‘Is that real?’: an interview with Justin Sanders

Dora Malech
August 29, 2016
Comments 2

ntbgf_HdA few weeks back, I wrote about the work of emerging writer Justin Sanders. Here, Sanders takes some time to answer questions about truth and fiction, higher education, influence, and Baltimore. I’ve included excerpts from his first collection of stories, for all the other ghosts, throughout the interview.

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You call your first collection of stories, for all the other ghosts, “true fiction.” In hearing you participate in a recent Q&A, it struck me how intensely focused your audience became on “what really happened.” Can you talk about why that designation is important to you, and what you think your work achieves by blurring the lines between memoir and speculative fiction?

I just think it’s an accurate description, honestly. I think it probably describes near every story ever told—some parts are true and some parts aren’t. Because I am working with the stories of real people, real events, real pain and suffering, it feels honoring to state upfront the true/false duality. Whenever I read, I almost always get asked, “Did that really happen, is that real?” From my writer’s perspective I think that’s what a good ghost story is supposed to do, make the reader go, “Wait, did that really happen tho?” so I take that as doing my job well. Hopefully what my work accomplishes in doing that is just having people question more. Question everything, but in particular, question the stories we hear and pass on. We tend to think of mythology as tales and stories from antiquity, but we create mythology every day, and the stories we create have a very formative impact on our culture and personal lives. To that end, a lot of my work focuses on the more insidious shit that happens when we stop questioning those myths and stories, how the story can become so wildly disconnected from the truth behind it that it’s entirely fictional and what then happens when we take that complete fiction and build cultural and societal foundations upon it. Like, that’s how we get rape victims recorded as willing seducers and Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson held up as heroes; that’s a digression, though.

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Predators aren’t concerned with the noises prey make. They never think about the ghosts they’re making.

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If I’m correct, for all the other ghosts came out of your time in the University of Baltimore’s MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program. Can you describe your journey to and through that program?

I came to UB as an undergrad before it was a four-year school, and that’s how I learned about their MFA program. I love the professors I worked with, I love the colleagues and friends and family I connected with there. I have a lot of concerns and reservations about the value of MFAs as a whole, and there’s a whole conversation to be had about MFA programs producing MFA-style writing—which is to say homogeneous writing. But I do recommend UB’s program, not for any brochure reason or anything. I think UB’s MFA program really understands the future of publishing. The era of major publishers picking up writers and offering them these fantastic contracts with marketing resources and whatever, that era is dying if not already dead. What agents and publishers are looking for is a proven ability to write and sell, and increasingly that means self-publishing. They want to see if you can build a brand and market yourself, because even if you do get offered some fabulous book deal with built-in tours and advertising, you still end up doing all the brand building work anyway.

Picture two writers showing up to interview with an agent, and one has their manuscript and nothing else, and the other has their manuscript and also a book they wrote and published on their own and they can say, “I sold x many copies and grew my social media presence by x many people and I have the skills and knowledge to handle all the steps of making a book on my own.” That’s a real world perspective. Like, yes you have all these wonderful workshops and craft bettering experiences, but over the course of UB’s program, the real meat is that you write, edit, design, and publish. You graduate with a fancy degree, and also you come out as a ready-to-go, marketable author with a product ready for sale. I honestly think that’s more important than the craft portion. Craft can be learned and improved, in all honesty—and I say this as someone who teaches creative writing—with nothing more than a library card or internet connection. Being a better writer is simple: not easy—simple. Read more and from as diverse a pool of material as possible, then write more—make it a professional habit, do it every day. Guaranteed you will be a better writer.

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I didn’t know what to say to that so I just shrugged and shook the Krylon can and knelt down and tagged her name on the curb. A firefly flew up from the storm drain across the street.

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Much of your book seems to be set in Baltimore—one recognizes Pratt Street, Leakin Park, Hampden, and so on. Can you talk about the significance of place in your work?

I took a lot of lessons from Faulkner and Stephen King early on, and they both taught me that place is character. All characters are influenced by the place they live, and in writing, that place has to be concrete and real. That extends out to me as well; I’m a Baltimore writer. Bmore made me who I am, shaped my perspectives, colored my language. I love my city and I’m gonna rep my city till the day I d-i-e feel me? So it’s just natural that it shows up in my writing. I think having a strong connection to place, wherever it may be, creates passion and authenticity in writing. My city is part of my narrative/authorial voice. I write differently from a cat from the Bay Area, even if that dude has extremely similar experiences to me, I’m gonna talk about it differently ’cause I’m gonna talk about it as a nigga from Baltimore.

A lot of the real experiences in my book happened on Baltimore streets, and it’s, to me, honoring to place that accurately. With the fictional stories, it doesn’t even cross my mind to set them any place other than Baltimore and Black Baltimore mainly. It would feel phony to me to set a story in like, Williamsburg, New York or Small All White Town, Anywhere America. I don’t have any connection to those places. And just real talk, I’m fuckin really fuckin tired of reading stories set in generic fuckin mayo&wonderbread places. Like don’t hand me no shit set in a fuckin coffee shop, I’m not the audience for that kinda writing. I make a conscious effort to try and place my characters and stories in areas that I don’t think see a lot of true and accurate representation in fiction. I’m tired of seeing people set stories in black ghettos as a gimmick. I’m tired of outsider representations.

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When I first heard her story I thought, shit happens. Because it does, because the thing about Lion and her scars and her story is that around here, that’s nothing new . . . For every story like Lion’s I can offer you twenty more. This is Baltimore, there are ghosts on every corner.

