Haunting Houses: An Interview with Angela Flournoy
June 4, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
In Detroit, the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for generations, and now their home is worth a mere tenth of its mortgage. Oh, and it’s haunted—it’s been that way for fifty years, since Cha-Cha, the oldest son of Francis and Viola Turner, was attacked by a haint one summer night. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, set primarily in 2008, tells the Turner clan’s story as they tend to the elderly Viola and decide what to do with the family home.
Flournoy hangs the family’s personal struggles on the political history of Detroit, tracing their move from Arkansas to the bright industrial promise of midcentury Motor City, the electric environment of the 1967 riots, and the city’s long decline. “Lelah,” an excerpt from the novel in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, focuses on the youngest Turner child, whose gambling addiction takes her to Motor City, where she loses the last of her money on a game of roulette.
I met Flournoy near the Review’s offices in north Chelsea. I was late, and Flournoy, elegantly dressed and having just arrived from Detroit, had already enjoyed most of her coffee and was patiently talking on her cell phone. We discussed ghosts, gambling, and the blend of personal and political in her novel.
Your novel is full of Detroit history. Did you hear stories about it from your family?
I did a lot of research. One thing I remember hearing of the ’67 riot is that nobody knew what it was while it happened. Nobody knows that today is going to be the day a riot starts. A lot of people in Detroit actually called it an uprising. So I would apply the facts I learned in my research to a character’s life. Imagine you’re getting off work, or you’re at work, and things just feel weird. Then you hear that something’s happening across town, but no one knows what to call this thing, because no one knows how big it is. It’s more difficult for the individual to frame what’s going on as a whole, what’s happening outside of the details in the personal life.
Yesterday, when I gave a reading in Detroit, a woman told me my characters felt exactly as she had about the riots back then, which is the best compliment. She remembered being a teenager at a friend’s house, and at that point there had been a couple of fires or whatever, but suddenly she had the feeling that she should go home, and she couldn’t articulate why. That’s when her friend’s father walked in, who had heard about the riots on the news, and insisted that he take her home to be with her family. That’s what it was like for most people.
I was living in LA during the riots in ’92. I remember getting my hair done, and we were watching TV. There was a Ralph’s on Figueroa—a grocery store—on the screen, and someone had called the station and said, I know someone who went to that Ralph’s and got food. If you need food because you don’t have money and everyone is stealing things, it all makes sense. There’s a way in which certain things aren’t as sinister when they’re happening. In some instances it can be, but for the most part it’s very mundane. This woman stole, I don’t know what … baked beans, something very unsexy. From a grocery store. You have to remember that they’re actual people.
Was it more helpful for you to see the overarching history, or did you really dig deep into specific personal stories to get that closeness?
There’s that famous idea from feminist theory that everything personal is political, and the opposite is true, too—everything political has people behind it. Initially, I didn’t know how I would use my research, because I thought the whole book was going to be set in 2008. I didn’t want to talk about 1967 for many reasons. I felt like it was this huge thing, and I’m interested in the everyday person, not necessarily a capital-H hero.
This image of Cha-Cha underneath a house, and his father doing something he did all the time, which is to pee in public, became more important to me. I thought, This is the only opportunity I’ll have to talk about something larger. I didn’t talk about the riots in a way where my characters were actually in the middle of it, because they wouldn’t be. I decided that he was going to end up under that house, on the same day as the start of something crazy. I’m interested in the very ordinary, but it’s even more interesting when the mundane sits next to the fantastic, the spectacular next to the boring.
The Turner family patriarch, Francis, is revered, almost mythic, despite his faults.
I’ve always been interested in what it means to be the first one, to be the person who goes somewhere new and then, later, sends for everyone else. That intense burden on a single person is part of many immigrant stories. There’s a way we think about past generations, especially the way we think about masculinity in past generations, as a sort of given—that everybody was ready to be the man, to take care of everyone, to rise to whatever occasion, but it had to have been a lot of pressure. I imagine it still is.
I started with Lelah. She was the first character I knew, and I had it in my mind that she was going to sneak into her childhood house. So I guess I started before Lelah—I started with that house, a house that was similar in condition and geography to the house that my father grew up in on the east side of Detroit.
I remember thinking, What is the future of this house? But then, obviously, a house is only as important as the people and the relationships within it. Coming from several large families, I thought that showing the various opinions about what should be done with the house would highlight how difficult the situation really is. I wanted to show how so much can change in one generation. The more I researched homeownership in Detroit, the more I realized that there are a lot of obstacles involved with that idea. And once I started researching the family I’d decided to create, I realized that they needed to be tied into the political history of the city. And it was hard. There isn’t a lot of fiction about everyday Detroiters. There’s a lot of Detroit fiction about crime in some way, very gritty, but not a lot about regular people trying to get by.
