Interviews

John Edgar Wideman, The Art of Fiction No. 171

Interviewed by Steven Beeber

John Edgar Wideman is a big man. Though slightly stooped at sixty, he still has a basketball player’s body—long arms, huge hands, legs that seem to rise nearly to his chest.

Long admired for its lyricism, Wideman’s work carries with it the rhythms and cadences of black vernacular and music. In his acclaimed Homewood trilogy—the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), and the short-story collection Damballah (1981)—he evokes the spiritual and physical life of the working-class black community in Pittsburgh where he grew up. Although he left Homewood to attend the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship, the legacies of family and community remain a rich source of material for his work. In Brothers and Keepers (1984), he writes about his brother, who is serving a life sentence in prison. In Philadelphia Fire (1990), he writes about the revolutionary organization MOVE and about his son, who is also imprisoned. Most recently, in a collection of pieces titled Hoop Roots (2001), he has returned to a childhood passion: basketball.

Wideman sat down for a first interview in his small, book-lined office at the University of Massachusettes, where he has taught since 1986. A second conversation took place last fall at a crowded restaurant in Boston. In both meetings, Wideman spoke for hours, only occasionally raising his voice above a near whisper.

 

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to start at the beginning, so to speak. Many of your novels are set in Homewood, where you grew up. What was life like for you there?

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN

I lived with my mother and father and brothers and sisters some of the time; some of the time my mother and father were feuding, so my mother would take us to live in my grandmother’s house. When I went to my grandmother’s house, not only was my grandmother around, but her mother lived in Homewood, and then there were great aunts; and, of course, there was my grandfather and his friends. So there I was a little kid and I was around every age bracket and not only seeing them, but hearing them talk—being taken around the neighborhood by my grandfather and meeting his cronies. It was very rich in that way.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of stories did you hear?

WIDEMAN

My aunt Geraldine was the unofficial historian and storyteller. She had all the information about family members and the gossip that came out of the church, because we were very much part of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. At family gatherings, the older folk had the floor, had pride of place, and it was their stories I remember.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give me a brief example of one or two of the stories?

WIDEMAN

Brief examples of family stories that I heard when I was three or five or six or seven? I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. They weren’t so much set pieces—though there were some of those. They were more stories about family peculiarities, and characters in the family or in the neighborhood. Part of it was just hearing. You had to be there to appreciate it, you had to be part of the fabric of the history for them to have real meaning.

One character was Aunt Fanny, who went to everybody’s funeral. She always carried an umbrella and she always was dressed up because she always was on the way to somebody’s funeral. Didn’t matter whether she knew them or not. She was going to go to the funeral and she would talk about the person and half the time make up the story because she didn’t know, really. My grandfather on my mother’s side told stories about his work and working with the other Italian paperhangers. The stories also changed as I got older. They got bawdier; they got raunchier. Sometimes they just changed because people change. Part of what would happen is that other people would add little bits and pieces to the story. Or they would amen it or somebody would say, Well that’s not the way it was. What really happened was x, y, and z. You would get competing versions, and it became like dueling banjos. People would try to out talk or over talk or loud talk one another.

The stories were performances. It was how somebody told it, not the content. Just to reproduce what was actually said wouldn’t do it at all. There isn’t the energy, there isn’t the call and response. They are not set pieces, but folk art, folk performance.

INTERVIEWER

Since there are competing oral versions, where do truth and imagination combine to create a full story?

WIDEMAN

Truth becomes a function of the choral nature of the exchanges. Stories are told over time, and so they naturally accrue meanings. The stories were common property. And so you weren’t after a version of truth. You were after the most entertaining version.

In Haiti, as I understand it, storytelling and history itself are not a business of necessarily elucidating facts or the truth of an incident, but finding the version that is most entertaining and therefore will get retold and live in immortality. When I read that about Haitian folklore and history, it struck home—it’s exactly what I observed in my own family.

INTERVIEWER

What were you reading growing up?

WIDEMAN

Anything I came across. Pretty eclectic, pretty happenstance. I read all the books that were in the Shadyside Boy’s Club library—books about submarines, dogs, grizzly bears. There were a lot of books in my house, so that was another source. My mother was a reader, my father was a reader. Not anything particularly sophisticated. My mother read fat historical or romantic novels; my father liked to read Westerns, Zane Grey, that kind of stuff. Whatever they brought in, I read.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read any African American writers then?

