Venita Blackburn’s ‘Dead in Long Beach, California’ crackles with humor and grief.
On this week’s Fully Booked podcast, Venita Blackburn discusses Dead in Long Beach, California (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jan. 23), a highly original novel with a stunning premise: In response to her brother Jay’s death by suicide, graphic novelist Coral Brown begins responding as him to the text messages on his unlocked phone.
Blackburn, who made a name in short stories and flash fiction, is the author of the collections Black Jesus and Other Superheroes and How To Wrestle a Girl. Her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s. She is the founder and president of Live, Write, which offers free creative writing workshops to communities of color, and an associate professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.
Here’s a bit from our starred review of Dead in Long Beach, California:
“The debut novel from short story author Blackburn is narrated by a mysterious ‘we’—perhaps characters from Coral’s book, perhaps multiple versions of herself, perhaps both. Despite the heavy subject matter, sensitively handled, this is frequently a deeply funny novel: Long Beach is ‘an oily, salty city nicknamed Weirdbeach by those not likely to fly a gay pride flag on their lawns anytime soon,’ and Khadija ‘loved amusement parks the way chefs love cardamom and pretentious knives.’ Blackburn shares a deep intellect and odd sensibility with authors like George Saunders and Rion Amilcar Scott, but this novel is its own thing: intelligent, bizarre, and brilliantly written. An astonishing debut novel from a remarkably creative writer.”
Blackburn and I begin by discussing the cover for Dead in Long Beach, California, and why “a novel” is styled in quotation marks on the front of the book. We then segue into the differences between writing a novel and writing stories. She introduces listeners to the novel’s storyteller, Coral Brown, whose testimony begins in the first-person plural (“we”). To give an example of the voice, Blackburn reads the first paragraph aloud. We then discuss the book’s inherent humor; its shocking yet believable premise; the special allowances we make for people who are grieving; the power and value of imagination; writing on the sentence level; how lists function in fiction; how time elapses in the book; and more.
Then editors Laura Simeon, Mahnaz Dar, Eric Liebetrau, and Laurie Muchnick share their top picks in books for the week.
Dungeons and Drama by Kristy Boyce (Underlined)
The Last Stand by Antwan Eady, illus. by Jerome Pumphrey & Jarrett Pumphrey (Knopf)
Rental Person Who Does Nothing by Shoji Morimoto, trans. by Don Knotting (Hanover Square Press)
Old Crimes by Jill McCorkle (Algonquin)
ALSO MENTIONED ON THIS EPISODE:
Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons by Jon Peterson
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
Kantika by Elizabeth Graver
THANKS TO OUR SPONSORS:
The Knee & Shoulder Handbook: The Keys to a Pain-Free, Active Life by Alan Reznik, M.D.
Journey to Merveilleux City by Stephanie Barbé Hammer
Incendiary Attraction by Sarah Andre
Fully Booked is produced by Cabel Adkins Audio and Megan Labrise.