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On the second to last page of your book, you write, “So here’s a story: One morning in Black Baltimore we walk outside and see fire in the distance. Not everyone on the street can see it. And those of us who do describe it differently.” I think of James Baldwin asking in The Fire Next Time, “do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” While the fire in your final piece resists direct symbolic interpretation or connection with Baldwin’s “burning house,” your stories repeatedly return to race-based and gender-based violence. Your art is intimately linked to personal tragedy, racism, and misogyny. Who are your influences or touchstone writers and pieces of writing in exploring systemic issues through the lens of personal art? I think of Baldwin, but I also think even more strongly of connections with Toni Morrison (in a work like Beloved), Octavia Butler (in terms of speculative fiction and social justice), Gabriel García Márquez (in terms of magic realism), and Claudia Rankine (in terms of lyrical explorations of contemporary issues). How do these (or other writers—please correct me if I’m off base!) shape your work?

There are probably a hundred names and works that I could put here. I’ll try to keep this succinct. The number one greatest influence for me in terms of processing systemic issues through personal art is Ralph Ellison and his works Invisible Man and “A Party Down at The Square.” I learned from both of those works how to write about and describe horrific experiences and have those experiences take center stage but not overshadow the larger narrative. Absolutely both the collected short stories of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, namely One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, News of a Kidnapping, and his short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” I’m a lover of magical realism, I think it’s a fantastic lens to view the world through, it gives me a way to re-contextualize issues for different audiences, and I’m always trying to turn that lens to reflect Black Baltimore. Zora Neale Hurston—it’s hard to describe how much I’ve taken from The Queen of the South. Mules and Men and Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Tell My Horse, and Seraph on the Suwanee are works I re-read over and over, and in total honesty, my shit is a fuckin hack ass version of work Zora started and, to this day, in my opinion, did better than anyone else. I take and play with a lot of philosophical ideas I got from The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And recently I’ve almost exclusively been reading works by Indian and Pakistani authors, namely Shashi Deshpande’s short stories, though I’ll specifically point out “A Wall is Safer” and “Anatomy of a Murder,” Kamala Markandaya’s A Handful of Rice, Omair Ahmed’s Jimmy the Terrorist—they all write gorgeous poetry-infused prose that deals with entrenched sexism and racism.

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Men are always the most afraid of women and blood. We know they’ve seen and will see more of it than we ever will and it reminds us of all the blood we haven’t shed, but are due to.

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I know you’re a founder of Sounding Sea and have been active in the “Baltimore literary scene” for a while. Can you describe your impressions of Baltimore as a literary city? Are there emerging or established writers we should be following out of Baltimore?

Baltimore has one of the greatest lit communities I’ve been lucky to be part of. It’s intimate and fierce, and there are amazing works and events that come out of that community. My greatest issue with Bmore’s lit scene is that it reflects Baltimore; it tends to be very segregated. It’s not uncommon to go to a reading and the lineup and audience are all white—in the heart of a predominantly Black city. There are some amazing readings and performances at The Reginald Lewis African American Museum, and at Morgan State, and at Coppin State. You can find these amazing boutique readings and performances off of Park Heights Ave, but those spaces are considered the Black spaces, so you really don’t see much integration. Hopkins kids seem to have a rule against going past Guilford Ave and below 25th Street. I’ve been a part of the lit community here for almost a decade now, and I can count on one hand the times University of Maryland’s creative writing students have showed up at anything.

That’s unfortunate, because there are absolutely amazing talented writers and performers like award-winning slam poet Slangston Hughes. Dave K is consistently in the running for Baltimore’s best writer, and justifiably so. That said, for my money, who’s hot and coming up is Jessica Welch, a local fiction writer who just released her first book, called Murmuration, and it is mind-blowing. Sharea Harris, poet and playwright. She just released a book of poems called Dictionary. Wallace Lane is an incredible poet who has done some extraordinary work during Baltimore’s Uprising; he’s got a book coming out May 2017, I think. I just recently heard and met Marie Mokuba, who at sixteen is a stronger poet than the majority of Baltimore poets out right now. Christopher Warman is a powerhouse writer, and his book The Universal Machine is transformative, I know that description gets tossed around a lot—I mean it sincerely, no bullshit. His work taught me a profound and haunting lesson. Victoria Adams Kennedy is fantastic and has a new book, Where Loves Goes. Michael Tager is fast becoming one of Bmore’s most prolific writers and his work is a joy to read. I’m not sure if Nikki Richard is staying in Baltimore but no matter, Nikki’s book Pretty Things is phenomenal storytelling.

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“Your father, he was killed in a drive-by you said?”
Rhose nods.

“Do you know what he was involved in?”

I don’t know if it’s the first time she’s encountered it, the immediate assumption that her murdered father couldn’t have just been a bystander caught in violence unconnected to him; the assumption that, of course, he had to have some involvement that in some way justified his death.

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Order Sanders’s book at bmoreghost.com and follow him on Twitter at @ghostmoan.

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Maybe he heard the first shots, or maybe he smelled it in the air—roses and tobacco and tequila—or maybe Lena’s eyes went white and the baby kicked and Jay followed her gaze and saw it coming. It doesn’t really matter in the end.

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2 thoughts on “‘Is that real?’: an interview with Justin Sanders

    • So glad you responded to the interview! I loved hearing Justin’s thoughts on place and process as well, and I’ll be following up on his reading recommendations too. Thanks for reading the blog.

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