Interview by Amy Eaton
The Book: Beginning with the challenges of how his White father and Black mother met, with their desire “to run away and start fresh and new”—resulting in a sometimes “pretend family”—to a near-archetypal description of his grandfather having just cut the grass as the author watches with a swollen lip and a black eye, to incessant moments in which different expressions of masculinity get inculcated, Davon Loeb frequently captures the disturbing poesy of life growing up. With painstaking detail, this work is in the vein of James McBride’s ‘The Color of Water’, Justin Torres’s ‘We the Animals’, and Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Annie John’, ‘The In-Betweens’ is a meditation on bruise and healing. Loeb’s struggles become snapshots of how transformation occurs even where shards have been piled, where one waits “for something to happen, like flashes of red and blue sirens pulsing.” A truly extraordinary new voice! ~ Roy G. Guzmán, author of Restored Mural for Orlando
The author: Davon Loeb is the author of the lyrical memoir The In-Betweens, out now with Everytime Press. He earned an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Camden, and he is a poetry editor at Bending Genres. Davon writes creative nonfiction and poetry. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net, and is forthcoming and featured in PANK Magazine, Barren Magazine, XRAY Magazine, Apiary Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Besides writing, Davon is a high school English teacher, husband, and father in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter.
Amy Eaton: Well, we can start with everybody’s question: how is it in your corona world?
Davon Loeb: I teach high school English, so the transition to remote learning was a challenge. Most of all, I miss my kids. You go from seeing students every day, sometimes more than their parents, and then nothing. However, teaching English translated well to online instruction. More importantly, my biggest concern during Coronavirus is my wife, who is a Maternal Child Health nurse, and we’re expecting our second baby in November. Being on the front line is frightening, and she describes it as a war zone. I am so thankful for her courage, the courage of all essential personnel. I’m lucky to have the luxury to work from home. At the same time, having a wife who works in the hospital has given me a unique perspective, both missing and longing for the normalcy of everyday life but also recognizing the real dangers of this virus.
Most of my time has been spent with my daughter and wife; so besides the craziness, it’s been sort of the best thing to be home. I’ll never be able to spend this amount of time with my daughter again, so I love every day we’re all together. I’m trying to look at the COVID situation for the positives: family togetherness, reading more and being a better member of the literary community, and writing consistently.
AE: This was a fascinating moment in time to read your book. I think it intersects with so many things that are in everyone’s consciousness right now. One of the things that strikes me is how many things the narrator is in between —race is the obvious one, but households, religion, class, geographic location, and especially the author’s voice as it changes from youthful to mature. You found many of the pivotal moments of growing up when we’re neither little or big kids; big kids or teen; teens or young adults; and you write into those spaces of transitional, life changing times so gorgeously.
Something that surprised me—I’m an only child of divorced parents—I don’t know if I ever found a book that spoke to my experience as an only child in the same way. In your case, you’ve got half-siblings, but the way you capture being an only child and negotiating between the world of your mother and your father really grabbed me.
DL: I wanted to tell these really individual stories, but my real goal was to create universality with the characters. I remember when I was doing my MFA and workshopping my classmates’ work and was often thinking, “Where is the universality? How are you going to reach the readers besides ‘Hey, this is a cool story’? How do you get them to empathize? How do you push that barrier?” So it was really rewarding when my sixty-year-old Italian mother-in-law, who I adore, said she saw herself in parts of the book. We’re completely different, and yet, my narrative joined us. That was really my hope.
AE: When I read Like Gladiators, about playing in your grandmother’s front yard, I thought, “Oh my God, it’s my babysitter’s house! It was where the whole neighborhood went to play. And you were IN or you were OUT.
DL: How can you be in between—with extended family but also your immediate family? How can you be in between in a community, in a group of friends? I kept trying to create those spaces where the narrator just didn’t belong, one way or another, without making the audience feel pity. I didn’t want them to be like, “Oh woe is me!”
AE: No, I really felt in tune with the narrator throughout the book. You start the book with the chapter Writing My Parents Love Story, with them playing tennis, imagining what their relationship must have been like before you were born. And it’s bookended with the chapter Retirement, about a teacher who is pushed into retirement. It’s almost like you’re glimpsing the edges of yourself. You’re really not in either of those scenes as a character. It’s the pieces where you’re most removed.
DL: That was a really hard decision of how to end the book. When I originally wrote Retirement, the section about me being afraid of becoming the debilitated teacher was added towards the end of editing. I kept thinking, “What is the narrator afraid of? What am I scared of?” I was afraid to become him, and I didn’t arrive at this conclusion until almost finishing those edits. I also needed to end the book before marrying and starting a family.
