Angela Flournoy is in the midst of a year all debut novelists dream of. She has secured a spot as a finalist for the National Book Award; she was also named as one of the “5 Under 35” writers by the same organization. Her debut, The Turner House, is an elegant and intimate exploration of a large family in Detroit and how the housing crisis of 2008 has affected them. While this generational saga covers a multitude of themes, it feels concise and is an enthralling page turner.
We spoke over the phone about her writing process of her debut novel, the current state of diversity in literature, and what she has planned next.
The Millions: You’ve been nominated for the National Book Award and were named part of the “5 Under 35.” How have you been feeling about all of the recognition?
Angela Flournoy: I’ve been feeling great. For your first book you really don’t sit around thinking about getting on a long list. At least I don’t as a writer because then you’d be perpetually disappointed. I was really excited, surprised, and delighted. I didn’t even think the “5 Under 35” was even possible. Especially on the first go around. There’s a way if you write short stories and you get them placed well [in certain magazines] things happen incrementally. You have this little business card out there in the world. You can get little awards or fellowships with that. When you write a novel you’re the tortoise, not the hare. For four of five years, I was just writing. There was the adjunct position and I was just waiting tables in Iowa, but I was really just out in the world writing. I wasn’t being looked at by people who can help. Everything just happened at once. As a novelist, people told me but I forgot, that if it happens, it will all happen at once. There is no business card, there is no little story out there in the world.
The night they announced the “5 Under 35” at a cocktail party in New York, I wasn’t there. I was teaching in Brooklyn. It was a class that night about Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives. It’s weird how everything connects because the first time I read that novel was four years prior in a class taught by ZZ Packer, who was actually the writer who nominated me. It seemed like the right place to be [teaching that class] even though I wasn’t “celebrating.” It felt right teaching about a book that I learned about by the person who nominated me.
TM: What was the writing process of your debut novel like during your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
AF: I started it there. The idea for the project really came to me when I first moved to Iowa in the fall of 2009. My father’s family is from Detroit, so I had frequent trips just driving from Iowa City to Detroit. It’s about a seven-hour drive. It just seems that people from the Midwest drive more often. So I was driving to Detroit to visit the house my father grew up in and it was the first time ever that no one was living in the house. My grandmother was older and she no longer lived there. It was on the east side of town, which is a depopulated area; I was just sort of bothered by this house. People worked so hard to maintain it and it looked so great, but I didn’t really know what the future of the house would be. So it just stayed there for about 10 months.
In my second semester, I had this idea of this woman who was staying in a house. She wasn’t necessarily trespassing, but she didn’t want anybody to know that she was there. That character became Lelah, and that’s how the novel really began. I workshopped 15 pages near the end of the semester, but of course nobody knew it was going to end up as a novel. Once I started writing about her, I didn’t want to write about anything else.
Really, in my second year at Iowa, all of my workshops were just chapters of the novel. I wrote about 80 pages and I decided to stay in Iowa for a third year just so I wouldn’t have to move to an expensive city and I could adjunct [teach at the Workshop]. By staying in Iowa for the third year, I got to about 200 pages, and with those pages I got an agent. I moved and continued to work on the book and it took another year to get to the 300 pages that it ended up becoming.
The most useful thing about my time in Iowa was just not having high overhead. There’s not a lot to do there, especially in winter, so there’s just time to write.
TM: Where did the other pieces come from? There are a lot of different threads winding together to make something pretty concise.
AF: My father is from a big family. In my mind, I had to find a reason why Lelah didn’t want people to know she was in this house and I thought about the big family and the fear of judgement. One way I could explore the history of the house and the family’s relationship with the city was to have her be the youngest of a very big line of siblings. So on the other end of the spectrum I needed someone who was the opposite of her, who was Cha Cha. I was able to explore a lot of different aspects of life in Detroit and life in a big family.
TM: The novel has five different sections representing a week in 2008, as well as flashbacks to the 1940s. How does a writer come about finding the right structural elements of a novel?
AF: The background just lived in my mind as useful information that probably wouldn’t end up in the book. I first started writing the novel as a contemporary Detroit story. When people read anything that has to do with a social issue or an economic issue, if you put it in the past, people don’t really look at themselves. If the book was completely set in the past people would just disassociate themselves with it. They would think this is just how housing discrimination was working in the past and it has nothing to do with them today. So I was hesitant to focus on the 1940s. The more I researched, the more I found interesting things. The part of the city that these people moved to during the Great Migration doesn’t even exist anymore. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach a lesson on part of the city’s history.
Once I decided that, I knew that I could use it as a piece of backwards information. In the present timeline the question is where is the family going with this house, but in the past the question is how did this house even come into their lives? I thought the two together would play well off of one another.
TM: Identity plays a major role in The Turner House. How do you feel about race or identity in current literature?
AF: I feel like it’s one of those things that if you seek [writers of different races and genders] out you find it. I find, maybe not on purpose, that I’ve read more of that in the past year. Especially women and women of color. Once you find one writer, you find others like them. I think that publishing is a little behind of what people desire or what they’re gravitating towards.
I was on a panel at Decatur [Georgia] Book Festival on Labor Day and a writer discussed how young adult literature is written more like what the country looks like. It’s trying harder to be inclusive; people of various ethnicities or various sexual orientation. I think that’s something that literary fiction is a little bit slower to embrace. I think it’s changing though. I can only hope that it is. There are certain people who only know people who look like them still, but I think it’s become less of the norm.
As far as identity in literature, I think we’re coming to a place where readers have so many options. Eventually readers will read about everything and it will happen organically; it wouldn’t even be a thought. There’s so many books out there by such a diverse group of writers that readers won’t have to try hard to find diversity. Hopefully we can get to a point where diversity is the norm.
TM: What’s the next project you’re working on? A novel or short stories?
AF: I’m working on a book. If you can call it that. It’s the very early days. Being busy is a good problem to have. I moved to Brooklyn to teach in the summer and wanted to focus on writing in the fall. However, I got all of these opportunities to teach and talk about my book. It’s nice because when a debut novel comes out, you don’t think anything like this will happen. I’m looking forward to getting time to focus on the next book.
It’s very early days. It’s about family, but it’s more about friendship than it is about familial connection
TM: Between teaching, giving talks about The Turner House and working on the next one, do you have time to read for pleasure?
AF: Yes. One thing I like reading are big, sprawling novels. You either love them or hate them. I’m a person who loves them. I’m always on the hunt for the next big book that’s going to take me to all of these places and enter all of these points of view. There may be a few digressions, but they’re going to be beautifully written.
I’m currently reading Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam. It is probably not as sprawling as I seek out, but there’s a greatness to it. It’s a book set in the early 2000s in Brooklyn about a family from Bangladesh. It’s a coming of age story, but also familial history.