The Dream Does What It Wants: Talking with David Santos Donaldson


A good book always leaves you with something, almost like a taste in your mouth. More times than not, it’s a feeling, an emotion, a thought—maybe some combination of all three. Sometimes whatever stays with you bubbles up like a can of soda that’s just been opened—almost like a reflex—upon seeing that book at a bookstore, or its spine peeking out from a friend’s bookshelf. After I finished Greenland by David Santos Donaldson, I was almost in a stupor. I kept walking into rooms and forgetting what I needed to do. It is a trip—both metaphorically and literally. Like the title suggests, we end up in Greenland, but how (and why) is a wild ride that renders the reader disoriented in the best way possible.

Kip Starling has only three weeks to deliver a complete manuscript to a legendary book editor who’s promised to consider his novel for publication, but only if he can successfully re-write the whole thing. Locking himself in his Brooklyn basement study with twenty-one gallons of Poland Spring and a pistol, he immerses himself in his writing to tell the story of Mohammad el Adl, the young Egyptian lover of British author E.M. Forster. Like Kip, Mohammad is Black, queer, and well-educated. Two lives, lived almost a century apart, run parallel amid confrontations with Whiteness, homophobia, and their white romantic partners. As Kip plunges deeper into his protagonist’s psyche, Mohammad’s story veers off the page, and the two collide in a quest to wander the wilderness for truth.

I sat with the questions I wanted to ask, the ones that tugged at me long after I finished reading. Donaldson, a finalist for the Urban Stages Emerging Playwright Award, was kind enough to answer them over email with the same care and attention he unequivocally devoted to every sentence in his dazzling debut.


The Rumpus: It is clear from the beginning that this novel is thoroughly thought out—not a syllable out of place! Fact and fiction are blended so seamlessly that there’s no room for oscillation; they move as one, like a pair of figure skaters. Tell me about how you got started on this book.

David Santos Donaldson: Well, thank you. It’s very gratifying to hear the novel seems carefully constructed. The truth is the initial experience of writing this novel didn’t feel meticulous or careful at all. I wrote it very fast, almost rushed compared to other things I’d written before. I wanted to give the writing the same urgency the narrator, Kip, feels working on his deadline. I knew I was doing something strange, almost unprecedented: mixing genres of historical and semi-autobiographical fiction; adding essay-like sections, poetry, and fantastical magical elements. I didn’t want to waste too much time on a project I feared had little chance of getting published, but I also knew that if it could work, I wanted it to be more accessible than stuff I’d previously written—which was more lyrical and subtle. So, in writing Greenland, I was more honest, straightforward, and less concerned with making “good writing.” Which allowed me to write faster. In the end, I was surprised my agent actually loved it.

I think readers often suspect writers are a lot cleverer than most of us are. Ironically, writing is the exact opposite of being careful. In the end, it’s like a magician’s illusion; it only looks seamless. By the time I came back to rewriting the beginning pages (which were rewritten maybe thirty times after the first draft), I already knew the ending. I rewrote and rewrote the beginning pages, adding and emphasizing key notes (certain words, or ideas that I know will be repeated later) to make it look as if the seeds were carefully planted from the beginning, to produce the inevitable conclusion. It didn’t start that way. I’m sure you’ve heard the axiom, “Writing is rewriting.” For me, that’s absolutely true. That’s when all of the tricks of the trade come in—when the magician’s illusions are honed. It’s art. It’s supposed to look seamless.

Rumpus: Your book reminds me of one of my other favorite books: Naamah by Sarah Blake. It recounts the story of the Great Flood from the perspective of Noah’s wife, Naamah, who, by the way, isn’t even named in the Bible. Was there ever a possibility of this book telling the story of Forster and Mohammad’s relationship purely from Mohammad’s perspective? How did you arrive at a novel-within-a-novel?

