Nelson George is best known for his nonfiction writing his columns and essays on black popular music and culture for the Village Voice, Esquire, and Essence (some of them collected in 1993’s Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos: Notes on a Post-Soul Black Culture), and his easygoing cultural history books, The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1988), Elevating the Game (his 1992 book on basketball), and Hiphop America (1998). But for all his experience in writing journalism and analysis, Nelson George’s work has never lost its sense of interest and investment in its subjects. You never get the feeling that George does this because it’s a job, but rather, that it’s a long-term commitment, kind of an ongoing romance. Even when he has disagreements with aspects of the sports and entertainment industries, or wonders at their crassness or meanness, he never loses sight of the fact that the music or the game has some always relevant immediacy for someone’s life. And that someone is more often than not George himself.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, George began writing while he was a student at St. John’s University. After graduating in 1979, he worked as a film critic and sports reporter for the Amsterdam News and then as Black Music Editor, first for Record World, and in 1981, for Billboard. His books on the music industry include Top of the Charts (1981), The Michael Jackson Story (1984), and Where Did Our Love Go? (1986); in 1991, he plunged directly into the show business that so fascinates him, co-writing the film Strictly Business and co-producing and writing CB4 (1993). He was also, no small thing, associate producer for Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the IRT (1993), still the best fiction film out there on black girls surviving in the city.
Recently, he’s started writing novels. This says something about George’s workaholic personality as well as his evolving interests in popular culture, as both a source of material and a means of self-expression. The 40-something author has now written three novels, whose titles Urban Romance, Seduced, and this year’s One Woman Short indicate one of these interests, relationships. One Woman Short tells the story of Rodney, a 33-year-old Los Angeleno whose life takes a turn when his best friend, Tim, gets married in the opening scene. Fretting that both his career as an entertainment rep and his love life are stalled, Rodney rethinks his mother’s idea that he’s “one woman short” and comes up with a list of 133 names of past girlfriends who might have been the “one.” Narrowing the finalists down to three (George says he used the “magical” number three as an organizing principle), the former player tracks them down, Nick Hornby-style, in order to find his true love, or at least, someone with whom, as George puts it, he might share “happiness and contentment and intimacy, someone who suits him, not a dream of the past.”
In writing fiction, George says, he gets to “deal with a lot of the issues that don’t fall directly under the purview of the popular culture writing I do, that is, discussions of sexuality, intimacy, and warmth and certain emotional truths. It’s difficult in nonfiction to make the internal connections as opposed to the external connections. The writing style comes out of creating characters who are sort of projections of me, in a way, but may not be as connected to his emotional life as he is to the external world. So I just project that out, and try to put in a certain intelligence as well as blind spots, because they give the humility and the humanity. In nonfiction, the voice is more all-knowing, pointing out connections for the reader, like, ‘You didn’t notice this.’ When you do fiction, I find it very liberating to be stupid at times. It’s a way to get at both the confusion of adulthood and the pleasures of adulthood.”
I ask George how he came up with the sometimes powerful, always provocative female characters including Rodney’s three nieces who so confuse and please his protagonist Rodney. “I actually have three nieces,” he offers. “They’re not exactly these girls, my sister has three girls by three different guys. So for them, I’m the unifying male figure. I’ve noticed that young girls have a lot of confidence and self-assurance as kids, they feel equal to boys in a lot of ways. And then when they reach adolescence, there’s a change that happens that has do with confidence. So, I wanted to create girls who have some confidence, and haven’t been inhibited by the world. Of course, the boy thing is always an issue, learning to deal with boys, I haven’t even touched that one yet: maybe that’ll be the next novel. A lot of the book is inspired by my relationship with those girls. Since I don’t have any kids of my own, watching them grow up is a very important part of me.”
I observe that One Woman Short begins with a wedding scene, which is a currently fashionable subject for black-focused texts, films and novels. George says that the popularity of the image and idea of marriage reflects a growing interest in “commitment,” which, he says, is different from his own generation. “I think this group coming up now are products of broken homes, the divorce rate is something like 60 percent or something insane. So, they’re invested in trying to find a mate and building something, despite the rawer elements in pop culture, in hiphop and elsewhere, there’s a yearning for romanticism. And the book is about that: Rodney is coming to terms with his friend Tim getting married, trying to figure out what this means to me, what it says about me and my life. So the list and the women are vehicles for his search for himself.”
But, he adds, there is no wedding at the end of the novel. “My last novel, Seduced, ended with a wedding, but really, weddings are just the beginnings of stores, longer and more intense stories. This book is about the relationships between Rodney and Tim, and Tim’s bride, which is a very complicated relationship, because he immediately becomes, depending on the women’s point of view, a distraction or a threat. And often the friendship doesn’t survive.”
As well, I note that Rodney seems to come to terms with his own limits in terms of age and aspiration as he sees his mother become ill. But, he admits, “I didn’t want to write that very loquacious all-knowing black mother, so she’s weak, she’s more present as an idea than a character. Her illness is useful because it creates a nostalgia for the past life that this family used to have, there’s a vacuum there, now, for Rodney. The black mother has become a trope in recent films and novels, but I think it’s important to know something about the mother, to understand the guy. But at the same time, I don’t want her all over the story, him going to her for advice every five minutes. The sister, Roberta, is more like that for Rodney, and though she’s a mother too, she’s a very unconventional woman.”
I ask how he worked the language as he wrote, particularly in the exchanges between Rodney and Tim, which simultaneously date their friendship (in their use of phrases from previous decades) and cement their bond. George responds, “There’s a point where certain phrases are out of style, and it’s just ridiculous to use them, they become nostalgia. ‘Word’ which Tim and Rodney say to one another is from the ‘80s, and you don’t hear it anywhere anymore. I was writing both books at about the same time, there was a lot of interplay. You know, with the remake of Shaft, I’ve heard people using the word ‘bad’ again. The theme song by R. Kelly says, ‘He’s a bad man.’ And that’s been out since Michael Jackson, but now it has a kind of knowing resonance. I think ‘word” is the same kind of word, makes them feel cool and ironic and sincere all at the same time.”
Speaking of Shaft, I ask why he set the novel against a background in L.A.‘s entertainment industry. He says that he chose a particular and unusual aspect of this industry. “In the LA entertainment business, there’s a struggling, dreaming middle level, people trying to make their own business within it. Everyone sees books about the entertainment business at the highest level, or the brokedown, sleazy, violent level, and there’s this group in the middle, who are trying to climb up the ladder. Nobody ever looks at that. Rodney’s a guy who knows that the upper level is there, and is trying to get there, but is not a sleazeball, and trying to stay away from just doing hiphop clients.”
As well, Los Angeles has a specific sensibility that appeals to him. “My favorite books about L.A. are by James Elroy and Raymond Chandler,” says George. “And to me, this book is also a mystery. Rodney has a set of suspects, and the book is whether or not he’s going to crack this case or not. He’s a searcher, going from neighborhood to neighborhood. I’m not interested in love story per se, it’s not a romance novel. It’s about his guy’s search, which constantly moves you forward.”
And does George see his hero achieving success at the end of the novel? “It’s still up in the air,” the writer says.” He’s taken a step up the ladder both by connecting with Merry and having the event come off. There’s a sense that you can push and push for something, you can achieve it, but not always in the form you envisioned. It doesn’t go adoring to plan, but you move forward.”
He describes his audience as divided according to background and interests, and feels that he reaches across that divide: “There’s people who like Nelson George’s writing, who have every book. But more typical is a split, between people who like the nonfiction who tend to be college-educated men, into music-hiphop-film and people who like the novels, who tend to be women, more working class, not necessarily college educated. Black women read fiction in numbers that black women don’t, there’s a wide gap. So for this book, I hope men read it, but I think primarily it will be women.”
And besides, he’s already had responses from readers of One Woman Short. He says, “So many people have told me about having a list of their own, retracing steps in their past, reconnecting with people they knew in high school. I’m sure I’ll be getting a lot of letters from people who did or did not hook up with old girlfriends or boyfriends. Some will be quite happy and some will be cursing me out.”