An Interview with Author Chris L. Terry by Tom Williams

Photo by Jacob Boll

I first became familiar with Chris L. Terry when his novel, Zero Fade, and mine, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, were being published in 2013 and 2014 by a hip, indie press, Curbside Splendor. So rare has it been to encounter not only another mixed writer, but one with similar parentage and ethnicity–we’re both a little Irish!–and musical tastes, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bond. Since, Chris blurbed my collection of stories and I read and offered some advice on an early draft of Black Card, Chris’s second novel, which was published to much acclaim by Catapult in 2019 and out now in paperback. 

When was the last time someone asked what are you? And what did you say?

It’s been a while. It happened a lot when I was touring with punk bands in the early 2000s. Me and my bandmates had a running joke where we’d say I was a porpoise. If someone’s gonna dehumanize me by asking what I am, then all bets are off: I’m a marine mammal.

What’s the craziest identity somebody’s imposed upon you?

Some Mexican guys were calling me “Argentina” last year. That was a new one. Otherwise, I’ve been Black, Puerto Rican, Jewish, a Leprechaun…

Have you ever been a tragic mulatto? If yes, what is your present status? If no, what do you believe prevented you from such a lowly state?

I’ve got mixed feelings about the term “tragic mulatto,” pun intended.

Nice one!

It can feel like a term that single-race people use to silence mixed-race black people when we’re hashing out our identities. Ironically, single-race people also spend a lot of time making us feel like we’re not black or white enough. They create the problem then don’t want to make space for the solution.

When I’m stressing about my identity, I try to look on the bright side: I don’t really fit in anywhere, but I sorta fit into a lot of places. Now, excuse me while I price plane tickets to Buenos Aires.

A Middle-Eastern dude swore I was Egyptian my freshman year of college. Go figure, What was the first book you read in which you saw a character like yourself? Or movie or TV show? 

I read James Weldon Johnson’s passing narrative Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in college. It let me know that stories like mine could be told. The first contemporary mixed-race black novel I read was Caucasia by Danzy Senna. The scene where the cops think the main character’s dad has kidnapped her brought back some rough memories.

I should also shout out Kid from Kid N Play! We’re roughly the same color and they were popular when I was in Junior High and just starting to sort out my identity. He gave me something to dance towards.

Loved those books and Kid In House Party but do you remember what Robin Harris—whom I idolized then—says during one of his scenes: “I should have never married that white woman?”  That crushed me.

No! I need to give it a rewatch.

Let’s switch to A better father. The father in Black Card has an Infinite number of records. Was your dad such a collector?  What kind of gems did he have? What were some of the oddball choices?

My dad’s my black parent. We really bonded over music. I’d be listening to a hip-hop tape and he’d poke his head in the room like, “Those drums are from a James Brown song! Let me get out that 45…” We were living in a white area, and the music he shared with me felt like a lifeline to black culture.

He loves guitar music, so I grew up hearing a lot of black men with guitars: Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Muddy Waters, Thin Lizzy and even Living Colour.

I also have some weird jazz of his on permanent loan. I’m pretty sure he bought “Karma” by Pharoah Sanders off the strength of a review, listened to it once, and shelved it. Now I’m wearing it out.

Gotta get mom in here too: how did she contribute to your aesthetic or cultural development?

My mom’s a librarian and very creative. She makes amazing psychedelic quilts, crafts constantly and always tries new recipes in the kitchen–I wish I’d appreciated that curry when I was eleven! When I was a kid, she read to me a ton, and that got me on the path to writing.

She’s always encouraged me to write. Both of my parents have really supported my creativity. I think that, from an early age, it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer and that it’s hard to stop me from doing what I want.

What got you into punk?

I found the music through skateboarding and checking out bands that Kurt Cobain liked. Between race and class stuff, I felt very alienated in our suburb, and punk and alt-rock’s celebration of the underdog really clicked. “Come As You Are” made me feel seen.

We moved to Richmond, Virginia and I got more involved, going to all-ages shows and starting a hardcore punk band with my new friends. My family was going through some money problems and I felt like the American dream wasn’t true. I wanted to do something on my own terms, that was too small to fail–fuck their metrics of success!

Also, in Richmond, I was living around other black people for the first time. After feeling like I wasn’t white enough for our old ‘burb, feeling not black enough either was a gut punch. On some subconscious level, I was like, “This race stuff is too confusing. I’ll make punk my identity.” That didn’t work for long, but lord knows I tried to milk it.

Does its DIY aesthetic still apply to your work?

I’m still at my happiest when I’m making cool stuff with people I like, so yes, but 17-year-old me would balk at the fact that I have a publicist and a barcode on my books. 17-year-old me didn’t have student loans and a kid to support, though. 

