What We Inherit: Talking with Chanelle Benz
I began reading The Gone Dead as summer’s heat creeped into my apartment in late May. I had to move apartments in a week and hadn’t yet packed, but all I wanted to do was read. Ignoring my belongings and ever-growing to do list, I devoured Chanelle Benz’s debut novel about a woman’s return to the Mississippi Delta, where her father, a black poet and activist, died under mysterious circumstances. Upon Billie’s arrival, she learns that her father’s death may be more suspect than she initially assumed.
As Billie searches for the truth, the book dips into the perspectives of those around her, creating a rich tapestry of voices. In The Gone Dead, Chanelle Benz has melded a homecoming narrative with the tensions of a mystery, all while pulling the reader along with sparse, literary language. This is a complex, unflinching novel that asks its readers to examine our understanding of injustice, memory, violence, and slavery’s impact on our society today.
Over the course of an hour, Chanelle and I spoke on the phone about her visits to the Mississippi Delta, the differences between the short story and novel form, fighting for our humanity in our current political climate, confronting our country’s racist history, the beauty of community narratives, and, of course, the power of stories.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on The Gone Dead, Chanelle. This was such an arresting story. How did this novel begin for you—with a character, a scene, a premise?
Chanelle Benz: Thank you. I was living in southern Mississippi at the time and taking trips up north, and I started to do a little bit of reading and research about civil rights-era cold cases. Most of my writing starts with a voice, but when I began this novel I was thinking about this one case, Clifton Walker, who had a job at a paper factory, a job that was traditionally meant for white men. People started spreading rumors about him being too friendly with white women. These factories were one of the main industries in the Delta at the time and hotspots for Klan activity. One night, while he was riding home and turning down this one road, a bunch of men shot into his car and killed him. His family’s house was right up the hill, and one of his children came running down and saw the bloody car.
Years later, this journalist Ben Greenburg composed a couple of articles and a mini-documentary that followed this story and interviewed his children. The thing that struck me the most was that they had to grow up in this town knowing that the people they were passing on the street knew who did it and might be the perpetrators. I was interested in the idea of having to interact with people who know the worst thing that ever happened to you, but will never tell you what actually transpired. I also got interested in the idea of childhood memories, specifically the consequential things that have happened to us that we have only heard about and have invented images and narratives to go along with, and the memories that we don’t know and find out about as adults. Sometimes you find out about what actually took place and think, I make so much sense now, you know?
Rumpus: In the novel, Billie finds out that she went missing right after her father’s death and the narrative unfolds from there. Did you know how the book would end? I’m always fascinated by writers who write without knowing versus writers who write with a clear idea.
Benz: I almost always have an idea about how it’s going to end. I always knew that there would be a confrontation between Billie and someone who might have done it, a confrontation between two different worlds. But I had no idea how to get there or what needed to happen before that point. Obviously, it had to be a novel’s worth of interesting stuff, unlike a short story, where you’re trying to find the fastest, most dynamic way to get to the end.
Rumpus: You mentioned you were reading cold cases earlier, and The Gone Dead takes place in 2003, but it’s also very much about the Delta’s past with the civil rights movement and how it’s colliding against violent white supremacy. What kind of research did you do?
Benz: I did so much research that at one point I thought, Do I need to get my PhD? Because as you do research for something like this, when some of these people and their families are still alive, there were moments when it felt daunting. I wanted to know what the 1970s were like in the Delta, and there’s not much literature on that. But even to know the 70s you have to go back to the civil rights era, and to know that you have to go back to the aftermath of World War II, to know that you have to go back to Reconstruction, you know what I mean? I kept finding that I had to go back.
I just had to tell myself, “You’re not trying to be a scholar.” I definitely have that nerdy side, but I needed to remind myself, “You’re relying on your imagination. That’s what you do well.” I’m not writing a definitive history of the Delta and I was also really trying to tap into those who have been unremembered. Now there are some websites you can find, and the Equal Justice Initiative now has a catalogue of lynchings, but there are stories that are not on the Internet, believe it or not. I think that the weight of this is partly why I made Billie somebody who didn’t really grow up there, the stranger who returns home.
