The Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best take it out and teach it to dance.” M Shelly Conner’s book, everyman, does just that. Her protagonist, Eve Mann, leaves Chicago to unravel the secrets her aunt conceals about Eve’s parents, who are African Americans born in Ideal, Georgia.
Like a Pullman car on rails, Eve’s hunt rumbles from juke joints and numbers runners of The Roaring Twenties to the Civil Rights marches and Black Power movement of the late 60s / early 70s, paralleling the Great Northward Migration. Placing us squarely inside their heads, the omniscient narrator lets us experience “all the feels”: people finding their ancestors aren’t who they thought; discovering their sexual identities; confronting their own prejudices.
Cam: I was hooked by how you unraveled mystery and history through your characters’ genealogies. Why did you choose that structure?
M Shelly: Most of my life, my mother has been researching my family history. I was really proud of what she was able to uncover about our history reaching back to the early 1800s. When I was a Chicago Public Schools teacher, I assigned a family tree project to my 6th and 7th graders. Most students were excited, but some of their families weren’t. That got me thinking about those who seek to bury the past. Many family stories aren’t passed down; some names are erased from the family Bible. That got me thinking about those stories.
Cam: All your characters are discovering themselves: their origins, racial and sexual identities, examining their prejudices, deciding what they believe, and which causes to advocate.
M Shelly: I really saw my book as a universal pilgrimage. Everyone seeks to learn more about themselves, even as they’re creating the idea of themselves. People go to college to find themselves. One starts with prepackaged core beliefs taken from family and from school. As African Americans, some try to connect with our ancestral homeland. Others try to break with that past and start fresh. Both are part of everyman’s epic journey.
Cam: At one point you quote Zinzi Clemmons: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned Black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless”. Why do shades of skin color loom so large in your characters’ lives?
M Shelly: Because they loom so large in my people’s lives. Even people of color see color. Colorism is a global issue, not just for black, but also brown and Asian folk. I wanted to make these narratives that are intersectional in black folks’ lives and black communities, as nuanced as possible. In my character LeRoi’s case, the darker-skinned neighborhood boys gang up on him for being light-skinned, but the world gangs up on them for being dark. LeRoi becomes a convenient scapegoat.
Cam: everyman also explores your characters’ multifaceted reactions when they learn lifelong friends and family members are LGBTQ. I want to thank you for how it helped me appreciate different perspectives.
M Shelly: Thank you. Black queer folk have always been in Black communities and families. And have been IMPORTANT contributors. We direct the church choirs, plan the marches, co-raise children, educate in schools and provide financial stability. It’s a wonder that we’re so rarely written about in nuanced and meaningful ways. I wanted to honor non-binary, lesbian, and queer characters who existed even before our contemporary language for them.
Cam: You weave Northern and Southern, African American history throughout the book. What led to your love of history?
M Shelly: I consider myself a “Southern Northerner”—a child of the Migration. Both my parents moved to Chicago; I was raised for a time by my grandmother in Memphis; I attended an HBCU in Tuskegee, and now I’ve returned to the South. I never considered myself a historian until I wrote this book. I was trying to find my place in history—looking for black queer women like myself in it and ultimately deciding to write us where I know we had to have been. We all look for ourselves in history. As an early reader, I was always looking for black folk and black women and getting to know myself as a queer person and looking for those intersections in characters. Oftentimes they fell woefully short of how dynamic and nuanced I know us to be.
Cam: Although third-person omniscient narrators have been used effectively in many 19th-century novels (e.g., Tolstoy, Dickens, and Tolkien), many Internet articles argue against its use for modern readers. I thought you used it masterfully. Was that decision controversial?
M Shelly: I always wanted the reader to have more information than Eve. At first, I thought the other characters would provide it. But then, I wanted the reader to have more information than even the story itself required—the histories you noticed. The metanarratives of our lives and our fictions. The omniscient narrator hasn’t always been favorably regarded. I received numerous rejections over my narrative choice. But I counted on it ultimately being appreciated and valued. You have to do it effectively—my manuscript needed many revisions. The decision really paid off once I felt I had indeed mastered it.
Cam: Any advice for aspiring novelists?
M Shelly: Write! Your thoughts are certainly part of the writing process, but you’ve got to get your writing kicked into gear because writing involves writing! Read writers who are doing what you want to do. Follow writers you admire on social media. It helps to engage with writers about their work, and we like to engage with our readers. Then write and revise some more. I don’t know any writers whose work hasn’t been greatly improved by revision. Writing is life, but revision is life greatly improved.
M Shelly Conner, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Her multi-genre writings examine culture through a dapperqueer womanist lens and include publications in Crisis Magazine, the A.V. Club, and the Grio. Her debut novel, everyman, is currently available at all retailers and the audiobook on Audible. Twitter: @MShellyConner Website: mshellyconner.com