Collecting the Human Experience: An Interview with Preston L. Allen

By Mike Bogart

Preston Allen, the recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, is the author of three novels—Every Boy Should Have a Man, Jesus Boy, and All or Nothing—and the award-winning collection of short stories, Churchboys and Other Sinners. His latest novel, Every Boy Should Have a Man, is an allegorical satire about a world in which “oafs” keep humans as pets. While reading his latest book, I was struck by both the intimate story-telling voice and the grand scope that the book took on. In talking to Preston, then, I wasn’t surprised when he told side-by-side a childhood story about tadpoles in his pocket and the story of the beginning of the universe.

Mike Bogart: Every Boy Should Have a Man is told as a Scriptural folk tale, in straightforward, biblical language. How did the idea for the book come to you? How did this conceit allow you to address racism, sexism, class, and religion? Why was this the best way to tell the story you wanted to tell?

Preston Allen: I was enrolled in a professional development class that had me taking notes while standing knee-deep in the river of grass that is the Florida Everglades. Alligators reside there, you know, so I was somewhat concerned about my safety. Then it came to me that I, as a human, was more of a danger to these magnificent creatures than they were to me.

Alligators may be dangerous, but they don't wear us as boots, belts, and handbags, or wrestle us for the amusement of others of their kind, or flush us down their toilets when we get too big to be their childhood pet. All they want to do is maybe eat us when they catch us. On the other hand, I'm fairly certain that we eat more of them in a year as an exotic delight than they do us. Human is the most dangerous animal of all.

I was reminded of how, as a child, I would withdraw from my pockets the pretty tadpoles I had caught down at the pond and offer them to my mother as a gift. They were dead, of course, and not so pretty anymore. I hadn't meant to hurt them. I was only a child. But a human child.

We can come up with science fiction plots with space aliens and monsters that devastate our planet with malice. But what species of child could innocently hurt us in this way? They would have to be bigger than we are. More intelligent than we are. Just as "oafish" as we sometimes are. Their civilization would have to be set up like ours... Egad! I have a vehicle here to explore societal ills.

Once upon a time, two types of human beings roamed the earth. The giant homo heidelbergensis (nicknamed Goliath by scientists) and the tiny homo floresiensis (nicknamed Hobbit by scientists)—folks, you can't make this stuff up! These two human-kinds existed in the same region at about the same time period. This discovery disproved the theory that all human types descended one from the other and therefore only one type of human being existed on the planet at any one point in our evolutionary history.

Just think about it. Two distinct types of humans on the earth at one time... and in the same location. When they encountered each other, did each recognize the other as being of the same species? Did they see each other as possible mates? Did the larger see the smaller as food? Hmmm.

One time when I was little I brought home a stray dog on a makeshift leash, and my mother said to me, "Get that mangy animal out of here right now! You don't know where it's been. It might be dangerous."

And I cried, "But mom, every boy should have a dog!"

In my mind's eye, I saw the Goliath child heidelbergensis with the tiny adult floresiensis on a leash. I heard the big child cry to his mom as I had cried to mine, "But mom, every boy should have a..."

When we are little, the lessons and rules of our culture are imbedded in the folk tales and religious tales that are read to us. The biblical, folkloric voice I used was not just a clever idea; that's the voice I heard when the story was read to me in my head. That voice gave the story weight. I wanted the reader to become a child again, sitting in a circle at story time.

"Listen to me, children, as I read to you the story of the boy and his man," the teacher says.

I couldn't wait to leave the swamp and get home.

MB: Story Week 2014's theme is "DiverCity: Urban Stories"—the concept of uniting diverse perspectives through story. How do you feel Every Boy Should Have a Man, and your work in general, deal with this theme?

PA: "Diversity" is not just about race, ethnicity, and gender per se. It is discovering your particular voice and telling your particular truth so that in the end, we as humans collect as much of the human experience as can be set down.

There is nothing wrong with the classic canon of literature except that missing from it are the other pages in the human story. Let's take Moby Dick for example—the novel famously begins "Call me Ishmael," right? There is a character in the book, Queequeg, who is referred to as a "savage." What if a novelist of Queequeg's "savage" ethnicity and a talent equal to Melville's wrote a seafaring tale?

