06 October 2023

Why Witches: an interview with Zig Zag Claybourne

Talking about his newest novel, Breath, Warmth, and Dream, Book One of the Mother Khumalo trilogy

But first, the blogger's privilege of intrusion

You know that ennui of reading, when you think I’m past it. No fiction can work its magic on me again? I was deep in its grip when I noticed Neon Lights.

Neon Lights

There was something so deliciously abnormal about that cover. 

I roused myself enough to get into it, but still expected no more than a one-page stand. Instead, I felt the same thrill that coursed through me the first time I read Gogol's Dead Souls (the only diminishment since for both is the frisson of discovery). I still hope this brilliant satire gets “discovered” but I was so intrigued by its unknown author (who could mop the floor with the works of Updike and Roth as well as that of most current satirists sneerists) that I swan-dived into The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan.

Holy Hell. This one vied to knock my other favourite novel (Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov's Little Golden Calf) from its pedestal.

I wasn’t ready for it. The Brothers struck me like a bolt of lightning rooted in a solar flare.  
 It didn’t take The Brothers Jetstream Book 2: Afro Puffs Are the Antennae of the Universe to confirm: These were  written by one of those writers who is amongst the half dozen in a century who deserve to last.


And the characters. So many characters in others' fiction would walk the picket lines if they could. They all work for nothing, which they all expect. But so many don't get no respect. Claybourne's get more than that. Utter freedom. And they've got a mouth on them. Desiree Quicho, for instance, star of Afro Puffs... So their dialogue is as fresh as their attitudes. It doesn't matter what Claybourne's writing. Characters and stories are unflinching and inspiring in ways that are so uncommercial, they remind this reader why writing can be, not only still worth reading, but crucial in making life worthwhile.

He never plays the jester angle, nor panders to wishes to ignore and self-indulgently escape. As for tragedy voyeurs--they’d starve on his fiction. In every book and story, Zig Zag Claybourne celebrates the brashness of bravery, kindness, and joy—and in doing so, wields the most effective weapons of all. 

So, to the latest I’ve been lucky enough to read (not because he asked me but because I asked him)  his latest novel, Breath, Warmth, and Dream, Book One of a trilogy that should have been fought over by the biggies, but as I advised him when I read it: “People have had their souls healed and have learnt from everything you've written. That isn't considered valued, and instead, rancid relations paraded as if we love to be dumped into cesspools or else we can't feel alive.”

And so it came to pass. The rejections were I love it but...

And so, dear reader, it’s up to us.  There’s a Kickstarter he’s been convinced to launch so we can get this book into our hands, screens, and hearts. 

And because people love to know motivations, he's answered this grilling:

Why Witches?

Mother Khumalo herself says in Breath,  Warmth, and Dream, “Magick doesn’t require ignorance to be magick.” Do you know what she means by that? And how do you know that you know what she thinks?

There’s this puzzling attitude that knowledge makes something less special, and that a feeling of specialness is what’s wanted from magic. I think this follows from the ‘ignorance is bliss’ school or ‘it’s not magic if you know how it works,’ but the thing is, we can never have total knowledge of anything--so why not increase knowledge in order to work with what we’ve got? To me, that’s the whole nature of magic, particularly with the kinds of witches Breath, Warmth, and Dream imagines. Ignorance becomes a control mechanism for domination rather than harmony. Mother Khumalo thinks entirely opposite of ignorance, especially since magic itself is a tangle of learned skills. There was no way she would have allowed me to write her any other way.

Have you seen instances of magic?

So much of what we see and experience remains unexplained to us, but I’ve definitely felt magic in the trailing of fingertips along the skin of my inner arm, how it both energizes me and simultaneously calms me. Things appear, disappear, and change around us all the time. We have the feeling we’re surrounded by more magic than society tends to admit. Magic is the understanding of LIFE pieced together.

Let me quote a passage to you:

Bog’s hands went to tug his breeches. The lukewarm water of the tub would do him nicely. 

“Oh dear,” Tourmaline noted.

"Aye, he’s always showing off his buttocks when the children aren’t around,” said Grucca. “Natural healing and whatnot.”

She was taken with the play of his back muscles despite herself. Upper and much lower.

He climbed into the tub, leaned back with his arms over the sides, and presented his face’s closed eyelids to the sky. He didn’t seem angry, so Tourmaline took this as an elaborate yes that he would talk with Khumalo.

Warriors and witches were beyond dramatic.