As for the look of DIY punk. I love it. For reference for the cover of Black Card, I sent Catapult the publisher a bunch of ‘90s punk flyers and photocopier art. I love the stark look that they gave the cover.

What about hip hop? Recently you and I had a conversation about my total ignorance of MF DOOM and how despite all the great evidence people have given me to his genius I’m probably not going to do a deep dive into his work. I attribute this to my age, 54. I came to hip-hop through Kurtis Blow and lasted through Slick Rick, MC Lyte and Big Daddy Kane. Also, it’s like my narrator in Don’t Start me Talkin, says, “Blues got to me first.” 

Know what? You don’t have to listen to DOOM. You don’t have to force yourself to check out a single thing. You shouldn’t feel obligated to digest any art. I think about this a lot as I stumble into my forties: most cool art is made for people half my age. It’s OK to keep current, but don’t force it. 

I’m a suburban mulatto–of course I’m gonna worry too much about it. What was it for you that allowed for an embrace of hip hop?

I was a suburban grade school kid in the late ‘80s, the peak era of rapping cartoon animals in commercials and on kids’ TV shows. I knew that rap was hip and black and I was at the age where I was starting to consider my identity while wanting to be cool. So, I got a Fat Boys tape. The coolest! My parents were always permissive when it came to me checking out music.

I started digging deeper with the help of my white babysitter Adam Mansbach, who is now a best-selling author. He dubbed me these extra-blackity-black Boogie Down Productions, X-Clan and Public Enemy tapes, which led to some confusing arguments where my black dad was saying, “I heard Public Enemy are anti-semitic” and I was like, “But a Jewish guy gave it to me!”

In true Halfrican style, things got complex, fast.

Just like my dad’s records, those hip-hop tapes gave me access to black culture. The rub was that it felt dangerous and forbidden in my ‘burb, which made me wonder if I was also not supposed to be there.

So what got you moving from a punk frontman to a novelist?

Age! By 24, I was feeling like the old guy at the punk party. I always knew that I wanted to write, and decided I’d try to get into an MFA program by the time I was 30. I’d rather be the old guy writing books than the old guy trying to rock out. Plus, no one’s late to band practice when you’re writing a book.

“I’m pretty uptight about aging gracefully,” he says, rubbing anti-wrinkle cream on his ever-expanding forehead. 

What proceeded Zero Fade? Or are you one of those miracles whose first novel is truly a first novel?

I made a 30-page attempt at a novel in undergrad, but Zero Fade was the first time I really tried. It was my MFA thesis at Columbia College Chicago. I did three drafts of it while in school and it sure didn’t feel like a miracle.

Was Zero Fade written as a YA novel or was the coming-of-age novel that got recalibrated as YA? Is there any difference between a YA novel and a coming-of-age novel to you?

I took a terrific YA class with Laurie Lawlor that opened me up to writing YA. I figured that since Zero Fade had a teen narrator, it was YA, but didn’t think too hard about it. I’d rather write my thing to the best of my abilities then let the business people classify it. Ironically, Kirkus listed Zero Fade as Historical, since it took place 20 years in the past. That made me feel my age.

I *think* that YA is a story about coming of age, geared toward readers who are also coming of age, while a coming-of-age book is more for readers who are looking back.

What throughline do you see between ZF and BC?

Both books are about how mainstream culture feeds young men’s privileged misconceptions of the world. Zero Fade’s about a 13-year-old’s ideas of adulthood and masculinity. Black Card’s about an isolated, mixed-race black person’s narrow, pop-culture-informed ideas of blackness.

You don’t have to answer this, but who cuts your hair?

During Covid times, it’s me in the driveway with the clippers, sorely missing my barber Muhammad at Kip’s Sharp N Sassy on Slauson. I’ve been rocking the Jeremy Meeks “hot felon” cut for the last few months but really want a fade.

Photo by Meg Howrey

At risk of sounding pedantic, I’m going to ask you to put your English major cap on and consider the following: A bildungsroman is defined as a novel of formation or education, while a künstlerroman is a novel of an artist’s development. Does one or none of these definitions apply to Black Card?

I’d say Black Card is a bildungsroman because it’s about the main character learning to understand himself as a black person. I purposefully made him a terrible, half-assed artist–a guy who picked bass, the easiest rock instrument, and never practices. The only way he develops as an artist is by getting kicked out of his band. So, maybe it’s a backwards künstlerroman?

That’s a nice way of putting it, especially since the narrator fails to even play in two crucial scenes. Another thing I loved is all those interstitial chapters that list of types of guys, racists, etc. And then you resurrect it for the conclusion. Really savvy move because it is a book about identity–what or who your narrator isn’t as much as who or what he is. When did you come up with them?

