First-time novelist Stephanie Powell Watts prefers to write outside her home in a place where there’s some noise—somewhere like a grocery store or a coffee shop.
A grocery store?! Watts laughs. “I don’t like to be isolated,” she says during a call to her home near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Watts has been teaching creative writing and African-American literature at Lehigh University since 2004. She and her husband, the poet Bob Watts, are the creative writing department at Lehigh, she notes. They have a 7-year-old son. Watts adds that she wrote most of her wonderful novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, in the coffee house on campus.
“I had four younger brothers in my house,” she says, explaining her need for noise. “There was always noise and there were always people running in and out, so you had to carve out your own space. And we had a very small house. Maybe I’m referring back to that. I really, really like a sense of connection.”
Watts grew up in Lenoir, North Carolina, a small town “right at the base of the Smoky and Brushy mountains,” where as a child 30 years ago, there was a vibrant furniture-making industry. The town has now fallen on hard times. “It’s empty parking lots. People have nothing to do. It’s a beautiful area, but the town used to be bustling and kind of grimy. Now there’s no bustle.”
Watts draws brilliantly on her personal experiences of those changes to create her fictional town of Pinewood. The place has an exhausted, ghostly feel that underlies the nostalgia, tumult and strife in the lives of her characters, who are mostly African Americans.
Watts drew similarly on her experiences in this part of North Carolina in creating her highly regarded short story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need. The book earned Watts a Whiting Award, which comes with a $50,000 prize, and individual stories in the collection won additional awards. That’s one reason her first novel has deservedly earned a lot of early attention.
Another is that one of the surprising influences on the novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
“Once I realized that this was a story about displacement and identity, particularly racial identity,” Watts says, “I started to wonder how I could embody that. And I began thinking how Gatsby appears to be about one thing, but is really about many other things. That had generative force for me.”
But influence did not lead to imitation. In Watt’s telling, Jay (JJ) Ferguson, who left Pinewood as a very, very poor man, returns after 17 years as a rich man and begins building a house on a hill overlooking the town, where in the past only wealthy white people could live. Like Jay Gatsby, his intention is to woo and win a married woman he has long been in love with. The object of JJ’s obsession is Ava Bailey.
And here the shape, texture and even the diction of the two novels diverge widely. “When I read Gatsby and thought about [the women characters] Daisy and Myrtle, I thought, oh my gosh, they should have some say here. We never see them as anything other than materialistic and flighty people. Their stories seemed potentially fascinating.”
The emotional heart of Watts’ novel actually lies in the vexed relationships between Ava and her mother, Sylvia, and between each of these women and their detached and wandering husbands. Sylvia is so saddened by the absence of her son that she begins a phone relationship with a desperate young man in the county jail who randomly called her. She also feels free to intrude upon her daughter’s life while maintaining a complicated distance from her husband. Ava, nearing 40, is a manager at the local bank and wants fiercely to have a baby. Her husband, Henry, a casualty of the collapse of the furniture manufacturing business, seems aimless.
“One of the things I wanted to write about was difficult mothers and daughters. But I wanted to write about loving difficult mothers and daughters,” Watts says of Sylvia and Ava. The men, she admits, “are not on their best behavior. These men have access to a kind of power, and it’s sexual power, and they take it. But I hope they are rounded enough and that I’ve shown their lives in other lights.”
One way Watts leads the reader to feel empathy toward her characters, even though we may not always like them, is through an inspired shifting and intermingling of points of view. Another is the humor in the book, both in her own narration and in the exchanges among her characters. “Humor is absolutely necessary to keep going,” she says. “So many of the people in my family and my community were wonderful storytellers. They would tell stories about just awful things that happened to them. But their humor made what happened into their own kind of triumph.”
The novel, Watts says, “absolutely has the particularity of African-American experience. But I feel strongly that this kind of experience is not so different from other people’s experiences. This is about a particular time and place, but I think there are so many other resonances here to other kinds of experiences. And that to me is the beauty of reading. As a reader, you know the gut of it and say, ‘I get this,’ and I’ve felt like that, too.”
In the end, these characters achieve a kind of peace with one another, a place where Watts says, “I could see them having a future, a difficult one, but a future.”
She adds, “There are mercies that we get all the time, if we can see them as that. That doesn’t necessarily mean change and it doesn’t necessarily mean forgiveness. But we can decide that this [harm done to us] is not going to destroy me or lead me to destroy you. I think my characters are on that road.”
This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo by Doug Benedict.