Book Club: Red at the Bone
Today’s our second meeting of the Cup of Jo book club! We read Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Here’s a Q&A with the author, and then let’s chat about the book in the comments! Here goes…
How did you decide on the title “Red at the Bone”?
I was writing the book for many years and wasn’t 100% sure what the story was trying to say. I knew I wanted to talk about intergenerational love, the Tulsa race massacre, the class divide… but it wasn’t until i got to the point with Iris and Jam that I knew I was trying to talk about the rawness we all have through some shape or form, whether it’s through love, history, a child breaking your heart.
Often when a teenager has a baby in a book or movie, she drops out of school and ends up raising the child. But, in your novel, Iris had an atypical path — she stays in high school and then leaves her baby to go to college. She says, “I was only 15. I wasn’t even anybody yet.” Why was this narrative important to you?
As a person who often writes for young people, I know that however devastating the story is, there has to be hope and growth and something that makes you want to keep on going. With Red at the Bone, I knew that Iris would get pregnant but I didn’t want it to be the stereotypical stigmatized teenage pregnancy. That other story is easy to tell but a more complicated story about what family means is more challenging to write.
You seemed to have so much empathy for her, too.
The idea of a mother leaving her child is ‘unheard of’ — a mother can’t leave! how dare a mother leave a child? — but I wanted to make a different story about that. To me, it makes perfect sense that she wants to keep her baby at 15, but at 18 she changes her mind and say I want to go to college. Iris never thought the two had to be separate.
Meanwhile, Aubrey stays home and is an incredibly devoted father.
I just love Aubrey so much! From the minute I started developing him as a character, I knew he would be this loving guy. He came from a place where he didn’t have much, but he had love. He knew how to be devoted. He’s this really smart kid who chooses to go into the job world after high school and remain with his daughter. It’s the counternarrative to the black father who abandons the child. There are many fathers who are amazing fathers — single fathers, queer fathers, straight fathers — who do this and do it really well. For him, it wasn’t even a question to go away to school; he wanted to provide for his family and to him that was a gift to be able to do so.
Who did you relate to most in the book?
Both Iris and Aubrey — they’re two halves of a whole for me. Iris is this fire who may be satisfied one day and maybe won’t, and that’s like me as a writer, chipping away at it.
With Aubrey, he has this kindness and this deep optimism about the world, and I feel like I have that deep optimism. It’s going to be okay, we just need to keep it simple and keep moving forward no matter what.
Why did you choose to write about the Tulsa riots?
I was thinking about black wealth and the many ways it constantly gets destroyed or taken away from us — the Chicago riots, redlining, police brutality, mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, predatory lending — and the Tulsa race massacre was such an obvious warfare on black wealth that so few people knew about. I didn’t know about it until I was in my 20s. You take this concentrated area of black wealth and you literally bomb it out of existence. And what becomes of those people who have that trauma and history?
I read the book on a kindle, and many beautiful phrases were underlined. I’m curious, what line did you like most in the book?
One of my favorite lines is: “If a body’s to be remembered, someone has to tell its story.”
Where do you write?
Now that we’re sheltering in place, I move around a lot at home and try to find a place that feels good. I need six hours of undisturbed writing time to get into the story, so I have to find a spot where someone isn’t like, ‘Mommy, Mommy!’ I need to live there for a while. when you write, you go into that world and as John Gardner says, if the dream of fiction gets broken, it’s hard to get back in.
Do you listen to music while writing?
Yes, the first thing I do is put my headphones on. I have a playlist with songs like September by Earth, Wind and Fire, Fields of Gold by Sting, Breaths by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Sunflower the Spiderman theme, Harvest Moon by Neil Young — it’s a mellow playlist.
What are a few of your favorite books?
I really love On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. That’s such a beautiful book. I love The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Anything that Ann Patchett writes I will read. What is on my nightstand? I’m going upstairs to check… I just started reading Little Family by Ishmael Beah, I love his writing. Also, I have books I’ll read again and again: If Beale Street Could Talk, The Member of the Wedding, The Cancer Journals, Ghosts in the Schoolyard… I’ll go back to read them when I’m stuck as a writer and I’ll figure out how to get unstuck.