Short-form interview with Christopher X. Shade, author of The Good Mother of Marseille
Christopher X. Shade, a former Senior Editor at Epiphany, will have his debut novel, The Good Mother of Marseille, release on April 9th. By way of early congratulations, we put Christopher to the test of our Epiphany 10 questions.
Epiphany: William Trevor began his adult life as a sculptor and later described his writing as chipping away at a block of marble. Are you a chipper or a builder? In other words, do you chip away at a block of writing, or are you more methodical, building up the block brick by brick?
I think a lot about snow globes. We did not have snow globes in small town Alabama where I was raised. I’m fascinated by them probably because they were not in my childhood. The contained experience of a snow globe, when you pick it up and shake it… an experience that doesn’t last very long. To reveal a beautiful scene, or something like a golden Buddha. As the obfuscating confetti falls away, the scene becomes clear, the mirage of it takes very real shape before our eyes. If the scene has something about it we can connect to, something about our childhood or our religious beliefs, then we’re moved by the experience. This is one way of describing what I try to build with story: with gradual clarity, and eventually for the reader, a vision of a universal truth.
Also, by design a snow globe invites you to shake it again. I appreciate this about poetry, especially in my own reading life. I won’t hesitate to closely re-read a poem. I strive to write the story or poem or novel that invites you to read again—not because it was complicated or full of hidden things, but because there’s a sense of meaning in the experience of it, along with the sense that there’s more to understand about ourselves.
What was your first publication?
This novel, The Good Mother of Marseille, is my first airplane out of the hangar. I consider to be my first publication. If you mean in journals, it was a poem, but so long ago in my twenties that I have no idea what it was. I have always written poetry, even when I was a child. Only recently did I begin to publish poetry again—my poem “Ambulance Rides” in The American Journal of Poetry. I began to write on our mom’s electric typewriter at age seven, or so the story goes, and I was writing poetry. I don’t know where I got the idea at seven to write in verse—perhaps from the Bible.
Five books you are reading or thinking about now?
Julie Orringer’s forthcoming The Flight Portfolio (Marseille!); Beverly Donofrio’s Riding in Cars with Boys (Voice!); Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel (Travel!); Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude (Grief!), Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Truth and Activism!).
Also, tonight I’ll finish reading Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter.
If you had to inhabit a fictional world, what would it be (i.e., the environment of which novel or short story or poem)?
I found this to be a difficult question because in our country today it feels as if we are in a made-up, bizarre, nonsensical world. And dangerous. A world no one expected; the stuff of fiction. But it’s not fiction. And so the question feels indulgent, when instead there is so much work to do.
Most interesting day job you've had (from the perspective of a writer)?
I was not very close to my brother and two sisters when I was in my twenties, but now the four of us are close, and we travel at least once a year to spend time together. At our latest, out in California, I was telling them about a job I’d had during those early twenties on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama. They had no idea that I had done this for a while. I worked in the office of a truck dealership, a family-owned dealership that sold 18-wheelers, semis, rigs. I worked in the back office because I could type. I did not sell the trucks; I typed up sales contracts. I was fantastically out of place. I was a young painter-poet, and a young man in a back office “where women worked” as the men would say. The owner once said I was a hound in a henhouse, and another time he said, “Fits like socks on a rooster,” referring vaguely, I think, to everything about me. But others were out of place, too. One salesman was in boots, big buckle, and cowboy hat, as if straight out of the wild west. One woman I worked with in the back office was a single mom who eschewed the notion of a husband. What I loved was talking to people, and I always have. I heard a lot of similar stories from very different people. It was at that job that I began to appreciate how it really is possible to grow to understand one another.
Novels? Short stories? Which do you prefer to write?
I write both, and don’t really have a preference. The writing work is different.
One sentence of advice regarding writing?
I’d like to share a favorite quotation. Sandra Cisneros wrote, "We do this because the world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning.”
Your novel title: was it your first choice?
The Third Cathedral was the early title of The Good Mother of Marseille. In the story, there’s a scene in which an older husband and wife from Alabama pay a man to lead them to a third cathedral, the most glorious of the three.
In a nutshell, what are you working on now?
Like The Good Mother of Marseille, a story of searching elsewhere for ourselves, the novel I’m working on reaches back into a family’s Civil Rights-era past. In this story, a man returns to the small Alabama town of his childhood to visit an older family friend, who is in hospice with cancer.
What's an interview question you've never been asked that you wish had been?
In The Good Mother of Marseille, where is the celebrated Marseille pastry, the navette? You have bouillabaisse, pastis, couscous, everything, except the navette. Nowhere, the navette. How could you? Answer: The navette was too big for this book—I’m saving it for the next one!
Christopher X. Shade is author of the novel The Good Mother of Marseille (Paloma Press, 2019). He is co-founder and co-editor of Cagibi, at cagibilit.com, a journal of poetry and prose. His stories and book reviews have appeared widely, and he has won story awards including the 2016 Writers at Work fellowship competition. He teaches fiction and poetry writing at The Writers Studio. Raised in the South, he now lives with his wife in New York City. His website is christopherxshade.com.