in partnership
(Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Talking to Angela Flournoy, author of 'The Turner House'

This past May, our book of the month was 'The Turner House' by Angela Flournoy. And we weren't the only ones! Flournoy's book was the Seattle Public Library's 'Seattle Reads' pick, so literally everywhere we went we saw 'The Turner House' in hands across the city. Flournoy herself stopped by the Emerald City on her book tour, and we had a chance to pick her brain on the book that's being called "a powerful, timely debut" that " marks a major new contribution to the story of the American family."

Seattle Refined: Your book is set in Detroit. Why did you pick that city?
Angela Flournoy: My father is from Detroit, and it’s a place I visited throughout my childhood and in my adult life, only about once or twice a year. It was a city I had really fond memories of - I always associated it with warmth and good food. The older I got, the more I realized the rest of the country did not have those associations with Detroit. They had a lot more kind of dire and depressing associations with the city, and I was bothered by that. Coupled with that, in 2009 I moved to Iowa City for graduate school, it was the closest I had lived driving wise to Detroit. So, I would go more often and visit family members and on one visit, it was the first time no one was living in the house my father grew up in on the east side of the city. And I just really started to think about sort of the legacy of that house, which had always been the center of family gatherings and all of the work my grandparents had undertaken to keep that house but that the neighborhood had just sort of deteriorated around them bothered me. So, really the book in my mind could have never existed in another city. Detroit was a place where I thought was the only place in the country a house like that could exist. It’s beautiful, but it’s worthless. Now that I’ve traveled around other parts of the country, there are a few other cities where I can see something like that happening, but at the time, personally thinking about the city I knew, and wanting to give a more nuance picture of that city, it had to be Detroit.

The Turner House itself is a character in this book. Was that intentional?
I wanted the house to be really something that was in the back of everyone’s mind. For certain, really pages and pages of the book, you don’t see all of the characters at the same time, but the way you feel that they’re interacting, or I hoped, that they’re all concerned about similar things. They’re concerned about their relationships with their other siblings, which are always changing, or they hoped to change. And, their relationship to this house, and their history to this house, their memories with this house. And so, kind of structurally, the way I felt about a way to make everyone feel like they’re together, even though for most the book they’re not together, that make the house center in their minds.

This is a family story in the end. Was that your intention all along?
Yes. One of the first things I decided, the first character that I ever kind of knew was Lelah, the 13th Turner child. I pictured her as someone who would want to live in a house like that on the east side, a house no one really wanted to live in. So then, kind of the decisions that had to be made - why does she want to live in the house? And who does she not want to know that she’s living there? And as soon as I asked that question, I knew the answer. I came from a big family and I think there are specific ways I move through the world because of the way I grew up. I come from a really big family and I grew up around a lot of them. And I had never really read anything in a contemporary setting that explored what it’s like to say, go to a high school and you’re related to six other people at that high school and to have friends and know you don’t really need to have friends, you’ll be ok, you’ll have things to do on the weekend, even if you have no friends outside of your family. And so I wanted to explore that through fiction. So it also seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore some of the ways I had grown up.

The house, like mother Viola, are going away soon - they're dying.
And that’s something - another way I envisioned the book was about transitions from the bigger families that were not uncommon in the first half of the 20th century. Saying you came from a family of 8 or 10 was not unusual back then, now you might get a television show if you have more than 8 or 9 children. But back then that wasn’t so unusual. So transitioning from a large family and now that we have sort of smaller families, and also transitioning. Having an elder or matriarch who people think will never die or never really is sort of the center point of the stability of the family, having that person age or become clear that that person will die. And another one of those transitions with the house, which unfortunately was probably the most controllable, not particularly for the family but for the larger reasons for which that house ended up in that condition was something I didn’t really think I was going to explore in the book, but the more I researched particularly the history of the housing segregation in Detroit, the more I realize that I had to if I wanted to tell a story about a family in a house because it wasn’t by accident their neighborhood ended up in the state it was in.

Do you have favorite characters?
It changes. I think the character I probably identify with the most is a character who is not a main character, but Francie - the second born child who is a little bit more sarcastic, but also a little bit more into what I like to call juices and berries. She drinks a lot of green juice, she believes in these homeopathic remedies for things, but she also a person who has boundaries with what she will do for her family and what she will do to make sure she’s taking care of herself so she’s not stretching herself thin. And maybe that’s who I aspire to be, I don’t know. She’s the person I had a lot of fun with, I immediately knew who she was. Other characters, I have to admit they’re hard work. I don’t really think of any of them as any of my favorites because I think of all the small ways I had to make them particular. And I am just reminded of work.

