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Esi Edugyan: The Powells.com Interview

Esi EdugyanEsi Edugyan's debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was widely praised, if a little under the radar. Now with her new book, this bright young author is garnering more attention and lauds from the critics. Half-Blood Blues won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize and the Canada Council for the Arts Governor General's Literary Award, among others. The Independent UK raved, "[T]ruly extraordinary in its evocation of time and place, its shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang. Edugyan never stumbles with her storytelling, not over one sentence."

Sid Griffiths was the bass player in the Hot Time Swingers, a multiracial jazz band in Berlin and Paris between the world wars. Their star trumpet player, Hieronymous Falk, a biracial German, is arrested in a Paris cafe and never seen again. Alternating between the past and the present, Half-Blood Blues tells their stories in an extraordinary voice that employs actual and invented slang of the time period. The novel is an exploration — of friendship, love, and war — that is utterly page-turning and heartbreakingly original.

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Jill Owens: How did the story of Half-Blood Blues come to you? It's such a perfectly formed story, with so many epic elements — love, war, history, music.

Esi Edugyan: I'd say it was piecemeal. It didn't come fully formed. It was a process of, I think, five or six drafts. But for the inception, basically the idea came to me when I was living overseas. I was in Germany for a little over a year, and I started doing some research on the history of black people in Germany. I came across the story of the children of German mothers and the colonial soldiers who were posted in the Rhineland. I found that very fascinating. I was also obsessed for a long time with the whole Weimar era and how romantic and edgy and interesting that time was, including in terms of the music — modernist music, as well as jazz. So, I thought that would be a very interesting time to write about.

Then I started to wonder and extrapolate and think about what had happened to a lot of these musicians after the Third Reich was ushered in, because I didn't really know anything about that. It was a great chance to research all of that stuff that I'm curious about, and the story unfolded from there.

Jill: That's interesting that you say you lived in Germany. I was going to ask if you had, because the sections about Berlin, particularly where Sid is musing about how much it's changed, are quite poignant. How much research did you have to do for the novel in general?

Edugyan: I had to do quite a bit of research, since it was a period piece, in terms of getting, obviously, the historical details right. Berlin is such a different city now than it was earlier, and Paris, as well. There was a lot of research poured into these details, these very specific, very particular details of the period. But it was important for me to visit these cities now, just to get a feel for how they are. Obviously they've changed enormously, but to some extent they still are as they were. So, definitely, visiting the cities and reading about the cities was integral to my research. For Baltimore, as well. Although that's a tiny part in the book, I also had lived there for a brief time.

Jill: Do you play music? Do you have any musical training?

Edugyan: As a kid I played piano, but I was really, really bad at it and didn't have the discipline to learn how to read sheet music properly. I was just playing by ear and trying to fool my teacher, and I wasn't great at it. Then I took classical guitar when I was a little bit older, when I was 16 or so. I didn't have the discipline for that, either. Then a few years ago I took up the cello, because I loved the way it sounds, and that was also kind of a disaster. [Laughter] I'm not a musician at all, but I feel like I'm a real appreciator of other people's musical talent.

Jill: The way you write about it is very moving. Why did you decide to include Louis Armstrong as a character in the novel?

Edugyan: I think for me he's so much at the heart of this music. He's the living legend in this art form. He's just enormous. Also, since he's very much of that period it seemed to make sense that he would be this gigantic, huge thing for Sid and for Chip especially. He's this enormous monument, and what would that mean if you were cut out of a recording, or denied a chance to play with this person who had such a huge role in your development and your love of your art form? So, it made sense to have him in there, and just in general to establish a verisimilitude by having real-life figures be interacting with fictional characters, just to ground the story much more.

Jill: Sid's voice feels so convincing; it's colloquial and extremely poetic at the same time. How did you think about that language and that voice?

Edugyan: Again, it was something that emerged through several drafts. It was a process of feeling my way through. The first draft or two were written in a much more straightforward, first-person voice. Then I gave it to my husband who's also a fantastic writer and a great reader for my work, and he said it was really conventional and a great story, but it could be much more compelling. In a way, it was totally boring. [Laughter] If I could tell it in a more compelling way, that would be great. Then I went away and thought about that. I also had this feeling like I was writing the book for myself, first and foremost, to have fun. So, I thought, well, why not just push this voice, try and make it as authentic and as flavorful and as fun as possible and not worry about whether people find it irritating or not, as long as I'm enjoying it.I thought, well, why not just push this voice, try and make it as authentic and as flavorful and as fun as possible and not worry about whether people find it irritating or not, as long as I'm enjoying it.

