The Rumpus Book Club chats with Danzy Senna about her latest novel, New People (Riverhead Books, August 2017), inhabiting her characters without judging them, playing with the reality and surreality of identity, and pushing against the traditional story arcs and endings we are used to.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Carmen Maria Machado, Jon McGregor, Kate Braverman, Katia D. Ulysse, Melissa Broder, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Let’s get started! Danzy, thank you for joining us tonight and for writing such a wonderful book. It’s a page-turner; I read it in one sitting and have heard the same from many others.
Danzy: Hello! Glad to be here.
Marisa: When did you start writing New People? Was there any specific inspiration for Maria’s character or how the story began to unfold for you?
Danzy: I was thinking a lot about the era that I came of age—the 1990s. Brooklyn, in particular, this moment when I lived there. The sense of possibility. I was also trying to find a way to write about Jonestown. I had read about it a lot and I had the sense that the story could really start to drive one over the edge. Maria emerged out of these interests.
MRuderman: Hello everyone—I’m looking forward to learning about this book. It was very interesting.
Marisa: That makes a lot of sense. I have a question about the Jonestown piece of it, but first, how long did the book take you to write from start to finish?
And hi, everyone! Thanks for joining us!
Danzy: I wrote the first draft quickly (relatively) but it had been percolating a lot longer. It’s a hard question to answer because I’d been working on another novel for years and when I gave up on that, this one came very easily. But I think the work had been going on a lot longer than the actual writing.
Marisa: Why did you give up on the other novel? And yes, I think (from asking this question many times now) a lot of the time when a book comes quickly the mental work goes on for years prior.
Danzy: There was something in it that wasn’t moving forward. I think I couldn’t quite find the story. Sometimes a character’s problem starts to bleed into the novel itself, the writing, and my character in the other novel didn’t want anything. I think Maria had more energy because she wanted things (or a person, anyway).
Danzy: I also, on a practical level, had two children and they were young, demanding, and more interesting to me than my novel at the time.
Marisa: I hear that. My son turned three today. It’s all about him right now.
Danzy: Yes. Motherhood. It was hard to get lost in anything else completely when they were that age.
Marisa: Your characters are fascinating—Maria, but also the secondary characters, who don’t really feel secondary at all. Each seems to have a critical role in the narrative and in (what I’m imagining to be) the larger story you’re trying to tell. Does that ring true? How do you see the characters who orbit around Maria?
Danzy: I was particularly fond of her mother, Gloria, because she is so much inside Maria’s head, the way mothers can be, even from the grave. And she was a great opportunity for social commentary. Her voice really spoke to me.
Adriana: I loved the line like who wants a husband to be awake all the time.
Danzy: Hah. Me, too. Thanks.
Marisa: Yes, Gloria had some of my favorite lines! I was also really interested in the role of the poet. And Maria as Consuela the nanny—how did that come to you?
Danzy: The poet I think remains a little oblique, both to her and us. In terms of Consuela, I’ve always been interested in mistaken identity. The ways that people can get read wrong, but how mistakes begin to infiltrate us. I wanted to play out a possibility. I also wanted to write something kind of dream-like and dangerous at the same time. Sort of playing with the reality and surreality of identity.
Marisa: Did you ever consider having the ending be more concrete, or perhaps go in a different direction in that final scene with the baby?
Danzy: No. I was really clear on where I wanted to end it. I don’t like stories that are too neat and too resolved. And that didn’t seem to fit with this story to me. I wanted it to end in the middle. I think resolutions can be deadening for the reader. At least this reader.
MRuderman: A good question, Marisa. I have a lot of curiosity about the ending—I don’t think I’ve ever read an ending quite like this one.
Marisa: It certainly left me with a lot to think about. The tension in that final scene was palpable; I agree that I’ve never read an ending quite like it.
Danzy: I’m increasingly less interested in classic storylines and that arc that we have come to expect.
Marisa: How did you come to weave Jonestown into the story? You mentioned wanting to write about it; is it something you had studied in school?
Danzy: I had been really obsessed with Jonestown for a long time—many years—and had read everything there was to read about it, seen all the footage and the documentaries. I found it really chilling in a personal way—the question of people submitting all their personal power and agency and independent thought it the name of a group or ideology. I could not find a way to write about it directly that didn’t feel too heavy. When I was writing Maria it just felt like the natural place for all that material to enter my writing, finally.
I didn’t read about it for school. It was just for myself. I was interested in cults in general but Jonestown was the most interesting of all the cults I studied.
Marisa: It did feel very natural and intrinsic to Maria’s character and the larger narrative. I am somewhat cult-obsessed and fascinated by the power of cult leaders, too, and have read about Jonestown some. I’ve never seen a famous cult used in quite this way—everything about this novel is strikingly different, in the best way.
Danzy: Thanks. I think cults never stop being interesting and I’m intrigued by how we all do a tiny bit of submitting to a larger group—and how they can sneak up on you.
Marisa: Yes! And how intelligent people, who assume only less intelligent people fall into cults, can be sucked in, too.
Marisa: Can we talk about race? You’re tackling some hefty subject matter around race and identity in the book.
Danzy: I guess the subject of race is so natural to me I never think of it as hefty. It’s something I talk about and joke about and discuss with my loved ones every day of my life. But yes, we can talk about it. What, in particular?
Marisa: I think I was particularly interested in Maria’s interest in the shade of one’s skin. Let me be clearer: I mean how dark is the skin, are you light-skinned black or dark-skinned black, are you biracial or do you identify with one race. These seems to weigh heavily on her mind throughout.
Danzy: Is she interested in the shade? It’s funny. I think I read her very differently than other readers. Which is probably always the case with fictional creations. I’m not trying to be coy, but I think everyone notices these things but some people are more aware that they are noticing them than others, maybe. If that makes sense.
