Interview With an Author: P. Djeli Clark

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author P. Djèlí Clark and his latest book, Ring Shout
Author P. Djèlí Clark and his latest book, Ring Shout. Photo credit: Le Image Photography Brooklyn

Phenderson Djéli Clark is the award-winning and Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy nominated author of the novellas The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Born in New York and raised mostly in Houston, Texas, he spent the early formative years of his life in the homeland of his parents, Trinidad and Tobago. When not writing speculative fiction, P. Djèlí Clark works as an academic historian whose research spans comparative slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World. He currently resides in a small Edwardian castle in New England with his wife, infant daughters, and pet dragon (who suspiciously resembles a Boston Terrier). His latest novella is Ring Shout and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Ring Shout?

So many things. Where do I start? I first got the notion in my head of the Klan as monsters from reading the WPA ex-slave narratives of the 1930s. There, former slaves described the first Klan after the Civil War in monstrous terms—as haints, or with horns, etc. Same place I first read of Night Doctors. And ring shout culture. But I wasn’t certain what to do with any of it. I hadn’t even considered putting all that stuff together. Fast forward almost fifteen years later, I got the idea of doing a southern fantasy type story—and I started drawing from all these tidbits I’d collected over time. I found I had the monsters, the magic, and everything else I needed, right there staring at me. A few Beyonce videos, memories of Madeline L’Engle novels, Toni Morrison, and some Lupe Fiasco tracks later, and I had a story. Did I mention the movie Birth of a Nation? It was such a mashup of themes and inspirations, I didn’t know if it would all work. From the positive response so far, I’m thinking maybe it did?

Are Maryse, Chef, Sadie, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Eh, composites of people I’ve known in life sorta pieced together. Ideas from Black literature. Some completely imagined personas. This, that and the other thing. What I was striving for in the end, was that they appeared well-rounded and real.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

When I finally sat down and sketched out a story, I had the whole thing down. That’s my usual process. I need to know the bones, down to the chapters. I pretty much stuck to those bones, even if I tweaked or enhanced things here and there as I wrote. For instance, that whole banter on the rooftop in the beginning, just arose organically as I wrote. Some things—like these quotes I had on the first Klan from the ex-slave narratives that were to precede each chapter—got edited out for brevity. So did some modern music lyrics (my editor was like, errr, copyrights), which forced me to write my own songs. Stuff like that.

Ring Shout seems to have been influenced a bit by the “cosmic horror” of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was famously racist and sexist (which is reflected in his fiction). With this novella, you join a growing number of writers (Victor LaValle, Ruthanna Emrys, Matt Ruff, to name a few) that are reclaiming some of Lovecraft’s ideas and making them into something new and wonderful. Do you have a theory regarding why Lovecraft’s stories continue to influence and inspire contemporary authors?

Yeah, there’s definitely cosmic horror in there. I think whether one reads Lovecraft or not, his influence is all over genre—from television shows like Buffy to Marvel concepts of cosmic world-devouring beings like Galactus. So you grow up with it. Then you read Lovecraft and you’re like, uhhh, this guy is pretty problematic. And some of the xenophobic meanings behind unknowable horrors lurking on the edge of human civilization give you serious pause. But you still dig tentacles. What are you to do? Give up tentacles altogether? Now you got no tentacles to like, because the guy from way back was a serious ass? Thing is, marginalized people have been ingesting problematic things in SFF, from dark elves on down, and loving it through our gritted teeth—since forever. This isn’t a new thing for us. So when we’re fortunate enough to get the chance to flip the script, to use those same tentacles to tell stories from different perspectives, we take it. And I think there are lots of readers, consumers of Genre of all backgrounds, who with relief are like, “finally…”

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun. And a journal I use to jot down memorable dreams. Never know…

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that has impacted you?

Jordan Peele and Misha Green’s take on Lovecraft Country. Black Thought’s Streams of Thought.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

What was your idea of the TV series that had a fully satisfying finale? My answer: HBO’s The Leftovers.

What are you working on now?

A YA secondary fantasy novel inspired by a syncretic West and Central African cultural milieu and mythos. There’s magic. And monsters. And more.

Book cover for Ring Shout
Ring Shout
Clark, P. Djeli

In Ring Shout, P. Djeli Clark, author of the excellent The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, tells a story that is simultaneously fantastic and firmly rooted in terrible truth.

Ring Shout is a bit difficult to classify. It is a bit of history, relaying a description of the US south in the early 1920s, complete with bootlegging and the first blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation. It is a bit of a window into the lives of African Americans at that time in our history, with descriptions of their lives, their vibrant cultures, Gullah, Creole, and others, and the challenges and inequities that governed their lives then (and now). Woven through all of this, is an element of the fantastic, with alternate dimensions, those who wish to help, monsters intent on harm and a champion to deliver the world from that harm.

P. Djeli Clark is a fantasy writer to watch and Ring Shout is a must read.