I was trying to replicate some of the slang from that era. There are a lot of great lexicons out there in terms of getting the language down. But a lot of the language is also invented, so I was also trying to come up with terms that sounded or approximated the sorts of slang that people would be using in that era but obviously are made up.

An example is a word like "boots," which is very much an extrapolation. I thought, what would they call Nazis? Just because it's so specific to that time and era, it was kind of trying to have language to describe precisely what comes out of their milieu. So, I used "boots" for Nazis, and there are some other things that are escaping me now, of course.

But words like "janes" for women and "gates" for musicians were part of a language that's very much from the period.

Jill: You had mentioned earlier that you were looking into the children of the colonial soldiers and the German mothers, which I'd never heard anything about. How many people like Hiero were there at that time who were considered stateless, that were in that position?

Edugyan: It's impossible to say, because there were so many files that got destroyed and then there were also so many different ways to classify people. So, the numbers, at least in the research that I found, were all over the place. I think somebody tried to come up with a definite number of... It was something like 2,000. But even that, that's something where I wouldn't take that number as fact. I would definitely say that it was a small segment of the population. At some point there was discussion about putting a program in place to sterilize them. There was so much attention paid to this very small segment of the population. It's just awful, actually.

Jill: There's also a scene towards the end, where Hiero takes Sid to the Hamburg Zoo and there are actually people in the zoo, Africans and Eskimos and Native Americans, which was just a shocking image. How long did that go on?

Edugyan: That went on for several decades. As it's written in the book, I had, in terms of the timelines, extended it into the future by a few years. So, there weren't actually people in the zoo at that particular time, but I believe it went on until as late as 1915. It was quite late. And if you think about this continuing into the 20th century, and in France as well, there being these kind of exhibitions, it's really quite unbelievable.

Jill: Something that I really enjoyed in Half-Blood Blues were the friendships and the shifting, uneasy alliances and the warmth and frustration. How did you think about the friendship between Sid and Chip in particular, which was central to the book?

Edugyan: It is central to the book. It's central to Sid coming to feel any sort of redemption at the end. It was interesting to me to examine a relationship throughout the years, to see how we get their first meeting when they're boys and we're seeing them right up until they're in their early to mid-80s. So, it was really, really fun and also very interesting to be able to write about these people and watch their friendship change over the course of the years. We see how it changed and also see how it stayed the same — how they were fundamentally the same people with the same way of interacting after all these years.

Jill: How did you think about switching back and forth between the past and the present in terms of Sid's voice?

Edugyan: There's definitely a shift in Sid's voice. I tried to make this as subtle as possible, but also a difference that you would just instinctively feel when you're reading it, even in something as simple as a change in the syntax of the way he's speaking. But also the tone of things is more elegiac. He's much less irascible and a little bit less judgmental and more accepting of things, in terms of what his morality has been for his whole life and how can he justify the things that he's done. There's a feeling that there's this deep moral wound at his core that needs to be addressed.

When I was writing it, obviously in the older voice, he takes a lot in stride. He laughs at himself. And he doesn't laugh at himself at times, which is also kind of funny, and interesting. But, yes, there is sort of a sense of elegy, a feeling of something undone as you're nearing these late years in life. I just tried to make that mood slightly more pervasive in the later story, the 1992 story.

Jill: There's also a lot of fear in the book. Sid says one point: "I ain't never thought fear has a taste. It does. In that small darkness it was a thing filling my nostrils, thick as sand in my throat, and I near choked on it."

Edugyan: Somebody who had read the book asked me the other day, "There's that whole period that they were in the club as they were hiding out. They were playing cards, and they were doing this and that. Did you get stuck? Was that deliberate?" And I said, "I'm sorry you felt that I maybe got stuck, but it was absolutely deliberate." Because I think that in very difficult times, people are still taking things one day at a time. You're still trying to live your life and get through things. But I think that underneath everything, there is this vein of fear, or this feeling of anxiety and dread. This is central to the way people lived their lives back thenI think that underneath everything, there is this vein of fear, or this feeling of anxiety and dread. This is central to the way people lived their lives back then in that kind of period. There is this great fear, and it's powerful, and you just don't know how you would behave with that always as an undercurrent, going on in your days.
When you look at something like Sid and his actions — for me, I can look at it and think it's unforgivable, but I also can say to myself, "Well, I don't know how I would behave in that kind of a situation, where there's just so much fear."

