In the wake of the exciting announcement of the first title selected for Book Club Central by Honorary Chair Sarah Jessica Parker, an avid reader and library supporter as well as an award-winning television and film actor, producer, and designer––No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts––Booklist Adult Books Editor Donna Seaman continued the conversation with Stephanie that began on stage at ALA’s summer conference.
Seaman: How did you feel when you learned that Sarah Jessica Parker selected your novel, your first, for her first Book Club Central pick? And how has your life changed since the public announcement?
Watts: I am thrilled and humbled to have my book honored in this way. I am one of five children, and we spent many a day in libraries with my very well-read mother. I think my brother still owes fines for Chess at a Glance. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t love Sarah Jessica Parker. She has been an advocate for books and literature for years with her book clubs, and I was so moved to hear about her past ties with libraries as a child. She comes from a big family, too, and she remembers (like I do) exploring the world through books. Libraries for her were sanctuaries as they were for me and my family. I was touched by her very real connection to the public institution and for her very real desire for the public good. I tell everyone that she was as kind and beautiful as you think she’d be. Her introduction of my book was poetry. That woman can write! I can’t tell you how many times thrilled people have said to me, “You met Sarah Jessica Parker!”
Seaman: What inspired you to improvise on elements of a great American classic, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?
Watts: The novel did not come together in my mind until I started thinking of this as a story of a literal return home. They say that every story is either a journey story or a visitation story. Typically, the men take the journeys, and the women get visited. But I wanted a story about the ones that stayed, even though the idea of movement and change is the germ of my novel. From the time I was 16 years old and read it for the first time, I loved The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the ultimate “change your address and change your life” story. I loved the idea that Gatsby could return to his love, no longer a child, but an almost unrecognizable man. Isn’t that the ultimate underdog fantasy? The homecoming? The reunion? The poor or despised, the bullied or unpopular returned with the accoutrements of wealth, the attitude of the victor. Like Gatsby, one of my main characters believes that if he can return to the woman he loves and build a beautiful house for her that will provide the anchor for their lives, he can finally and for all time be the person he wants to be.
My protagonist comes back with more financial resources and more emotional resources, and less an injured body enveloped in pain and tragedy. He knows that the woman he desires probably still loves him, too. What my protagonist has forgotten is that the earth didn’t stop spinning in the years he was gone, and the small southern town he comes back to is not the one he left. Many of the furniture factories that once thrived in the region are closed. Though segregation and Jim Crow are history by law, the ghosts of this painful social history persist in unexpected ways. My characters are grown enough to know they will likely not live to see those ghosts die. Even the two female protagonists of the novel are shadows of themselves, not constellations in the night sky but as indecipherable as random stars from the center of space. What is the only rule of the seeker? Keep on seeking. Only in the rest, the nesting, only by stopping does the seeker discover that no room can ever truly fit. No house has space enough for all the seeker’s great and consuming needs.
Seaman: Place and settings have great significance in your novel. Can you talk about the origins of Pinewood, the fictional North Carolina town?
Watts: When I was a kid everyone I knew worked in the furniture industry or the chicken processing industry. Everybody. The rich people in town were executives in those industries and the poorer ones worked on factory lines. I never thought to think about these little towns as beautiful. There was always factory noise and smell and ugly buildings and cottage industries like food trucks and convenience stores popped up around the factories. I’m trying to say the view wasn’t lovely. I didn’t think about beauty in this way then. I’m sure part of that is just being young. When you’re very young you don’t have to see beauty, you can just live in it and be a part of it because you have no knowledge that it will ever disappear. But later I have come to see what amazing places these were in the foothills of North Carolina. In the intervening years, the loss of industry means more poverty and even despair. Which means that there is an erasure of my past. You’d think that erasing the ugly old factories and Stop N Go convenience stores would be a boon, but it is unsettling and sad. If you go back home and there is an addition and new furniture, you might wistfully remark about the old days, but be glad to see the progress with elements of what you remembered. If you go back home and vines cover the house, the windows are dark, and there are no signs that anyone lives there, it is a sadness. I am not suggesting that these towns have no vibrancy or life, but they are shadows of what they were in the heyday of their industries. I wanted my characters to grapple with some of these changes.
