An Interview with Author Chris Stuck by Tom Williams

**CW: this piece contains racial slurs**

In the fascinating way that the literary world conducts its business nowadays, I have never spent a moment in person or even on the phone with Chris Stuck. Our mutual friend—and a previous interview subject, Chris L. Terry—got us connected, and our mutual admiration society was born. Two things I can say about Mr. Stuck: His Instagram is well worth the follow, and his collection of stories, Give My Love to the Savages, is a book earning much deserved hype and evidence that there is much mixed writing getting loosed upon the world.

Chris Stuck

What is the mix of your parentage? When were they married? Where did they live? Are they still together?

My mother’s black, from Northern Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C., and my father’s white, from Washington state, just north of Seattle. After his Army discharge from Vietnam, my father went east to get a good old government job at the FCC in the early seventies. I guess everyone was doing that back then, taking the civil service exam, gunning for a good retirement plan. My mother worked there, too. They got married in 1974. I was born a year later. Except for a few years in Washington state in the mid-eighties, I grew up in Northern Virginia around my mother’s side of the family. My pops was always the only white guy at the family functions, still is for the most part. I have three older black brothers from my mother’s first marriage. We all grew up together. My father was their second father so to speak. They’re all still back there. Funnily enough, around 2007 I moved west to Portland, Oregon.

I love to hear the folks are still together. When was the last time someone asked what are you? And what did you say?

At the Canadian border ten years ago, a hard-ass border patrol officer gave me a funny look and asked. Ironically, the guy was brown-skinned as well. While visiting Croatia, a hotel called me a taxi and the driver showed up and said, “Stuck? Zis is a German name.” I said, “Yeah, my dad’s has German heritage.” The driver, who turned out to be cool, correctly assumed my mother is black. For whatever reason, he told me Melania Trump jokes all the way to the airport.

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

In Tokyo, Japan, of all places, a North African kebab vendor kept calling me “monsieur.” He asked if I was Algerian. Maybe he was homesick. While visiting Argentina, my Spanish was so bad someone thought I was Brazilian. Here in Portland, a woman for some reason thought I was Brazilian, too. I don’t know why. Like, why Brazilian and not something else? I’ve gotten Asian and Italian and Hispanic, too. Black people look at me, know what I am, and give me dap. White folks look at me and just wonder, especially with the last name Stuck. At one point, I thought I could be a spy. I can’t pass necessarily, but I can blend in like a mofo.

I really fit in in Paris, so I understand your kebab vendor’s confusion. 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?

In junior high and high school, I felt pretty tragic, but that was just because certain girls didn’t like me. As far as being the doomed tragic mulatto who’s never fit in, I’ve felt it and I haven’t at the same time. I came up in the eighties. If you were any part black, some white kids lumped you in with all black people. We were all niggers to them. Conversely, if you were any part black, black folks were like, You’re one of us. At some point, I realized social awkwardness and feeling weird was just normal. Of course, my particular racial in-betweenness defined some of that awkwardness. I was lucky to have older black brothers and to grow up with my mother’s family. I had a path to follow. I knew other mixed kids who didn’t have that or were shunned by one or both sides and had to figure it out for themselves.

What do you call yourself?

I’m so old that I’m from the “mixed” era. The term biracial didn’t even exist. However, even “mixed” was more colloquial back in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. On those school census forms we used to have to fill out, I always filled in “Black.” Filling in “Other” seemed weird. Even my white father said, “Son, you’re black.” So, it’s complicated. I’m black and mixed. I’m white and black and mixed. I identify as black, though. Complications are good. I play around with that with my Twitter and Instagram account names (@super_biracial and @super_biracial_man). I love all my mixed and biracial people out there, but sometimes they get real serious about it. On the other hand, a biracial friend who identifies as black saw my social media names and disapproved. We’re black, he said. I had to tell him to chill. It’s just a joke.

I love your social media presence, as this question demonstrates. How and when did you develop your singular vintage NBA and ABA sartorial style?

My older brothers. They’re much older than me. My oldest brother is a mechanic and couldn’t care less about sports. But my other brothers were star athletes and were seventies kids. So, they idolized Julius Erving and George Gervin and Nate Archibald. As a result, so did I. Jordan’s cool, but Dr. J is the original Jordan, my original idol. Also, hip hop fashion, especially from the late eighties to the early aughts, was very NBA-driven. Starter jackets, fitted hats, jerseys and warm ups were always made in bright colors. It was “fly.” Not to mention the ABA represented rebellion compared to the stiff NBA in the early seventies. The ABA team names were better, too. I’m older. I like retro stuff and rebellion.

What was the first book you read in which you saw a character like yourself? Or movie or TV show? Did that change you? Set you on a writerly path?

