Author Gabriel Bump Advises Young Writers to ‘Embrace the Sluggishness’

Gabriel Bump's protagonist in Everywhere You Don't Belong is an everyman who often mounts his narrative plateau with the discriminating eye of a filmmaker. This interview with Bump has us wondering, should he write a screenplay?

Everywhere You Don't Belong
Gabriel Bump
February 2020

Gabriel Bump‘s Everywhere You Don’t Belong, a sharply-observed work of fiction, signals the arrival of a new literary talent with the ability to paint a world’s wealth of detail in the pen with which he writes. His semi-autobiographical debut novel describes the curiously unsettled life of a young Black man growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the storms of racial strife. Bump, whose work has earned him spaces in Slam magazine and the Huffington Post, presents a novel-length story that curls and flows like liquid mercury: diary streams of an impassioned, keen writer. His protagonist is an everyman who often mounts his narrative plateau with the discriminating eye of a filmmaker; such is the cinematic nature of the story, told in filmic bursts that are charged with sensorial detail.

Everywhere You Don’t Belong was one of 2020’s top selections, earning plaudits in The New York Times and The Paris Review. It tells the story of Claude McKay, first a Black teenager who experiences the horrors of a race riot wherein he loses friends. Later, he is a confused and yearning adult, entering his 20s with a cautious foot and a heart pumped to bursting with romantic wonder. Claude cannot get a sure hold on the volatile matters of race; when faced with the very real issues of their ensuing complications (love and death), he retreats to the sanctums of his inner world to wax poetically.

Various encounters with love interest Janice further disturb his equilibrium and draw yet another groove in a story that is mapped with the lines of human inequity. Everywhere You Don’t Belong is not a straightforward drama that traces its characters through a linear path from beginning to end. Rather, it is a trail marked with intermittent flashes of emotional reportage that reveal the activities of transient life, much like the communiques of the antiquated telegram.

Bump, like his character Claude, had his literary aspirations in full-swing by the time he read the works of African-American greats like Richard Wright and Clarence Major. His transition from student to full-time writer (the author has also taught writing courses at the University of Buffalo) is a story in itself, a learning curve riddled with the stumbles and strides of any writer who struggles to chart a course to success. At work on a third novel (his follow-up to this book is in the process of being edited), Bump is forging new traditions in the literature of his generation. His voice arrives as a gently persistent and subtle invitation to a private world all his own that is just on the brink of discovery.


Light bulb – Image by ColiNOOB (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Tell us about your earliest experiences as a writer. When did you start writing, and what kinds of things did you write about?

I started off writing poems in middle school and high school. I imagine that spark came from listening to rap and watching Def Poetry Jam [ Russell Simmons]. I’d sit in math class (any class; I wasn’t an attentive student) and write these slam-like poems in my notebooks.

In high school, I started writing for the school newspaper. In those early days, my writing interests were similar to what they are now: social issues, sports, people on the fringes of society, understanding how our systems operate. The first article I wrote, a feature about a men’s clothing store closing down, won a national award. I guess that’s the first time I figured I should seriously give writing a shot.

What was your relationship to literature like in your teens? What works, in particular, captured your imagination?I was fortunate to have two older siblings and parents with plenty of books to steal. My sister, at the time, was studying the African Diaspora. She was interested in cultural anthropology. So, there were all these books in her room about Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, colonial revolutions.

When I started working for the school newspaper, I imagined myself turning into a features writer for Sports Illustrated. So, I read just about everything by Gary Smith, Scoop Jackson, Hunter S. Thompson, and Red Smith. I think Gary Smith was the first writer whose sentences and descriptions stuck with me. Towards the end of high school, I picked up Go Tell It on the Mountain and fell into a serious James Baldwin obsession.

You not only write, but you also teach writing as well. What are some of the most interesting moments you’ve had as a teacher–both the good ones and bad ones?

I don’t think I’ve had any bad moments as a teacher. Of course, there are classes that don’t go as planned. The students are tired and uninterested. I am tired and uninterested. We all can’t have great days.

Still, when I teach creative writing classes, like when I took creative writing classes, I get filled with immense gratitude. I mean, how lucky are we to have excellent short stories and books? I think my attitude in the classroom now is influenced by my kind and generous teachers. To name a few: Jeff Parker, Adam Levin, Jess Bowers, Janet Desaulniers, Mark Booth, Ruth Magraff, Jenny Magnus, Todd Hasak-Lowy, James McManus, Noy Holland, Sabina Murray, Edie Meidav. I was really lucky, still am.

What kind of a writer are you? Do you “pants” your novels and stories, or do you meticulously outline them before you begin? What does your process look like?

I pants until I can’t pants any more. I have some pre-conceived idea where a novel is going. I have a loose sense of the dramatic arc. Like, “these people are going to fall in love.” Still, I find writing into the surprise, letting the sentences and characters pull me along, keeps the writing fun and exciting. And, by the end, usually, my pre-conceived notions shift into something unrecognizable.

Everywhere You Don’t Belong is a good example. The second half of that story changed about four times, maybe more, maybe less. At this point in my writing life, I write what feels exciting, show it to my agent or editor (two brilliant readers) and they tell me what’s missing, which turns didn’t work, which characters need a little muscle. I have two people in my corner, Kathy Pories and Alexa Stark, who keep me on track.

Speaking of books and film adaptations, if you could write the screenplay adapted from any novel, which novel would you choose to adapt and why?

My dream is to write a screen adaptation of J.G. Farrell’s excellent novel Troubles. If you haven’t read it, it’s a work I highly recommend. It’s a hilarious and heartbreaking look at the troubles in Ireland, trauma, waywardness. I think translating that novel into a modern urban dramedy is something we need. Also, I just finished Bubblegum, Adam Levin’s brilliant new novel. It’s big and weird. He’s capable of adapting it himself, though.

What are some of the insecurities you feel as a writer? Do you have moments when you write five pages one day, only to read them over the next day and think, “What the hell did I just write?” What was the most insecure moment in your writing career thus far?

Well, first off, I rarely write more than two pages a day. When I try to push beyond that page limit, that’s when I start regretting what I’m writing. That’s just a strange personal quirk. One of many that dominate my writing habits.

As far as insecurities, man, they’re everywhere all the time. This is an insecure trade. It’s all so subjective. There are so many quiet periods, where it’s just you sitting at a table, sitting up in bed, staring at a screen and wondering “Why the hell am I doing this? Why does anyone care? Why do I care?” I guess these are all symptoms of Imposter Syndrome.

It’s such a lucky thing, getting to publish a book and have people read it, have some people like it. It’s like sleepwalking. Like, when am I going to wake up naked in the middle of a grocery store? And there are so few perfect books. Most of us will never write them.

The way I see it now, after some therapy and reflection: as long as I’m having fun, writing is what excites me. I enjoy the success of others and enjoy whatever success comes my way. Then, the insecurities feel much smaller. Emphasis on enjoying the success of others. This is such a competitive business. Let the publishers and editors and publicists and agents worry about the competition. As writers, we should just enjoy each other’s company and feel grateful for our dumb luck.

Writers take years to develop what they come to understand as their “voice” or their style. Do you feel you have reached that moment yet? If so, how would you describe your style or particular “voice”?

I think I’m finally getting to a place where I understand what I’m doing. I have a good feel for my sentences. My characters don’t feel like mysteries I’m trying to solve. That’s just at this moment though. It’s all subject to change.

Our writing “voices” should grow and change as we grow and change. My first book sounds a bit different from my second book, which sounds a bit different from the book I’m writing now. Change is exciting and exciting is good. I think a lot about Ishiguro’s book The Unconsoled. It’s a weird and wild book! The voice is different than some of his other books. And it’s one of my favorite pieces of art.

Some writers can stick to the same sound and do it well forever. I don’t think I’d find happiness that way. Another personal quirk. Maybe, later in life, if I’m lucky enough, I’ll write something like Finnegans Wake, which I love.

What are the three most important things that any new writer should understand about their craft– especially when beginning their work?

1. It’s a slow process! I think young and excited writers want things to happen fast. The process takes time. Embrace the sluggishness. It’s a good thing.

2. Read as much as you can. Read as widely as possible. There are so many cool ways to write a book. Find the influence that works for you.

3. There are days when you’ll want to quit. What you do on those days is important. In those quiet moments, ask yourself “What am I trying to achieve?” That’s where having fun is essential. If you’re writing for money and fame, maybe reconsider. Write because it makes you feel good. Write what makes you feel good!

How is your next book shaping up so far?

I’m working on some broad edits right now. Plot, development stuff. I’m hoping to have something back to my editor in a few months. I imagine, if the current plan holds, Algonquin should release it in 2022.