Interview: Author Alaya Dawn Johnson Talks ‘Trouble the Saints’, Compelling Characters & More
Award-winning author, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s novel, Trouble the Saints is available now and definitely a book that should be added to your TBR lists right now. Set in 1940s New York City, the novel is a brilliant blend of historical elements, assassins and magic.
I luckily had the chance to do an interview with Johnson all about Trouble the Saints, including where the idea came from, the creative process behind the book and the fundamental characters throughout the novel.
Check out the full interview with Alaya Dawn Johnson below:
Where did the idea to blend historical elements, assassins and magic come from?
The main idea from the first was 1940s NYC, an assassin who wants out of the game and an uncanny ability that allows her to be a little too good at her job. Those basic building blocks were there from the start, so I’m not sure I could even call it an idea, so much as a character: Phyllis. Phyllis Green (a.k.a. “Le Blanc”, because she has a sense of humor) is a thirty-five-year-old hit woman who is passing as white with the mob. She’s dark, biting, self-reflective and dangerous as hell. She came to me seven years ago as a fully-formed character who gave me all of the clues I needed to flesh out her world and her magic system. However, the details that anchor the magic system into the plot and the themes took a lot of revisions for me to pin down. Tamara as oracle and the relationship between the hands and the ancestors, for example, were relatively late editions to the text that helped the whole story come together.
What was your reasoning behind choosing this particular time in history?
Probably the initial impulse was something as simple as wanting to write a noir story set in NYC and you don’t get more noir than the late thirties/early forties. Once I really got into the characters and the story, the specific moment of the summer before Pearl Harbor and the US entrance into WWII was a natural fit. It’s a strange, in-between time that is both calm and filled with violent potential. It’s a potent mirror of the inner states of the characters and the crossroads at which each of them finds themselves. I’m also really interested in general in themes of inter-generational trauma, and how as Faulkner said, the past is never dead, it’s not even past. The 40s is basically halfway between the Civil War and our present day. Which is to say, that for my characters the Civil War is still within the living memory of their oldest kin, just as the 40s is within living memory of our elders. The story is so much about our connection with the past and our hope for the future, and I wanted to write a novel capable of speaking both to the past of its characters and the present of its readers.
Which part (or parts) of the book was your favourite to write?
The biggest thrill I experienced was in the process of revising the second section, which is from Dev’s point-of-view. The process of writing this novel was really a process of extensive re-writing, over the course of seven years. All of my novels go through plenty of editing, but this novel really was intense. I completely changed narrative structures, points-of-view, tenses, major plot events, characters, in order to get the novel to the place that it needed to be. So Dev’s section was originally very different from the published version. And it just didn’t pop. The character was there, but the whole thing felt very heavy and lugubrious. I didn’t think Dev was like that, even though of course he’s at a very low point in his life. So in the revision process, this key idea hit me one day: what on earth was Dev doing back when he and Phyllis first met? I don’t want to give any spoilers, but that idea of going back and digging into the specifics of his side of the story back then just breathed life into the second section. I had a blast going back to incidents that Phyllis remembers in her first section and telling them again from Dev’s POV, which, let’s just say, puts a very different spin on things. I loved writing the layers of what each character knows and doesn’t know, remembers and chooses to forget.
While the book is set in the past, it seems more timely than ever. Is this something that was in the back of your mind while you were writing it?
Honestly, I think it was in the front of my mind! As I said earlier, part of what became clear to me as I wrote and re-wrote the novel is that setting it in the 40s allowed me to bridge our present time with the Civil War, this fundamental moment in African American history. It was a way to dramatize just how close our past is to our present, and why our present looks the way it does. Of course, I never could have predicted Covid-19 exposing all of the racist and classist fault lines of American society to such a degree that even white people have noticed, and certainly not the second civil rights movement we’re currently living through, but the issues have always been there for anyone who cared to see them, and they were certainly what I wanted to explore through a historical lens.
What would you describe your process being like in terms of creating the compelling characters found within Trouble The Saints?
Phyllis, as I mentioned, was really the lynchpin for the whole story. She came to me almost fully-formed. And one thing I knew about Phyllis from the start was that she was still hung up on her old boyfriend, a relationship that had ended badly ten years before. For whatever reason, that back story between Dev and Phyllis came to me before even the details about Victor and the mob life Phyllis was trying to get away from. But really each character led straight to the next. Phyllis and Dev led me to Tamara and Walter, who led me to Victor. I constructed this novel first from character details and from there the worldbuilding spread outward.
I really enjoyed that the book was divided into sections and each came from a different character’s point of view. What was your reasoning behind doing this, as opposed to having a singular voice telling the tale?
Characters are fundamental to this story, as I’ve mentioned, and I think specifically the fact that each character knows some things they never share, understands the others (and themselves!) imperfectly, meant that as a writer I was constantly interested in techniques that would allow me to dig into these cracks in their relationships. Not necessarily because their relationships are fractured, but because these are complicated people who have made some very bad choices. So when I realized I needed to continue the story past the expected stopping point (which is to say, after the traditional noir ending of the first section), I had the choice of continuing through Phyllis’s POV or switching. And in the end though staying with Phyllis would have been in a lot of ways easier, I knew that telling the story through the eyes of the people closest to her would do far more for the story I wanted to tell. So I went with it.
I liked that there a grey area morally as it pertained to Pea due to her being an assassin, but also wanting to do the right things. How was it to write a character like that who is always in flux and walks a fine line between right and wrong?
I think all of the characters inhabit these deep moral gray areas, but certainly Pea does even more so than Dev or Tamara. Part of the reason for that is that in this novel I wanted to explore violence, both structural and individual. I wanted to show how the choices you make as an individual can’t be separated from the structures of power that they uphold, which is to say, the violence with which they maintain their hegemony. So Pea’s decision to pass as a white woman, though at first she thinks of it as something that gives her freedom and autonomy, ends up being, just as much as her decision to be an assassin, something that brings with it a deep burden of guilt—or, as she calls it, a weight. The weight was what I wanted to explore in this novel. How do people with nothing but bad options choose among, and then how do they live with what they chose? Pea doesn’t think of killing as wrong (because she’s only killing people who deserve it, she imagines). She doesn’t think of passing as wrong (because she’s only taking advantage of gullible whites). But those dark choices take their toll on her anyway.
Trouble the Saints is available for purchase wherever books are sold, be sure to give it a read!