WIDEMAN

No. Those didn’t come my way. Frank Yerby was around, but I didn’t even know Frank Yerby was African-American. I liked stuff that had an adventurous edge to it, that took me to places I had no experience of. Movies and TV were much less a part of daily life—there was nothing to grab the imagination. Books were my Internet, my TV, my movies all rolled into one.

INTERVIEWER

It wasn’t a sense of escape from something unhappy, then, but simply a longing for something exotic?

WIDEMAN

I think I was kind of melancholy as a kid. I spent a lot of time inside my own head, a lot of time sort of staring into space wondering what the hell was going on. I had solitary instincts when I was very young, and reading was a way to make that time a little more entertaining.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write back then?

WIDEMAN

Not particularly. I always liked to write and had fun writing, but I didn’t have any pretensions about being a writer. I liked to read and liked to putz around and write little stories or poems, but my thing was sports.

INTERVIEWER

You went to the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship. Was sports something you pursued simply for the love of it, or was it a kind of ticket out?

WIDEMAN

The main appeal of sports was you got away from the adult world, you got into the kid world. That’s still what I like about it, that’s why I still watch basketball on TV, why I hold onto that basketball dream, because I associate it with no responsibilities—you’ve just got to put the ball in the basket, beat the other guy. It’s an instant feel-good when it goes right. So no, it wasn’t an escape. I didn’t have anything I wanted to get out of, that I wanted to escape from. My world was my world.

At Penn, if it hadn’t been for basketball, I would have bombed out. It would have been just too weird. I did leave a couple of times during my freshman year, but my coach Dick Harter came and got me and said, Nah nah nah, it will get better, John, just wait till practice starts. And sure enough, once basketball practice started and I had a very secure subculture—the basketball subculture, the coach’s office, the other players—then things were a lot easier. A lot more natural.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that being at Penn, being in that environment was like being inside of your body, yet watching yourself from without. Can you elaborate?

WIDEMAN

The world of the University of Pennsylvania, and maybe even the world I’m in today—because they are so different from the community, the people, the values where I grew up—don’t seem quite real, never seemed quite real, which, yes, put me in the position of an outsider. At Penn, I was like an anthropologist traveling in the Congo, but without the power the anthropologists presume in their writing. I was very centered in my own culture as I observed all these things, but I knew quite well the power of the foreign world that I was in. I always felt that I was there, not exactly on loan, but as a kind of test case, and that created a lot of pressure.

I could see that I was being made a special case because the only other black faces were people dishing out the food in the cafeteria or cleaning up the place, or people out on the street. I had some perception of all that, but I didn’t make any kind of righteous judgment of it—that seemed the only way to me at the time. That’s the way the world was. There were no universities in Homewood. If you wanted to go to a university you went out into this foreign environment, and that’s how it was done. I didn’t think of trying to change the university, I didn’t think of trying to find a way to get more black people in school. In fact, and I’m embarrassed to say it, to a degree I’d see other black faces on campus like me as a threat because I realized I was a special case, and I didn’t know exactly how these other special cases related to my special case. There was only so much goodwill to go around. Could they screw up in a way that would hurt me, or reflect on me? So it was a hard time, it was a lonely time, and I felt very threatened a lot of the time, and I guess I haven’t gotten over those feelings to this day. I believed that I could just sort of snap my finger or some voice could come on the PA system in the sky and say, OK, it’s all over, and—poof—the buildings and the classes and the whole trajectory of my life that was embodied in this place would disappear. At times I felt like that was fine, because I would just wind up back on my home turf, but there were other times I felt, I don’t know where I will go if I lose this, if the university goes away.

INTERVIEWER

If basketball helped provide a more secure environment at Penn, was writing a similar refuge?

WIDEMAN

There wasn’t that much of it at the beginning. By my junior year, I began to have airs and to construct certain images of myself, and one of them that I liked was the possibility of being a writer; but it wasn’t based on writing—the writer was a kind of rebel and an attractive cultural figure. He was someone who set his—I wouldn’t have thought her—who set his own terms, who was a maverick, and I knew enough about writing to see that just my physical situation was such that I was in a writer’s position—an observer, an outsider, with a foot in more than one world. So writing was a natural pose for me. And then I got in with some people, I got to be friends with some people who thought of themselves as poets, a “literary crowd,” let’s say.