In the first chapter, Writing My Parents’ Love Story, I was purposeful with my verbs, saying would and should, instead of speaking affirmatively. Sometimes throughout the book when I’m writing events that I don’t really know exactly or I didn’t entirely experience, the language reflects that uncertainty, like: this would have happened, rather than: this is what happened. I’m trying to put the story back together with honesty. I learned that writing a memoir is writing truth; but for me to tell parts of the story I don’t know completely, I had to fill in those gaps without fictionalizing—and yet still writing compellingly.
Besides building the diction, I also had to figure out, “How am I going to create this arc?” I went through different versions of structuring the book where I focused on the theme rather than writing chronologically, and then decided, ‘I need to just start from the very beginning.’ I thought that would be the best way to glue everything together because it wasn’t written from start to finish. I printed all the chapters, spread them across the floor, and thought, ‘well this works here, this works here, but I still need to follow some storyline’. For example, the chapter Settlers Inn I added when the book was almost completed because I had to think of actual traveling from place to place. I needed a marker for a change in the setting. How do I get from North Jersey to South Jersey? So that chapter use is a chronological benchmark and also thematic. Towards the end of writing the book, I added specific stories, like Settlers Inn, to create a full arc.
AE: A lot of the chapters read like poems. When I started reading, I had to slow down my pace. But the payoff, once I got into that flow, I was in! The language is really dense and rich and thick.
DL: Alabama Fire Ants started as a poem and then I developed it into a more rounded story. That chapter was the symbol of what it was like growing up in my family and being biracial. I used that experience to build off of, like the first brick in the foundation of the book. If you read closely, you might find those early lyrical verses imprinted in the storytelling.
Probably what was most difficult about writing a memoir lyrically was keeping the lyric—keeping this poetic muscle strong and consistent. So the longer chapters, like Visitations with My Father and Quitting Meant Back to Babysitting pulled at that poetic muscle and stretched the lyric as far as it could go, while also requiring exposition to create balance.
AE: Some of those chapters further on, where they were longer, that was sort of what I was talking about—how the voice of the narrator shifts from the childlike dream memory we get as kids when we’re reflecting as older people. Then as you get older you remember entire conversations.
You remember exactly what was said or who was wearing what, what they were holding, what they did. It’s more concise and it gives the story a much more mature sound to it, so I believe that character is older.
DL: I was going to say that the narrator becomes more sure of himself.
AE: Yeah, there’s a confidence there, and more of a personality there, whereas before it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous but it’s…
DL: It’s like I’m pulling off of memories in the beginning. As the voice changes, so does the style. Even the poetry turns on and off a little bit because the details are more exact.
DL: And those chapters, later in the book, were more fun to write, more of teenager joys and worries because I could focus less on emotion and just tell an interesting story. Like the one chapter, Shopping with Kris, where Kris and I are building a treehouse. That was the first piece when I really dove into the New Jersey Pine Barrens and used place as another essential building block.
DL: My next collection I’ve started is really focusing more on setting, especially the Pine Barrens. This new collection is about four boys struggling with the trauma of being loved and unloved by their parents, and how that trauma shapes their decisions, development, and futures, as well as the exploration of nature versus nurture. The book will speak of the joys of adolescence but also on the many forms of loss.
In regards to The In-Betweens, another decision was page-time; I needed to experiment with length and space. When reading, it’s obvious some of these chapters are very short and some are much longer. With comparison to writing a novel, I’m aiming for a start-to-finish experience.
AE: Some of them are so brief that they really are just slightly longer than a poem.
DL: Exactly, some of them were poems that I just blocked into paragraphs.
AE: (laughing) There you go! Creative nonfiction! Voila!
DL: Yeah, A lot of them were. 5-Series BMW is about my stepfather working on his car, and the car becoming this metaphor for a woman. I had to really trust that the metaphor would stand alone. It was published first as a poem.
AE: I can see that. There’s so much about learning to become a man—from your stepfather, your father, your older brothers, your friends. Even Susan teaching you to lift the hay bale with your knees. You’re so conscious of it. It’s like a mindful decision of what maleness will look like for you.
DL: That was something I really wanted to dive into, without saying ‘This is how you be a man!’ I wanted to kind of show it but also make the narrator vulnerable, like in, Quitting Meant Back to Babysitting. The chapter is about working for a pesticide, relocation, and renovation company owned and operated by two women. I wanted to show what I thought about being a man through what I could and could not do, what other characters thought of masculinity, and my often failures.
