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An interview with Brent Wade.

In the summer of 1994, during the National Black Arts Festival held in Atlanta, Brent Wade was gracious enough to share with me his thoughts on his 1992 novel Company Man. The entrance of Wade, a black man in corporate America, into the literary world is somewhat of an anomaly. Since he does not spend the majority of his time in academic settings, the perspective he offers is unfettered by the academy with a candidness that is quite refreshing. In the following conversation, Wade reveals his thoughts on various issues - from racial alienation and black sexuality, to the history of music and Greek mythology.

Leak: What writers would you identify as your literary ancestors?

Wade: I guess I would pay homage to people like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Richard Wright would be more of an influence on me personally than Ralph Ellison: I just read Invisible Man recently. The first novel I ever read was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I then read Of Mice and Men. Then I was just in the library one day and picked up Native Son and thought that was great; in fact, I read that book twice. During this time, I guess I was in high school. I think those were the first books I picked to read myself. Then I read James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.

But my tastes in literature are more postmodern. Faulkner is still probably the writer I identify with most. I like what he wrote about, and I like the way he wrote. Although he is considered to be parochial in terms of what he wrote about - the South and race relations - I think he is the opposite of being parochial really. His work is about human nature, the biggest palette of them all. I like the way in which he tackled things. The writers I read now include Don DeLillo, whose writing I really like, and Paul Aster. Playwright August Wilson - man, I think the guy is the most brilliant American playwright we have here at the end of the twentieth century. The way he captures what people mean when they say things . . . it's not just what they say, it's what they mean when they say it. The guy's incredible. I'm not much on poetry, but I like Rita Dove's poetry. I think it's dynamite, although I don't know if I get all of it all the time. I like the way a writer will express something - the words, you know? It's like DeLillo . . . I don't always know that I understand what he's trying to get at in his books, but I just like the way he writes. It's so unique, so original. To return to Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! is not an easy book to read, but the way it's written is so brilliant. And also Light in August - from a structural standpoint, being able to pull that off, is incredible; it's an amazing book.

Leak: So structure and form for you are central to the creative process?

Wade: Well, those are the things I notice. The story could be so organic that I feel like I'm reading something masterfully done. I guess I notice because I write myself, and the way something is set up and how successfully it's been pulled off say something about the writer's skill.

Leak: Do you think there is something distinctive about African American literature, and how would you distinguish the literature of black men from that of black women?

Wade: I don't know how to answer that. I really hate labels. Some people think labels are necessary; these are usually people who have some vested interest in a particular label. But since I don't teach anywhere, or write for a newspaper or scholarly journal, I can say what I want, so I don't have much use for subcategories and labels. I mean I would be just as happy to be called a writer, an American writer as anything else. It's a question of how deep one should go into the name game.

I don't know what separates women's writing from men's writing. But there are ways in which women seem generally to think and talk about things differently than men do. I don't know how to quantify that in what they write about. Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place is probably a woman's book. But there are things about that book I really like, and my wife also likes that book a lot. It's not something I think about a whole lot. There are women writers I like: Carson McCullers is one of my favorite writers, but I don't know what makes her writing female.

Leak: We're all androgynous by nature, some would argue. Wade: I don't believe that.

Leak: What do you feel is your primary responsibility as an artist?

Wade: To be honest - to try to tell the story as honestly as I can, not flinching at the difficult parts. I think that's all I'm trying to do as an artist; that is my goal first and foremost.

Leak: Do you feel an added pressure or responsibility as a black artist?

Wade: Well, I certainly think there are things expected of you when you're labeled a black writer or an African American writer. There are things expected of you from the white community and the black community. There's a big trade in what I jokingly refer to with friends as ghetto-boy novels and movies. If you're a black novelist, you're expected to write something like that, or to have race be the primary plot in or focus of your book. I don't feel any pressure like that. I feel pressure to be honest in the stories that I write. I'm not writing to preach to anybody; there are no preachers in the Wade family, as far as I know. I'm writing to explore things, to dissect things, not to make people believe things. There's the old joke about the philosopher and the priest. The philosopher says to the priest, "You're like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn't there." And the priest says, "Yeah, but the difference between me and you is that I'll find it." I'm not trying to convince anybody that there's a black cat in the room. I'm trying to be honest in what I write about and show how that story has dynamics that are damning and redeeming for everybody. I'm more interested in human nature. Americans, I think, tend to be myopic about racial matters in this country, and other matters as well. But on the palette of the world, it's all about human nature; it's all about the things people tend to do when they have a chance to do them. If you look at anything going on in Eastern Europe right now or in most of Africa - Rwanda especially - you can't fall back on race. It's got more to do with the way people define themselves and what people are willing to do to protect what they think defines them. Race may indeed be our original sin in this country, and we're fixated on it, but it is only one aspect of what's going on in the world. I'm interested in how people react, why people react the way they do, and being as honest about that as I can. That's the only thing that guides Brent Wade when he writes.

