Charlotte. Greensboro. Winston-Salem. Raleigh. North Carolina is full of cities where gentrification has forced communities of color out of their neighbhorhoods and into less desirable zip codes. After two bestselling historical novels about Zelda Fitzgerald and Alva Vanderbilt, Therese Anne Fowler‘s new book, A Good Neighborhood, is set in the present day, where an affluent white family, the Whitmans, moves into a diverse neighborhood that’s immensely proud of its trees.
The Whitman family’s first move: tearing down the house — and the trees — on its new lot, which is potentially lethal to their neighbor Valerie’s cherished, ancient oak tree.
Fowler grew up in the Midwest, but moved to North Carolina in 1995 for BA in sociology and cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing from NC State University in Raleigh. I spoke with her via email about A Good Neighborhood, gentrification, and writing across differences like race.
You’ve said A Good Neighborhood is a response story. What specifically were you responding to when you started writing, and have your feelings toward it changed since?
The novel is a response to the way our country is backsliding in so many areas that I’d (foolishly) believed had been resolved by the civil rights and equal rights and environmental movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Specifically, I was — and am — distressed by the newly overt racism and sexism that’s being exhibited and encouraged at the highest levels of government. I’m disgusted by phony religiosity, and the winner-take-all mentality of so many people. I’m horrified by the rollback of environmental regulations. (You see I feel strongly about all of this!)
These are hard times for people who value progressive causes and social justice.
Were you nervous about writing a novel set in the present day again, after the success of your last two historical novels? If so, why?
Your question is a good one. Few of us who write fiction full time can afford to ignore the business side of the publishing equation. Just the same, in order for me to pursue an idea all the way through from inspiration to finished novel, I have to be completely overtaken by it. This time, that idea was one with a present-day setting.
I was not especially nervous about pursuing it. Readers who enjoyed my last two novels aren’t a monolithic group who read historical exclusively. And I was comfortable with the fact that while it was possible I’d be disappointing a few hardcore historical readers, I’d also be gaining new readers who prefer contemporary stories. In the end, what readers want most is a good story, so my focus was (and will always be) to do my best to deliver that, whatever the setting.
Why set A Good Neighborhood in North Carolina? Was Oak Knoll inspired by any real-life neighborhoods?
The story arose from my anxiety about the oak tree in my own backyard. Its health had been compromised by the construction of a new house next door. That, however, is where the similarities end. The house next to mine was a spec house, not a pre-sale (as it is in the book), and Oak Knoll is not my neighborhood or any specific one; rather, it’s a composite of many North Carolina communities that are undergoing the kinds of social, economic, and racial alterations that come with gentrification.
But, interestingly, as I’ve been talking with booksellers and librarians who read the novel ahead of publication, I’ve heard accounts of how the same changes are happening in California and Texas and New York and Ohio and Georgia and — well, basically, all over the country. As specific as the story in A Good Neighborhood is, much about it is universal, too.
What do you enjoy about being a novelist in North Carolina, so far from the traditional publishing and literary epicenters like New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, etc? And alternatively, do you find anything challenging about it?
I’m amused by this question, because before I was published, it never occurred to me that authors did or should live any place in particular. I had no idea there was a literary “scene,” and now that I do know there’s such a thing, I’m glad to not live where I might feel I should try to be a part of it. My background is all wrong; I’d never fit in.
If there’s any challenge to not being a part of it (and I say this for many authors I know, not only for myself), it’s in gaining recognition and legitimacy from those who are — because they control most of the levers of publicity and review coverage for fiction.
Writing across differences remains a hot topic in 2020 thanks to American Dirt. When writing the character of Valerie, what steps did you take to ensure the novel avoided some of the highly publicized perils of writing across differences?
It has become fraught territory, for sure. And not without cause. So I tried hard to follow the advice and was mindful of the complaints I’d heard or read from people of color regarding the mistakes white authors have made in the past.
That meant ensuring that Valerie (who is African American) and Xavier (who is biracial) both were in every way as authentic as my white characters, which meant doing extensive research into the reported experiences of Black people in contemporary America — direct accounts, not summaries from research articles, say.
Also, I wrote about my own culture, versus attempting to represent a culture I hadn’t experienced at length. Valerie is a college-educated middle-aged middle-class professor and mother from a Midwestern background living in a suburban North Carolina neighborhood, and I am (or have been) all of those things, too — which is to say that she and I have more in common than we have differences.
The novelist’s job is always to imagine and represent “the other,” no matter the sex or age or ethnicity or race or nationality of the character. The trick is to do so genuinely.
I ensured that I was not creating some kind of white savior storyline, which is so rightfully offensive. It is possible, I suppose, that someone might say that a white author writing about Black trauma in the hope of affecting change is itself a white savior act.
But I think that view would be misguided. As journalist Renee Graham (who is Black) wrote in the Boston Globe not long ago, “it’s not up to Black people to cure white racism.” White people have to do that. This means there is no way to cure it if those who are white don’t compel others who are white to engage with the issues.
Finally, to ensure that my story was, in fact, authentic in its representations, I gave the finished draft to a sensitivity reader, who judged it carefully and said it was done well.
Is it too early to ask what’s next for you?
I’m at work on a new novel — also contemporary, but that’s all I want to say about it for now.
A Good Neighborhood
By Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s Press
Published March 10, 2020