I'm not arguing that Melville's work is incomplete, but I'm certain the novel by the talented author of Queequeg's ethnicity would add something surprising and exciting to the discussion. What if the novelist of Queequeg's ethnicity were a woman? Or gay?

In Every Boy Should Have a Man, the diversity of mans is kept in cages in the public kennels while other humans, namely the “oafs,” walk around free, picking and choosing whom they will save and whom they will damn.

Or take Red Sleeves, talented though she be, who is assigned a life of cruelty and torture because as "voiceless" and as a teen mother, she is considered one of the lowest forms of man.

All mans in the book, I might add, are named by what they look like. Red Sleeves. Red Locks. Gold Braid. Fat One. Ugly One. Hmmm.

I certainly think the book is saying something about "diversity" as told from an "urban" kid who grew up in Roxbury trying his hand at sci-fi/fantasy. Trying hard, that is, to add something exciting and unexpected to the discussion.

MB: The book contains many biblical and literary allusions. As you were writing, how were you influenced by works like Jack and the Beanstalk, Gulliver's Travels, and even the Bible? In what ways do you feel Every Boy Should Have a Man responds to and expands on the conversation that these works have started?

PA: My mother was the one who told us stories that kept her brood of five rambunctious boys fascinated until they themselves started telling tall tales, retelling with embellishments the ones that she had told as well as a few magnificent inventions of their own. My love of storytelling came from her, I'm sure.

My father held us prisoner in marathon family worship sessions where we prayed, read the Bible, and discussed it as well as any other random topic that might be derived therefrom – some as random as "Can lion beat tiger? Can lion mate with tiger? What would their kids look like?" That one was our favorite.

As we grew older, his random questions became more interesting and dangerous: "If America and Russia went to war, would it be the end of the world? Does God give man the power to destroy all of creation?" and, "According to the bible, God created heaven and earth. According to science, everything came from the big bang. But what came before the big bang? Is there anything that came before God? Does God come from anywhere? How can God have no beginning?"

It occurred to me early on that what is myth to us is religion to someone else; therefore, what is religion to us, I surmised, is myth to someone else.

Some institutions and concepts that seem at first to be antagonistic were actually at one time the same thing, or one is derived from the other, the newer thing coming from the older. Some things that seem opposite are simply disguised parts of the same whole.

Everything, it seemed, came in parallel forms, none greater than the other. Early on, I was learning to see things from various perspectives, a talent that is important when writing a book such as this.

MB: Religion and scripture are important in Every Boy Should Have a Man, and in your other works as well. Why is religion a powerful storytelling tool? And to what end?

PA: Why did Jesus tell parables? Why do Sunday school teachers tell Bible stories? Entire books of the Bible are stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Religion is given to us in stories and songs, and we in turn write songs and stories to support our religion.

I think... it's about truth. We read stories, no matter how fantastical, for the truth in them.

Stories are a covenant between writer and reader. The writer asks the reader to accept the first lie as true, and promises that everything that follows after will be true.

And what is the first lie? The first sentence of the story.

"Once upon a time."

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

"Call me Ishmael."

"He was not unusual because he had a man."

The covenant promises that everything that follows after this will be true. The author will create a world that follows its own made up rules consistently and explores some idea and draws some sort of conclusion from it, which if done correctly will reveal a truth.

MB: One thing I love about Every Boy Should Have a Man is the way you handled perspective. The story and its connections to the larger world are slowly revealed from two main perspectives—the boy oaf, Zloty, and his "man," Red Locks. How did you juggle these perspectives in order to reveal the right information at the right time? What thoughts went into deciding which characters you needed to follow?

PA: The chapters with the Boss of the Mines and the Oaf Called Gen'rl were the trickiest to write. The perspective fluctuates in these sections as the pet man in our mind becomes more human – until gradually her perspective takes over completely. Now she can deal with Rufus/Jack as completely human in our minds, though in our minds she has been sort of human all along, but not. Get it?

