Interracial Struggles Amplify Adolescents’ Fears and Longings in Green

An exclusive Authorlink interview

April 2018

Green, Sam Graham-Felsen, Random House – Dave is a “half-Jewish” kid in a mostly black middle school in 1990s Boston. He has a hard time fitting in with pretty much everyone, but he meets Mar, a black kid who seems like just what he needs in a friend, and not only because of their mutual obsession with the Celtics.   

AUTHORLINK: What came first to you – the idea of writing about a rough school situation, your character, Dave, or some other aspect of your story? Where did it go from there?

. . . I wanted to write a story about a friendship between a white kid and a black kid in America.

GRAHAM-FELSEN: What came first was the idea that I wanted to write a story about a friendship between a white kid and a black kid in America. I wanted a situation that would allow me to explore racial themes from multiple angles — particularly the complexity of interracial friendship. I chose the early 90s because that is when I came of age — it’s a time period that has huge significance for me personally, and which I know well. I happened to have been one of a few white kids in my public middle school, so I had a lot of material to work with.

AUTHORLINK: When you were in sixth grade, were your classmates crude, beset by bullies, and already trying sex, alcohol, and tobacco?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: Some of my classmates were engaging in sexual activity — or at least were bragging about it. I certainly was not — I was way too uncool! To be honest, I don’t recall if my classmates were drinking or smoking, but I definitely knew kids in other schools who had begun to drink, or smoke cigarettes, and occasionally smoke weed, as early as 6th grade. As for me, I did not begin to experiment with alcohol or tobacco until high school — although I did swig some slivovitz plum brandy (the alcohol Dave first tries) that my grandmother bought me for my Bar Mitzvah.

AUTHORLINK: Did you have to do much research for the book or did you rely on your knowledge from growing up in Boston?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: I did a lot of research on American history, particularly around race. I knew that if I was tackling a subject as complex and sensitive as race, I wanted to have a pretty firm grasp of our country’s (often ugly) history. So I studied the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and school desegregation and the backlash to it. Mostly, I read books and watched documentaries, but I also audited a couple classes at Columbia taught by the eminent historian Eric Foner.

I spent a fair amount of time looking at my middle school year book, to try to get my descriptions of kids’ outfits and hairstyles as accurate as possible. I listened to a *lot* of early 90s hip-hop; any time I went on a run or did dishes, I was rapping along to Geto Boys, Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Nas, and others.

But yes, ultimately, I relied mostly on memory. This was the most formative year of my life. So much of what happened in that time period is still fresh in my memory — the sounds, the sights, even the smells.

I did a lot of research on American history, particularly around race.

AUTHORLINK: Did you have an idea of how Dave and Mar’s friendship would develop and struggle before you started writing, or did your ideas grow as you wrote?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: [SPOILER ALERT] I knew I wanted to write about a powerful friendship that failed. I didn’t want to write a Disney version of a story where everyone lives happily ever after. Because the reality of race in America is that everyone has not lived happily ever after. People of color are still discriminated against constantly, both by individuals and institutions, and American schools are more segregated than they were before Brown vs Board of Education. Gunnar Myrdal famously wrote, over fifty years ago, that America was not one society, but “two societies, one white, one black, separate and unequal” — and this remains largely true today. So separateness — segregation — is the reality of race relations in America, not unity. That’s why I knew I wanted to tell the story of a friendship that experienced a brief period of unity — that temporarily transcended race — but that ultimately ended, in large part, because of the social forces of racism that surround the two boys (and that Dave, the white kid, is not immune to).

The plot of the novel changed quite a bit in the draft process. I was constantly adding and deleting scenes . . .

So I knew that I wanted the friendship to end. But I didn’t know how it would get there. The plot of the novel changed quite a bit in the draft process. I was constantly adding and deleting scenes that show the boys getting along and deepening their friendship, as well as scenes where tensions build and cracks form in their friendship.

AUTHORLINK: Do you think your story can help people understand more about the complexities of race relations and the difficulties of early adolescence?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: I’ve gotten some really great feedback from people about how the book made them think deeply about issues of race, gender, inequality and adolescence — and that’s been really gratifying. Writing a novel is tough, because you spend all of this time — years! — by yourself in a room, alone with the page, plagued by self-doubt. You’re making up characters and scenes and constantly wondering, “Is this a huge, self-indulgent waste of time? Couldn’t I be doing something more productive, more helpful to society?” You keep your butt in the chair and keep writing because you hope that, by making up a story, you might be able to reach people on an emotional level, in a way that you can’t with plain facts. And so, to hear that this book has moved people — made them think about what it might be like to step into someone else’s shoes, maybe infused them with a particular sense of empathy or outrage they hadn’t felt before reading the book — has been really moving to me.

AUTHORLINK: What experiences have you had with writing before tackling this story?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: I was a journalist and blogger for The Nation, covering mostly youth and campus politics. On that beat, I began to cover the student movement forming around Barack Obama. When he finally declared his candidacy for president in 2007, I ended up leaving my job as a journalist to join the campaign, where I was hired as Obama’s chief blogger. In that capacity, I not only wrote a lot about Obama’s biography and policy positions, but interviewed hundreds of people from around the country who had joined Obama’s grassroots movement. I ended up writing mini-biographies of all these different people from all walks of life — farmers, veterans, miners, college students, etc. It was a wonderful experience. But I knew that I ultimately didn’t want to work in politics for the rest of my life. I craved the freedom to let my mind explore potentially controversial subject matters — and to write about them. You can’t really do that in politics — you have to stay as far away from controversy as you can. In fiction, you can go pretty much anywhere. I loved that freedom. Once I started writing fiction, I was hooked — I knew it was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

AUTHORLINK: How did the process go for you when you were looking for an agent and a publisher?

I wrote a manuscript for my MFA thesis and then sent it out to six agents. Two said no, and four said yes.

GRAHAM-FELSEN: I wrote a manuscript for my MFA thesis and then sent it out to six agents. Two said no, and four said yes. All of the agents who said yes were really smart and talented and it was an agonizing decision; I chose Elyse Cheney. I knew she would make me work really hard on the manuscript — and make it a better book — and that’s exactly what she did.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

GRAHAM-FELSEN: Another novel. For some reason, I just can’t write short stories. Every time I try to write one, I keep adding characters and backstory and then it becomes too big for a short story. The next novel I write will be way different from Green. I loved writing Green, but I’m excited by the idea of doing something that isn’t even close to semi-autobiographical. Something set far away from anywhere I’ve lived, featuring characters who are quite different from me and my friends and family. But I won’t go into specifics — I don’t want to jinx it!

About the Author: Sam Graham-Felsen was once a peanut vendor at Fenway Park. He received his MFA at Columbia. Green is his first novel. 

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