I also did a lot of research on the Black Arts Movement and the experience of the civil rights era in Mississippi. I started gravitating towards voices specifically, looking at autobiographies that were written at that time, recordings, and documentaries. I was really trying to tap into people who were there, their perspective and their rhythms. Description is not something that comes right away for me, so I went back to the Delta when I could and jotted things down, like sayings, and went to different museums and historical sites.
But, at a certain point, you have to build a springboard of research and just jump. Some voices came faster, and some voices took me awhile to say, “Okay there is ground under my feet. I can just risk now.”
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about that. I love talking about structure, and your book alternates third-person narratives. Billie, the woman who returns home, is the through line, but we also get the voices of other characters—her cousin Lola, Harlan, Carlotta, Dr. Melvin Hurley. How did you decide on that structure? How did you keep track of each character’s unique voice?
Benz: At one point Billie was in first person, her mother in second person, and found documents in first and third. I went back and forth with the structure for a long time. Billie’s voice was the hardest, partly because this novel feels closer to traditional realism, unlike a lot of the stories in my collection. Billie’s voice was just not as dialed up as some of the other voices so it took me awhile for her to feel fully fleshed out. It really only happened when I realized that this was a community narrative. The other voices needed to be there, and not just in dialogue. It’s kind of how, when you’re building mythology about a character, it’s so much easier for someone to say about a character “they’re a badass” as opposed to the character trying to prove that they’re one. It takes the pressure off of that character if people say, “that girl needs to watch out for herself” and then we, the readers, are worried for her. So I felt that I could build a lot of tension using those characters.
I also wanted to veer away from certain stereotypes. There are a lot of morally ambivalent characters in the book, and I wanted to complicate them. That couldn’t always come through Billie because there’s too much she doesn’t know and shouldn’t authentically ever really know. Even if she finds out parts of the truth, she’s not going to really find out people’s motivations or how they rationalize the past to themselves.
Rumpus: And Billie is a stranger who has returned home, so there’s a lot hidden from her.
Benz: Yes, so there was a while where I had pieces of paper all over my office walls like a lunatic. I had color-coded the different people, like Harlan B1, Harlan B2, and I rearranged them thinking about causality, which is something one of my mentors George Saunders talked about a lot. How does what happens here make the next thing happen? How can I get the most charge from scene to scene? Then, as I was rearranging I would notice, Oh, Lola stops talking and there’s half of the book left, so I’d realize she needs to have one more beat, she needs to have her own arc.
I wanted the novel to feel balanced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a strict kind of symmetry as far as the structure. I was thinking also of As I Lay Dying and how Addie is the hub of that wheel—her dying, her death, her body. So I felt like Cliff’s death is really the hub here because everyone is bouncing off of that, and that will keep things central.
Rumpus: At one point in the novel, Billie thinks to herself, “But this place is in her blood and her blood is in the land and the land is her.” I realized that the place is a central character in this novel, too. You even have a slim chapter from the perspective of Avalon, the local bar.
Benz: That just came to me. At first one of my readers asked if I would have another [Avalon] chapter. I thought about it for a long time, and decided no. It doesn’t have anything else to say.
Having spent time in Mississippi and the Delta, there’s a haunted quality to the state, a wounded quality. It’s like the Faulkner quote, “To understand the world, you have to understand a place like Mississippi.” I do think that’s true of our country. Just because Mississippi is forty-ninth or fiftieth by certain measurements, we like to think that racism is more overt there or it’s more backwards, but I think things are just more out in the open. Because the Delta is so sparsely populated and people don’t leave or move that much, the relationships there are very intimate. People have known each other for generations, even if they have this shared woundedness and tension.
Rumpus: Maybe, it’s more complicated by the fact that there are those relationships that go back generations.
Benz: Yes, the past just feels more palpable there. It’s a hard thing to take, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.
