I read Brad Windhauser’s recent book ‘The Intersection’. It was a great story highlighting challenges faced with gentrification and other racial challenges one faces no matter which race you are. I had a chat with him recently...
1. Firstly Brad, thank you for giving me this opportunity to do this interview with you. Let us start with something simple and go from there. How did you start out as a writer? What is your background?
I started as a writer in high school, where I would write poems--song lyrics, really. I had dreams of being in a rock band; I played bass, although not well. I entered college as a creative writing major. In college I discovered a love for fiction and stopped writing poetry--I found a form that could make the ordinary extraordinary. I was enrolled in a Hemingway/Fitzgerald literature course and I was inspired by their take on writing, which I had never been exposed to before. I found writing the novels I read in K-12, to be stuffy and very remote from my life.
So I spent undergrad (at UC San Diego) studying literature and writing. I went on to a Masters at Rutgers (English-Creative Writing) and then an MFA in creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. I currently teach at Temple University in Philadelphia and write.
2.Teaching? Is it something you like to do? Or is it something that pays the bills?
I love teaching. Constantly keeps me on my toes, and I find that having to explain the process to students helps me understand the nuances and possibilities of the craft more -- and yes it pays the bills, which is nice.
3.What is your inspiration to write?
I've tried to tackle issues that matter to me in my work, although I found the best way, to sum up this approach from Janet Burroway, an author and writing professor. In her book Writing Fiction: Writing isn't about offering answers or solutions; rather, writing is tasked with stating a problem correctly. My goal is to show issues and render them as completely as possible. I like fiction to start a conversation.
4. I like that saying..... We live in a world where there are so many distorted truths.
Yeah, it really takes the burden off the writer, to some degree. Sure, writers can mess up rendering a problem--not probing it enough or only showing one side, however, trying to solve issues is daunting--and comes across as preachy; in a book or story.
5. You have two books published, Regret in 2007 and The Intersection in 2016. I have read The Intersection and found that it did stir up some valid emotions in me. What is your back story of this book?
The book is set in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of Philly; I moved into this gentrifying neighborhood in 2003. As one of a few white people on my block at that time, I certainly felt a lot of negativity, as if I was arriving to take this place away from the current and often long-time residents. While driving one day, I almost hit a bicyclist, who happened to be black. I wondered what would happen to the tension in this neighborhood if a white person did hit a black person in an accident--how it would set things off. This was the start of the story; so I probed the concept and brainstormed who might be the characters connected to or affected by this accident.
6. Ahhhh so there is some connection of the story to you. Tell me more about Philadelphia, South Philadelphia. The Intersection is about Micheal, a white driver who critically injures a black cyclist in the South parts of Philadelphia. Give me some historical background of South Philadelphia? How relevant is the present day South Philadelphia to the challenges faced by the characters in your book?
Because Philly can be a very diverse city, this story resonates with a lot of people. Neighbourhoods are changing all the time--and not always seamlessly. Neighborhoods that were once considered "the hood" is now being bought up and redeveloped, three, four-story houses erected and selling for 400,000-500,000 dollars. This is moving people out and new people in, many of whom have not shown an interest in being part of the community.
Some, of course, do show this. Because gentrification is such a complicated issue, I wanted to write a story that encouraged people to come together and talk to address this. It matters for Philly, it matters for a lot of urban cities experiencing this issue.
It really is a great place to live. But this issue is forcing some people away, the ones who can't afford to be a part of the change
7. I like that you write what is relevant to the discrimination that takes place in this modern day life. Placards and Memes have been part of protests around the world with the words BLACK LIVES MATTER and WHITE PRIVILEGE. What does this mean to/for you? I mean, I believe there are three sides of the story, my story, your story and the truth, which I love by the way, how you so eloquently created these three scenarios in your book.
So privilege matters to the story, as far as the two you mentioned, those movements are about visibility. BLM isn't saying we matter more than others, it's about we matter just as much as everyone else--but this is not often reflected in the experience of African Americans (often).
As far as White Privilege, white people often do not understand or recognize how their race has enabled their life. Sure, not every white person is successful, but race does matter in our country in ways we don't always acknowledge.
With this story, I tried to show dimensions of that.
Often times how we frame a story--such as a newspaper article, which comes up in the book--is slanted to play up or down a race.
8. How does it feel to be a white man in our current era in relation to the books you have written?
If you're not trained to be aware of this, you might not notice. If you've lived your life bound by race (as most minorities in this country are), you notice.
I don't feel personally stigmatized, although my life is impacted by my sexuality. As a gay man, I am held back--to some degree, which trumps (perhaps pun intended) my race.
My sexuality provides a window through which I can understand one aspect of the minority experience. So Gay Pride, for example, aims to accomplish something similar to the BLM movement: recognition.
9. still laughing at the trump pun At the end of the day we as humans want recognition and to be treated with respect.
Yes and the current toxic environment here makes this difficult. We're pitted against one another and this makes discussion very difficult, sad, really.
10. Do you find it difficult at all to understand the trumps of the world and their thought patterns?
Yes, although not all of them. I've spoken with a few and had productive discussions. Most, however (generalization) have troubling support for their beliefs--informed by fake news and prejudices. When this is the reason, I weep for our future. There's definitely a dumbing down in our culture--we've lost the ability, or willingness to think critically.
11. I love Ms. Rose’ character. She brings out the justice in your story and also felt loss at some point in her life which enables her to see the situation from a compassionate stance. She somewhat reminds me, of me as I most often can see all sides of an intersection. Which is your favorite character in the book and why?
