Stephanie Powell Watts mesmerized readers with 2011’s We Are Taking Only What We Need, her award-winning debut collection of short stories. She continues her exploration into modern humanity with No One is Coming to Save Us. The novel, like her short story collection, is set in post-Jim Crow era North Carolina. Her characters’ desires purposefully echo the ones from F. Scott Fizgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. The parallels between the two works themes are obvious, but do not go into this thinking it is a retelling. Watts has crafted her own world that stands on rich characters and eloquent prose.
I talked to the author, who also teaches writing at Lehigh University, the day before her debut novel was published about throwing out the first draft, letting characters guide her writing, what influences her and more. The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
You have published short stories, and have gotten a lot of notice for those, but this is your first novel. What was it like transitioning to a project like this?
It was like anything where you don’t really know what you’re doing. It was a lot of trial and error. It was seven or eight years ago when I did the first draft of the novel and I felt it was very episodic like short stories. It was what I was used to writing; I understood the rhythm of the short story. It took me a long time for me to feel like this was hanging together like a novel instead of a bunch of stories that were loosely thrown together.
Your prose really stands out. How conscious are you of that your first time through as opposed to just getting the plot out?
I think that getting it out is very important. Just do that and figure it out later. I really am of the school of people who feel the plot has to grow out of the character. Sometimes it takes a long time just like figuring out a real person. You don’t know everything right away. You learn certain things, you hear how they speak, and you see what they do. Those things give you insight into what they want and what means they’ll go to to get it. It’s a process. Sometimes you’ll just get a character though and the plot comes quickly, but it’s not often that way.
Was The Great Gatsby always in your mind while writing No One Will Save Us Now?
It came a little bit later. When I started the book, the characters were much younger. It was set much closer to a tragedy in the family. I worked on that for a couple of years and I had a draft. It was okay, but I could never get a hold of it. It just didn’t seem right. I couldn’t capture the characters.
I knew the book was about a haunting. I knew the characters were walking around with ghosts. I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t quite that; maybe it was a return. I started thinking about what makes people return somewhere and what are the motivations. Love was the thing that brings people back. The characters were all looking for this person to return to.
Then I started thinking about Gatsby. It was “Oh, maybe that’s what I’m doing.”
A lot of the blurbs about the book liken your book to Gatsby and I was curious if that’s something you wanted or if it was just something that happened?
It was something I started thinking about with intention. It’s not a retelling and I don’t want people to think that it is because that could be disappointing. At the core, it’s about people longing for something and desperate to figure out how to get it. In some ways, Gatsby is such a book about fantasy and nostalgia. There is some fantasy elements with the Jay character that has a fantasy idea, but much more than that it’s about desire. That’s what I wanted to tap into.
You mentioned your characters changed from that first draft. The ones in this final version are so rich and fascinating. What character did you think of first and how did they all evolve to this last version?
The character I thought of first and that I really wanted to explore was Sylvia. She was younger in the first go around. She was in the neighborhood of fifty. She was the voice I wanted to hear. I wanted to explore what it meant for her to live in the South as someone who both lived in the Jim Crow South, but now show is living in a different time.
I wanted to explore that because I find it amazing. I think one of the things we’ve seen in this current political climate is that there are some people that were around during that time that really did change. They really had different feelings than they had a generation ago. For the most part there were rules and unwritten rules that were a part of everyday life.
But some people didn’t. It was where I wanted to see Sylvia.
That first draft was almost a decade ago. What made you first realize it wasn’t working?
I just felt that I didn’t fully understand the characters. I wasn’t sure what that was. It could be because that was around the time I was pregnant and having a child, but the first draft was so much about the loss of a child that it may have been that I couldn’t make that psychological leap. There was something that didn’t allow me to enter the characters, especially Sylvia. I felt like that draft was flat. It was okay. You can see where I was trying to go, but it was not successful.
Setting obviously plays a very important role in this story. Your short story collection also used North Carolina as a backdrop. Why keep going back to the state? Is there something more than the familiarity of it since you were born there?
It’s not the Deep South, so in some ways North Carolina is a little bit anomalous. In some ways there are different things that can play out. There is some familiarity though. I was also just so interested in this generational divide that played out in a place that wasn’t the Deep South and what that means.
I really think that familiarity makes this story seem so much more authentic. Do you ever think you’ll write about somewhere other than the state? Or is North Carolina your version of Stephen King’s Maine?
(laughs) I don’t know. The place where I live now [Bethlehem, Pennsylvania] has this industry that has died out. It’s a kind of foothills kind of town with a dead industry. Everyone is just trying to figure out what to do now. They’re all mourning the industry, not because it was a dream job, but because it was a job. It gave them access too other things. I’m really fascinated by this area, too.
My novel is so many post- things; it’s post-segregation, post-industrial, and I want to explore that. I’m really interested in contemporary life. I want to explore that. There are a couple of stories I have set in the area, but nothing longer than that. Yet, anyway.
You teach in Bethlehem at Lehigh University. What is a philosophy you keep in mind while teaching young people to write?
The first thing is that I really want to encourage writers to be a reader. I want to show the writer to some models, but also to provide them writers who are very different to just see different kinds of ways to approach something. The other thing that I feel is very important is to not hurt them. I don’t mean to not take them seriously because that is also an injury to young writers to not take them seriously. Give constructive criticism, but don’t hurt them to push them away from something that could become their life’s work. It doesn’t mean every always gets and A, but you should sit them down and see what they’re trying to do.
Who are some of those writers you feel young writers should read or model themselves after?
Modeling is an individual basis, but I think there are writers who are good for just anybody. Edward Jones is one of my favorite writers. I think he is just such a craftsperson. His prose is just beautiful. It’s also just doing so many things at once. On the first read, you’re rarely getting all of the nuances of what he’s doing. He’s also talking about ordinary people who might not necessarily be deemed that important – sometimes in their own stories – and he brings those people to the forefront. I always teach Edward Jones.
There are other people, too. I love Lorrie Moore. She’s super smart and funny. I think humor is very important in writing. Everyone needs that as a safety valve and to figure out how to do it to cope with life.
Your book thematically touches on the American Dream, but more specifically African-American’s views of it. What can people like me – a white male – learn from authors like you and books like this? Is that something you even think about while you’re writing?
No, not really. It’s not something I actively think about. Especially in the writing process. I really want this story to be about these people. I think that’s a huge political statement for someone to give you access to their lives – obviously, fictional – and to say present me with all of my flaws and show me as a human being, then other people can understand the humanity of that person. I think that’s a huge political act. I’m not saying I would never write about politics, but I don’t want to have an overly political agenda when I’m writing.
I think we have so much to learn from each other. I was with two friends who are both African-American women with Southern ties around my age. We were talking about our past and how we think about life and writing, and we were all so surprised how different we were. I think that’s amazing. I think whatever we think we know about someone is only a fraction of what we can know.
I think we have so much to learn from each other I and love that this part of the human narrative is out there. I think it makes us better to have access and read these kinds of stories.
Photo: Bob Watts