questions. But it is nice to discover the heartbeat of a work so that the revision is focused.

At what point in your life did the Flying African trope begin to inspire you?

It was during my research for my exams and thinking about the literary discourses that my work was attempting to enter when I began to be inspired by the Flying African trope. In all of my readings, from my mentor Paule Marshall’s work, who taught at NYU, to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Zora Neale Hurston’s “All God’s Chillun Had Wings,” Ralph Ellison’s “Flying Home,” and all of the rest, I found that each of the works end at the flight. They begin with a crisis that put a need to reconcile an unwanted black body in America on a quest for flying home to Africa. They either placed resolution in a flight to Africa, or portrayed resolution as a failure to fly home to Africa.

I wonder what it meant for someone to spend over four hundred years away from home and began to think about how culture operates. People speak of culture as a static characteristic, and as if it is biological. But it is a lived experience. One is not born with any particular culture; they are initiated via experience. That being said I wanted to know what all of those works supposed that we do with four hundred years of experience, and the lack of African experience.

I wanted to make works where people learned to fly early on in the works, and I wanted to see what might happen if their new knowledge did not require that they exchange it for the knowledge that they already had. I’m interested in how decisions get forced on us. One is always asked to choose between the Old-World values and the New, the wisdom found in the wilderness—like biblical characters up on an isolated mountain top speaking to God or like Merlin living his life backwards in the woodlands, is always described as at odds with Modernists values. I wanted to invent characters who could do voodoo and be employed as lead engineer at General Motors, who knew the knowledge of flight or how to swim through the swamp and who wore a suit and tie and carried a briefcase up to a corner office. I wanted someone who could learn something, and then learn something else, and then learn something else, all from different paradigms, but none of which he has to exchange to make room for the other.

I also wanted to dispel this notion that Africa is backwards. This idea that the urban, modern, technological world was somehow gone astray, and the fix was to return to the wilderness of simpler times is not an accurate portrayal of reality. There is no backward time on the planet. We are all in year 2020. There is no time capsule of any culture for which time stands still. I wanted to invent character that contains new multitudes, and I wanted a world where it was possible for multitudes of modernities to coexist, and the flying African trope provided a tool for which I could explore these questions. If I could write stories where the flying was not the story, just as if someone took a bus across town, that bus ride in and of itself would not be worthy of a story unless it was 1901. Kafka has some stories where airplanes are worthy of entire stories. But in 2020 there is no big deal about taking a plane somewhere, not unless you input a mitigating situation like the first flight after September 11, 2001 or the first flight one takes after being quarantined in 2020.

Does writing stage productions carry a certain intimacy to it that writing other forms of writing doesn’t? How does it differ?

Although it’s not necessarily my job to figure out how ideas get interpreted for a work to be presented on stage, I do find myself thinking about practical aspects of the reading. With a strictly literary text, I am writing to a reader’s conceptual positioning. If I need a character to fly or swim through the water, for instance, I have to make sure that my syntax doesn’t trip them up, and this includes using the various rhythms and compositional patterns of syntax. Word play can express flight poetically and that is enough to get the job done for a reader. But linguistic poetics doesn’t move an actual body through the air. Not that the flight, even for the stage, has to be literal. Still one has to figure out what form it will take.

For some reason I do my best to empathize with the director who has to realize the ideas on the page for the stage. How will they get a character to fly? How will this dialogue sound? With a libretto, how will this sound and will it give the musical director enough texture to work with? The intimacy is felt in relation to an assumed viewer who will hopefully be affected by the work, and the director who has to realize it all. Long after the piece for the stage has been performed those works continue to ring in my head because writing them is like countless rehearsals and once I witness the performances it is so magical to see my imagination made tangible and to witness an audience’s response to that in real time.

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