Black Card was inspired by my experiences playing in punk bands in Richmond, Virginia, circa 2000. I wanted to get punk right on the page, so I started by writing down a ton of memories and details and inside jokes. As the novel’s story formed, I kept as much of that color as I could, and the lists were a way to slip some extras in. There was no need for a scene with “I’m Mainly Into Jazz Now” Guy, but his existence is part of the punk scene’s fabric, ya know?

I’m kinda pissed that I didn’t work a flaming couch into the book–there was one block of W. Grace St. where students always burned couches on the sidewalk.

In one of the most touching moments of the novel we learn your narrator keeps a photo of his parents in his wallet to show people he is what he says.  But the photo is key to his final epiphany because it’s not who he is, that photo. Where did that inspiration for the photo come from? What do you think it provides for your narrator?

I got the idea from the ambivalence I feel when I post cool old pics of my parents. I love celebrating how awesome they look and getting positive attention online, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m trying to prove that I’m black. I don’t want to be that light-skinned guy who goes extra hard to compensate for his paleness.

For the narrator of Black Card, the photo is an example of him trying too hard to prove something. If he’s always ready to make an argument for himself as a black person, then it lends credibility to people who question his identity. By the end of the story, he’s gained a better understanding of blackness and feels confident enough with his identity that he isn’t walking around with evidence, just in case.

When in the composition did you land upon Lucius?  I often tell students that what they need in a story or novel is what Henry James called the “ficelle.” Lucius is a perfect example but you’ve done more than just added another character, you’ve added a deeper and different dimension to go to the narrative. Which allows some of the surreal excursions of the second half of the novel. Could you talk about what Lucius allowed you to do in the novel?

A ficelle is like the audience surrogate?

James–and by quoting Henry James I might need to hold on extra tightly to my own black card, lest someone take it away–asserts that the ficelle operates as the “reader’s friend,” designed to get crucial information out of the narrator in a way that’s not tedious and biographical.

Black Card’s main character is someone who makes the reader want to go, “Stop! What is wrong with you?” Lucius’s main role is to say that out loud. He’s the narrator’s conscience as a black person and he evolves as the narrator’s ideas about blackness gain depth.

I came up with Lucius after the first messy draft, when I realized I had a lot of scenes where the narrator was alone, thinking about things. He needed someone else there.

In a good way, I see the ghost of Ralph Ellison haunting this book. Any other immediate influences come to mind?

Oh, yeah. Before I started writing Black Card, I wanted to do a mixed-race Invisible Man. But, in writing Black Card, I confirmed to myself that mixed-race shit is still black shit. It’s a story about losing your sense of self because people are always projecting their ideas onto you.

I love detective novels because they’re usually about an outsider, being mystified and disappointed as they look in on the world around them. That dovetails nicely with racial alienation. Crime novels often have a great sense of place, too, and I was trying to really get Richmond on the page. Howard Owen’s Willie Black novels do that well. And I love reading Steph Cha’s L.A.

Beyond that, I need to shout out Danzy Senna and Mat Johnson–mixed-race black writers who came up before me. And pop culture savvy Gen X authors like Nick Hornby. There’s definitely some High Fidelity in Black Card.

A character of almost equal importance is John Donahue, who envies your narrator’s racial status, sees himself as “more black” despite his skin color. When did he come into the novel for you?

I knew I wanted to write about wiggers (I’m reclaiming that word, Tom). Black Card’s narrator finds them intriguing because a lot of them are doing what he does: trying to use black pop culture as a path to authenticity. And, in Donahue’s case, he’s going about it with more confidence than the main character.

One way the book can be viewed is that the narrator through a series of accidents, begins to experience what some might call rites of passage for an African-American–false accusations of rape, imprisonment, beaten by the police. What did you hope all this would result for your narrator?

He already feels a loss of control around his identity because people keep telling him who he is before he has a chance to figure it out. 

He starts off feeling alienated from blackness because he has a superficial view of it. His main interactions with blackness had been through pop culture, and his attitude was basically, “This Puff Daddy video doesn’t speak to me, so I guess I’m not black.” By the end, he sees blackness as something more nuanced and understands that if you’re black, the things you do are black things–you can play in a punk band and hang out with white people and still experience the things that black people experience. You don’t have to do stereotypically black things to be black.

I also really like how you resisted the love of a good woman narrative. In many ways, Mona is a hindrance to the narrator’s development as she is a help. Did it ever occur to you that you needed to take just about every helping hand away from him?

Yes. I wrote the narrator to want to change, but only feel able to do so by screwing up all of his relationships to the point where he has to start over. He got what he wanted, but at what cost?