There’s a lot about my stepfather in these stories, how the man was a machine, how he could fix anything. I also wanted to show how I was not even, ‘man enough’ to lift a bale of hay, and a woman had to lift it for me. But listen, women are incredibly strong; I know this and I’m not comparing; but as a kid, I did compare and only thought of muscle and brawn. So I don’t need to tell you I’m failing as what I think is a man is; you see it.
Later, in The Makings of a Gym Rat, my obsession with exercising and how not feeling like a man is established earlier throughout the book: getting beat up by a girl—being little and skinny—being unable to fix things like my stepfather. And it morphs into an obsession with exercise, with body reconstruction. It’s definitely full-circle without being heavy-handed. I wanted to keep that as one of the central threads that weaves throughout the book without saying this is how you be a man. I wanted the readers to make their own conclusions.
AE: Your mother is such a powerful figure in the book. You’ve got your father, who you don’t see for the first time until you’re seven? And then you start seeing him sort of consistently? It feels that your stepfather is the man you feel closest to, the man that you look up to, that you’re aspiring to be, but the women in your book: your mother, your grandmother are just solid rocks in there.
DL: That was intentional. In the chapter, But I’m Not Toby, I emphasize my mother trying to teach me about Black history and what it means to be a young Black man. She’s the strong maternal voice that I think is special in a lot of Black communities. For me, that was special—especially with the uncertainty of my fathers. I wanted to make her really the most consistent character throughout the book, and I do believe I succeeded at that.
AE: It’s really beautifully done. Back to Quitting Meant Back to Babysitting, you’re seventeen and get a job with an exterminator. You and your mother fight, and she just lets you have it. She points out that your older sister stayed home to take care of you and gave up opportunities for herself and it’s now your turn to watch your younger brother, but you won’t, you want to take the job. And your mother’s telling you she needs help, she’s gone back to school and she wants you to just step up and you’re like, “Nope. I’m taking this job.” Later on, you wish she’d make you quit, you realize you hate the job and she won’t. She won’t.
DL: That was another example of universality—a kid rebelling and there’s just a little note to my color in that chapter. It’s just in there a little bit, which is intentional. I want you to see yourself, whatever color you are.
AE: I read it and thought, ‘Are you in my house!?’ The whole conversation sounded too familiar to me.
DL: Yes, I’m happy that my mother sort of becomes this steady voice, and I think once you get to the chapter, Retirement, as noted earlier, you can hear her still, even though she’s not in the chapter. This shows the success of parenting, that her voice becomes part of my voice.
AE: Yeah. On the flip side, you have the stories about when you’re a young teenager visiting your father. There’s so much weird, dumb stuff that he lets you do. You’re familiar strangers.
DL: In Visitations with My Father, where I’m going to get this giant ill-advised tattoo, I wanted to make it as much about the tattoo as about me wanting him to be a father, wanting him to actually parent me in that moment. A lot of the longer chapters are trying to tell two stories. There’s a duality there that I’m trying to create.
As a poetry editor, one thing that I prefer is narrative poetry—don’t explain; show it. I really try to show that relationship when my father and I are in the creek. My father is swimming, and I’m in a kayak, and we’re so close to each other but yet so far. Those are moments in some of the longer chapters when I flex my poetic muscle and really sink into the language and scene and images to keep you there with me, as if to say ‘Just listen and imagine what I’m showing you.’
I try to think of it as I tell my high school students—to think of it as a film and if the director is zooming in on the shot—you can do that to your story by focusing the writing in the same way a director is honing in on a character’s face, showing that emotion. I tell them if they can write and think cinematically, they’ll be really surprised by how beautiful and detailed their story can be.
AE: I’m a performer and a theater director. This makes perfect sense to me. With the fathers, there’s this journey where you see them coming closer, then pushing away. Especially in those early teen years, the narrator is pushing his father away and then gets closer to him. At the same time, he seems so tight with the stepfather—it’s almost like a dance between one or the other. You can only be close to one or the other.
DL: Near the end of the book, I’m living in a studio apartment with my father and it’s close, a 500 square feet space and it’s really just the most uncomfortable thing in the world. I’m in college at the time, but I don’t want to write about college. So I focused on the actual physical space and used it to illustrate uncomfortability. It’s sort of ironic, a father and son who did not grow up together and now living together like cellmates. But it also is a great arc in their relationship.
AE: Where you never have before—
DL: Yeah, exactly, we never had before.