You deftly use words, but like your action scenes, this one is typical of you in its Balzackian realism (Honoré de Balzac, considered one of the founders of believable characters in European literature). Your dialogue, particularly, is so sparkling it could burn noses, but it doesn’t read as forced, but as the logical outcome of conditions.  You seem to be channeling yet you don’t live in a cave, but both your The Brothers Jetstream series and your Mother Khumalo short story and the Kickstarting novel have a peculiarly rich intensity to them, as if the moving hand is your own, but worked by strings plied by each character between the covers. Can you explain what’s happening? Aren’t your characters supposed to be the puppets?

In Kabuki theater, there’s a contract between audience and production: see-but-don’t-see the kurogo stagehands dressed in black who interact with the actors or stage elements, but are not part of the story. That’s me, writing, especially with dialogue. Kurogo leaves room for imaginative surprise. Characters need to move through the plot, yes, but when a voice comes off as too aware of their story, it’s more spot-lit marionette operator than immersive experience. My dialogue starts, stops, merges, splits apart; same as in life.

How magical were literary influences on you?

My writing influences showed me what was possible. They pushed me to do more. My greatest influences came from authors who stepped outside constrictions to exhibit a sense of play! Toni Morrison, Douglas Adams, Percival Everett, hell, even Shakespeare. Influences are best when they excite imaginations. I saw writers doing unusual things and I loved it!

Your favorite literary fantasies?

To go to dinner without checking my bank account. Book-wise… Dune, which I always read as more fantasy than science fiction. One of my favorite books ever, The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust, blends Egyptian myths with modern immigrant life in Edmonton; The Twice-Drowned Saint by C. S. E. Cooney is a recent fav, because any book that blends biblically-terrifying angels with the feminine energy of Mad Max: Fury Road is a permanent win. The beautiful short story The Sweet in the Empty by Tade Thompson is an entire epic in less than 25 pages.

How does it feel to get “rejected” by the big New York publishers, turn around and do a Kickstarter, and within two days, out-earn a typical traditional publishing advance?

It’s a wild, strange thing. The big publishing houses tend to be Lords of Chaos. Thirty people within the editorial departments will love something, one will say no, and that’s the end of that thing. Crowdfunding is nearly a direct line from creator to audience. The whole experience is less about product and more about the excitement of potential. I’ve backed a number of projects simply because I wanted the energy behind a campaign to reach as far into the world as possible, even without backing for a reward (I’ll back because I want folks to succeed; I’ll buy afterward because I want folks to thrive). This being my first Kickstarter, it’s done wonderfully! Wonderful feels good.

You've written in several genres, from SF to fantasy to inspirational. Why do you like genre-jumping?

It’s that same thrill I got from watching Chadwick Boseman (all light to him) illuminate different aspects of real life via his roles. Hero, villain, genius; action, drama, levity. I suppose with writing/reading being such a mental endeavor, the claim that readers will get confused discourages jumping, although genre-blending is a huge thing. “You wrote sci-fi and now you’re doing comedy? Under the same name?! Wait, wait, a fantasy about witches? Whaaaat?” Yet we know conventional wisdom in publishing tends to be about as wise as wet socks. So for me, variety is the spice.

Writers have lots of pressures these days, from writing to promoting, to being a "public figure." But you often talk about the importance of joy. It always comes back to joy. Why is this important to you?

Without joy in what we do, there’s no life or spark, and without a spark there’s no real connection. To me, everything we do, from being in love to baking a helluva good pie to righting the wrongs in life, is a means to connect ourselves to being  better together. We as individuals, we as a species. Joy in what we do is that point-to-point connection. For me, joy is in knowing there’s a real conversation to be had that only the writer and reader can hear.

Please finish this sentence. In a perfect world...

We would make sure people knew from childhood on that absolutely nothing is more important than their joy and their connections!


Breath, Warmth, and Dream

Read  The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar, the Mother Khumalo short story that spawned the Khumalo Trilogy

See Jerome Steuart's painting and read his review, "Family and Community in ZZ Claybourne's The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar"

Jeffrey Ford's Review of The Brothers Jetstream Book 1: Leviathan

Milton Davis' Review of The Brothers Jetstream Book 2: Afro Puffs Are the Antennae of the Universe

Read and listen to Silver Wing, a serial on Realm

A Trip Through the Imagination of Zig Zag Claybourne, Detroit Metro Times

Books by Zig Zag Claybourne listed on Goodreads

Zig's House--the motherlode