And the house is a focal point?
Yes. A lot of people in Detroit today just demolish family homes, or abandon them, so that at least they’re not being burned and the family isn’t liable, or whatever. I wanted to give people a better sense of why the house means so much, because there was a time when it looked like there would never be a house, when it looked like there would never be more children for the Turners. I wrote all the historical parts in three days. I didn’t want these sections in the past to be lame and long. I wanted them to seem like I snatched them out of a photo album.
The oldest brother, Cha-Cha, never gets what he wants. That seems the case with much of the Turner family. Is it the family unit or the individual characters that have the ultimate agency?
I think the individual characters have a lot of agency. I’m interested in people taking stock of themselves, of where they are—which seems easy, but a lot of people never do it. And I forced many of the Turners to take stock of themselves. Like Troy, who is interested in these arbitrary markers of success. He has to ask himself, What is this doing to me? And similarly, Cha-Cha thinks, I haven’t lived the life I’ve wanted to live, but I’ve lived a really good life. What exactly did I want?
All the characters in your book are crippled by something.
Turners have addictive personalities. At one point, Cha-Cha lists all the ways he thinks his family members are addicted to things. Some of those things are not actually addiction, just Cha-Cha being judgy, which he sometimes is. He doesn’t understand why someone would spend a lot of time at a flea, so he considers it an addiction. It has to do with the methods people use to try to take control of their lives when they don’t feel like they have it. Addiction sort of feels like a space for that. In Lelah’s first casino scene, she talks about how it’s a place where she can feel like the victor, like she can walk away a winner.
You mentioned before that you started with Lelah, which is a scene that’s part of the short story in our Spring issue. What was it like converting those scenes from chapters in a novel back into a stand-alone short story?
I actually enjoyed it. You can always say things quicker and a little better than you did before. I’d done a lot of research about roulette for Lelah’s chapters. I spent a lot of page space going through all the steps of roulette. I thought I needed to lay it all out so the reader could understand it as I did. But I learned that I could cut a lot and readers would still get the same feeling of anxiety and thrill out of the game without having to explain all the numbers. It’s something that I’ll always be interested in—how much can your readers connect the dots on their own?
Did you play roulette for research?
I did. There’s a casino close to Iowa City that had seafood on Fridays. It was scary food, neon-orange crab legs. They had roulette tables and I would play the minimum just to watch people. That’s how I noticed that some people basically lived there. You could tell from the rapport they had with the dealers.
A lot of people tell me, I want to go to Vegas with Lelah. Those sections came easy. I could have written an entire book comprising gambling scenes, but a friend told me that those scenes are one of those things that you shouldn’t use too many times because the magic fades. So I had to sort of be judicious with them.
You invoke Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men throughout the book.
Well, I was researching haints, which are ghosts, and haint folklore, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men is a book that’s part ethnography and part Hurston’s record of practicing voodoo as an apprentice in New Orleans. I didn’t actually get much haint information out of it, but I liked her observations on the different kinds of folkloric belief systems.
When Zora Neale Hurston was on the scene, other African American scholars disagreed with her portrayal of Black English. They worried she was giving people room to make fun of the way people spoke, and they also weren’t necessarily that fond of her championing those aspects of black culture and life. For example, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, she used a heavy dialect, spelling words differently. Some people thought that wasn’t the right way to render Black English on the page, but she was approaching people as they were.
I wanted to play with the idea of acceptable modes of belief that Hurston was investigating. I wanted Cha-Cha, somebody who’s not very interested in having a ghost in his life, to face it. Cha-Cha is very logical. If someone said to him, Oh, I see this haint, he would be the first to say, No, you don’t. I wanted someone like him to have to deal with what it meant to see and believe in something that goes against everything else they believe about themselves.
It was acceptable for my grandmother, for instance, to believe in haints, but it’s not acceptable for my father to believe in haints. It’s embarrassing to be that superstitious. Things have changed, but those beliefs still float under the surface of the culture. I don’t believe or not believe in ghosts. I’ve never seen a ghost, and I don’t want to see a ghost. So I guess I’m a cautious nonbeliever, then—but I also don’t want any proof to change that. Agnostic forever. A couple of generations ago you wouldn’t be considered a frivolous person for believing in ghosts.
Jeffery Gleaves is the digital manager of The Paris Review.