Always flattered to be a part of the Grab the Lapels blog tours because Melanie Page is doing such wonderful things to get writers the exposure and attention they deserve. Today is the fourth day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!
What motivated you to write this particular novel?
I had to see how it ended.
I went through several false starts with the novel over the last few years. It came together in bits and pieces in a way that was very different from how novels usually come to me. I wrote the first section—about the slave ship—immediately, and then went through several drafts of the next fifty or so pages over a few years before finally sitting down and wrapping up the last two-thirds fairly quickly. I’m usually more slow-and-steady about writing.
There were several elements in the novel that really appealed to me. I wanted to do a historical novel set in Arkansas to lay the groundwork for a mythical history. I wanted to do a steampunk novel set on a plantation. I wanted to write a golem book, but in America. As I started writing, I really became interested in the slave characters, especially Othello, but the others as well.
Your characters elicited a number of emotions in me, especially hatred for Mr. Winfrey and his sons. Can you talk a bit about how you developed this character?
Mr. Winfrey, and his sons, are the plantation overseers. Their defining quality is ruthlessness. I based Mr. Winfrey on a preacher I used to work for. This was after high school, when I attended a community college in a nearby town. I worked at a discount grocery store managed by this Southern Baptist preacher who hired his sons—they were too young to work, at first, and he had to get special permission and all that, so early on, they’d just hang around the store. They were bullies, mostly to the black employees. The preacher was a racist, and they were all just dirty people, dumb, mean, and angry at the world, really almost caricatures of human beings. I reacted to them kind of like how a cat reacts to having water thrown on it. So we’d butt heads all the time. The preacher was eventually fired for stealing.
The worst thing about the preacher, for me, was his racism. I overheard him talking about this and witnessed it in action: he’d hire black employees every so often, because he felt that he had to, and then make up reasons to fire them after a couple weeks. I didn’t realize this was happening, of course, until afterwards. I could go on and on about this, but suffice to say working there was an unpleasant experience for me.
I often shy away from writing characters like Mr. Winfrey because it can be considered passé by some people—the over-the-top racist or “evil” character just seems unreal. But I’ve known several people like that in my life. According to Martha Stout, in her book The Sociopath Next Door, one in twenty people are psychopaths. So they’re plenty real. Mr. Winfrey is fueled by anger, that old, white, male rage at a world that just won’t behave the way he wants it to. He was kind of a fun character to write because he’s so extreme. I don’t think a person could do the job Mr. Winfrey did without being ruthless, and he needs his religiosity to justify his behavior to himself, while remaining dumb enough to be controlled by Master John.
Master John is a surprising character, one who is a curious intellect, but also acts ruthlessly. Can you describe your origins for this unusual slave master?
The inspiration for Master John came from certain Southern aristocrats I’ve encountered over the years, holdovers from old Southern money. Master John has lived his life with a certain kind of privilege, which was rare and even more extreme, I think, back then. He truly believes he can make the world do what he wants, that he can shape it through force of will. He’s brilliant, but as a member of the slave-owning aristocracy, he lacks humanity. I think it’s a mistake to equate racism, or any other kind of blind hatred, with lack of intelligence. Plenty of slave owners demonstrated a certain brilliance through writing or what-have-you. They simply lacked empathy, which many would argue is more important and essential than intelligence.
Master John is even more ruthless than Mr. Winfrey because he’s more intelligent. If they were alive today, Winfrey might be a cop, abusing his power, while John would be the CEO of a bank, destroying the economy.
Man of Clay forces readers to ask how they define a man. Emet is declared not a man after he is created. Slaves are also not considered “men,” yet Emet is jealous of them. Could you talk a bit about your search for the definition of “man”?
I could answer this at great length in several different ways, but I’m going to focus on Emet. It’s not so much a question of what defines a man as how one should live, and to what end. Emet is a slave, but lower than a slave, in a sense. But fairly early on, what he comes to envy is the inimitable something he can’t define about the slaves. There’s a lack of logic among them and the slavers, in a fundamental sense. He simply cannot understand how they could behave in certain ways, whether it be loving or laughing or what have you. This is the hermit's response to life; how can anyone laugh when they know they’ll die someday? It makes no sense to him, which, of course, it never can make sense, because it isn’t sensible. That’s the true gulf he strives to cross, between himself and people.
What is the role of the stories within your novel, like the tales of the slave Big John and the turtle on the slave ship?
Well, hopefully, they’re fun and interesting. The real purpose with them is to shed insight on the characters in a meaningful way. They serve as extensions of the characters. Othello tells Big John stories, which tell us about Othello, since these are the stories he chooses to tell, and about the hopes and dreams of the slaves who like to hear them. There’s something more to them than just blood, sweat, and tears. The turtle story, likewise, touches on the spiritual element of the slaves—even these horribly mistreated people have maintained a kind of magic about them, a spark.
The stories reveal the humanity of the characters and also the wisdom they strive to follow.
When you were writing Man of Clay, did the ending seem like a natural conclusion for you, a place where you knew you would end even as you started writing?
Actually, I had a different ending in mind, a more extreme one, which I can’t really go into without spoiling the novel, but this was before I actually wrote the book. The tone of it was similar, but the logistics were a little different. I didn’t use that ending because I felt it would be unbelievable. The ending I chose did feel inevitable. It grew from the story as the only real ending it could have. Every novel chooses its own structure, its own ending. As a writer, you just have to be open.
Why might Man of Clay be a good book club pick?
MOC is a mashup of several different styles—from historical fiction to slave narrative with steam punk and elements of magical realism. It’s funny at times and quite dark at times. All of these things could appeal to a lot of different people. Even though it has some unusual elements, and unusual characters, they’re easily recognizable, I think, as human characters. And it’s a fun read. It’s a love story with a mystery at its center. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I think that comes through in the book.
CL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.
Tomorrow is the last stop of the Man of Clay virtual book tour. Join us over at the blog Out Where the Buses Don’t Run!