I saw myself more in TV and movies first. Good Times, What’s Happening!! and Diff’rent Strokes, stuff like that. Then there were all the hip hop and breakdancing movies like Wild Style and Beat Street and Breakin’. I was drawn to black and brown characters. My parents were avid readers and my mother had all of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. In my late teens, I started reading them and James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and a lot of white writers like Raymond Carver and Charles Baxter and Tobias Wolff, too. But it wasn’t really contemporary enough to me. I think Junot Diaz was probably the first writer of color that turned a switch in my mind. His work was so current and not stiff. The strength of his voice and his narrative moves definitely made me pay attention. 

Who are some writers of color and biracial writers that you were moved to emulate?

There are so many, but James Alan McPherson and Ishmael Reed. I feel like I’m trying to blend their styles, the realism of James Alan McPherson, whose work is so cool and controlled yet different, and the unbridled absurdism and comedy of Ishmael Reed’s satire. I always dug how they went against the grain in their own ways but were saying something, too. Of course, there are newer writers like Victor Lavalle, Mat Johnson, ZZ Packer, Danzy Senna, Percival Everett, Colson Whitehead, and Paul Beatty. Another writer by the name of Tom Williams is dope, too! 

He needs to get busy and write more is what I hear! But tell me more about your literary journey? How did you get to this place, on the precipice of a large commercial press releasing your debut collection of stories? I’m looking for successes and travails, near misses and unexpected triumphs, foes and mentors along the way.

Well, I went to an MFA program right out of undergrad. I was lucky to get a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center right after that, but then reality set in and my successes dried up. I worked jobs, lived life, but was always trying to write. Two bad novels came and went. A bunch of unfinished short stories. Minor and fruitless brushes with agents and editors did, too. With every setback, I just regrouped and went harder. I boned up on my writing and editing skills and learned to analyze my work and writing process. I studied and studied and eventually my stories started to click. As far as foes, I applied for a writing fellowship here in Oregon probably five or six years ago and didn’t get one and was super pissed. It turned out one of the judges awarded a fellowship to someone they went to school with. That lit a fire under me. I was invited to read at the fellowship’s writers of color reading. I was bent on revenge. I got up there and read, thinking, I’ll show these fools. It’d been a long time since I’d read in front of people and they laughed and giggled at all the right parts. I knew then that I could do this. Not long after I sent my collection out and things started to happen.

I want to know: when do you know you have a character who is biracial versus a character who is African-American? What informs that choice?

The conflict and complications of the story inform it. In the first story in the collection, “Every Time They Call You Nigger” I wanted to write about my own experience growing up. I was called that word a lot back then. I changed things in the story to keep it interesting for me really, It’s the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written. In the title story “Give My Love to the Savages,” I just thought it was more complicated for the character to be biracial in the middle of the LA uprising. If it fits, I use it. It’s almost like a character name. I go by feel most of the time. If it feels right and makes sense, it’s a go. But sometimes, I use black characters when I want to say something about blackness or black folks without getting into the complications of being biracial.

Let’s talk about titles. You’ve got the full array: one word titles, comprehensive titles, ones that appear within the story but initially stand out more obscurely. How do you arrive at your titles in the composition of the stories?

Again, it’s all done by feel. The title presents itself while I’m writing. I’m always looking for a central metaphor and narrative drive for each story. Sometimes, I’m just playing around and a character says something and it snowballs into a metaphor that I can riff on. “Cowboys” and “This Isn’t Music” happened that way. “The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq” is me paying homage to Cecil Brown’s novel The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. For my story “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” that was just the file name more or less. It may have been “Every Time I’ve Been Called Nigger,” just as a placeholder. Eventually, I realized it was a good title, one that would catch people’s attention, and I tweaked it. But titles are important to me. They’re essentially the first line of the story. They have to have a certain ring. For whatever reason, I don’t have to try hard to find them.

Second person point of view shows up twice in this collection. What is your motivation behind the selection? I’m interested in how you view the function or purpose of second and how that then aligns with writing about central characters of color.

I sound like a broken record, but again, it’s just feel. I tried to write both of those stories in the first person. They were really stiff, though. In the third person, they were even stiffer. I’d never written in the second person before those stories. Each time, as soon as I switched to “you,” the stories took off and I knocked out full drafts within days. Some people think the second person is hacky, and it can be. But it does open stories up in a different way. I think so many people used second person in the instructive “How to…” format after Lorrie Moore brilliantly did in her collection Self Help that it became a gimmick. For me, I just like how it puts the reader in the character’s body in a different way than first or third person does. You can tackle certain subjects like racism in a direct but off kilter way that would just be stiff and too on the nose in first or third. I’ve actually written a new story in second person, but I think I’m going to retire from that point of view now.