The diversity of mans in the public kennels are sort of human all along, but not.

The minorities, disabled, homeless, immigrants, differently sexualized, disenfranchised in our world down here are sort of humans all along, but not.

Our pets are sort of... but not.

The Sacred Speaker tells us that there is a scientific theory that man is an un-evolved form of us (we pinheaded oafs). Why do we not listen?

But it's all being done, I reminded myself constantly, with a playful seriousness. I focused on the fairytale aspect more than the scriptural. There are many places designed to make the reader have a good chuckle. For example, I loved writing stuff like "this man was my mother."

MB: How did you settle on the book’s structure? Did you try structuring it in any other ways? If so, why didn't they work as well?

PA: Let's start with the end of the novel. In college, one of my religious friends told me about what she called "missing" books of the Bible, or the Apocrypha. What a surprising idea, and consistent with my earlier theory of newer things coming from older things and the theory of parallel ideas. Of course, I had to look this up.

I fell in love with apocryphal books, so I knew that I would end Every Boy Should Have a Man with one to give it the weight of a religious truth validated by archeological artifacts outside of the main.

The beginning is straightforward fairytale telling. There is good and evil, the rule of three, surprises, reversals, humor, and a magic harp. Of course, underneath it all are the allegorical patterns that admonish and teach lessons.

Zloty is our hero in this fairytale part, and as in many fairytales he has no name. "Once upon a time there was a boy, who had three mans..." "Once upon a time there were three little pigs..." Having no names in fairytales is not much of a problem. One thing I did try was to sprinkle the apocrypha throughout the novel. It sort of worked, but it seemed forced. The novel had become too... logical.

The thing that makes me such a good reviser, I think, is that I'm good at forgetting everything but the big concepts. In other words, the minutiae quickly becomes foggy in my mind, so I'm able to read the same book several times, even my own books, and become surprised and impressed in the same place each time. Thus, I can find typos, hear inconsistencies in voice, intuitively feel that something is out of place upon second and third readings. But if I can predict what's going to happen, I miss typos, miss awkward phrasings, fail to make new connections, and sometimes actually fall asleep reading.

The book was too "correctly" written. It felt like an essay with a thesis. Knowing everything before it happened, I was falling asleep.

MB: What’s different between writing a book like Every Boy Should Have a Man and, for instance, writing the short stories in your collection Churchboys and Other Sinners?

PA: Most of my short stories take a week or so to write and a month or two to revise. Like my short stories, my short novels All or Nothing and Every Boy Should Have a Man were written in under two weeks, but took a year or two to revise.

Compare those to Jesus Boy, which took from my teens to my thirties to complete and then about another decade to revise. That novel about a love affair between a kid of 16 and a woman of 42 paralleled the way it was written; I began writing it when I was about his age and completed it when I was about hers.

I write every day, whether I am working on a project or not. I get up early in the morning, like at 4 or 5, before everyone else, and write for a half hour, and no more. Then I go back to bed.

Now when I say "write," I mean write, and if I have nothing to write about, then "write" means proofread, or revise, or read, or blog.

Writing in the morning gets me to thinking about the work all day long. When I get home, if I have time I'll write everything I've been thinking about all day. If I can't find the time, the next morning's half hour will be more than productive.

On weekends, I binge, especially if I'm working on a project.

In the swamp that day, Every Boy Should Have a Man just seemed to pour out of me. I went home and wrote it down in about a week.

In other words, I binged.

Since the unfolding and the initial writing down, I have added four or five chapters and removed four or five. I also created about a dozen chapters that I didn't use, but they are good chapters that are waiting in the wings for a second book. Then for about a year, I revised and edited until my eyes crossed.

As I said, the initial writing down took about a week, which is a good thing for maintaining a consistent voice, but proves troublesome when revising.

To make something new fit, I often had to rewrite entire chapters. It was time consuming, but not wearisome. I love this part of the process.

Rewriting is where magic is made. Add here. Pare down there. Inspiration, for me, comes in many different ways, but revision is always the longest and most important part of my process.