Q and A with Shawn Shiflett, HEY LIBERAL!
1. Tell us a little about your new novel:
Thirteen-year-old Simon Fleming, the white son of a Civil Rights activist minister, is sent to a predominately African American high school in 1968 feeling charged by his parents to carry out the family’s commitment to the “community” and school integration. Here, he is dropped into a world where gang warfare, drug abuse, and violence are rampant. Simon’s journey for survival brings him into conflict with a Cobra Stone gangbanger, takes him through a failed student boycott organized by community leaders, and also through numerous race riots.
Along the way, he meets friends and mentors: Clyde, a former gangbanger turned black political militant; Louis, a brilliant, self-destructive boy; Juan, who perilously chooses to belong to a white gang, Corps, instead of the more powerful Latin Kings; Clark, an intimidating racist police officer who vies for Simon’s allegiance in return for protection at school; and John, a communist biology teacher who educates Simon as much about politics as about science. Throughout the story, Simon’s love for Dia goes from an awkward crush to maturity. Hey, Liberal! exposes an out-of-touch education system and the universality of racial violence amidst a nation moving, inch by hard-fought inch, toward a more culturally diverse and inclusive future.
2. Hey Liberal! is a book that you worked for many years - how did you begin?
I was an eighteen or nineteen years-old creative writing student at Columbia College Chicago. I was behind in my assignments for the semester and desperate to find new material to write about, so I thought why not write about my experiences during high school? I think I turned in twenty or thirty pages of typed writing, all very rough draft. Within those pages was what would eventually become the chapter “Drivers’ Education” and a few other story moments that survived to the final manuscript years later. Anyway, after “Drivers’ Education was read out loud to the class, the teacher, John Schultz, asked everyone, “So who wrote that?” First, students guessed all of the black men present. Then they guessed all of the black women, and finally (I still don’t fully understand why) they guessed all of the white women.
There was a long silence before someone said, “But there’s no one else here.” It was like I was invisible—a very satisfying and empowering moment for me—and from then on I was pretty much hooked on the story, though it would take many years to actually figure out how to tell it from beginning to end, and from multiple points-of-view as well. In truth, about three novels went into the final book, a process that left thousands of pages deleted, and for good reason. What was also happening during this long period of time is that I was slowly getting the emotional distance I needed to see the story’s full potential. Once that clicked, the novel came together relatively quickly.
3. Your novel is set during a turbulent era in American history - Vietnam, civil rights, the Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinations - how much do you remember about that time and how much research did you need to do?
I remember the era very well, but I still had to research exact times and dates of events, as well as some aspects of setting so that the novel would ring true. For example, I had to make sure I had the correct time-line for events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, when Fred Hampton was murdered by Chicago police, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, when man landed on the moon, etc. I also needed to research the types of billboard advertisements along the Kennedy expressway, and whether or not the John Hancock building was built yet.
I needed to know whether or not tollbooths had swing bars that prevented drivers from driving off without paying a toll in 1969. (The answer is No, they didn’t.) If one were to fire a 357 magnum at a target within very close range, what kind of damage would the bullet do? Where could a minor even hope to buy such a gun in 1969? The list of things I had to research goes on and on.
4. When you and I did an event together the other day, fellow novelist Eric May asked a question related to permission, as in did you feel, as a white writer, you needed it to write about race--what are you thoughts on this?
I have been blessed by a family and a community of writers who gave me nothing but support and permission while I was writing Hey, Liberal!. If I’ve felt censorship at all, it came from literary agents and several editors who insinuated, or even told me in no uncertain terms, that my story would be perceived as racist by blacks. Without exception, the people telling me this were always white. In reality, much of the novel’s strong early support came from black authors such as David Bradley, Charles Johnson, Chicago Sun-Times journalist Mary Mitchell, as well as the author you just mentioned in your question, Eric May. In general, I think that if Americans did a little less assuming they know what other folks think, we’d all be a lot better off. I always felt that I had a powerful story to tell, and that there was a diverse audience itching for a chance to read it.
5. Who are some writers and/or musicians and filmmakers who inspire you?
Early on, I’d have to say Richard Wright was one of my favorite authors, as was George Orwell. Also, Alex Hayley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X had a profound effect on me. Then came books like Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men, which is also around the time I discovered Russian authors. I spent one summer with my nose all but glued to the pages of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Lately, I’m enjoying rereading Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage. I guess I tend to lean toward African American writers, but as soon as I say that, I remember that Vladimir Nabokov’s King Queen Knave is always there on my bookshelf to school me again, should I decided to open its pages. And I can’t forget to mention Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, or Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. That last one is a real doozy and should not be read by the faint of heart.
My musical tastes are all over the place, though I will say upfront that I think Beethoven, The Beatles, and rhythm and blues are all badass. Though I try to keep sentimentality out of my prose, I indulge in it as much as I please in my musical tastes. Melancholy music takes me into myself, and that makes me happy. I know . . . weird, but there you have it.
Citizen Kane is still my favorite film, as I will forever regret that I wasn’t there to save Rosebud from the incinerator. I lean toward movies that are coming-of-age stories. Please don’t tell anyone, but Billy Elliot made me cry as it was about a son and a father who had but only one thing in common: their love for each other. When I’m writing a scene, I often visualize how it will play on a movie screen. It’s a way to remind myself that if I fail to keep my story dramatic, the audience will get up in mass and leave the theater.
6. What are you working on now?
I’m not quite there yet with wanting to share the subject of my next book, but I’m leaning toward a work of creative nonfiction.