The first story in the collection set things up very significantly. What’s behind taking instead of one initial moment of identification and summarizing a host of them?

Finding the scope and narrative drive of a story is always the key to keeping a story moving for me. With that story, the first half is all true. I barely changed names. So, I was just writing each time I’d been called nigger, from the first time, in kindergarten, on up through college. By the time, I got to my post-college years, I realized the scope of the story was my life up to the time of me writing the story. I was forty-two or three when I wrote it. Once I realized that, I started riffing and getting creative. Everything in that story has happened to me or other black dudes I know so I just used those stories to make a bigger story. Some people get it. Others are disappointed it doesn’t function like a typical short story. But I kind of like that they don’t like it. It’s like NBA traditionalist Red Auerbach not liking the ABA because it introduced the three-point shot and the slam dunk contest. 

I’m also very curious about the length and depth of these stories: in most not only is there a clear plot development there is typically a significant and unfinished level of backstory. In this day of flashes and micros, have you encountered any difficulty in placing these stories? And why do you think at this stage you gravitate toward that kind of formal structure?

Most definitely. Word count was something I had to really consider when I sent these stories to journals. At one point, I was writing long, muscular ten-thousand-word stories. When I edited them down, they were around seven thousand words. A lot of journals don’t publish above five or six thousand words, but I found enough that do. I grew up reading a lot of my dad’s Elmore Leonard, Fredrick Forsyth, and John LeCarre novels so I like plot and stories that move. But I also like contemplative “literary” stuff, too. I feel like I’m combining things in my work. I’m influenced by white lit writers and black and brown lit writers and even someone like Donald Goines. With my new work, I’m trying to pare down the backstory even more and the stories are getting a little shorter, more concentrated, I think.

There also seems to be a tension between the absurdist and the real in these stories. To what do you attribute that? Are you one like Chester Himes who suggested absurdity is the reality of the life of the person of color?

I love Himes! And the absurdity of being a person of color on Planet Earth is partly there. I think I just like funny shit and bright and colorful characters and stories. Literary stories and novels can be so subdued and kind of boring, at least to me. Maybe it’s because I used to be a super weed and shroomhead. I don’t really like things that are too perpendicular. I like the unexpected, skewed angle, weird stuff. I love Ishmael Reed because of that, but his work, and even Paul Beatty’s, is really off the wall. I love reading it, but I can’t go as far as they do in my own writing. I think that’s where someone like James Alan McPherson comes in, or James Baldwin. They balance out the influence of Reed and Beatty. I can combine them and come out with my own thing, something that can do both.

Most these stories concern fairly cosmopolitan characters. To what end do you find yourself selecting those characters and their concerns?

My parents were successful. I was lucky to be around some pretty successful people of color. And my partner and I love to travel and see new things. But don’t get me wrong, I still got plenty of ghetto in my family, too. I have family members who’ve seen jail and pen time. I understand all the sides. But I want to see more successful black folks in books. For whatever reason, the publishing industry has a predilection for black trauma stories, black folks being held down by a system of oppression. It seems like those are the only stories that get out there. We’re not all from the ghetto or the inner city or the poor south or gang-infested west. Those realities exist, of course, but I just want to balance the representation, complicate it.

When you depart from that, with such stories as, “This Isn’t Music,” or “And Then we were the Norrises,” what’s your aim?

Again, just balance. In both of those stories, the characters were successful or were near it, but it was taken away and now they’re forced to be “regular” and “average.” I grew up in the suburbs, and there wasn’t a lot of aspiration there. Everyone was taught to be “regular,” to fit in. Most of the people I went to school with were going to end up doing what their parents did. As I got older and somehow found myself around the privileged, especially in the writing world, I saw that they were pushed to be extraordinary. They had opportunity handed to them. I went to public school, a public university. I’ve spent most of my life trying to educate myself and shed being “regular.”

I’m especially intrigued by “This Isn’t Music,” because it’s in part a story about an interracial marriage that is not going well. What do you do when your sensibility all good biracial children have—to show only the virtues of marriages like their parents’—runs into your sense of what works in story?

Haha. I just have to complicate things and go against the expected. It’s by feel, but it’s strategic, too. My parents have been together for almost fifty years. Relationships are complicated and nuanced and weird. Us humans make them that way. On the other hand, I’m aware, as a member of a large black family, the need for “black love,” too. So, it’s always a balancing act for me as far as representation and expectations go. My partner is white. But in “Every Time They Call You Nigger” I wanted to go a different route and have the character based on me to purposely date black women as a reaction to the racism he’s faced from white people. I never went that far. I dated all kinds of women and was lucky any woman was interested in me. With “This Isn’t Music,” his white wife is a contrast and complication to his black high school girlfriend who he’s having an affair with. The wife being white complicates his feelings about race and being the only black guy in most places and being in “white spaces” where the only romantic choices for people of color are white people. 