Donaldson: Yes, the novel actually started out as only Mohammed’s story. Before Greenland, I had written another novel, a fictionalized account of the relationship between E.M. Forster or “Morgan” (as he was mostly called) and Mohammed. It was based on a great deal of research; and it very closely followed the actual historical facts. I was prompted by an editor (someone greatly admired in most literary circles, and quite brilliant), who suggested I write it from Mohammed’s perspective. I took his suggestion to heart. The problem was, after six years working on the other Forster novel, I was sick and tired of the subject. Tired of being immersed in England and Egypt of the early 1900s. It began to feel like torture to write it all over again. At first, I was somewhat intrigued by Mohammed telling his story from jail (he was imprisoned during this period for illegal possession of firearms), but after two chapters from Mohammed’s point of view, I was bored to death. But I felt I had to give it a try for the big editor. So, one day, angrily, and very frustrated, I approached the task. I have a way of working that I don’t filter out anything when I start writing each day. Whatever I’m feeling at the moment I sit down, I let it rip from there onto the page. I make it part of the story. So, angrily, I sat down and wrote. “I feel like I’m writing this damn novel with a gun to my head!” I kept ranting on the page, knowing, of course, I’d cut it all, or maybe use a sentence or two if I was lucky, but, the more I went on, the more dramatically the voice emerged. Not exactly me, but the desperate part of me, perhaps exaggerated: “I feel trapped in this study, like I’m locked in here! Why am I rewriting this shit?” Like that. And then, my imagination took over, and a full persona emerged. It was Kip. He had locked himself in the basement, boarded up the doors, determined to finish this damned Mohammed story, and he had a gun with him. Now it was life or death.

The rest, as they say, is history. I began to get interested in how Kip was going to tell Mohammed’s story. What elements he’d emphasize or leave out. I saw how Kip was a vehicle for me to voice some of my own experiences. I had often been encouraged to write memoir stuff, but I hated the idea. I always felt like my actual life was not that interesting. Who cares what I bought at the supermarket, or ate for breakfast? It’s odd because I love memoirists who can make art out of real life. Like you, Greg! Genius and funny and insightful. And I love Knausgaard too! I wish I could be that interested in myself and have such insights about mundane things in life. But fiction seems to be my way to explore issues close to me without it actually being about me.

Rumpus: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that we, at some point, end up in Greenland. Did you know how the book was going to end from the get-go?

Donaldson: I had no idea! I knew I wanted it to end with Kip finding resolution to his question about his true voice, but I didn’t have a clue how. I truly trusted in the journey. I also relieved myself from any notions of coming up with the perfect, wise answer. There is nothing worse than didactic literature. I was fine with just coming up with questions—hopefully ones that would resonate with the reader. But there came a point when I realized I had stuck my protagonist in a closet essentially; and I had no idea how or if I was ever going to get him out. Initially, I had imagined his entire journey to the wilderness to be metaphorical, as a place inside of him. But that became tricky to pull off if I was trying to keep the plot moving forward.

During this period, I was talking to my therapist, a Jungian (and, by the way, I advise any fiction writer who can afford it, to an get a Jungian analyst; they know their myths and narratives and how to tap into the dreamscape, which is so useful for a writer). My therapist said, “Well if you’re stuck, then, I guess you’re going to have to go to the wilderness.” And I was still thinking of the metaphoric place and he said, “No, no, no . . . I mean you’re gonna have to go to the real wilderness.” “Me or my character?” I asked. He shrugged, “Maybe both.” And that blew my mind. Then I looked into renting a hut in the woods somewhere, like Thoreau, but that never worked out. However, I realized then, my narrator, Kip, definitely needed to go to the actual wilderness.

Rumpus: Were you working off of an outline—or some version of one—when writing this book? How did you ensure that everything tied together with such precision if you didn’t?

