In 2017 I submitted a short story about a college professor secretly using his son for a research experiment regarding racism, “Control Negro,” to Guernica, and I was delighted when I learned that they were going to publish it. Then it was tweeted about by Roxane Gay, who went on to select it for Best American Short Stories, a prestigious annual collection which she guest edited that year. I would say that was the true beginning of this book, my debut, “My Monticello,” which will make me a 50-year-old literary debutante.
Tell us about your life before this book?
I have taught public school art for 20 years. Anyone who has taught public school will know that it is a very robust job. A very time consuming job. It is a job you really commit to.
I was kind of the Mr. Rogers of teachers: standing at my door with a chime and a cardigan, welcoming this very broad and diverse group of students that we have here in Charlottesville into my classroom.
What would you consider the first step you took toward publishing this collection?
I had a moment after I published “Control Negro” where I realized how that story and other stories I was working on were connected. And that was through this idea of place, through this idea of Virginia. And through the lenses of racial and environmental anxiety. So that’s when I realized that I wanted to publish a collection.
How did you find the courage and strength to take that initial step?
The first step that led to this book — reaching out — came naturally to me because I had been sending my work out for so many years. So I had the habit of trying. I had the habit of persistence and trying — without a lot of expectation, which I think is a nice place to be in. A familiarity with rejection.
Do you remember your first reaction when you found out you sold the collection? That it was going to be published?