How did Francis and Viola hold this crew together? And themselves together? We have a husband and wife who stayed together until he died through 13 kids and so much? How did they do that?
That’s a really good question. That’s something that I think I really tried to explore in the sections of the book that are in the 1940s. I thought it was really important to show just all of the uncertainty and all of the vulnerability that both of them felt. I think there’s a way that a lot of us, especially, I’m very suspicious of nostalgia. People in the 40s were making decisions, serious adult decisions a lot younger than we do today. I still don’t make decisions that Viola and Francis made at 18 and 20–years-old. And we kind of take for granted that everyone was tougher back then. But no, it’s just they had to. But that doesn’t mean psychologically they didn’t go through some of the same doubt and missteps and wanting to give up. So I really tried in the early sections that are set in the 40s how close they were to all of it not ever happening they were. Because it’s important to understand that it wasn’t a steady path.

Cha-Cha, the oldest son, has seen a ghost all his life. He calls it a haint. What’s a haint?
A haint is a ghost. It’s the word I grew up hearing in regard to ghosts. They were stories usually told by older people in my family. These stories were usually set in the south. So a haint is a ghost - there’s a lot of different folklore about it. Some people believe it’s kind of a trickster spirit, but other people believe it’s a spirit that wants some retribution, and others believe it’s just a person who can’t talk but looks like a person but is dead or not real. I really wanted to explore all sides of that, the folklore. So at different times, the ghost feels different to him. And I also wanted to make it dislocated. I always heard these stories in the south, so I purposefully didn’t want the stories to be there. I wanted them to be in the north and I wanted the characters to not really know how to contend with their sort of contemporary, pragmatic northern existence with this thing that he can’t deny he’s seen. But he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do now. I want to apply science and reason to this and get rid of it. And that ends up being his struggle in the book.

Who is Cha-Cha’s haint?
Who do you think? I don’t know, I’m really interested. I don’t have an answer. The haint is a sort of, I’m just really resistant to the idea there are practical or satisfying answers to supernatural occurrences. I think it’s a thing, especially in literary fiction, that readers expect because writers often give it to them. There’s usually a literary Scooby Doo moment where the mask is pulled off and it’s an angry millionaire underneath there, it’s not actually a ghost. I think older stories I grew up hearing, it’s not that easy. There’s not one thing you can do and it disappears. So, I wanted to leave it in the realm of a few answers, but not one answer. A few possibilities, not one answer.

Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. What do you mean by that?
I think, especially in this country, there’s a particular weight we give to home ownership. Shelter in general is of course important for everybody. But I think particularly here, our identities are in a lot of ways wrapped up, at a certain point of our lives, they become wrapped up in what do we own and where is our place of refuge. And that is understandable. Especially when there seems there’s a lot of uncertain things in your life. But it also becomes this sort of bigger than what it should be which is just shelter and stability. It becomes part of your identity. It’s the reason why so many people, especially touring with this book, have sort of confided in me is the reason they stopped talking to a sibling is because a parent died and there was a dispute over the house, or there was a dispute about a summer home that everybody had these fond memories of when they were younger, and then someone wanted to sell it, etc. I think in a lot of ways, we project so much of our own memories or resentment or happiness or whatever onto these buildings that may not deliver on all of these things we hope they can deliver.

When you looked at this family, how did you think they’d resolve their issue over the house?
I had no idea. I’ll be honest about that. One of the things when I first started writing the book, again, I didn’t know the particulars of why even in my own family the house was in limbo. I really started to research what one can do when they’re underwater with a loan in a city like Detroit, what is a feasible solution. And this was in 2008, which is the present in the book. But I started writing in 2010. This might have changed a little bit, but back then there was no easy solution. Because even demolishing the house is expensive. Just paying someone to knock the thing down and just mowing the lawn until you can figure out what to do next is expensive. So, there really was no easy way to figure out what the characters should do. No one would really want to buy the house. And then there’s the emotional part, perhaps someone will want to buy your house and all the houses on your block and do whatever they want to do, but how will you feel about that? This will basically be the end of your neighborhood and the end of your memories there. And I really wanted, more than providing one sort of easy ending, I wanted to have different characters explore all of those. And different characters do. To be honest, one of the easiest endings I did think about but I just couldn’t bring myself to do, was just burn the thing down, have it go accidentally up in flames. But it felt like killing a character. And so, I couldn’t bear to do it.

In the end, the children have to face the loss of both (house and parents). You explore how they deal with it and some of them change.
Yeah, I’ve talked about all the things I didn’t want to resolve in the book, but one of the things that I did want to resolve is that certain characters have to come to a place of acceptance. Both the loss of the house and also more importantly, the loss of their mother. And certain characters surprise themselves. Like Lelah, she sort of just realizes it. And she says it, she’s going to die, even before she’s kind of accepted it. And that is something that I thought was really important and one of the ways the book could have closure is that transition is one that happens every day and is one that people have to come to grips with and I thought some characters could move toward that.

Did you intend readers to be left with what will happen with the house and Viola?
Absolutely. I did want to push readers into sort of accepting that Viola is going to die soon. But as far as the house, that was something that also was so much of this book as I’ve sort of said is it was a process of discovery on my part. I had a question, and the question is how does this house end up in this situation. So I could actually go back a hundred years prior to really understand, particularly for the city of Detroit, how a house in this neighborhood ends up in this situation. Once I figured that out, I realized there are tens of thousands of houses like this all over Detroit. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of families that are dealing with similar situations as the Turners. And, I would say out of those, most people what they have decided is one of the most heartbreaking things and that is just to walk away. But once you explore how you get there, you understand it isn’t an easy decision at all. So that’s really what I wanted to leave the reader with was what would you do versus what would they do. Push it back on the reader, what would you do in this situation, because it’s not an easy one.

Big family party at end of book. You said “Ain’t no party like a Turner house party.” What makes it that way?
I’m really interested in particular family traditions and cultures, because I came from a big family on father’s side and my mother’s side, but also two sort of adopted families. Since I was very young, I went to a lot of different family parties and just knew immediately if someone said we’re going to this house, I’d be like oh, ok, we’re going to be able to this depending on the age, we’re going to be able to play, we’re not going to be able to play any music, etc. You know exactly what the family party culture is. And so, I really wanted to combine all of them into this huge family-friendly party at the end of the book. To have all of the characters you haven’t seen in the same room, some you’ve only heard about on the phone, have them all get their moment on the page. It’s sort of boisterous and overflowing and people have to keep going to get more booze or more food, and it’s one of these things that only can happen once or twice a year because it requires so much. And those are some of the fondest memories I have growing up, even though every single one was different. I think it’s something a lot of people take for granted and when they think back to their own family and traditions or just the way they celebrate, it’s something I’d hoped they’d be able to identify one of the things that happen.

What did you think Viola told them when she got up to speak?
That’s a good question. The scene is complicated by the fact she’s on these painkillers. And so she has these moments of lucidity that are cushioned by these moments where she’s not as lucid and she’s aware of it. She’s trying to grab this moment to speak. It’s interesting as a person who’s obsessed with language, sometimes ending a scene before a character says something is more powerful than playing the scene all the way out. In that instance, I really wanted to end before diminishing all the thoughts she had before getting up to speak, which were the thoughts about not necessarily always loving everyone equally, and trying as hard as she could and knowing you need her to say something. I imagine, kind of the last sentence, she did say something about love and about pride, crack a joke. I don’t know. Yesterday, in my tour of Seattle, I went to a senior center and a woman named Rosalie was telling me a story about her childhood in New Orleans. And in the story there were a couple of anecdotes, but they all were really vibrant. She even remembered the color of her mother’s dress and stuff like that. A lot of people don’t necessarily have patience to listen to elderly go very specific into anecdotes, but I really love it. So, I hope Viola would have included a very specific story or anecdote also.

Why is this a good book for people in this city to read?
That’s a good question. I think particularly, we’re living in a time of sort of like big city change. We’re living in a time also and very politically at this moment of all of us contending with various forms of migration in the country and immigration from other countries, and how will we contend with these changes. One of the things the book does, or I wanted to explore in the book, especially in the sections in the 40s, were what are the experiences of a new migrant into a place, and how migration change family trajectory and history, and what sort of responsibility does a city have in those outcomes. So, one thing I think, especially in a city like Seattle where you are certainly experiencing a lot of change in terms of the landscape of the city and who lives where, those are questions people should be asking each other. Like how are we accommodating newcomers, how are we accommodating change in neighborhoods, how are we still valuing traditions in neighborhoods? And that is something that is not particular to one demographic. Yesterday, I spent some time in the Central District which is traditionally African American, but is clearly experiencing change, but it’s not just one demographic. It’s all over. And that is something, I don’t want to botch the statistics, but I remember reading on the UNESCA website, there are more people living in cities all over the world now than ever before. And that’s only projected to increase over the next 30 years. And so, what does it mean to live here? What does home mean? And how does that change as more and more people want to live in spaces like this.