INTERVIEWER

A bad crowd.

WIDEMAN

Yeah, a bad literary crowd. They were the people smoking pot. Fornicating. Mixing interracially. Philadelphia’s version of Greenwich Village was Powelton Village, and that was the place where I could go to party and not stick out like a sore thumb. I felt I could go up and speak to anybody at the party. Powelton was the bohemian fringe, and being different I was attracted to it. It all kind of worked into the writing.

INTERVIEWER

How much time did you spend writing in those days? Did you have a kind of rule, like “today I’ll write three hours”?

WIDEMAN

Oh, no. Not at that time. It was more like most young people. Bingeing. I might spend a weekend writing, not doing much of anything else—finish practice one night, go out drinking, get home at eleven o’clock, and stay up until four writing. But not too often.

INTERVIEWER

When did writing begin to have a more prominent place in your life?

WIDEMAN

I didn’t start writing with any real seriousness, that is putting time into it, until I was a senior. By that time I knew I wanted to do something that would allow time to write. I don’t mean the other stuff wasn’t serious. I just simply mean becoming more like a professional. I just mean putting in the time.

Writing was important to me in earlier years because, yes, it was a refuge and it was a place where I was figuring things out. It was crucially important. I was an African American student on a campus that was ninety-nine percent not African American, in a little island of white folk in the middle of a huge black, residential community. Kids from West Philadelphia did not attend the University of Pennsylvania, so we lived in a kind of walled city. I can remember getting on a bus with one of my buddies, Darryl, and just riding and riding until we came to what looked like a black neighborhood and getting out and walking around. The funny thing is we took the bus in the wrong direction. If we’d taken one going into South Philly all we would have had to do is cross the bridge and we would have been in a huge black neighborhood.

So I was trying to keep myself in balance and make sense of things. In a sense, I needed myself to talk to. I was serious, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of publishing; I wasn’t thinking in terms of somebody else necessarily reading what I wrote.

When I went to Oxford after college and lived outside of the country, that’s when I started to spend a lot of time actually putting words on paper and keeping journals and showing the writing to folks and reading a lot with the purpose of teaching myself this art.

The writing might have been in many ways a tool to help me figure out what I sensed was missing. Who is all this stuff happening to? I was having an extremely diverse set of experiences. I was moving along a socioeconomic axis, moving along a racial axis, with access to different sorts of people, all kinds of people. The people who were around a university community. I had friends who were back in Pittsburgh who were already married and had families, and some friends who were in trouble, and then there were all the relationships with family and my siblings. So the writing was a chance to slow down. I was creating an identity, creating a persona to help me make sense of things. It was a real necessity, stepping outside of the pageant, the whirlwind, and settling down a little bit and trying to make sense of it. I didn’t have role models; I didn’t know anybody who was trying to do the things I was doing. I didn’t know what it meant. And sometimes I needed to know what it meant, how to make decisions, how to make choices. I would find myself very angry about something, or very unhappy about something and not really know why, and the writing was a way to put some perspective on those very powerful emotions that were running rampant and kind of attaching themselves to different people, to different situations and circumstances, but I didn’t know if they really belonged to me. I would say writing continues to play that role for me, that it’s always played that role for me, stepping back and making sense.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me a little bit about how you first got published.

WIDEMAN

It was probably not typical, because one of the first things I published was a novel. I don’t think there were more than two or three stories published in any kind of national way before the novel. I didn’t publish stories. One reason for that is circumstances. I made a contact with an editor when I was a senior in college. I was the first black kid, along with another guy from the West Coast, to win a Rhodes scholarship since Alain Locke in the 1920s. This was 1963, right at the beginning of the civil-rights movement, so I was a big news story. Look picked up the story . . . and I was famous for a minute. The guy who was to become my editor, Hiram Hayden, and his son were sitting at breakfast, and the son read a newspaper story about me—a young black man who liked to write, who wanted to be a novelist some day—and he challenged his father: Dad, you’re always talking about finding young writers and there are no black writers around and here’s a guy—and da da da. He really challenged his father, and his father wrote me a note. And Betty Wideman didn’t raise no fools. Here was a note from an established New York publisher, at that time Knopf, so I wrote back and we met in Washington, D.C., and he told me, Young man, if you ever have anything to publish send it to me. So there it was, a real opening. I kept that name, and eventually when I had a book about half finished I sent it to him and he liked it. So that’s how I got my first book published. That made it much easier than sending manuscripts out to miscellaneous editors. Nobody was publishing stuff by African American people anyway in the little magazines at that time. Or the big ones.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said before that you had a kind of breakthrough in your writing after returning home for your grandmother’s wake.