Leak: Sounds like Ellison.

Wade: I think if I had read Ellison when I was younger, I would not have appreciated him as much as I do now, having read him rather recently. I wish he had written more. We need a voice like that.

Leak: For you, what are the stages of the writing process?

Wade: I don't know that for me it's anything really formalized. I just have something floating around in my head that I want to dissect, and I'll just sit down and start. It's like it starts telling itself after a while. I'll have this idea about how it should begin, and I'll have a vague idea about how it should end, and everything else just happens when it happens. I mean that's really the way it works. If there's a problem with something, it's usually because I need to return to the beginning. I need to hew something. I need to hone in on what it is I must correct.

Leak: What are the advantages or disadvantages of being in the corporate world, as opposed to publishing or academia?

Wade: I can't speak for anyone but me. I don't know anyone else doing this now. There are some notable people who worked and kept one foot in the literary world also: Wallace Stevens comes to mind, and I think e. e. cummings as well. But for me it's kind of odd sometimes when I'm in literary settings, because I don't have any close friends who are literary people; they are generally the people I grew up with, descendants of farmers, the kind of people who are doing what I'm doing - wage-slaving someplace. So whenever I go to events or any kind of function where I've been asked to speak with a lot of literary people, I realize how outside all of it I am. I don't have much contact with the academic community. I probably tend to read more non-fiction than fiction, because I don't like reading fiction when I'm working on a project; I don't like the idea that it could taint something I'm working on. I think I'm more rooted - I don't mean to say this in such a declarative or condescending way - but I think it makes me more rooted in what people do every day. The university is kind of a rarefied setting to me, because outside of the university people are doing very different things. I guess the real world has less time for theory.

In the business world, it's really prove it or lose it. If you have an idea, that's great, but the proof of the idea is if it works, if it sells. It can be a good idea and never go anywhere, but people tend not to talk about ideas like that, because the proof is in the doing. I think that the strength of the university is that it's a place where you can explore ideas in an unfettered setting, but I also think it's like taking something out of its natural context. You take it outside of the things that make it strong sometime. I don't know if this is coincidence, but the writers I like tend to be people who were not affiliated with academic institutions: Faulkner, to my knowledge, never taught anywhere significant when he was writing. He was kind of out there doing stuff, just living his life, and the same thing with Don DeLillo. I don't know much about his personal life, but I don't think he teaches anywhere either. He just writes for a living.

Also, it's more difficult, I think, to write when you're working a sixty-hour week, to push yourself to stay up from 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. writing a book. It's a kind of ridiculous thing for a grown man to do, I tell myself sometimes, and there are a lot of risks in it. The potential for failure in writing is enormous. It's very public, and there's the fact that I could have wasted so much time doing something, when I could've spent that time doing other things. The exploration is the fun part, and it's flattering to me when people read my work and tell me it really hit home, that it was real to them. I think most people live very rote lives. They think about things, but their ideas don't take them anywhere, don't take hold a lot of times. There's not a lot of time for navel gazing. I would like to have two years where I'd have nothing to do but write a book. It would be interesting to see what would happen. But I'm one of those people who believes that the pressures exerted on a thing tend to make the thing stronger. An old adage in the business world is pressure makes diamonds. I believe that.

Leak: If Company Man had not been well received, would it still have been worth the sacrifice you made as an artist?

Wade: I suppose I feel somewhat vindicated for all the time I spent working on it. The other thing is that, if you're married, and have a family, anything that takes up your time exerts a great strain on your family life. This book has cost me more than I could ever have anybody understand in terms of how it has affected my marriage. The time I could've spent with my wife and my children . . . I was holed up in this little room writing my book. It's a sacrifice-they all know it is. My sons know I'm sitting in my study most nights working on something, and they'll come in and sit on the couch and we'll chat for a while, but eventually I have to say, "Hey, I've gotta get back to work." It's hard because sometimes I just want to sit there and talk to them - and sometimes I do - but to turn the book out, to really think about what I'm doing, I need that isolation. That balance is made difficult by having a family, that balance between being out in the world and being away from it long enough to write about it. I don't know that there's an easier way to do it for me. As I said, it was vindicating that Company Man struck home for so many people, that it seemed to be real. It still wasn't a blockbuster success. None of the black characters in my book are drug dealers, play sports, or dance, so it may be an anomaly as far as the white public is concerned. If it had not been received well critically, I think it would have been a little more difficult to go on. But people come up to me and still write me letters - that's fine, too. I got a letter from a guy in New York yesterday who read Company Man and wants to mail me a copy to sign - that stuff's incredibly flattering to me. So, I think I probably would have given that more weight. It was nice to have both. No writer writes for people to ignore their work.

Leak: What was your primary objective in writing the novel?

Wade: I wanted to write something about alienation. The book was supposed to be a story about alienation and about being estranged, feeling like you don't belong anywhere. That was my principal goal in writing the book, something I was very familiar with in the corporate world.

Leak: So the corporate world can indeed be that vicious?

Wade: It can be. Any situation can be alienating. Being in church can be alienating. Everybody else is there - you feel like you're supposed to be there, or have to be there, but you really don't want to be there and aren't affected in the same way by what's going on. People are social animals, and when you're outside the defined social boundaries in any way you feel alienated. It can happen in the grocery store: If everybody else is buying bean sprouts and carrot juice and you have a buggy full of red meat, you'll feel alienated, or if you have a carton of cigarettes and people are telling you not to smoke, you'll feel alienated. There are degrees of alienation. Alienation lurks everywhere, but most of us deal with alienation at some point in our lives in a more critical and affecting way.

Leak: Is your novel a conscious response to earlier novels, such as Native Son?

Wade: Well, Bigger Thomas is definitely alienated, and that probably has a lot to do with why I liked the book so much. While very few situations are particular to a group of people, there is this tendency in America - for that matter, human nature in general - to think in terms of us and them. Like there are two circles - one circle is us and the other circle over here is you - when, in truth, the circles intersect. You can argue how much they intersect and where they intersect, but the fact is there are some common experiences that, if you're alive, you're going to have. There are common experiences anyone will have if they're raising children - common situations that people find themselves in. While, as I said, alienation is not particular to black people, I think we understand it well and are very conscious of it, because in this culture we are a minority element, still foreigners in a large sense. Thus alienation is a tacit theme in a lot of black fiction. The larger society, however, is not so focused on alienation, and I think to them it get's tiring, because they don't seem to understand it and give it the weight we do. It's sort of a microcosm that we're looking at here. I think alienation always comes up in our work somehow-we almost take it for granted, because we're so familiar with it, it's such a constant. I think that's why people would say that Company Man is so introspective, because I acknowledge the alienation that we take for granted a lot of the time. We just write around it, because we're so aware that it's there - cloaked by familiarity, as it were.

Leak: Was it your intention to offer such a bold exploration of black male sexuality?

Wade: That's come up a lot, and I wish I could say that I did, but I did not. I think that's one of those things like alienation - it's just so tacit and so much a part of us as black men, as human beings, that it tends to come up. I think a lot of black men are living in the shadows of black fathers who were not very good fathers, and I look at women like my grandmother who seem to be able to persevere through anything and function. Camille Paglia argues in Sexual Personae that, once men had conquered the natural world, the male ego became the most fragile psychic state in the world. That's perhaps a little grandiose, but true at the core, I think. It's because masculinity, from a man's point of view, seems to be something that you have to prove; you have to do something. It's almost like maleness is more of a culture; to be male is an active verb. Not that women don't have things like that, but how they are seems, to me anyway, more organic to them. I never see women get in a fight because someone called someone a "fag" or something.

Men will fight over something like that, because it's an impingement upon maleness, and that maleness has to be defended. To not defend it would somehow make that person less male. I don't think that's taught. I just think it's something you feel when you're a little boy. I don't believe that society has all this power that people seem to give it. I think that nature and what it has done to us over a few million years of evolution has more power than a couple hundred years of civilization. I'm not saying society is powerless, but I think the things we are fighting most come from ourselves and less from society. A lot of black men are dealing with defining themselves as men, even when they're adults, because they did not have that male influence; they did not have that male to go to in their lives. Not that this doesn't happen to white men. I just think they're a little better at hiding it. Society offers them many more places to put that emotion. I think black men try to fill that void a lot of times with other women (white ones especially) and reckless displays of things or ideas about masculinity. At the same time, I think that black society in general is more laid back about that than white society; the black community is less hyper about masculinity and what it should be, I think. Things that white society has shielded itself from for so long - the fact that there's homosexuality in the world and the fact that men are unfaithful to their wives and vice versa - are things that blues singers have been singing about forever. Maybe in country music also, but those things have always been integrated and openly acknowledged in black society.

There's a generation of black people who for the first time in the history of this country are able to move into more middle-class environments and integrate into society more than their parents would have been able to do. These holes in maleness come up more, and I think they certainly come up in the life of this character in Company Man: He has all the trappings of success, but there is still an emptiness that he cannot describe. If he could bring it to the tip of his fingers, he would cut it off, but he just doesn't know what to do about it. I see that happening with a lot of black men. We as a people will stand up and decry the black-stud, big-dick stereotype and at the same time privately revel in it. You get trapped by things like that, and the real question is why we need to believe them in the first place. I think there is a generation of black men - my age, maybe a little older, a little younger - trying to wrestle with those ghosts: parents that were not there, parents who were there but not good parents, and a society that views us through their fear, as if frozen in time. There are thirty-five-year-old boys trying to go through the motions of adulthood, themselves living the legacy of some pathological environment. And, of course, that's all within the shadow of America's biggest original sin-slavery and the trading blocks.