Richmond felt like the perfect place for a story like that because it’s a city that’s slow to transform. If it’s still obsessed with the Civil War then it’s sure to remember what you were like a couple years before.

Similarly, what happens when you’re writing and feel that instinct that you should be elevating black and biracial characters, modeling good behavior, instead of throwing rocks at them and making them flawed?

I don’t. I’m not here to model good behavior. I’m here to dig into what happens when we don’t.

That said, when I write about my difficulties with blackness, I work hard to make sure I’m being harder on myself than on blackness. I don’t want to talk outside the family too much, or blame others for my own issues.

I love hearing that. Who are some writers today–black, white, or in between–who are doing things that really inspire you today?

I was really happy to see Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu win the National Book Award. It’s about the limited roles for East Asian people in Hollywood, and about how hard it can be to live when someone else is trying to dictate your identity. It hit close to home.

Any bites from the film industry? BlackCard would make a terrific film.

Thank you! I try to write visually. 

A cable network has optioned Black Card and hired me to write a TV pilot based on it. I can’t believe that’s my job right now.

I’ve been working as a screenwriter since March. I got the go-ahead for this project less than a week before the pandemic lockdown started. I’m really glad to be doing work that I care about while I’m stuck at home with my family and every free moment comes at a premium. I’d be tearing my hair out if I was still writing ads.

That’s awesome! I still don’t think we’ve seen the mixed experience on the screen authentically. Now, what’s next for Chris Terry?

I’m working on a third novel and scared to get too specific about it. Trying to do 500 words every weekday for the next three months, so I can finish a draft.

I’m writing some essays about race for Catapult’s site and reviewing music and books for Razorcake.

I just joined the Writers Guild of America, so hopefully that leads to more screenwriting work. 

And I’m teaching novel-writing classes at UCLA Extension. I hope this leads to a Visiting Professor position somewhere. Teaching is energizing. 

A real pleasure of the book is the revelations of Richmond–a city I knew little about but you know intimately. You were there recently with your family. What’s it like to visit there now?

The big thing to mention is the Confederate monuments. When I was a teenager, we lived around the corner from Richmond’s Monument Ave., a losers’ row of Confederate statues. It was the first time I could point to something and say, “This actual physical thing is oppressing me.”

The monuments came down during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and the only one left is Robert E. Lee, which is covered in anti-racist graffiti and has been turned into a kind of a community autonomous zone. It was really powerful to visit that and feel the changes that have taken place. It was also the first time I wanted to be near one of those statues.

That said, pulling down the monuments is a symbolic change. Actual systemic changes to policing still need to be made. Those statues aren’t the ones out here shooting unarmed black people.

Richmond sure still feels small towny-y. There are layers of memory. On our first day there, I jogged across a bridge that one of my friends died on, passed by the house my parents had to leave because of money issues, then went back to the gentrified version of my aunt’s old neighborhood, and took a shower at my AirBnB, which is run by a guy whose band I used to see in the ‘90s. That’s a lot of potentially really heavy stuff, but it didn’t hit me as hard as I expected. I left Richmond when I was 24, thinking the city was never gonna change, and I never would either if I stuck around. 17 years later, things are different and I feel a healthier perspective on my past.

How do you self identify these days?

Black, mixed with Irish. Or Black with an asterisk. I used to just say I was mixed, but I felt like I was running from Blackness. 

You and I have three quadroons: Finn, Daphne, and Felix. What’s your expectations about the world we’re giving them and the one they’re creating?

I’m really glad to be raising Felix in Los Angeles, where there are a lot of other multiracial people. I want him to experience fitting in in a way that I didn’t. I’ll never forget picking him up at daycare and seeing him sitting in a circle with a bunch of other ambiguously beige kids. I hope that he can grow without feeling preoccupied with where he fits in.

Chris L. Terry is the author of the novel Black Card, about a mixed-race punk bassist with a black imaginary friend. NPR called Black Card, “hilariously searing” and listed it as one of the best books of 2019. Terry’s debut novel Zero Fade was on Best of 2013 lists by Slate and Kirkus Reviews, who called it, “Original, hilarious, thought-provoking, and wicked smart…not to be missed” in a starred review.

Terry was born in 1979 to a black father and white mother. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches creative writing and works as a screenwriter. His work has appeared in Stereogum, Catapult, theLAnd, Best Small Fictions 2015, PANK, Very Smart Brothas/The Root, Apogee, Razorcake, and more.

Photo by Seth Foley

A past contributor to Mixed Mag, Tom Williams is Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Central Arkansas. He has published three books of fiction, most recently the story collection, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales.

Leave a Reply