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Interview Thu Apr 18 2013

Author Chris L. Terry Discusses his Debut Young Adult Novel

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ChrisAuthorPhotoA.jpgIn the opening scene of local author Chris L. Terry's debut young adult novel, Zero Fade, 13-year-old Kevin Phifer gets a haircut from his mom. What he really wants is a stylish fade, but what he gets is more accurately described as "jacked up." Later in the book Kevin's role model uncle--who eventually comes out as gay--rescues Kevin from hair hell by taking him to the barber, where "grown men who are still cool" go.

It's a vital scene, Terry explains, because it captures Kevin's struggle to confront his limiting ideas about homosexuality, coolness and manliness, themes that attract Terry to writers in what he calls the "urban nerd" genre, like Junot Diaz.

"You think of this stereotypical urban man as being black or latino, this kind of hyper-masculine, over-sexualized person," Terry said. "And I feel like a lot of the best stuff in that style of writing subverts that. Or the character is struggling with these really rigid and restrictive ideas about masculinity."

Born to a black father and an Irish-American mother, Terry is no stranger to struggles around identity and society's preconceived notions. Much of his writing, including short stories and essays, surrounds growing up in a biracial household. But in Zero Fade, which Curbside Splendor will publish this September (though you can preorder through Amazon), Terry drops his own concerns for those of his adolescent narrator, a kid who "always wants to get things right."

Terry, a graduate of the MFA in creative writing program at Columbia College, was born in Newton, Mass. (home of the famous fig cookie), and teaches creative writing and playwriting to juvenile inmates with Storycatchers Theatre. He sat down with Gapers Block Book Club to discuss writing, wiggers, and his adventures in punk rock.

Tell me about the title, because I think I know what a zero fade is, but I could be wrong.
The fade is the early 90s haircut that was almost like a flat top, and it faded down to no hair on the sides; it sort of looks like hair spraying down to nothing. So a bald fade or a zero fade is one that goes straight down to skin. So Kid from Kid N' Play? That's a high-top fade.

Was Zero Fade something you wanted to write for a long time? Did it pour right out of you?
It was awesome; I sat down and wrote the whole thing in an afternoon. Just kidding. It started with a short story [I wrote] in 2008, and I found myself thinking about the characters a lot more. And as I was getting into this narrator's head, the other people he cared about were all starting to form in my mind. So I already had some framework, I just had to fill in the blanks. I worked on it on and off the whole time I was in grad school.

Zero Fade will be Curbside Splendor's first young adult book. Did you always want to write YA?
I like the coming-of-age story. And I don't know if I consciously said 'I want this to be YA,' but I knew I was pretty committed to working on something that had a younger narrator. I also really like a lot of early 90s hip-hop cinema, like Friday, the House Party movies, and Juice is one of my favorites. I like any sort of story, maybe even The Outsiders and Goonies would be good examples, where we have this ragtag group of kids and after this span of time, nothing is ever the same. Like, that could be the tagline: nothing is ever the same!

Did you start out wanting to make Kevin biracial?
It's funny, I just thought of him being 100 percent black. And I figured it would be easier to write, because I wouldn't have to think through some of my own identity issues.

Was it a relief to not concentrate on those identity issues for a while?
Yeah. I feel like I'm using my imagination when I'm writing the nonfiction also, but there's a plumbing-of-the-depths type of feeling. It's interesting to do when I have a different kind of personal stake in it, because it's my creativity I'm trying to prove to myself instead of trying to work something through.

Has teaching creative writing to teenagers affected your writing?
I enjoy what they write. I don't know if 'enjoy' is the right word, since there's usually some pretty dark stuff in there. But there's always a great degree of honesty. And since I like to write young characters, it's inspiring and gives me a better bullshit detector for my own work. I have more of an idea of what [a teenager] might sound like.

How old were you when you started writing?
In third grade we had a creative writing assignment, and that was the first thing I really got plugged into at school. I remember I wrote a story about two monsters that lived in a cave. In high school I got really into the punk rock scene. This was the mid-90s, and I was doing a zine. So maybe from the mid-90s to the 2000s I was regularly self-publishing.

Were you writing about music?
Or traveling. I was touring with a lot of bands, and also just kind of doing low-level vagabond crap around Richmond, breaking into swimming holes and eating bagels out of dumpsters.

That period of your life must affect your writing now.
I'm still thinking through being so involved in punk rock in the 90s, what that means and how I can tell those stories from a critical distance. But at the same time, not feel like I'm making fun of what I used to do, or looking down on it. Because it's still something I care deeply about. But at the same time there were a lot of flaws that became apparent to me as I got older.

Flaws in the ideology?
The joke I ended up making to myself a few years later was that I felt like I was at a grass roots organization meeting for a bunch of white dudes against racism. But I was writing a lot. It had a certain immediacy; I would have some kind of adventure, and then sit up at night writing about it. Now I like having distance, and that may be part of why writing about younger characters appeals to me. I'm in my mid-30s, so I've got some perspective.

Did you have to deliberately step away from music toward writing?
Just before I turned 25, I was already starting to feel like the old guy at the party, and it was kind of alienating. And I started thinking pretty hard about, do I wanna be the older guy who's still trying to rock? Or do I want to do something where... if you're writing, nobody's late for band practice. You can go to bed when you want to. You can do it alone. So I started transitioning to writing by my mid-twenties. I went to grad school to have a chance to focus and get to know myself as a writer. And I'm happy with what I got out of it.

So no more playing in bands or singing?
I have a couple friends where we'll have like, three beers, and we're definitely going to start a band. And it doesn't happen, and that's okay. I do love music, I write record reviews for Razorcake, a punk magazine in LA. Music is probably my favorite art form...maybe. I like books a lot, too. Those two are neck and neck, I'd say.

So what's next?
I've got a couple hundred pages of these stories about being biracial--I call them my wigger jams. The theme is repurposing the word wigger. I remember first hearing that word in seventh grade. A kid at school got called a wigger, and I was like, 'Man, I need a word for me, and that seems like the perfect one, and he gets it!' I've got a bunch of raw material, and I'm weaving it together.

[My wife and I are] going to do this book tour together in August, probably drive over to the East Coast to do some readings. Sharon's a filmmaker, she works at DePaul, and she's going to be working on a short film about people who've given themselves tattoos.

Is it good to be a fiction writer in Chicago?
It's fucking great. I came here to do this, and I did it, and that alone is a big deal for me. My impression of Chicago before I came is that it's a really supportive community for the arts, especially the independent artist. Coming from a punk rock background, where people are doing things themselves, a kind of warts-and-all way of doing things-- it's nice to see that translate into literature. And [people here] are really dedicated to creativity, and to having a community around that. So you aren't just the writer who's sitting at home alone, who's totally isolated. I think that's a really good thing.

(photo by Jacob S. Knabb)

 
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