Donaldson: When I write I approach it as a spiritual practice. I meditate before I work and then I start from a place of saying “yes” to whatever comes up when I begin to write. I also either pretend or believe (fine line sometimes) that the words are coming from a place beyond me, that I’m just a vehicle channeling a voice. I know it’s me. But it’s like the same me that dreams. I’m not fully responsible or in control of what comes up from the unconscious. I need this kind of freedom to write. There’s no censoring going on. The voice or dream does what it wants or needs to do. I just listen and record. And if I butt in and try to make something happen because it seems clever, the voice says, “No—that’s not what I said. Not that way. It’s like this.” I used to think I could plot everything out. I used index cards and approached a novel like Syd Field teaches writing screenplays. I abandoned that idea for the thrill of being constantly surprised by what the unconscious has to say.

I owe all the polish and seeming synchronicity of the plot to my unconscious and then to the rewriting process, which also is quite creative, by the way. It’s then when I see all the connections I hadn’t even realized I’d made. Often, it’s like reading someone else’s work; and I say, “Wow, he echoed this idea in another chapter, too. Let me pump that up for him. Or let me go back and add a word, or even dialogue, so his theme or idea is even stronger.” It’s like that. When crafting the work, I find it helpful to think of it as if it’s someone else’s words I’m editing. Then I can be less attached to the precious bits and use my red pen to judiciously strike through whole passages, pages even, without injuring my sensitive ego too much. It’s all tricks of the mind. But it helps.

Rumpus: When it comes to point of view, what made the first person the right vehicle to tell this story?

Donaldson: I used to avoid using the first person. A lot of British-educated folk, as I was, have been conditioned to think this way, too. I think it’s seen as self-indulgent to relish in the “I” perspective. I always secretly fancied myself more of a Dostoyevsky type of writer—in the sense of having a polyphonic style. I felt like I had so many identities inside of me, conflicting and diverse parts, that it seemed a waste to limit myself to a single consistent voice. I’m not consistent at all. I don’t want to be. I think it’s a problem to get too identified with being one particular way. We need room to grow, evolve, and become a completely different person if we want to.

I was given the assignment (of sorts) to rewrite my novel from Mohammed’s point of view. I started with his voice telling his story. First person. Since my only examples of Mohammed’s actual voice were from letters to Forster—cryptic, more like haiku poems than conversational—I took that approach for his narrative voice.

The voice of Kip came out of an exasperated desperate place in me, and so he has a bit of that histrionic quality. I began to see the power of the first person. I could still try to do what Dostoyevsky does—get inside a person’s head and thoughts—but also, I could have a single character’s voice grow and change and become different, too. In Dostoyevsky, characters don’t grow very much; they tend to represent certain archetypes. Each Karamazov brother is a recognizable type standing for a separate world view. They each live out the full trajectory of that perspective. It became fascinating to realize Kip didn’t have to be like that, so consistent—especially if I brought the reader along with me, to see how the changes were happening in him. I also discovered new ways to get into the minds of characters, through their actions and speech. A person could say one thing while their actions indicated the opposite. And so, without being privy to their thoughts, we’d know they were ambivalent, for example. The limitation of the first-person voice actually forced me to become a better writer. It made me focus on the small telling details in behavior that reveal a character’s interior experience. Now I’m a real fan of the first-person voice.

Rumpus: You draw on some of your own lived experiences in this book. Did the writing process yield any moments of clarity?

Donaldson: I think when you sit down to write a novel, you better have a premise or issue that you’re dying to understand. Even better if it’s an issue that plagues you—one that you need to understand in order to find any peace at all. Otherwise, I don’t know how you could have the stamina to write a novel. To come back day after day, for hours at a time, for years at a time, with your full life force for the same damn story. For me, there were many such questions, issues. The main one was: How do I, a queer Black man, find my true voice in the midst of Whiteness? I don’t think I’ve found a definitive answer but through writing Greenland, I did find some clarity that has transformed my relationship to this question.