Jill: I love that Hiero was reading Herodotus, which added a sort of mythological filter to some of his observations. Have you read him?

Edugyan: Only in snippets. My husband, though, he is a great reader of classical texts, and he read the whole thing and adored it.

Jill: Another part that I thought was well done was when Sid is thinking about the unfairness of genius, that you can work incredibly hard and still not have the raw talent that someone like Hiero does, and what that does to Sid psychologically.

Edugyan: I would say that it does seem like genius, and especially prodigy, it does seem like it's very unquantifiable. As I learned when I went to try and play music several times, this is something where the natural aptitude isn't there even if I would have worked crazily hard. If I took up the trumpet or something, I could probably play for 50 years and not be a quarter as good as somebody like Bill Coleman or obviously Armstrong, etc. It's this strange thing where we just have to have an aptitude to do something or it's just so difficult. I was reading the Wynton Marsalis book on jazz, Moving to Higher Ground, and he has this line in the book where he says, "If you've got talent, then that's great. You can work on that. But if you don't, then it's just going to be excruciating when it comes to playing."

And you think, why are some people born with this kind of aptitude, and why are others not? It's such an overwhelming difference. Some people would argue that as long as you put in the hours, you could get to an amazing level of playing. But, to me, it's just hard to quantify and it's really mysterious, and all of these things are embodied in the character of Hieronymus.

Jill: How did writing this novel compare to writing your first novel?

Edugyan: I think with your first book, you're filled with all of this hope. You want to throw everything you know into the book. It's a very different feeling writing a first book. Everything is completely new. You feel like there's so much possibility.

I don't mean to sound jaded, but when it's been seven years since that book, the first book, to publishing this new one, I think a lot of outside stuff can get to you. It became quite a bit harder to produce this book with feeling any kind of elation. But then I found the joy with each draft. The next draft, I would just get more and more excited about the book until that final draft, where I was just thrilled. But it was really a different process psychologically.

I think when you're new and untested, you're writing in a different spirit. With this book, it was much more considered, and from the first draft, initially, I would have to be honest and say with a little bit less joy.

But during the second draft I would say that I got excited about the prospect of going back into the book and tweaking the voice and making it something that pleased me. I was thinking, if nobody else reads it but me, at least I'll be enjoying this. So, it was trying to recapture some of that feeling that you have when you write a first book.

I would say both were very difficult. But the first book always seems, even though you're full of joy, a little bit more difficult. You have a little bit more experience with the second one and you know where you're going a little bit better.

Jill: I interviewed Stephen Dau recently, and he said that the first drafts are for the writer, and then the later drafts are more for the reader.

Edugyan: Yes, that's an interesting way to put it. I would say that's true.

Jill: Who do you think of as some of your influences?

Edugyan: Well, for a while I was reading 19th-century novelists, from the golden age of the novel. I'd read Tolstoy over and over, or George Eliot. I'm not the biggest Dickens fan. Maybe I shouldn't say that out loud.

Jill: No, I'm not really either, but I think maybe if I go back to him, I'll find something I overlooked.

Edugyan: Yes, that's exactly it. I think he's someone I will always return to, because I know that there's something there, and I know it's my failing. But, yes, I was reading lots of these sorts of novels. I love, love, love Middlemarch. And I love everything that Tolstoy did, at least before he turned into a prophet and went insane. Those were huge for me.

In terms of contemporary novelists, especially when I was younger, I'm a huge Toni Morrison fan. I loved what she could do with language. I'm a huge fan of V. S. Naipaul, his whole postcolonial perspective. But he really captured that feeling of being from many places, having different identities. And of course a lot of his prose is so exquisite. I think he's tremendous. Cormac McCarthy, I quite like. I'm trying to think of who else. Whenever somebody asks me this question, of course all the names go flying out of my head.

I spoke to Esi Edugyan by phone on February 29, 2012.

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