“Place is a character”: An interview with Davon Loeb, author of The In-Betweens

West Virginia University Press is pleased to publish Davon Loeb’s The In-Betweens, which tells the story of a biracial boy becoming a man, all the while trying to find himself, trying to come to terms with his white family, and trying to find his place in American society. (The official publication date is February 1, and it ships now when ordered from our site.) Kirkus Reviews calls the book “engagingly delivered, candid reflections on heritage and identity.” Here Loeb talks with Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog.

This is a kind of second life for the book—you’re working with a new publisher, and you added a lot of new material and edited what had been published before. Can you talk about how the book has changed? 

The prefix re-, for “again” or “repeat,” can have a negative connotation, like the word “revision” can seem like “to do again” is a bad thing. I argue the opposite, that to revise and reproduce is a good thing, and the bodies of work we create are never fully complete. The first version of The In-Betweens was incomplete, lacking a narrative arc, one which I believe is now present in the new book. To republish a book feels rare, but I was given a second chance by West Virginia University Press, which shows their dedication to publishing great books no matter what shape they start off in.

What drew you to the lyrical essay form? Did you experiment with other styles of writing?

I was drawn into the lyrical essay form because so many of the chapters in my memoir were originally poems. When I entered my MFA, I was declared as a poet, but as I completed various craft and workshop courses in different genres, I gravitated towards memoir. Writing memoir felt like the perfect balance between binding narrative and lyrical storytelling.

Could you talk about the importance of representation in literature and also the pressure that might come along with it?

I have published more creative nonfiction than anything, especially my work about being a person of color. However, I do find that my fiction is more difficult to publish, specifically, pieces that are not driven by race. I think, and I’ve said this before, there is an expectation that writers of color are indefinitely bound by writing about being of color. Therefore, the pressure for my writing to always represent my race and culture is daunting and a frustration when navigating what I write and what I publish.

Did you find yourself mainly relying on memory or did you have new conversations with family members as a part of your process?

The majority of the chapters rely on memory. I’ve tried to restructure fragmented memories into cohesive narratives, which, I believe, marries creativity to truth-telling—that there really is a blend between telling an authentic story but also allowing images, sensory details, and figurative language to generously flourish.

The book is set in a few different locations: Alabama, North Jersey, South Jersey, and occasional visits to the Poconos or Long Island. What is the importance of place in your stories?

Place is an essential narrative marker for building context, but place is also intentionally used to show duality and juxtaposition—that place can be somewhere a person loves but also loathes—place can be celebrated but also critiqued—place is unique and tumultuous—place is a character, is personified, is, as described in the chapter, “My Mother’s Mother,” “…the hulking Alabama sun, trees whose boughs never broke, trees whose roots never loosened, trees that lived for however many years in testament to never change.”

Which writers do you count among your influences?

When I was a kid, my mother stocked my bookshelf with Black writers, from Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, to Lorraine Hansberry. However, James Baldwin is my biggest influence. In the chapter, “Like Gladiators,” I reference Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, “For if I hit a girl, I hit a girl, and I was never supposed to hit a girl—not even when the sun got too big for the sky and touched down on earth and burned the white right out of our teeth.” In this chapter, I am challenging masculinity in the same way Baldwin does in The Fire Next Time and Go Tell It on the Mountain. If discussing more contemporary writers, I’ve been influenced by poets and memoirists like Ross Gay, Paul Lisicky, Patrick Rosal, Claudia Rankine, Roxana Gay, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Can you say what your next project will be?

I am really interested in writing about being a husband, father, and teacher. The In-Betweens stops, chronologically, when I started teaching. And though I’ve written and edited this collection while becoming a husband and parent, I did not include those parts of myself and my life into the book. Writing about my wife and my children is full of too many feelings, too much emotion, and I haven’t been able to articulate it yet.

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