Sunday, October 1, 2023

TBR: Mama Said: Stories by Kristen Gentry

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Mama Said is set in Louisville, Kentucky at the tail end of the crack epidemic and the rise of the opioid crisis. It follows three daughters–cousins in the same family–who come of age struggling against their mothers’ drug addictions. 


Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?


I had a lot of fun writing “Animal Kingdom.” It’s set on Derby, back when you could still cruise through West Louisville. The Kentucky Derby on TV is big hats, mint juleps, and rich white people. Derby to me, and a lot of black Louisvillians, is cruising on Broadway, barbecues, and music. It’s basically a miles-long block party. Capturing that on the page required a lot of reminiscing on Derby days of my past and made me feel like I was back in Louisville in all of the energy and excitement though I was bundled up in my house or cupping a a mug of tea in a coffee shop in cold, gray Rochester, New York. 


Although it was also fun creating Bryce’s character, that man gave me truh-ble! Actually, my boyfriend and I got into a fight about Bryce’s character. I generally have a hard time writing male characters, so I always run them by him. I read him some bits and he said Bryce’s interaction with Angel wasn’t believable given his age (thirty), her age (seventeen), and the setting (half-naked girls shaking ass for men pointing camcorders). But I knew Bryce’s heart, as the old folks say, and I fought, quite literally, off the page with my boyfriend and on the page to bring that to life and make it real.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


It took me a looong time to write Mama Said. Fourteen years. Part of the reason why it took so long and what had happened was… (😂) that I didn’t really begin writing the collection until I left grad school. The book’s overarching mother-daughter conflict rooted in the mother’s addiction is pulled from personal conflict that played out between me and my mother. I’d avoided addressing that in my writing until my thesis deadline was approaching and I needed more pages to meet the minimum. I wrote what was at the top of my mind and ended up with the first draft of “A Satisfying Meal,” in which the protagonist, JayLynn, takes her boyfriend to Thanksgiving dinner and is mortified as her family’s dysfunction, that she could easily hide two hours away at school in Bloomington, Indiana, unfolds before both of them. 


Another reason why it took so long to write the book is because I wasn’t writing for months at a time. You know how people say you have to carve out your writing time and be ruthless about maintaining it? I was doing none of that. I let the responsibilities of my job as a professor completely take over my life–for years! There was no work-life balance. I often graded in the time I had scheduled to write because I was always behind on grading. 


Yet another reason why it took so long to write the book is because I’m a slow writer, largely because I’m a perfectionist. I don’t know why I put so much pressure on myself, especially in first drafts, when I know I’m going to revise the sugar honey iced tea out of it, but I do. I’m working on it. 


So it took a while to write but once the manuscript was ready, it only took three months before it was accepted at West Virginia University Press. 


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Remember what I said above about people saying you have to carve out your writing time and be ruthless about it? What those people said, that’s my favorite piece of writing advice. 


Unfortunately, it has taken me years to understand that I have to schedule my writing time–whether it’s ten minutes or two hours–and guard it fiercely because no one but me is going to do it because no one but me cares about it (well, maybe they do. I’m a moody heifer when I’m not writing), and the work–whatever the work may be–will never stop and grant me the reprieve to write. 


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Many of the climactic moments in each of the stories surprised me because I don’t outline stories (maybe that’s another reason why it took me so long to finish the collection) and also follow this advice. I like to realize a character’s worst fear and see how they react. 


Patricia, the protagonist in “A Sort of Winning,” was an especially surprising addition to the collection. She came out of nowhere. I hadn’t been reminiscing about P.E. class in high school or P.E. teachers at all. I was minding my own business and BOOP! the opening scene of her watching the kids while they take a test popped up while I was writing, and I wanted to see where it would go. Patricia’s story offers another perspective of JayLynn that further complicates her character, and Patricia’s frustration with the way her terminally ill mother still swoons over her estranged husband adds variety to the collection’s mother-daughter conflicts. 


How did you find the title of your book?


The book’s title comes from the title story. In “Mama Said,” JayLynn is haunted by her depressed mother’s confession that she wishes she could drive off of the JFK Bridge. This disclosure from mother to daughter sends JayLynn reeling, unsure whether her time and effort should be spent at home helping her mother or on campus raising her plummeting grades. This uncertainty of how to navigate the world with their mother’s words and actions playing in their minds also plagues JayLynn’s cousins, Zaria and Angel. The conflict that the title story highlights is relevant throughout the collection so it seemed fitting as the book’s title. I also like the colloquial sound of Mama Said.  


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


In “A Satisfying Meal,” there’s much ado about JayLynn’s mother’s greens, ”spiced with a soft heat and seasoned to the edge of too salty with enough jowl bacon that a bowl of them can be a satisfying meal.” Those greens described are my mama’s greens, and her recipe is simple. Throw some greens (what kind really doesn’t matter. Could be collards, kale, mustard, turnip or a mix of all of them), jowl bacon, water, and some salt in a pot and simmer until tender.


I learned how to make these greens myself, substituting cooked bacon and bacon grease for the jowl bacon and adding onion and yellow mustard. 


But I’m vegan now, so I use vegan chicken broth, onion, salt, and yellow mustard. I also don’t simmer them as long. You really don’t need to cook them more than thirty minutes.   












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.