(Novels) CHRISTOPHER X. SHADE
New York-based writer Christopher X. Shade recently published his debut novel The Good Mother of Marseille. In this interview, he discusses what drew him to Marseille as a setting, the literary influences for the book, and the challenges of writing a multi-character narrative.
Interview by Tyler Nesler
Marseille is rendered in your novel essentially as one of the main characters, with its own distinct traits and hidden layers. How many times have you visited the city? When did you decide to seriously write about it?
I visited once, and knew right away! As I began having conversations with everyone I could. Marseille was ripe for a story, in its year of designation as the European Capital of Culture. But the book’s kernel — what the book’s about — didn’t come together clearly for me until I discovered the phrase la bonne mere, “the good mother,” what the Marseillaise call their church on the hill. And how they describe this church: la bonne mere, “she has watched over us for centuries.” It’s not as much about Marseille as it is about us, all of us. When we take a walk through dangerous quarters of Marseille with Noémie and her little hot dog Chinelo, we are setting out in the direction of understanding why it is so difficult for her to make this her home. Is it because it is a turbulent French port city? No, after all, it is not about Marseille. And for each person who intersects here in Noémie’s world, each person is on a very similar path.
With its large cast of characters, The Good Mother of Marseille focuses on interiority and psychology over a more linear or plot-based narrative. The characters are also all mostly expats. When you were writing the book, what particular literary models did you have in mind (such as specific novels or writers)?
I had a lot of early influences for this book specifically — certainly Total Chaos, the celebrated neo-noir novel set in Marseille, by Jean-Claude Izzo. Though not strong influences or models, and not any one or two. And James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (as well as Light Years). The character Julio is named after the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, whose work has inspired me over the years.
The paths of the multiple characters in the novel overlap to various degrees, but overall they coexist more as a mosaic of various personalities and perceptions within Marseille. Some of the characters don't fully interact with each other, though some interact significantly (such as Harvey and Russ, and Corey and Noémie). What brought you to deciding on which characters would interact or impact one another? Was this planned out or did it begin to happen more organically during the initial writing?
I experimented a great deal, and as experiments should, many failed! That means a lot of paper crumpled into balls and tossed at a waste basket. There are entire characters you’ll never get to know because they didn’t make it in. I’m the sort of writer who throws out a tremendous amount of what I’ve done. And thank goodness. I am pleased to have made all of the cuts and revisions that I did. So that now in this physical book The Good Mother of Marseille that we hold in our hands, every moment in the story is precise and essential in the big picture view.
Some chapters could mostly stand on their own as distinct short stories, especially "The Stationer" and "The Two Men of Rue Saint-Ferréol." Were these sections of the book (or any others) begun as separate projects from the novel?
Ah, the pickpockets! Audiences love this part. It’s one that I’ve been reading on the book tour. These two men and these chapters were not separate projects — each has aim and purpose central to the book’s themes. All of the chapters took shape together. I’ve referred to “The Stationer” as a central chapter in ways, in that this shop where people come to buy pens and paper is a place of intersections and community, and by community I mean meaningful conversation. Important, central themes are at work in that shop, and it’s significantly the first place where we hear of Julio. I don’t mean to make the chapter sound complicated, because on paper it’s a simple scene: a few people come in to buy pens. The scene entertains us with endearing opinions from its owner, the widow Madame de Rouen: “The Brits bought one pen at a time, never two or three, only one, and a very cheap blue ballpoint they called clickers.”
Of the five primary characters in the first part of the novel (Noémie, Harvey, Corey, Evie, and Russ), do you view any one of them in particular as embodying the soul of the book?
This is a question I like to put to readers. What was your favorite part? I hear such a variety of answers. I nudge them to associate it with other parts, and more thinking about the good mother. What might this mean, as the people of Marseille say, that the good mother has watched over “us” for centuries? What does this expression reveal about what it means to belong?
Violence is a constant presence in the narrative, especially the risk and occurrence of violence towards women. Often violence simmers in the background and then it erupts, but many moments in the book are calm and contemplative. Did you have any challenges finding an equilibrium between the more elegant, reflective moments in the story and the more heated and sudden scenes of danger and attack?
I didn’t think too much about this balance — I do think that a chapter break allows for the storyteller to set a new stage, which may be very different than the previous chapter’s. And perhaps it worked itself out naturally as I wrote it, because life is like this, with its hot and cool moments. And with the very real-to-life dangers that may arrive in each of our lives unexpectedly, no matter who or where we are. This story certainly has an appreciation for the unexpected.
Part two of the novel focuses entirely on Julio, a journalist who is suffering from debilitating psychological conditions and self-doubts. The characters in part one grapple with issues of identity and lingering sensations of displacement. What were the creative decisions behind making Julio and his disorientation the focus of the last section? Do you see the character of Julio and his struggles as a kind of larger summation or coda of the issues explored by the various characters in Part One?
Two! Yes, part two, or as the words echo in my head, la deuxième partie!, this section of the book very much transcends and further explores the common themes and motifs of part one (la première partie!). There are many ways I could speak about this...let me talk about sight and vision for a moment. Harv in la première partie has a disease and he’s losing his eyesight — we learn this right away. It’s the whole reason he and his wife Bev are in Marseille (from Alabama!). They are on a European tour to sightsee what they can, while he still may, so that he may see the world. Yet, they get stuck in Marseille. What has them stuck? In la deuxième, what further storylines are we entertained (shocked? saddened?) by at Julio’s side — and isn’t this storyline on the subject of what we choose to see and not to see in our lives? What is important to us, and what have we lost sight of?
Do you think any of these characters may reappear in future works of yours? Do you have any plans to continue any of the elements from The Good Mother of Marseille in other forms, or do you think you will keep these characters and their worlds contained for good within this novel?
I do not have any plans — though I’ve heard so many requests for more Chinelo (Noémie’s dachshund!) and Samira, a prostitute. Perhaps these two should run away together? Shouldn’t we go with them? Or are we already on our way?