Seaman: Houses are essential to the novel. Sylvia is deeply attached to her home, which she has given to her married daughter, Ava, while JJ has returned after a long absence to build a mansion high above Pinewood, in the hope of winning Ava's heart. What do these houses signify?
Watts: When I was a kid, we moved around a lot. We didn’t always move out of town and never out of the state of North Carolina. Often our move was just a few streets or neighborhoods over from where we started. I can’t remember the first time we moved when I knew for sure it would only be temporary, that there would always be another one—a few months, maybe a year at the most in a new place. My mother was a single mom and was always looking for the place that fit. I still feel this itch every year or two to pack up and find a better place—it is hard to shake. I think that childhood experience really helped me think about how important houses and homes are to people. Of course, a house is the ultimate sign of American status, but it is also a sanctuary and a place to return. I wanted all of those ideas flowing through my story. This story is at the heart a story about finding home: in a region, in a house, with the people you call home.
Seaman: Women characters rule, beginning with Sylvia, the moral compass of the novel. What is the origin of her wonderfully candid, cutting, wise voice?
Watts: I have known in my life some wonderfully wise women who despite all odds would not give up. I am so moved by them. My grandmother was one of these women. She knew that so many of the things in life that she wanted for me, she would never see herself. She also knew that it would take great dedication and work to see the life she wanted for her children and grandchildren. She was no-nonsense about reaching those goals. She said what she thought. She made clear when she thought you were making mistakes. She loved us. Not everyone gets to have a grandmother like mine. I wanted to provide a snippet of her in my book.
Seaman: Ava and her husband, Henry, have been draining their savings, seeking medical help as Ava tries to have a child and Henry’s hours are cut back at the furniture factory where he works. What inspired you to bring these concerns into the novel?
Watts: I have a son who is now seven years old. My husband and I spent many years waiting for him. I know some of Ava’s heartache. I lost a pregnancy and a doctor seeing my stoic expression said to me what the doctor says to Ava, “Was this not a pregnancy you wanted?” It is hard to know what to say to someone in this situation. I’m sure I’ve said things I wish I could take back to people in all kinds of situations. I’m just saying I know some of what Ava feels and what she’s been through. I should also say that having a child is not the cure for Ava’s life, but it is a dream that she has long hoped for that she has been unable to achieve. Life presents problems to all of us, and at some point you have to decide if you can go on if your dream is not fully realized. Some people cannot. Jay Gatsby was killed (I hope that’s not a spoiler), but his dream died on that road with Myrtle Wilson. He lived in the past. He could not move forward because his greatest dreams and desires where not rooted in the life he had, but the gauzy shadow life he imagined. My characters have smaller, though not less grand dreams. They want connection and love and to feel at home in the rural south because it is their home. If they cannot shuck off the past, they will never be weightless enough to move forward. The book is about their attempts.
Seaman: What inspired the story line about Marcus, a prisoner who has taken to calling Sylvia, a stranger to him?
Watts: When I was a graduate student in Columbia, Missouri, I took a phone call from an inmate. He wanted me to contact his loved one and get her to call him. I took his number and I held on to it for months. I called the number and left a message—this was in 1998 or 1999—when there was a such thing as home phones and answering machines! I never knew what happened. I imagined Marcus doing the same thing, relying on a stranger for some kind of comfort and assistance. So often incarcerated people are forgotten and then practically exiled upon their release. In some metaphorical ways, all of my characters are victims of their own kinds of exile and isolation. So many people are alone and suffering. Some have institutions of church or large families for succor, but many people have no one. My characters feel that aloneness in the world.
Seaman: What impact do you hope No One Is Coming to Save Us will have on readers?
Watts: My characters are striving black people trying to make lives for themselves despite their personal weaknesses and flaws; a difficult social, racial, and cultural landscape; the loss of job opportunities and community, and their own tragic pasts. I hope people will read these characters and see someone they know, maybe even see themselves, and spend a moment thinking about how difficult it is to create and maintain a life. I hope people will see my characters and think that she or he could be me, or my child, or my sister. Isn’t that what we all want from each other, empathy and a little understanding?
Learn more about No One is Coming to Save Us, Sarah Jessica Parker's first pick for Book Club Central.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.
Stephanie Powell Watts is an associate professor of English at Lehigh University, and has won numerous awards, including a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Southern Women’s Writers Award for Emerging Writer of the Year. She is the author of the short story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need.