Although I'm most connected to Michael, I think I enjoyed writing Rose the most which, for perhaps obvious reasons, shocked me. There is such a warmth and complexity to her that drew me in. She's the type of person I would most love to have a drink with and just listen to her life.
* Yeah I also have a large fondness for her. A wise owl!*
I also enjoyed Brenda. I wanted to show someone who comes across as abrasive but actually is warm inside. I enjoy characters that challenge my perceptions--Brenda is not a person I would strike up a conversation with in public but someone I clearly should.
People like her proved a challenge. I had to climb inside the heads of people I would not otherwise interact with in public for various reasons.
But for this book, I spent a lot of time in public; on buses, in parks, in the laundromat, just watching people, listening. This allowed the first impression to recede and allowed me to see them for who they really are.
12 Are you an introvert or extrovert?
I'm a total introvert--my husband is the extrovert
13 That question just popped up cos I am also an introvert and was wondering how hard it must be to actually interact with people to get into your characters heads, in your book but I guess introverts are very observant. So you can feel someone’s energy and sense characters by just observing?
I love people watching--the talking to strangers is my challenge. When I write, I want my impression to come together, shaped by what I see and how I can interpret. If I talk to a person, I run the risk of writing that character's story.
Yes. I waited tables for 10 years, so I spent a lot of time studying behavior. I also studied Psychology in undergrad.
When I research/people watch, I'm more concerned with understanding that person is NOT versus who they are. This allows for me to be more honest, I feel. Does that make sense?
* Yes it does make sense to me. It is like art, the negative spaces are more interesting that the positive ones.*
Yes, that's true.
14. You touched on the challenges faced with Brenda’s character. Can you elaborate what were the other challenges you faced writing The Intersection? How hard or easy was it to write? I think it is important for people to know the amount of work goes into birthing a published book.
In general, the book took a lot of research, which meant a lot of books on gentrification--I needed to understand the history of it and its impact beyond my experience. I read books on parts of New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
I also read some oral histories on parts of Philly--specifically a portion of the city called The Forgotten Bottom. I needed to know how people really felt being excised from their homes, their communities. I also spent time with the bus company – Septa, in order to understand what bus drivers deal with--two managers sat me down and delivered A LOT of info.
I also read up on immigrant narratives -- for Lillian's character. Sadly, a lot of her story was cut, although I hope to include her story in a future story collection. I really liked her a lot. Without her story, I feel her character comes off as the most "one-note," borderline -- if not completely-- stereotypical.The entire house hunting Michael goes through was pulled from my experience house shopping.I also attended a bunch of community meetings, so I folded those experiences in. I exposed myself to as much community experiences as possible.
15. The Intersection reminds us that we have intersections/crossroads to face at any given time in our lives, figuratively and literally. What has been your most challenging intersection for you?
The intersection of my sexuality with my life has been challenging, though not that often--at least not in the last 15 years. Life was challenging with my father, who is deeply religious, so navigating that took a long time. These challenges open doors more than they close--if you let them. The key is to be open-minded, even to seemingly hostile points of view. That doesn't mean you have to accept them but it does help to understand where a person is coming from, even if you disagree with them. Perhaps, ESPECIALLY if you disagree with them.
16. How is your relationship now with your father?
Good! He's very supportive. It helped that I took the time to read the Bible a few years ago and develop an understanding of where he, and people who hold his beliefs, comes from. And the Bible is not exactly a leisurely read, but it was worth it, on several levels.
16. That’s awesome! Regarding your relationship with your dad -- I love happy beginnings. Oh no! The bible is definitely not a leisure read. Your book The Intersection and from the synopsis that I read of the book Regret, it will stir up emotions especially with what is happening in the USA now, like Trump being president etc. How do you cope with the negative sides of writing? Such as haters/trolls/bad reviews/writer's block?
Fortunately, I haven't had a lot of trolls/haters. I have had a few bad reviews--which all writers get--and they didn't offer any comments of substance so I didn't react to them. My work isn't for everybody. As far as writer's block, anytime I feel "empty," I try to focus on a moment and just write a paragraph. Or I revisit a story and revise--this gets the creative juices flowing and some days I just don't have it, so I walk away from my laptop. I also spend a lot of time reading--50-60 books a year. This gets me in a creative mood, as I'm always paying attention to craft.
17. I loved your book. It did not feel like a made up story, though fiction, but are real issues that humanity needs to address. It is a great book for book clubs and online discussion panels as it has relevant and profound incidents to discuss issues that humanity needs to address. Do you have any book signings planned for 2017?
I just did a reading/talk on campus last week. I have another reading coming up either in March or April locally. I will also be at the Brooklyn book festival in September. I don't have anything else scheduled at the moment.
18. Any future novels in the works?
I'm working on three book projects at the moment. First up is a story collection which I hope to have done by May. Then I'm mulling converting my Bible project--where, as a gay author I blogged about my experience reading the Bible for the first time--into a non-fiction book. Then I have my third novel, set in a San Diego restaurant in the late 90s, to revise. The first draft is done by I have a lot of kinks to work out. It should be busy summer writing.
19. What advice would you give to an upcoming writer/author?
Aspiring writers should always keep writing. There are every motivation and encouragement to quit--your writing will never get published, every agent has shut you down, etc. Just keep at it. And while you're writing, KEEP READING. This is the most important advice to heed. You will never keep learning new things about the craft if you keep reading, keep paying attention. And you'll learn as much from the books you don't like as the ones you do.