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Angela Flournoy says the US is on an ongoing journey to a ‘more perfect union’

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American writer Angela Flournoy’s debut novel The Turner House is about a family who have lived on Detroit’s East Side for over 50 years. The family matriarch, Viola, is forced to finally leave the house and move in with one of her children, but as they prepare to sell it they discover the house is worth a fraction of its mortgage, reflecting the changing fortunes and constant challenges of the city.

Flournoy’s book has been described as a family saga that is “utterly moving”, “un-putdownable” and an “engrossing and remarkably mature first novel” as it charts both the city and the Turner family whose house on Yarrow Street has seen the raising of  13 children. The Turner House was named a New York Times ‘Notable Book of the Year’ and was nominated for a US National Book Award.

Flournoy, 31, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Southern California. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa and Trinity Washington University. She was raised in California by a mother from Los Angeles and a father from Detroit.

She is touring Australia in August and will speak at the Bryon Bay Writers Festival and the Melbourne Writers Fesitval (details below).

Daily Review asked Flournoy about writing The Turner House and how much was drawn from her own life.

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Were you intimidated at the idea of entering a very well-filled genre of “family sagas” or were you inspired by the classic nature of that genre?

I have always been drawn to big novels with complex relationships between characters, whether that’s a group of friends, a community or a family. I didn’t really think of these books as a genre as much as I thought of them as exploring a very specific sort of storytelling style, one that is concerned with the group.

Are stories about white families inherently different to stories about African American families — are all families the same?

There are so many things in addition to race that complicate and particularise a family’s story. There’s class, size, geographic location and gender makeup, to name a few. Every family’s story is different, but the common thread is often “how do I get the people who have known me the longest to see me as I truly am?”

Is “race” a conscious element in your writing — do all writers from minorities have a different responsibility to white writers to examine or expose the social status quo?

I don’t write about race. I write about the hopes, dreams, shortcomings, memories and obstacles faced by my characters. Because I write realist fiction, institutionalised racism sometimes plays a role in these experiences.

The country feels as if it is on edge, both in terms of federal politics and the divisions between left and right (and right and right), between rich and poor, between black and white. What does being an American mean right now?

Being American means the same thing it has always meant for me, which is to be honest with this country’s history and to take seriously the aim of “a more perfect union” as described in our constitution. “More perfect” suggests an ongoing journey, not a fixed endpoint to progress. A “more perfect” union would be more a inclusive and just one. We are still on that journey.

What are your thoughts on Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate? 

Donald Trump shows no interest in being part of an inclusive and just society.

Why are all families interesting?

Families are interesting because we don’t choose them, yet they have a profound influence on how we develop, on who we become. I am fascinated by the communication styles and conflict-resolution behaviors that families adopt. I consider myself having grown up among four large families.  No two have the same modes of existing.

Detroit is both the setting and a significant character in The Turner House, why was this location important to you for this fictional story?

My father is from Detroit, so in some ways this novel is my imagined origin story. Detroit is a city which, like many Northern and Western cities in the US, saw its black population balloon between the 1920’s and 1960’s during a period referred to as the Great Migration. I was interested in what things on a cultural level were preserved, and what things were lost as a result of this migration, and I was also interested in the obstacles these migrants faced. Detroit was the perfect setting to explore this.

Is every sentence a conscious labour of love in your writing, or do you feel as if your typing hand is just a cypher for your interior life? How hard is writing?

Writing is simultaneously the easiest and most frustrating, painstaking activity to which I commit my time. Every sentence has the potential to thrill me. Every sentence hurts.

Are you your own best editor, or did you have an expert objective eye coming to the text to sharpen it?

I am fortunate to have worked with a brilliant editor who saw my intentions with the work and held me accountable to actualise them.

As a first time novelist, what is your biggest challenge in the next five years? Is it a battle to combine writing with selling yourself? Or does the marketing machine take care of itself? You hear about artists having to network and so on — is this true? Or can you just put your head down and get on with writing?

Theweb Turner House (online)

I value community, and am particularly committed to helping other writers of color succeed. I don’t consider this networking, I consider it part of surviving in a publishing climate that can be indifferent or inconsistent in regard to the works of writers from diverse backgrounds. My biggest challenge is figuring out when to say “no” to an invitation so that I can better focus on the work ahead.

Did autobiography sneak into this book? Some might say — how can it not? How did you put controls on the “true life” suggestions of your subconscious or didn’t you?

The challenge for me when writing fiction is to fully develop and inhabit my characters. I have to know them better than it is possible to know living, breathing people, unless one has the ability to read minds. Because of this, even if an idea begins from some element of my personal life, by the time I do the work to make the characters feel real, I’ll have significantly diverged from autobiography.

The Turner House was named a New York Times “notable book of the year” and has been nominated for a swag of awards. How do you react to the accolades and what pressure does this put on you?

The novel has had an incredible, unexpected expected first year in the world. It has changed my life in ways I never imagined. I don’t feel much pressure moving forward; I’m excited to take the time to tell stories the best way I can.

What can audiences expect from your Australian book tour in August?

Believe it or not, I’m actually pretty funny during appearances. Audiences can expect me to engage with their questions honestly, and to crack a few jokes from time to time.

What is next for Angela Flournoy?

After I return to New York and shake off the jet lag, I’ll begin a fellowship with the Dorothy and Lewis B Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. I’ll get an office in a beautiful historic library, and time to write. It will be divine.

For more information and to buy The Turner House click here

Angela Flournoy will speak at the Byron Bay Writers Festival August 4-7.

She will also speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival August 26-28.

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