Hardcover, 301 pages
Published January 2nd 2018 by Random House
If you haven’t heard Sam Graham-Felsen’s name around everywhere yet, you definitely will soon. With the release of his debut fiction novel, Green, Graham-Felsen has hit the literary scene as a new and thought-provoking voice for 2018 — a forceful voice that commands attention. But, he’s used to commanding attention, isn’t he? In this interview, the former Chief Blogger for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign candidly speaks out about the effects of racism and discrimination on our society, humanizing black characters, and the inspiration he found in working for President Barack Obama.
Question # 1
Your debut novel, Green, has been well received since its release early this year. What was the jumping off point for your idea for this novel, and what was your writing process while juggling other career obligations?
I started envisioning this novel while I was working for Barack Obama on his 2008 campaign. I was the chief blogger on the campaign, and I wrote a lot about the grassroots movement forming around Obama, Obama’s policies, etc — but one thing I couldn’t really touch was the issue of race. Whenever Obama got attacked for being “too black” or “not black enough,” the campaign did its best to minimize the attacks and move on. But then Obama gave this amazing, very candid speech about race in Philadelphia — right in the midst of being attacked for the church he attended, which was led by pastor Jeremiah Wright. A lot of his advisors told him not to give the speech at all. But he spoke, in very specific detail, about the state of race relations in this country, and didn’t gloss over the ugly history of slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing discrimination against blacks. And it worked. Instead of running away from race, he directly addressed the topic — and spoke about it with great care and nuance. That inspired me. I knew I had a fairly unique experience as a white kid growing up in a mostly black school. I decided that I wanted to write a novel based on those experiences — that by diving as deep as I could into my own memories I might be able to better understand not only the city I grew up in, but the country I live in. After the campaign, I worked as political consultant, and I traveled the world giving lectures about my work on the Obama campaign. It was hard to get any writing done being on the road for so long. So eventually, I decided (in sort of an early mid-life crisis) to quit my life in politics, go get an MFA, and attempt to really write this novel that had been brewing inside of me for so long.
Which of your characters in Green was the most difficult to write, and which character did you enjoy writing the most? Why?
It’s a toss-up between Dave’s dad (Lou) and Mar. Lou was hard to write because I took some details and aspects of my own father, not all of which were 100% flattering, when I created that character. I love and deeply admire my own dad, and I didn’t want him to feel hurt by the portrayal of Lou. The dad in the book can be parsimonious and tough-love at times, but he’s also a caring and courageous guy who is comfortable in his own skin (and dorky clothes) and teaches Dave about what it’s like to break free from self-consciousness and stand up for what one believes in. My dad read the book and ultimately felt moved by it, which was a relief to me.
The Mar character was also tough to write, because Mar is a secretive, very sensitive kid, who keeps a lot hidden from Dave. The trick was how to hint to the reader that hard things were happening in Mar’s life, without explicitly stating a lot of it. Part of what I was trying to show is how clueless Dave was — in part as a consequence of his youthful inexperience, but also as a result of his white privilege — in seeing what Mar was going through, and how unfairly society treats Mar.
And I felt anxious at times, about whether I, as a white guy, could create a black character — whether I had that right, and whether my own blind spots as a white person would make it impossible to create a fully fleshed-out black character. So much of our literature is littered with stereotypes of black characters — and often, these characters are either utterly demonized villains, or are magical, ethically immaculate characters who exist, essentially, to help white heroes and teach them lessons. All I can say is that I tried my best to make Mar a human being. He, like Dave, is a complex mix of ideals, aversions and desires; he’s highly intelligent and incredibly kind to Dave’s emotionally troubled younger brother, Benno. He’s more emotionally developed and mature than Dave, but he’s not superhuman. He can be stubborn, he tells lies — some small, some big — and even takes something of Dave’s (I could elaborate on this, but I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet read the book). In other words, he’s a kid.
What was the most challenging part of portraying ‘The Force,’ your main character’s term for “racism,” in Dave and Marlon’s lives, and what did you want to be particularly sure to get right in conveying and describing these experiences from a sixth-grade perspective?
This book is told from a twelve-year old’s perspective — and not just any twelve-year old, but a white kid who is coming of age in a mostly black school environment and who loves hip-hop. So a lot of Dave’s language has a kind of hip-hop inflection. A lot of the time, he’ll use a word like “crib” instead of “house” — but he’ll also make up words to describe objects and ideas in his universe. For example, his small, honorable mention sports trophies — he calls these “chumpstumps.” A lot of the fun, for me, in writing this book, was inventing Dave’s idiosyncratic, hip-hop-inflected but nerdy language.
“The force” is the term Dave comes up with to describe racism — both on an individual and institutional level — but it also goes a bit beyond overt racism. It’s sort of how Dave sees the very idea of “race” intruding into everyday life: the various small and big racial tensions that exist in Dave and Mar’s world, the way that all kinds of racial rules seem to be written by society, the way that certain behaviors are deemed “black” or “white” by Dave’s peers. For example, whether you are a fan of the basketball player Larry Bird. Dave’s white friends Kev and Simon, who really don’t like being white, refuse to root for Larry Bird, because they think that’s a “white” thing to do. And to a large degree, “the force” bleeds into gender dynamics as well. Dave and Mar are constantly feeling pressure to act “hard” — i.e. aggressively male — and avoid “soft,” supposedly feminine behaviors, such as showing emotions or acting kindly. Black, white, soft, hard — these are binaries created by “the force” and they make it very difficult for Dave and Mar to just be themselves.
Why “the force” of all terms? For one, every kid growing up in the 1990s was familiar with Star Wars. So I liked playing with this big pop culture reference about a secret energy that exerts power over people. That’s sort of how Dave sees the concept of race — as an invisible energy that tugs people into dark places. I also liked playing with the idea of “force” in verb form. To “force” something is to move it against its will, and that’s kind of how Dave sees race — as an energy that exerts pressure on us all and makes something that should be as natural and easy as Dave and Mar’s friendship into this complicated and difficult thing to maintain.
Just to be clear: I, as a 36-year-old, personally have a different and more nuanced understanding about how race works in America than Dave does. To Dave, “the force” is something that afflicts people of all races, not just whites. For example, the black kid who mugs Dave, was, in Dave’s mind, driven by “the force.” But Dave is twelve, and hasn’t read much U.S. history, and doesn’t have a very deep understanding of the roots of the thing he calls “the force” — which, of course, is white supremacy. Dave doesn’t yet grasp that the very concept of “race” — the categorizing and hierarchizing of people based on something as arbitrary as skin color — is an invention of white supremacy, and the justification for slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing discrimination. All he’s really conscious of is that racial tension is in the air, coming from all quarters, especially in the wake of the explosive L.A. riots. I don’t think he fully realizes — yet — that “the force” can only be undone when white supremacy is undone.
The end of Green leaves Marlon and Dave in a new and surprising phase of their friendship. What did you want to convey to your readers with the final scene in Marlon’s apartment?
The most important thing to me was that this book could not have a Disney ending. Why? Because this book is about race in America, and America has not had a happy ending when it comes to race. Even after the end of legal segregation, schools remain profoundly segregated in this country — even more so than they were before Brown v Board of Education. To a certain degree, I wanted Dave and Mar’s friendship to be symbolic of where the country is at, racially. We’re still deeply segregated and divided. We’re not even close to living post-racially, happily ever after.
Yes, we’ve made lots of progress; we elected Barack Obama — twice. But our justice system is still disproportionately jailing and killing black people, there’s still an enormous wealth gap between the races, there are still giant racial disparities in home ownership and employment. “The force” is alive and well.
But I’m not in total despair about America, even under Trump’s hateful, divisive rule. Amazing grassroots movements are springing up, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, demanding a fairer and more just society. And lots of people are waking up — really, for the first significant time in my lifetime — to the insidious effects of white privilege.
I wanted the ending of my book to be ambiguous — to offer a glimmer of hope that Dave and Mar’s friendship can heal — because I hope America can heal. We’re never going to have a happily ever after story, but we can, and must, become a more decent and more equal society.
In writing Green, what were some of the sections, passages or themes that you or your editors opted to remove from the final drafts of the manuscripts, and why? How does this part of the editorial process shape your writing as a whole?
There were so many scenes that got removed, it’s hard to keep track — but mostly they were smaller things. Lines here or there that just weren’t packing a punch, jokes that weren’t landing. I wrote the first draft of this book quickly, but the revision process took almost two years. It was frustrating, and even painful at times, to have my agent or editor return yet another draft to me full of critiques and suggestions, but it was worth it to do all the revision. It helped me focus, laser-like, on the relationship between Dave and Mar, to deepen their story and cut out a lot of fat. It helped me deepen the symbolic structure of the book as well — all that stuff about softness and hardness, and the force, came in later drafts of the book.
One scene that was cut in the revision process was the scene where the grandfather lectures the class and tells his immigration story — which, admittedly, is a bit of diversion from the narrative of Dave and Mar. But I missed that scene, and so I put it back in the book.
You’ve been published in phenomenal publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Nation, just to name a few. What has been your favorite piece you’ve ever had published, and why?