“The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq”—and I’m so glad it’s a nod to Cecil Brown– brings in the use of a semi doppelgänger. I probably seized on this because of my fondness for that trope. But what I loved is that your character who has vitiligo keeps running into another character with the same malady. I sensed in your story that your character, a black political operative for the GOP, is used to being the only one and doesn’t want to share the stage? What’s your aim to bring these two characters together? The way you do in this amazingly complex and yet very comic story?

Duality and doppelgängers have always intrigued me, go figure. Black conservatives have as well. As an ideology, black conservatism has always seemed so backward to me. As far as I can tell, black conservatives like being the only black person in those spaces. Meanwhile, everyone else is looking at them like they’re tokens. That psychology is fascinating to me. Black conservatism can come from the military and the black church, which I understand, but black Republicanism goes to some weird white worshiping tokenism place. Sell-out Land. I wanted to explore that in a character. I’d never seen it done. With any character, though, I know their wants, and I try to put obstacles in front of them, things that push them to reconsider how they feel. Melvin wears makeup to cover up his splotchy skin, to appear black, like nothing has happened. The other guy, Ronald, his semi doppelgänger, has accepted it and walks around with his skin bare, his malady on display. 

The final story, the title story, is not only the strongest of the book, it’s one of the best I’ve read by anyone in years. First, how were you able to get such a sense of the LA Uprising?

I did a lot of research. I know a couple people who were there when the uprising started. So, they gave some details that I wouldn’t have ever known. The rest of it was from the internet and Google images and tons of Youtube videos from back then. It took me years to write that story, so many drafts, and I had to be strategically vague in some ways and inventive in others. I knew that since the uprising was so long ago, I could make things up. But I did have to map out the father and son’s driving routes around LA to make it plausible. It was hard. 

I asked you earlier about when you select a black character over biracial character: here you have a biracial character on the ground of the Uprising with his white father. What potential and opportunity did you see with the pairing and the historical setting?

Well, a friend of mine told me her cousin flew into LA as the Uprising were starting. Her cousin’s dad had a used car business and they had to go protect it. My friend who told me this story is white. As soon as she told the story, I knew I was going to write it, and I instantly knew the son would be biracial. Him being white wouldn’t have complicated the story as much and may have come across as white-centered, white people caught up in scary “black stuff.” But him being biracial with a racist white father would only complicate it even more, especially with the root of the Uprising being racism. The son has baggage and he feels in between as far as race and class go. It got my creative juices flowing.

You layer the present tense plot with the central character’s own need for redemption, which is pretty damned thorny: did it ever seem like the backstory’s revelations might not match the terror of LA in that moment?

It was tricky. There’s a lot to get right in the story and some much that could go wrong. That’s why it took so long to finally land where it did. I went through so many drafts and scenarios and characters. It was hard to keep the story moving. I painted myself into a few corners and those drafts died on the vine. That story was so bad for so long. But then I thought of the Rodney King beating and thought I could mirror it in the son’s background. Every few years for a while, I’d hear about some rich kids beating up some unhoused person or an immigrant just because they could. It complicates the biracial son’s backstory, explores race and class, and heightens his need for redemption.  

Endings: you not only nail them all you don’t have just one or two ways out. When do you know you have an ending and how do you arrive at it?

It’s different every time. With some stories, I know the ending by the time I finally reach the middle of the story and kind of know what I’m doing, what I’ve set up. If I’m lucky, even the language of the last line comes to me. It takes a lot of daydreaming, though. Other times, it’s a big struggle, mostly because I’m fighting myself. I’ll think it needs some poetic ending when really the story can end with a simple one-liner or an image, not some long drawn-out paragraph of a sentence. Poetic, flowery language isn’t what I do. If I catch myself doing it, I know I’m going in the wrong direction. I love stories that exit their narratives in unique ways. Doing the same thing over and over is boring so I worry over first lines and last lines and doing something new. It’s not enough to just finish the story. I want it to be unique and, if I’m lucky, have some kind of power.

What are you working on now?

I have a novel done. It’s about an interracial couple, a black man and white woman, living here in Portland. It’s sort of an updating of social novels, “condition of England” novels, kind of like Howard’s End. It’s about race and class, conservatism and liberalism, hipsterism and weed. I have another collection that’s almost done that builds on Give My Love to the Savages, except more satirical and absurd. And I’m messing around with what I hope will be a short, tight Patricia Highsmith kind of novel but of course black.

Tom Williams has published three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start me Talkin’, and Among the Wild Mulattos. He lives in Arkansas with his wife and two wild mixed kids.

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