In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan talk to acclaimed novelist Jess Walter and award-winning essayist Jerald Walker. First, Walter unravels the literary elements of the Trump administration and discusses how his newest book, The Cold Millions, a historical novel touching on unions and feminism at the turn of the century, has many parallels to today’s politics. Then, Walker talks about centering Black courage vs. white cruelty, both in literature and this election, and how he works to find common ground in his writing, including his newest collection of essays, How to Make a Slave, which is a finalist for the National Book Award.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel and Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel. This episode was produced by Andrea Tudhope.
Part One With Jess Walter
V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s a treat to have you back. In December of 2017 [when you were last on our show] we asked you about the literary elements of the Trump administration. Astonishingly, we discovered there are literary elements, and we’ve stuck to that for a few years. And you admitted that the Trump administration had certain narrative elements that were familiar from literature—betrayal, father-son rivalry, and you said, “What it doesn’t seem to have is that other hallmark of literature: thematic depth or intelligence.” Are you sticking with that for the literary quality of the post-Trump era?
Jess Walter: I kind of feel like Nate Silver having to go out and explain myself. I have no predictive powers clearly. I think it’s fascinating and it’s really interesting to watch, but if I was reading this novel, I would want more depth. It’s like King Lear. I’m really interested to see what the Trump children do now and how they divide up his brokeass empire—who’s going to take what debt, who’s going to serve various times in prison. I do think that there are literary elements. When you surround yourself with sycophants and criminals and the like, it becomes an Elmore Leonard story, and so it lacks that interiority. I don’t really need to know what Michael Cohen was thinking. I actually wrote a very short story from his point of view, and it was a really shallow pool to wade around in.
Whitney Terrell: We’re recording on Saturday, November 14, so there’s the “million MAGA march.” It’s not a terrible crowd, but definitely not a million people. If he had just acknowledged that he lost the election, this would be a totally normal thing—your supporters come and say, “Thanks, you did a good job, we still like you, we’re moving on.” But instead, because the president can’t admit that he lost, it has this sinister quality to it.
JW: Yeah. It’s hard to imagine a character like this in repose. What happens to a Trumpian revolution? I think of Jack Cade in Henry IV, Part 2—these things tend to burn out like a quick flame, and what’s left are the true believers. For me, the most disappointing thing about the Trump years always was realizing that the asshole ceiling in America is as high as 40 percent. I knew that 20 percent of people I had no business thinking of as similar to me, but to imagine that Trump could pull 71 million votes is so discouraging. And his coalition is built of rich people who don’t want to pay taxes, and people for whom racism is acceptable. And then people voting all sorts of conservative issues. I still think those people are going to fall away, and I think he’s going to be a much more marginalized figure. But I also believe—I said something about the rats scurrying away from the ship, and they are scurrying so slowly. They’re going back to the lido deck and playing shuffleboard. His people really seem on board, and it’s as distressing to me as it was in 2016.
VVG: [We last spoke] right after Michael Flynn had gotten indicted, and we were talking in the terms of mob bosses, and how eventually, when the guys start getting in trouble at the top, everyone flips and then that’s the end of it. But the structure for Trump—the leadership in the Republican party don’t want to say he lost the election, even though it’s clear that he did. You said as soon as it’s in their self-interest to oppose this guy or walk away from him they will. It just seems like we haven’t reached that point yet. People are debating, why did Trump fire all these people in the Defense Department over the last week? I think it’s because he still wants to show that he can hurt you if you oppose him. He’s trying to continue to force people to think it’s in their self interest not to get in this guy’s way. He won’t have that power for very much longer.
JW: No, but I don’t think you can separate his power from the power he has over those 71 million voters. And that’s the reason the rats aren’t scurrying. Mitch McConnell doesn’t fear being fired by Donald Trump. Rat isn’t right. He has the survival power of the cockroach; he will be there as long as the building stands. What they do fear are those voters and his power over them. And I do think that’s where he’s going to be marginalized. But in the next two years, I still think you’re going to have to go visit Trump if you’re Republican and win him over and visit him on his gold toilet and get his blessing. And I think that further fractures the Republican Party. I think the right—that’s a mercurial person to have as your party leader in exile, and I don’t think it bodes well for them in the long run. How long the long run is, I don’t know. And in the meantime, yeah, they’re very fearful, and especially with the Senate, coming down to two seats in Georgia, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. If the Democrats win and we have a split Senate, Vice President Harris is the deciding vote. And so until the Georgia election, you probably won’t see Republican senators and representatives backing away. But I do think in the long run, the GOP will pay for hitching their wagon to Trump.
VVG: I hope so. One of the reasons I think that they’re not backing off, too, is while they’re waiting, they’re not passing COVID relief. “Asshole Ceiling” and “Brokeass Empire” are definitely reality series that are going to be picked up by Bravo in a second. He’s the rat captain or something. But there’s so many connections between your book also in the way that things are going now. It was interesting to read and think about all of the ways that these cycles just repeat. To what limits will our leaders go? How many of our lives will they spend? We seem to be so expendable still, like they haven’t learned, which is just so depressing.
JW: Or they have. I think so much of this is about the pace of change, and the sort of waves and currents that come over. It’s one of the things that caused me to write The Cold Millions in the first place—trying to figure out how to write about income inequality back in 2014, 2015, 2016, and do it in a way that didn’t feel didactic, that didn’t feel preachy, but that felt alive in some other way. And that kind of connected with this idea to write about this period in my hometown that I’d always been fascinated by. This border between the Old West, the frontier, and a more modern world. I do think these things come up again. One of the most disappointing things for me was to see Trump as a figure of populism and class division, because he’s not the person I think of when I think of populism and class, and the fact that it was portrayed that way has been a huge disappointment.
* Part Two With Jerald Walker
Whitney Terrell: There’s a crucial theme that replays over and over again in this collection. You write, “Black literature is often approached as records of oppression … but my students don’t focus on white cruelty but rather its flip side: Black courage.” Since this is our post-election episode, I wonder if you could talk to us about the role Black courage played in the campaign, and how well do you think Democrats and Republicans do when they talk about that issue?
Jerald Walker: Well, Black courage was evident everywhere, especially this year. If you think about it, the pandemic is taking the lives of African Americans at a rate probably five times that of white Americans and maybe higher than any other ethnic group. And then you’ve got these militias, otherwise known as terrorist groups, threatening to roam around polling sites; you’ve got the long lines that sometimes last six to eight hours, and you have all of this stuff that are a threat to African Americans physical well-being, if not their psychological well-being. All of that is placed in front of our desire to exercise our basic American right, which is to vote. And yet, we waited in those lines, and we prepared to be confronted by terrorists. We wore our masks, and we did everything necessary in order to live up to the responsibility of our ancestors, and that is to confront these dragons and do our duty.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Speaking of the ways that Democrats and Republicans talk about Black citizens, I’ve been thinking a lot about Trump’s habit of characterizing Democratic-led cities with large Black populations, like your hometown of Chicago, as violent wastelands. But that’s not how James Alan McPherson advises you to see what you call the “ghetto” in that original essay. And it’s not how you see it in the later essay, “Once More to the Ghetto.” So how has the way that you write and think about Chicago changed over the years?
JW: Well, to start with Trump—Trump, being the type of politician that he is, was calling on these stereotypes of Blacks being these violent criminals, drug-abusing, alcohol-using people to play on the fears of whites. And when I started out writing, I was doing the same thing, but I wasn’t being nefarious like Trump was. I really thought that it was my responsibility as a Black artist to bring attention to some of these difficulties. And it is true that that’s a valuable motive for a Black writer. But what McPherson taught me is that the role of the artist is not to simply protest, but to try to find a level beyond the protest, where the universality of the human condition is the main topic of your conversation. That I’m trying to not simply identify myself as being separate from you because of these challenges and oppressions; I’m trying to show that on the other side of that, we have way more in common than we don’t. And it took me three years of study with [McPherson]—followed by a lot of reading that he gave me, people like Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, who really talked about the importance of moving beyond the self identity—to try to see what common ground there is among all of humanity.