Rumpus: From the beginning of your book, I could see that it was steeped in these questions about race, class, violence, injustice, and our country’s history. The questions that Billie is trying to grapple with regarding what happened to her father is linked to the racism in her present 2003 world. I’m thinking of the scene where she’s talking to Harlan and says that if her cousin was white, he wouldn’t be in jail for selling weed. All of that rings true now in 2019, too.
Benz: I guess in some ways it feels like when Trump was elected and all these things started to happen with his overtly racist speeches and xenophobic fomenting, a lot of white progressive voters felt so shocked and surprised, but most black people were not surprised at all. You know what I mean?
Rumpus: Oh yeah.
Benz: The horribleness is that we’re living in hateful times. The positive is that a lot of people who didn’t have to see or want to see these daily injustices are now having to see it. It’s been ongoing, but a certain privileged section of the population didn’t have to deal with it until now.
When I was writing this book in the Obama era, people still wanted to talk about a post-racial society. I was teaching at the time, and I would sometimes have to convince my students that racism was alive and relevant. I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s not a question. It’s kind of a relief to see in our national conversation—and in our Twitter conversations—that people know this and there are a lot of scholars who now have more of a public voice who are articulating and unpacking race in our country in a way that I’ve wanted to say for so long, but never had the language. It’s such a relief to think, Yes, that is exactly what I felt like when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what to call it. It’s a real thing and other people have felt it, too. I do think that despite the darkness, there is a communal response of people coming together.
But it doesn’t lessen the terror of being terrorized. It feels like every time we take a collective step forward, some bigoted judge undoes something. And it does feel like sometimes we’re drowning, but I also feel that in the drowning moments, a lot of important art gets made. We’re basically fighting for our humanity right now.
Rumpus: Yes, we are. What do you think that fiction and a book like yours can do during this time?
Benz: I think that storytelling and narrative have always been central. I don’t necessarily mean fiction specifically, but I do think that an exchange of stories has the power to move people. It has the power to allow them to experience empathy or switch perspectives. I also feel like we’re not a country that values learning the darker, complicated parts of our history. We don’t do what Germany does about the history and legacy of the Holocaust for slavery. And if you’re a country that was founded on enslaving and massacring people and you don’t recognize that there’s blood in your foundation, then that’s never going to heal. There has to be a reckoning if there’s going to ever be a reconciliation.
The steps we have made, that people have died over, it’s still not enough. I definitely felt that about these civil rights-era cold cases. There’s so little marking the fact that these took place. And what can a sign do? Well, the sign says this is important, this happened, remember this. That’s all that it can do, but the fact that it’s not there but the confederate statues outside of court houses are, proves what a good job segregation and Jim Crow and the institutions that supported them did at rewriting the history of slavery or hiding it.
What I’m trying to say is that one of the things I hope that my book is doing is complicating these ideas and complicating the idea of generational trauma, about what we pass down and what we inherit. Sometimes it’s stories that only our body knows. There’s starting to be a lot of work about genetics and that’s really satisfying when you see that yes, you can pass down the trauma that happened to your grandparents. That feels really validating for people who have been told and are continuing to be told to “suck it up” or “that wasn’t you” or “I didn’t enslave anybody.” We can now say, “that’s not the way humans work.”
We find out so many things, like I was just reading this Rhiannon Giddens profile in the New Yorker.
Rumpus: I loved that profile.
Benz: Yes! And realizing that there was this famous black person that somehow has been written out of the history books, who was the antebellum black fiddler.
Rumpus: That was such a sad and fascinating story.
Benz: Yeah, but I think that our history has been filled with people who have been forgotten or omitted or silenced. Especially as a woman, it was very hard to have any access to being an artist or a scientist but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist or didn’t contribute or aren’t responsible for a lot of our progression. I feel that even about the civil rights era, a lot has gotten omitted or sanitized. I think in a time that feels so complicated, it’s good to remember how complicated the past was. I’m hoping my book brings out these complications, and shows that the civil rights era didn’t just end with the Voting Rights Act. The national attention left, so most of us don’t know what happened to Mississippi after Freedom Summer, but it wasn’t the end.
Photograph of Chanelle Benz by Andrew Hamilton.