Leak: Would you comment on the provocative ending of the novel?

Wade: I guess it's purposely vague. I don't want to impose a meaning on that for the reader. It's intentionally left that way for readers to devise a meaning themselves. I think what it represents, more importantly, is that Billy, the main character, has accepted certain things in his life. His estrangement from Paul as a friend affected him. He's still probably uneasy about Paul's homosexuality, but he misses the friendship they had; it was important to him. I think in everybody's life there are things to overcome, and the thing is usually us, the thing in us. You really can't run from it, because it erupts over and over, like a word you never saw before once you've seen it, you start seeing it everywhere. It kind of happens like that. I think that's what Billy is alluding to; that there's something in his life that he'd buried. He now understands what that was. You could even look at it as a pun, since Paul, the person he's writing to, is an archaeologist.

I think Billy understands at the end of the novel that Paul's situation as a homosexual was not much different from his own, in that he himself was alienated the whole time they were growing up. He is finally able to understand Paul's homosexuality. I don't know how he could ever accept it really, or how much he would accept it, but he understands it enough to know that he must have gone through something like that himself. Billy feels estranged from everything. Maybe that's why he decides to write to Paul after all that time. He uses Paul's experience with homosexuality to come to terms with his own experience.

Leak: Did you know from the start that the novel would be in journal form?

Wade: Yeah, always did. 1 like the form. It's not used much-by men at least. I wanted the novel to seem intimate and personal. There are certain limitations in telling a story in the first person. But for this story, which is, I think, intensely personal-not that they all aren't-I think it was important to understand how the character was thinking himself and to shut out how some of the other people were feeling.

Leak: Would you talk about your next project?

Wade: Well, the book I'm working on now, that's just about finished, is about some old country black people in a small town in southern Maryland who are going to lose their property. And it's about what the property means to this generation of people who are the grandchildren of slaves and their children, who view the land differently. It's about the universality of the human condition. In this inter-generational story, there is a white family in the town, descendants of the old planter stock, who happen to own the bank in town and have an interest in the property. The blacks and whites in this community come together. Not come together like in a tv movie, where they're all friends and have a picnic, but are brought together, more like the Greek army was at Troy - the confederation of city states, with their own interests and goals. That's pretty much all I want to say about it right now.

Leak: Do you work on projects simultaneously?

Wade: There are probably twenty projects in my head, but I can only do one at a time. I tried to write comic books under another name, to make a little part-time money - I need the bread. But it proved to be too much. I only wrote three. So with work and my family, my time is pretty spent.

Leak: Could you comment on religion and spirituality in fiction? After all, Billy Covington does undergo a spiritual transformation.

Wade: I don't know about fiction. I can only say that, in black communities, it has always been important to us, even down to my generation. Spirituality is what got our ancestors through the horrible ordeal of slavery, Jim Crow, and all the other stuff we've endured. Again, that's not exclusive to us, but it's rare to find a black person who is as cynical about religion and the spirit as white people are. I firmly believe that. I think that's one area that differentiates us. It's also difficult to find a black person who is as dogmatically deterministic about it as white people are. I think black people understand the implicit importance of spirituality in life, and it's reflected by the characters in the book. Again, these are the converging circles. Nothing is exclusive to black people. Gratitude and evil are everywhere. But there are things that, I think, blacks have more of an emphasis on, and in some cases a different emphasis. It's like music: Everybody has music around the world, but the music is all different. A love song from China or India might not sound like a love song to an American. Blues grew up here because the essence of blues was here. I read some place - I think it was one of Gunter Schuler's books about music - that in America, as opposed to other European powers that colonized countries, slaves were not allowed to have drums. The culture of West Africa is a culture of polyrhythmic drumming, and this polyrhythmic tradition is now reflected in vocal music - in the hymns, popular jazz, and blues of black people. I find stuff like that fascinating. There's also a book called Music and the Mind, by Anthony Shore, that explores the psychic importance of music. It points out that there is no culture in the world that does not have music. It's as common to humanity as language, and, again, where do the converging circles converge, and why?

One has to be honest to be a writer, telling it like it is. That does not mean depicting black folks as good, and white folks as evil. It just means really being honest about what we all know has gone on. It's like Jesse Jackson: You will never hear anyone from my generation publicly voice dislike for or trepidation about Jesse Jackson, but privately they'll say all kinds of things about him. This duality we deny - not opening ourselves to the truth - hurts us, and I'm not about that.

Jeffrey B. Leak is an Assistant Professor of African American literature at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research focuses on twentieth-century literary constructions of black masculinity.
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Title Annotation:African American author
Author:Leak, Jeffrey B.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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