WIDEMAN

My grandmother died when I was in my early thirties. I’d been teaching in Wyoming since 1974, and I returned home from there for her funeral, which was a very formal occasion because she was one of the elders of the community and very well known. So family gathered, people in the community gathered, the church gathered, and for me it was a very rich reintroduction into the culture that I had been absent from for all intents and purposes since virtually high school in 1959. That’s a big gap. It’s not like I didn’t return home for other events, and I used to return home in the summertime to work, but for years I was being reacculturated—in college, in grad school, in England, becoming a college teacher in Philadelphia. So it was quite a powerful reimmersion in my roots to come back to Homewood then.

INTERVIEWER

The experience of crossing lines of race, class, and culture is obviously very important to you. Some critics say that your writing after the Homewood trilogy—after you returned for your grandmother’s wake—shifted in emphasis from a white orientation to one that was primarily black.

WIDEMAN

I don’t buy that kind of bifurcation. I think throughout my writing life I’ve been looking at the people and experiences closest to me and trying to find a way to talk about them. What has happened over time is a natural growth or change or sophistication of technique and different modes of representation, which I have played around with and moved on with. But the subject matter remains essentially the same. If you look a little more closely, I think the same people keep coming up again and again in my writing. At least in my mind.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe what these critics mean is that the style has changed more than the subject matter.

WIDEMAN

In a way they are inseparable. In the first couple of books it was just, Gee, let’s try writing a book. And I did it. And I got published. Now I wanted to have more to say about how people talk about the books, where the books fit. I wanted that to be part of what’s embodied in the writing. So, beginning with Damballah, what’s there in the work is a kind of thoroughgoing and explicit exploration of a collective African American past in an attempt to write history from the point of view of an African American sensibility, and a kind of combativeness and a focus on the kind of struggle over the nature of reality that has been going on in this country from the very beginning.

INTERVIEWER

Is that why you seem to place such an emphasis on different viewpoints, different perspectives, not only in Damballah, but in all of your later works?

WIDEMAN

Story becomes a subject, I hope, in all sorts of ways. An implicit and an explicit subject. Why people tell stories, how people tell stories, who’s telling them, questions of audience, the political ramifications of stories, the survival dimension of stories, stories as a way of saving and refining and sophisticating language, stories as language, language as story, culture, how a very distinct African American culture is underpinned by a language and an attitude toward language. Not simply in the way, say, French language is related to French literature—that’s an easy one—or the way German language is related to German literature. It’s more complex when you’re talking about African American language and experience and culture, and I set out to investigate and highlight that and project some of my thinking about those things; so it’s a conscious project and I think the books express that.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a phrase that comes up in a lot of your books: “All stories are true.” What do you mean by that, and how does it relate to your work?

WIDEMAN

The source of that phrase is Chinua Achebe, and Achebe’s source is Igbo culture, traditional West African philosophy, religion, et cetera. It’s an Old World idea and it’s very mysterious. Rather than say I understand it, let’s say I’ve been writing under the star or the question mark of that proverb for a long time and I think it’s something that challenges. You peel one skin and there’s another skin underneath it—“all stories are true.” It was a useful means to point out that you don’t have a majority and a minority culture, you don’t have a black and a white culture—with one having some sort of privileged sense of history and the other a latecomer and inarticulate—you have human beings who are all engaged in a kind of never-ending struggle to make sense of their world. “All stories are true” then suggests a kind of ultimate democracy. It also suggests a kind of chaos. If you say, Wideman’s an idiot, and someone else says, No, he’s a genius, and all stories are true, then who is Wideman? It’s a challenge. A paradox. For me it’s the democratic aspect of it that’s so demanding, and it’s been a kind of guide for me in this sense. I know if I can capture certain voices I heard in Homewood—even though those people are not generally remembered, even though they never made a particular mark on the world—at certain times and in certain places and in certain tones those voices could tell us everything we need to know about being a human being.

If you use your imagination a little bit and think of dance or music as story, then those too fall under the spell of that phrase.

INTERVIEWER

The notion of music as story seems particularly true in Sent for You Yesterday, that blues seems to carry a language of its own that speaks through the generations. When Albert Wilkes, the blues musician, returns to Homewood, there is an almost magical sense of bonding that takes place in the community.

WIDEMAN

He’s also the one who opens the door to chaos by killing a cop, with all the attendant misery that act would bring down. So he has both roles.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see your writing as a political act? As a way to preserve black culture?

WIDEMAN

I would hope so. And I would hope I could do it in such a way that it is not simply preserving what’s passed. For me the truth of the music, the truth of the blues is immediacy. You or I can sit down and listen to Big Bill Broonzy or listen to Bessie Smith or Lightnin’ Hopkins or a singer who has never recorded, but when we sit and listen in the present tense, something can happen and that something connects us so that the past is alive again. The past and the present merge, and you merge with the blues singer, and the blues singer merges with other blues singers, and ultimately with the drums and Africa, and with something that transcends time and place that is more about the human capacity to turn experience into metaphor, into language, into music, into a particular way of holding and touching someone else. So that is the ultimate project for me—figuring out how language can perform this same kind of trick that music does.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel you’ve been successful?

WIDEMAN

I think that’s a better question for a critic than for me. Have I succeeded in doing it? I know I’ve tried it and talked about it and anybody who looks at the writing could find the places where it’s successful or not—it’s up to them. Do you tap your feet? Does it have that swing?

INTERVIEWER

The move bombing in Philadelphia in 1985 comes up a lot in your writing—in Philadelphia Fire, in Two Cities, and then also it seems to be referred to in The Cattle Killing, with its pivotal scene of the burning of the black orphanage. What is it about this event that interests you?

WIDEMAN

I think what happened in Philadelphia in 1985 with the move business was really a watershed event that is directly connected to what’s happening at this moment in large American cities. The denial of race as a problem is a factor, the Republican denial of race, the Clinton kind of mellowing out, but still no readiness to acknowledge that things are still as bad as they were at the moment of move. Certain forces that caused move have slipped underground, and they’re not just about race. They’re about a country that’s determined to demand of its citizens a bland conformity, to say to those who don’t fit in for one reason or another, the alternative is to get out. I think that’s what MOVE was all about. MOVE was the end of the sixties, the end of live and let live, plurality, a country with room enough for everybody. I think what was said to move, what was said generally to the hippies and flower power was, Huh-uh. There’s a war to fight. Get on the bus or off. MOVE was the deadly culmination of that ultimatum. And now we’ve had a fifteen-year, seventeen-year, interim since MOVE, but no real changes. In Philadelphia Fire, I tried to show how seeds were planted, a lesson of fear taught, a warning rammed down the country’s throat, our throats, that’s still being rammed down our throats, and unless we do something pretty drastic we’ll choke on it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your writing has become less focused on the personal and more focused on the political?

WIDEMAN

I don’t see the distinction. To me these are very personal issues. If my freedom is being impinged, if I have to play somebody else’s game, if I see members of my family not allowed an opportunity to earn a decent living and see the ones who rebel against those restrictions falling into deep, deep shit—though they’re in deep shit anyway—that’s very personal to me, that’s about me. So when I write about these things, there are all these political, collective ramifications, but it’s as personal as I can get.

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to touch briefly on the whole issue of your brother being in jail.

WIDEMAN

I’ve written and talked enough about that and I have nothing new or different to say. I hate it. It’s terrible; he shouldn’t be there. I’ll do everything I can to help him get out. He committed a crime, but he’s as much a victim of it as a perpetrator. Justice hasn’t been done in his case. He’s a political prisoner. That’s infuriating. That’s frustrating and wrong.

INTERVIEWER

How does this affect your writing?

WIDEMAN

I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

What about your son’s imprisonment for murder?

WIDEMAN

My son doesn’t like me to talk about his situation, so I don’t. Period.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

WIDEMAN

I am my audience. Not in an egotistical or narrow-minded sense. I read a lot. I think a lot about my mother, my brothers, aunts, and uncles, I think about Ishmael Reed reading something I write; I think about William Faulkner reading something I write; I think about Virginia Woolf reading something I write. In my head there’s this whole congress, this whole auditorium—it includes my mother, T. S. Eliot, José Saramago, every place I’ve been, all the people I’ve known. That’s what I relate to when I write.

INTERVIEWER

Who are you reading now?

WIDEMAN

I read lots and lots of stuff. I would just say I read. I hate the idea of hit parades, number one writer, number two writer, number three influence, number four—that misses the point, at least for me. And then there’s the oral influence, the oral tradition as well. At various times in my life I’ve been very indebted to particular writers, but to list them I’d have to tell you the story that went with each name, so it would be endless. I mean, Edgar Rice Burroughs influenced me, but there are other ways that he was anathema to me and I reacted negatively to him.

INTERVIEWER

When you do the writing, what is the process? Do you always start at the same time of day?

WIDEMAN

It’s seasonal. In the summertime I do most of what I call the brute writing, that is, putting words down on the page for the first time. Just trying to get down as many as I can. And rereading it the next day and going on from there. That happens, say, between the months of June until about November. Then I come back and teach and revise and rethink and rework. When I’m doing the brute work, I do it early in the morning; that’s the best time for me to get the stuff down on the page. That’s been my routine for years and years. I work on many things at once. I read a lot of books at the same time, I work on different projects and that changes the schedule and style somewhat. But the pattern persists. Up early before everybody else, before I get connected, before I get bugged, before I have obligations. Get the writing done first, then be the person I want to be in other ways after that.

INTERVIEWER

And what of the mechanical details of the writing? Do you use a computer, for instance?

WIDEMAN

I rewrite over and over again because I don’t use a computer. I use a Bic pen and a pencil. I simply write—fill a page and write between lines and on top of lines, so my manuscripts become palimpsests. They become incomprehensible to anybody but me. That means I have to rewrite them. It’s very tedious and slow. There are many, many layers; many, many edits. And at times it seems a pain in the ass. But each one of those clarifications that is scribbled is another edit. So in a funny way, it’s like I have developed a system in which there are four or five simultaneous drafts available to me, by reading between lines and using the arrows and the different print from the ink and the pencil. It’s like having transparencies. I can almost model like you model clay, because I have a whole series of words that could be the right word. Is it dry, is it parched, is it sear? Maybe all of those words are there in one form or another.

INTERVIEWER

How many hours per day do you spend writing during the months you’re getting down your first draft?

WIDEMAN

My answer would be meaningless. I work all the time. I work four or five hours in the morning. When I’m really going, I may do that four or five days a week. It might be one day, two hours, another day, eight because I’m going good. But for me, rewriting and different drafts go on endlessly. If I have a two-hundred-page book or two hundred pages of handwritten stuff, it might take six months to get it out of the incomprehensible stage into something somebody could read.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have projects mapped out to some extent before you start or does it start with something very abstract?

WIDEMAN

Every book has its own story. I’ve had a book, Hiding Place, come to me in what I would call a vision. I daydreamed the kind of Tinkerbell character who appears at the end and burns down the house in her blue gown. I had a crystal clear image of her in action. When I saw her floating through the air touching things and those things catching on fire, I had the whole novel in my head.

INTERVIEWER

What about the editing? Are other people involved in the editing at all?

WIDEMAN

Hiram Hayden was the editor of my first book. We had very tough, long, and educational sessions. We had real struggles about pages and words. He was hands-on. I was young and wanted that kind of response, so in that sense I was spoiled. He would sit down and put on his vodka-drinking sneakers and break out the bottle, and we would sit and go at it. I look back on those times very fondly. After him I never really had another editor like that. In some ways I don’t need what I needed then, and the whole role of editors, I think, has changed in publishing. People are not necessarily trained to do that kind of close business. I get some of that from a good copy editor, who is looking for consistencies or will come up with a thought about a word that’s been repeated too many times. The close line editing that I did with Hiram, I both haven’t wanted and haven’t found since.

INTERVIEWER

In your latest book, Hoop Roots, you focus on basketball. What led you to write about that specific topic now?

WIDEMAN

I’ve always wanted to write about basketball and I’ve written about it in bits and pieces in lots of other books, and this time I finally found the strength and focus to try a whole book on the subject. Or at least a series of essays linked by basketball. I love the sport and I also had to give the sport up because of age and obsolescence. This is a way to keep my hand in it, a way to celebrate that long, long love affair and also to try to elegantly and gracefully give it up.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a sort of elegiac tone to the book, but at the same time it’s very celebratory. And that seems to parallel how you approach many of the ongoing themes in your writing, such as music and storytelling. In fact, if you just take out the word basketball in Hoop Roots, a lot of the time it sounds like you’re talking instead about writing.

WIDEMAN

I’m sure a lot of the usual suspects appear. This is also about a certain time of life and celebrating and elegies. It’s an interesting pairing because what I’m trying to achieve in the book is a kind of balance. It’s “growing old ain’t all bad, being young ain’t all good.” They reinforce one another, reflect one another. You can’t have one without the other. It’s really a cycle, a circle. That’s what I’m trying to get at.

INTERVIEWER

You recently won an O. Henry prize. What effect has that had on you, and how do you feel about awards generally?

WIDEMAN

Well, it makes you feel good. Some of them put a little money in your pocket. Very few, but some do. I like it because, particularly if I can look back over a lot of years and see that they come periodically, it means somebody is still paying attention. In terms of having a voice that matters, it still matters to some group. So they’re important milestones. I know that, like any award, it’s political and arbitrary. It’s just nice to know somebody’s listening, somebody’s paying attention. And ones that are awarded by peers, that’s pretty gratifying. For me it’s important also because I’m not a best-selling author. Why should somebody take the risk of publishing my book? It keeps my hand in, gives me a certain kind of credibility, which in a cutthroat market it’s easy to lose if you didn’t sell thirty, forty thousand books in your last hardback.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve talked about the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church as a center of your community growing up. How did your religious upbringing impact your writing?

WIDEMAN

I could talk about that forever. Yes, in terms of the language of the preacher, the performance of the preacher, the way he moved and talked and spun, the way his sermon was backed up by music and the testimony of prayer—all that being very emotional, very rhythmical, very intense. It’s like if I’d been in the Greek islands, if I’d been Greek, around when Aeschylus and those people ended up going through those plagues—my writing of narrative would be extremely affected by all that and it would have affected my instincts. In terms of style and language, the stories of the Bible were fascinating to me. As a kid, my mother’s faith, her beliefs, her ability to transcend all sorts of terrible things that were happening, all that she passed on to me about morals, ethics, and personal worth. It penetrates almost any level I can think of. But this is in spite of the fact that I stopped going to church with my family as soon as I was able to, soon as I was big enough to bluff or lie or find something else I could say I had to do.

INTERVIEWER

Much of your writing focuses on your past, the world you left. Is there a sense of indebtedness, an attempt to speak for those who can’t?

WIDEMAN

I would say that I’m constructing a letter about myself and an identity for myself that is always more complex than the immediate business at hand. The immediate business at hand, teaching, being sixty, having kids in college, living in a middle-class Amherst community, that’s the world I live in, but that’s not the world I really live in. Yes, I’m sitting here in this office talking to you, and we’re doing an interview, and I hope it’s a decent interview and will be published and somebody will learn something from it, and that’s part of my life. And then I’ll go to the grocery store, and somebody will see me in the grocery store and I’ll have a shopping cart, and I’ll get into a Volvo, which is sort of a sign of class and whatnot, and I’ll drive home to a nice house, so that’s one way you could see me. But for me that’s not adequate, not enough; that’s not where my heart is, that’s not where I put my energy and my time. Those facts and appearances are almost like a minor aura that’s thrown off by my activity while at the core, where the major action is, lives the person who is writing and investigating, who is still torn up by the death of my grandfather John French, who has a brother in prison, who, as long as that brother is in prison will not feel free, who is thinking about time, a person who’s still scarred and outraged and mystified by the experience of Europe and Africa and slavery and the relationship between those continents. A person who has a real stake in the battle of contending versions of reality. So that’s also who I am. And that’s who I’ve been for a long time.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.