Marisa: Yes, that makes sense to me. And especially with the background that comes in through Gloria and the adoption, it seems important and natural for Maria to question these things. I found her relationship with Lisa especially interesting. Do you try to inhabit your characters’ heads?
Danzy: She has been raised as a black person in a racialized country so it seems like it would be weird if she had not developed a language that was racialized. I try to inhabit my main character and never judge them.
Adriana: That birthday dinner and bathroom scene were brutal with Maria and Lisa. I felt guilty on behalf of Maria.
Danzy: In terms of how she’s dishonest, you mean? Her obsession with the poet?
Adriana: Yes, in a way, and in terms of her aspiring to this family’s ideals.
Marisa: The never judging seems especially important. And difficult.
Danzy: I think about some of the novels I love—The Stranger, Disgrace, Quicksand and Passing, Giovanni’s Room, The Talented Mr. Ripley. I think I’m more intrigued by characters who don’t do the right thing and where we are allowed to identify with their shame/dishonesty/envy… whatever.
Marisa: I think for me, Lisa was an interesting counterpoint to Maria.
Danzy: In what way?
Marisa: Lisa seemed surer of herself, but maybe only on the surface? Lisa also ended up dating the mysterious poet, whereas Maria just watches and wonders about dating him. For me, Lisa helped me access Maria in a different way. I found more empathy for Maria through Lisa’s role in the story, I think.
Danzy: Interesting. I definitely feel like when I write a book it’s not my job to police or guide the readers. The book and the characters don’t belong to me anymore. If that makes sense. So my reading of Maria and Lisa and all these characters may be very different from yours.
Marisa: Yes, of course! Which characters were the “main characters” for you? Who did you spend the most time inhabiting? Was there a character you especially identified with?
Danzy: I inhabited Maria, obviously, but in all my stories and novels I find myself speaking through the other characters, putting ideas in their voices and heads. Writing almost becomes a splitting of myself into multiple personalities. But I don’t write to make an argument on behalf of any of the characters, or to prove anything about a character. I think that’s important that I be serving the story first and not my own point of view.
Marisa: When you finish a book, do you finish with the character, too, or do they linger for you?
Danzy: Sometimes they feel done. In terms of Maria, she did not feel entirely done, in a good way. I grew attached to her predicament and it was hard to leave this story.
Danzy: I just wanted to get back to the question about Maria noticing people’s skin tones. I think maybe what’s different about Maria is that she notices whiteness. Perhaps that’s what is striking.
Marisa: I think it was also how she thinks about Jonestown where that struck me, especially because my Wikipedia rabbit hole reading about Jonestown wasn’t nearly as thoughtful. So yes, I could see that. Her noticing whiteness. And how she notices Khalil’s pull toward and away from it. I can’t remember the name of Khalil’s friend right now, but those scenes were striking.
Danzy: I see what you mean. Yes. The friend thinks she’s anti-Semitic and she thinks he is racist. Ethan. I was interested in how the language of race and identity politics can be a screen for other hostilities and desires.
Marisa: Yes, Ethan. The holdover from college before Khalil abandoned the granola earthy hacky-sackers.
Danzy: Right. His one remaining white friend. Their fight hinges on whether she thinks Woody Allen movies are funny or not.
Marisa: I think that’s what maybe I’m trying to parse out. The way talking about race and identity in this book was very present but really was a way into the minds of the characters and what baggage they might be carrying.
Danzy: Yes. It always is. I’m felt I was writing about love and desire and community and belonging and grief and a whole host of other issues. But race is never far from the surface.
Marisa: You already mentioned some books you love, but can you share some of the authors whose work has influenced your writing most?
Danzy: I was influenced growing up by everything from Harlequin romances to Dostoyevsky and Camus, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and later Lydia Davis, Mary Gaitskill, bell hooks…
Danzy: And a lot of movies, too. And music.
Marisa: I was just going to say, feel free to add film and/or music in! Do you listen to music when you write?
Danzy: Repulsion and The Tenant (Polansky), Todd Haynes’s Safe, Chameleon Street, Don’t Look Now. I love horror movies and thrillers. In terms of music, each novel is different but I usually find my way into an era through the music. In this novel, I listened to a lot of 90s hip-hop, which was just so genius. Also, all the musical references in the book from the Peoples Temple one and only album to Luther Vandross.
Marisa: Oh! I forgot I wanted to ask about the musical references re: Peoples Temple. I keep meaning to do some googling there, but between the Rumpus and the kiddo, not so much free time for Google rabbit holes right now. So those are all real, the clips of the singers?
Danzy: Yes. You can listen to the album online. it’s amazing, totally heartbreaking. Those are the lyrics to the songs on the album they produced in 1974. It is so filled with hope and idealism. Everything I wrote about the Peoples Temple and Jonestown in this book is based in reality.
Marisa: That’s fascinating and yes, I can imagine, totally heartbreaking.
Danzy: Maria’s research in a way became my research, so I was able to access her that way.
Marisa: We’re coming up on the end of the hour. Danzy, what are you reading now? Any forthcoming books you are especially excited about?
MRuderman: There are two things I enjoy when I read a novel. One is the novel itself, because I like a good story. The other is learning and understanding how the author did the writing. It’s been great to find out about this book, Danzy, and Marisa, I really appreciate your comments and questions—thank you!
Adriana: Loved the book! Thank you!
Marisa: Thank you for joining us! It was great to learn a little about how such a unique and wonderful novel comes together. And thank you everyone for joining the chat as well! Danzy, I think we all look forward to reading whatever you write next!
Danzy: Thanks. I appreciate your interest and questions.
Author photograph © Mara Casey.