I got to travel to Taiwan to write about one of my favorite baseball players of all time, Manny Ramirez, who had joined a Taiwanese baseball team. It was really cool to go to baseball games in Taiwan — to hear the chants, see the mascots and signs, eat the ballpark food (Taiwanese food is amazing). And I even got to interview Manny — who seemed a bit puzzled that I’d traveled all the way to Taiwan just to see him. But what I enjoyed even more than the reporting was the writing. Manny is an incredibly enigmatic guy, and I did my best to understand his quirks and brilliance at the plate. But I also got into the racial history of Boston — which was helpful as I was thinking about Green — the way fans in my city often treated players of color unfairly. Manny, I felt, in spite of his amazing accomplishments — including helping the Sox win their first World Series in over 75 years — never got the respect he deserved.
Your role as the chief blogger for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is quite an interesting job title and must have been a life-changing experience! How did you come into this role, and what has been the impact on your life since then?
I was writing about campus politics for The Nation, and I did an article about how college students were using this new platform called “Facebook” to organize in support of Obama and urge him to run for president. When he finally declared his candidacy — in part because of the urging of young people — I wrote to the campaign and told them I would work for him in a heartbeat. I didn’t have any relevant skills beyond writing, so I was hired as his blogger. It was very cool — I got to travel around the country with him and meet hundreds of people from all walks of life who supported his campaign.
What is the strangest experience you ever encountered as the chief blogger for Barack Obama’s campaign?
I did some video stuff in addition to blogging, and right before the Jeremiah Wright controversy blew up, the campaign sent me to Trinity Church, to make a documentary about how Obama’s church was basically a friendly and welcoming place, and not the scary radical place the right-wing media was making it out to be. One of the people I interviewed was a white woman who attended the church — she and her husband may have been the only white people at the church. She wasn’t a hippie or radical or anything, just a very friendly, plainly dressed woman with a Midwestern accent. So that was a sort of funny thing to me, looking back: making a video about the white lady who went to Trinity Church. I’m not sure if we ever posted that online.
Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself.
Like Dave, I barely read at all as a kid. The only books I can remember reading for fun — as opposed to for school — were Dennis Rodman’s autobiography and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.
Tell us one thing you wish you could change permanently about the American way or our society.
I just read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and it blew me away. I am now convinced that arguably more pressing than any other issue relating to inequality in America is the issue of affordable housing. Too many people in this country — disproportionately people of color who were excluded from FHA loans — pay exorbitant amounts of rent for substandard housing. When you’re putting 80% of your monthly income into rent, you barely have anything left over for food, clothing, and other essentials. It makes it nearly impossible to save, plan for the future, and get ahead.
But to get widespread affordable housing, we need a culture of empathy. Trump has stoked fear, finger-pointing, and fragility — the forces that sap us of empathy. So we need to get him out and get someone in like Elizabeth Warren, who tells a different story, not one of blame and division but of communal responsibility.
Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public!
I hear you are working on a novel. If you feel comfortable, can you share the first line?
If that question is too private — I know some people like to keep their drafts on the ultra-DL — here’s another one. What’s your writing routine like? Morning, night? Do you type or write by hand? Where?
Wow, Sam, your questions really blew me away—they’re really good ones! So, I’ll answer both of them. 😊
You’re right; I’d never thought of it, but the first line of your work is somehow a deeply personal display. It feels like a vulnerable action to tell someone or let someone see that (aside from my awesome friends who have functioned as my beta readers!) while it’s still in draft form, unagented, and I’m glad to have this moment of vulnerability with my readers.
The first line of my novel is: Of the fabled seven cardinal sins, greed and vanity had always been the real family Achilles’ heel, at least for as far back as she could remember being with them.
It is a novel about the precariousness of family and racial ties when class lines and social prejudices only complicate the matter.
About my writing routine, I wish I could develop more of a routine! In my “everyday” life, I work as a writer for a major brand/corporation, which can be hectic. I also write book reviews and interview many of the authors of them – which I love and wish I could do fulltime! So, I write in those moments when I’m not doing one of those things. Now, the book is done, and I’m doing a final edit before preparing *gulp* to find an agent who would care for this novel the way that I do, and editing holds a different pleasure for me than actually writing it (not better, just different). It’s as if I get to relive these characters’ lives while editing it rather than building their lives; I suppose that’s the “different” feeling I feel.
You would not want to see me write by hand—I don’t know who let me out of elementary school with my terrible handwriting, but they did! But, thanks to a pretty good public school education and a mom who nagged and nagged me about my typing form (thanks, Mom) I am an excellent typist and do all of my writing in a Word doc. For me, typing it all out allows ideas to flow freely from my fingertips, uninterrupted and unstifled. There are times when I start writing and what is the result is not at all what I thought it’d be, something that’s better than I thought it’d be, because I just let it all come out on its own. Then, I go back and edit, with a glass of wine. 😊