While writing Greenland I heard someone say, “One’s story is only as strong as its villain.” I panicked. I didn’t really have a villain, I thought. At the time, I was trying to finish reading Moby Dick (I still am). In my novel, I don’t have an Ahab! Then I thought about the whale itself. And, of course, there is that famous chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Melville even references Whiteness as it pertains to the identity of white people. That’s when I realized, “That’s it!” Whiteness is my story’s villain. And it’s a monster. It shows up in all its ugliness in almost every chapter. It’s out to annihilate our protagonist.

This was a revelation to me, and helped me shape the story, but it also made me realize that this is what I was up against personally, as well. We all are, especially in America, up against an almost invisible force, lurking about in our deep waters: Whiteness. This is what Melville was talking about. I realized that calling it out, wherever it shows up (even in me) is what’s important. Shouting at it, letting it know I am not going to let it lurk about, invisibly. It doesn’t matter if I can’t kill it completely. I only have to meet it with all my force and let it know I will make my noise every time it tries to stealthily creep up on me. I learned this conviction while writing Greenland.

Rumpus: What was the reason you addressed intercommunity hatred, or even self-hatred, in your writing? What was it like exploring these issues in fiction?

Donaldson: Intercommunity hatred, or self-hatred, are topics I find compelling. One of those nagging issues I need to continue to get more clarity about. Identity is a double-edged sword. Any identity that becomes so important it prevents you from being fully yourself is a hindrance to self-love. Internalized homophobia or internalized racism are poisonous things, and I think those phenomena come out of a need to fix an identity so that it can remain in either a lower or higher status to another. White over Black, straight over gay, male over female, etc. Clinging to a fixed identity—even one gender, or one race, or one sexual orientation—also comes with the idea of adopting certain traits and characteristics; and this can limit who we conceive ourselves to be. Of course, we need boundaries, we can’t be amorphous amoeba. We need definitions to differentiate ourselves from others and the environment. We need to be able to say, This is me. Difference is good; it allows us the pleasure of connection. You can’t connect with yourself—you need another for that. But these different traits in us should be mutable, and be allowed to change as we grow. The idea of a fixed identity is a complex thing. I’m still exploring these questions in life, in my writing, it’s an ongoing process.

Rumpus: How similar are you to Kip in terms of you both being writers? Do you share any of his habits? Have you locked yourself in a basement to finish Greenland?

Donaldson: This is an odd and confusing piece of fiction because it is so many things at once. It is complete fiction; it is also complete truth—both for Mohammed’s story and for Kip’s. I recently heard an interview with Michael R. Jackson who wrote the Pulitzer-winning play, A Strange Loop. Another Black queer story of a play-within-a play. Jackson was asked a similar question and I completely relate to his answer. I can say almost the same thing: Kip is not me; he’s younger and less mature and more confused about who he is. But there is also no experience Kip has that doesn’t also reflect my emotional truth. Kip has borrowed a lot from my experiences to inform how he reacts to his world. It’s all very tricky of me as a writer (kind of mischievous, really). I start the story off from a place where Kip is almost the same as me—Black, queer, British-educated, living in Brooklyn, writing a novel about E.M. Forster and Mohammed—but then the demands of fiction and storytelling take over and Kip morphs into himself. So, no, I’ve never locked myself in the basement with a gun, but I have dreamed about shagging Idris Elba. So Kip and I still have some things in common!

Rumpus: What other stories are you itching to tell next? 

Donaldson: I’m a little wary to share too much about any future projects. I started out in theater and theater people are very superstitious. Macbeth and all that. I can only say, I’m still drawn to the idea of historical literary figures showing up in the lives of Black queer people today. For me, writers from the past are very much alive. I read a lot and they impact my daily life. I’m a firm believer in Shakespeare’s words, “Past is prologue.” We cannot escape our past, even from generations past. Our ancestors’ deeds have ripple effects. They dictate everything we do, even how we love. My literary ancestors are still haunting me and threatening to show up in the present, just to prove that nothing and no one ever truly dies.



Author photo by Billy Bustamante

Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →