Victoria Bond and T.R.
(Tanya) Simon, who met 10 years ago in publishing, come across much as narrator
Carrie Brown and young Zora Neale Hurston do in the authors' debut novel--best
friends who complement each other. Watching their easy, teasing rapport, we had
the feeling that their own friendship might serve as the model for the one at
the core of Zora and Me.
What aspects of Zora
Neale Hurston's childhood give structure to your novel?
T.R. Simon: The Loving
Pine was the real pine from her childhood. Her siblings are her real siblings.
The sorts of things she does are the things that she did. We changed it, but we
always took the spirit from Zora herself.
Victoria Bond: I
always tried to conform to Zora's vision of herself as a girl. I never wanted
to stray from that.
TRS: The limits
on Zora were the limits on our character. And again, we were really mindful of
who Zora became as an adult.
VB: It's an
origin story. These are three prequels to the life of Zora.
swamplands are so integral to the story, too.
TRS: I was
obsessed that they live in this unviolated, natural context that's also home to
the razorback pig, providing them with wonder. My father's from the South, so
the land was a big thing with him. He grew up a sharecropper, and he always
said that one of the saddest things for him in the Great Migration was that
along the way we began to lose our connection with the land. Despite the
history of slavery, the connection to the land is very meaningful to black
life. The rhythms of the natural world, the way animals are born and die, the
way the crops are sown and harvested--it was so important to me as a child.
The narrative voice
is very polished, while the dialogue celebrates the poetry of spoken language. How
did you decide to differentiate between the two?
VB: I think we
always want the best of both worlds in a way. You want the loveliness and the
flavor of speech as it's spoken. At the same time, the construction of the
narrator, especially in considering the two books to come, is really important.
The construction allows you to emphasize that this is a loss of innocence
story, and to reflect on how people would relate to each other, and especially
the way the kids would speak to each other. I think Zora was a master of it in
her work, and also in her life, in her ability to speak many languages and
dialects. She said something about when she first started collecting folklore
for Mules and Men, she spoke like a
graduate of Barnard, and that didn't facilitate the way she gathered the
folklore. When she went back to the language of her childhood, she was able to
gather them more easily. What language, what mode of expression is more real?
They're all equally real, they just have different purposes.
How did you come up
with the mystery at the center?
VB: That was your
[Tanya's] nugget. It's a passing story; it's a mystery. Zora thinks it's the
gator, but it's this larger, more complicated race story.
TRS: There was a
headless body by the tracks in Zora's autobiography.
There's the mystery,
but then there's also the question of how Zora, Carrie and Teddy process the
facts that they are uncovering.
TRS: My daughter
is four, and I constantly watch her negotiate overstimulation with the absorption
of material, and how theory connects with reality. It's an ongoing process for
all of us. For those of us who continue to try to make theory lived experience,
we gain wisdom. That's what they're gaining, the three children; they are wiser
at the end of the story than they were at the beginning.
VB: One thing
that's prevalent in all passing stories that I've read is all of the people who
pass are materialists. They want those gloves, they want to get in that
theater. They want to have this access that is to them the glory. But as James
Weldon Johnson says at the end of The Autobiography
of an Ex Colored Man, "I gave up my birthright for a bowl of porridge."
TRS: Was it worth
your very soul, the deed to your being? No.
And yet unlike Gold,
young Zora always seems to know who she is.
VB: So many
things about Zora stay with me. But one of them is that your sense of self is a
constant, it's not a variable. The more I read Zora, the more that has been my
outstanding feeling about her, and I think what she's impressed upon my spirit:
Don't be moved by these winds.
TRS: Zora is
something else that's very rare today, which is a true Artist with a capital A.
She never compromises herself. The viciousness of racism is still putting
limits on what she can achieve, but she doesn't waiver in her beliefs. Her art
is not for sale.
Then there's that
defining moment at the dinner table, when Zora stands up to her father.
VB: That's part
of the world not being perfect. For as loving as Mrs. Hurston is, Mr. Hurston
is that foil. It's necessary to have an idea of the kiln, the fire that she was
burnished in. Her father did not care for her.
TRS: And her
sense that I may be the greater intellectual of all these children, and when
will that be recognized? I think that so many women were in exactly that
situation--Jane Austen, the Brontes.
VB: Yes, the
Bronte sisters dealing with their gambler psycho brother. I'm sorry, I roll my
eyes at people who've been dead for 200 years.
TRS: I think we're
not done fighting these battles.
It says a lot about
Joe Clarke and Mr. Ambrose that they trust each other to bring about justice in
their own communities.
VB: We tend to
think of history as black and white, and it's mostly gray. That's the thrust of
Zora's literary production and why it's so valuable to us today. She saw people
not as black or white, but as a group of individuals that were the product of a
time and place. Black people and white people liked each other and lived side
TRS: That was
very important to me. The adults are flawed, but they're not dysfunctional.
They don't see what's going on entirely. The child's universe absolutely
exists, and it has sight that the adult universe can't have, has stopped being
willing to have, so hence the magical element. But at the end of the day, when
confronted with the truth, the adult worlds--black and white--act with a sense
of communal moral justice.