AE: In For a Brother, we see how you idolize your father’s older son. You emulate his artwork and begin writing poetry because of him. The story’s more complex than that, but you discover your father helped your brother publish a book of poems and you approach him to help you publish your collection and he turns you down.
DL: That was a rift in real life in my relationship with him. I really wanted to make that piece sad but not sentimental. I wanted it to be as much about me trying to emulate my brother but also being resentful, jealous, and indifferent. There’s a closeness I feel to him, in the same way I felt it to the teacher in Retirement, but again, that closeness scares me, so I pull away.
The first half of the book is so much about my mother’s side. The first story really about my father’s side was when I go to the History Museum in Washington, DC and I’m searching for my Jewish heritage. The book was lopsided—I needed to add those chapters because if I’m going to do a full portrait of what it’s like to be in between, I needed more of my white-Jewish side. Those chapters were interesting to write. They were emotional because there’s a longing for a family I never knew, an emptiness there. But I’m warmed in a way that I discovered details about my narrative that I did not know.
AE: They’re very, very powerful. It gives the book a fullness and does make the story about being neither here nor there.
DL: That’s why I end the book with Retirement. Because I’m a man; I’m a teacher; my identity is almost fully shaped. I’m looking at these kids and I see myself—the things I did right and wrong when I was their age. At the same time, they’re looking at me as a role model. So that’s why I felt so conflicted with the other minority teacher, the man who is falling apart. I questioned if I felt empathy because I’m a person or do I feel empathy because we’re both of color? I’m really happy, really, really happy that I ended the book there because that was the pinnacle of my identity, before I met my wife, married, and started a family.
AE: Why did you choose the format of these short essays rather than a more linear memoir? Why was this form the most effective form for you?
DL: Part of that is because a lot of them are poems, part of it is they’re written out of sequence.
Like you said, so much of it is the way memory works that way. The shorter pieces are shorter because there’s only so much that I can remember. The longer pieces are longer because it’s more of the story I can recall with exactness. I do feel like overall there is a lyrical thread throughout the entire book, and that my voice, my style, and I think I’m pretty damn good at the lyric.
Last week I was doing a panel on Pen Parentis, it’s an organization in New York that does readings and panels for parents that are writers. As part of it we’re talking about style. For my MFA, I had to do this exercise of paratactic and hypotactic. We had to use a famous piece of literature that was written in hypotactic or in paratactic and then translate it to the other form. Long story short, I took a paragraph from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz that was written in paratactic, which is a lot of repetition, not a lot of metaphors. The sentence structure is really short, simpler. Then I translated into hypotactic and I had a lot of metaphors, a lot of adjectives, long sentences, lots of conjunctions—but that exercise helped develop my writing style.
DL: People reading my book, I would hope, based on the current situation get two things: first is if we really listen to each other’s stories; there is so much more that connects us than what makes us different.
Secondly, racism still exists in many different forms, and it’s deep-rooted in our country that you have to get to the core of it by not only looking at our society as a whole but look at our culture—your culture, your community, your schools, your family. You have to snip it there, in your homes, at the dinner table, as much as you do on a longer societal scale.
I believe my story of race is different than someone else’s, and I never want readers to think of my work and say I’m trying to summarize the entire Black experience because I don’t know it; I just know my experience, the stories here.
The point is, I think books like this written by people of different colors, not just of color, but of different colors are so important today because it starts with education. If we keep reading The Canon, we keep reading Faulkner – it’s not that I don’t like Faulkner or Arthur Miller—I teach The Crucible; it’s an amazing play but so is A Raisin in the Sun—if you keep reading voices that only look like you or don’t look like you, what are you saying? You know? You’re saying that these voices aren’t important enough to study.
During the protests I think about not only what can I do as a writer, but what can I do as an educator? That’s really where my head is right now: how can I get the resources that people like us, who are writers immersed in this literary community, how do I get those resources in the hands of teachers who aren’t involved in the literary community, students who’ve been using the same anthologies and novels for however long they’ve been teaching? How can I do that? What’s my responsibility in all of this? How can my book do that? How can my book reach kids who’ve never read someone of color?
That’s my goal: it’s not to be on some list of must-reads, as nice as that would be, but it’s for kids to see their stories are important no matter what they look like.
AE: It’s absolutely true—all those stories, when you can find yourself, you know, when you think, “oh my God, I know that feeling, I know that story even though I’m a world away from you.’ To experience that is impactful, it’s powerful, it’s huge.
DL: I think that’s why we do it. That’s why I write.
AE: It’s got to be.
DL: That’s why I tell these stories—because I want people to see that. Like, we’re so alike and we don’t even know it.