WT: The phrase that I associate with that from Ellison is “transcendence,” or trying to transcend.
JW: And there’s another one—“antagonistic cooperation.” Albert Murray, in particular, loved that phrase, and what he meant by it was that rather than complain about the presence of these obstacles, you can use these obstacles as an opportunity to fulfill your heroic callings. One thing that Albert Murray would talk about is a bullfighter and how, rather than a Matador complaining about the existence of a bull, that without the bulls the Matadors cannot perfect their craft. And so McPherson made it clear to me, along with Ellison and Murray and others, don’t spend your time complaining about these obstacles; focus more on the ability to confront them, to battle them, often to defeat them—but even if you don’t defeat them, to at least engage in the battle, that that is the tradition of African Americans. And that is how we have survived and even thrived over the course of 400 years.
WT: Donald Trump keeps talking about how he is the best ever president for African Americans with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. It’s one of the most insane things that I’ve ever seen a person say in public. This is a man who, a few years ago, implied that he thought Frederick Douglass was still alive. I think a lot about how one writes in response to this kind of self-aggrandizement and just comic insanity, but also not comic insanity. It’s hard to make it interesting in some ways, but it’s extremely urgent. How do you write now in this particular era?
JW: See, I don’t find Trump interesting as a subject at all. I don’t write about him; I haven’t written about him. You won’t see his name in my book. I think there are more important ways to get at important concepts and ideas and philosophy without talking about Trump. And a lot of people are talking about Trump, so I don’t talk about Trump very much. I write personal essays with the primary goal of revealing something about my character, my values, my personality, and that’s my primary concern. Because I think that by focusing on those three, then other people can see themselves in my work.
WT: Well, sorry, because we’re going to make you talk about him now for a little while.
JW: But I can curse him, so if you want me to say some bad things about him, no problem.
VVG: We should run that as a contest on our show. Just every guest, come up with the most inventive creative writing curse for Trump. That’s an anthology waiting to happen right there.
In your essay, “Unprepared,” you say of the serial killer Wayne Williams, “My belief that Blacks could be only so bad was equivalent to the view, promulgated since slavery, that we could be only so good; to hold one of these views necessitates the holding of the other. And both views, albeit used for different purposes, place false restrictions on our humanity.” Maybe this is a leap, and we are here to do such leaps—is there a way to connect this sentiment to Black Trump supporters like Ben Carson, Kanye West, Diamond and Silk, Dennis Rodman, and Herschel Walker? What does that phenomenon mean?
JW: You picked some good ones, didn’t you? That’s the A-list of Trump supporters. There’s a long tradition in the African American community of producing traitors to the race. And sometimes these people who are traitors do so in the name of some serious psychological dysfunction, like Wayne Williams, and sometimes they do it for personal gain and personal advancement, like the list you mentioned. So I’m not surprised to see these people. They’ve always been around the Black community, they always are self serving. And they always put themselves before the group.
Jerald Walker How to Make a Slave and Other Essays · The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult · Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption · Once More to the Ghetto and Other Essays · “Dragon Slayers”
Others King Lear by William Shakespeare · Elmore Leonard · Henry IV, Part II by William Shakespeare · “Did the pandemic sink Trump’s chances? Not as much as his opponents expected,” by Alex Roarty, McClatchy · “’You are no longer my mother’: A divided America will struggle to heal after Trump era,” by Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Michael Martina, Reuters · Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson · Albert Murray · Stanley Crouch · “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” by Ralph Ellison · Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope.