Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Interviewed by Rosalyn Spencer
Rosalyn Spencer: Congratulations on the success of your debut novel, We Cast a Shadow! The book has been discussed by a dizzying number of mainstream newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times, the LA Times, and the Huffington Post. You were a feature and photo shoot for the New York Times’ style magazine, T, in their “Black Male Writers for Our Time.” Much of this press came before the release of the novel, which was made available to the public in January. What does it feel like to have all this press for your first novel? What level of success had you imagined?
Maurice Carlos Ruffin: The positive press is more than I ever expected. I told myself before the book came out that the real prize was finding an amazing publisher in One World Random House that agreed to put out my novel. I expected a modest reception. But the positive reviews, interviews, and tour appearances have been a wonder to experience. I couldn't be happier.
RS: Have you experienced any negative aspects of the book’s success?
MCR: None. I'm definitely a lot busier now, but busy beats sleeping.
RS: One of the central conceits of We Cast a Shadow is the idea that one could buy whiteness, that one could purchase a surgical procedure that literally turns one Caucasian, with all the benefits that implies. This creates an even more racially stratified society, in which rich black people are incentivized to leave blackness behind, thus “black” and “poor” become increasingly synonymous. How did your own experiences and observations of poverty inform the poverty we see in the book?
MCR: Today, virtually anything is for sale. I can pay someone to drive me to the store, cook my meals, or even be my friend. Since a premium has been placed on whiteness, it only makes sense that some people would see the purchasing of whiteness as a victory. Meanwhile, poverty is one of the tools that racists have used to continue oppression. Long ago, slaves were denied the right of property ownership and the right to educate themselves. Today, many Black folks encounter a world in which it is clear that the freedom to thrive is attenuated by policies and attitudes that decrease one's ability to live the American dream. Racism and economics are very tied together in our nation.
RS: Most of We Cast a Shadow takes place in the South in “the City,” but the City strongly seems to allude to New Orleans. Why did you leave the City unnamed? How is it different from New Orleans?
MCR: New Orleans has such a specific appearance and reputation in people's imaginations. I much preferred to create a space where the reader could imagine the City to be Charlotte, Atlanta, or even their hometown. There are too many differences to name, but I can say that the City is 50 or more years from present-day New Orleans. And we don't have a massive castle-like hospital sitting downtown.
RS: The books’ narrator is a lawyer, and the book explores his job thoroughly. How did you own experiences as a lawyer inform the work?
MCR: I have had many amazing experiences practicing law. It's an industry full of big personalities and peculiar traditions. Plus, people just love to read about lawyers, especially complicated ones.
RS: The book is very much about fatherhood. The silent fears that eat away at a parent who wants better for their child. To want their child to suffer less and have more freedoms than they had. What made you tackle that subject?
MCR: I've always liked to write about subjects nearest and dearest to our hearts. I have a hard time thinking of anything more important than the love between a parent and child as well as the way society can make that relationship far more complex and difficult than it should be.
RS: We Cast a Shadow appears to take place in the near future. Its darkness and dystopic elements, and its open racism, colorisim and classism show a chilling view of what can be our near future. In your novel through the voice of the main character, we see through his recollections of his childhood and his relationship with his parents that they changes to his world were slow and steady. One of the most profound moments that stood out to me was the character’s connection upon seeing a childhood toy celebrating the last black female leader of the city made palatable as a toy monkey. It reminded me strongly of people’s acceptance of former President Obama and his respectability but the quiet denial of his humanity. Did the climate of the political landscape in recent years inspire your novel?
MCR: Certainly, it did. There's a tendency by mainstream society to reduce great Black leaders to innocuous figureheads. In the past, plenty of people hated Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and many others because they said and did things that racist people did not want to hear or see. But today they are generally remembered as harmless. They were not harmless. They were radicals who helped make America a better country.
RS: Throughout the novel, we bear witness to the macroaggressions, moments of shame and slow deterioration of self for the need to assimilate in the main character. How did you approach writing the precarious relationship between authenticity and respectability?
MCR: It is a precarious relationship. One of the major questions of the novel is how far is a parent willing to go on behalf of their child's well-being. That helped my move forward without losing the thread.
RS: We Cast a Shadow is not about sexuality, but is sprinkled with homages to Lolita. How did Lolita influence the writing of the book?
MCR: The father figure in Lolita is monstrously damaging a young girl based on his need for sexual gratification. The Narrator in my book makes some highly questionable choices based on his desire to ensure his son leads a life unobstructed by the dictates of a society that sees skin color first.
RS: What writing project are you working on now? What else are you working on?
MCR: I'm writing a short story collection to be published by One World Random House in 2021. I'm constantly writing essays that are available to the general public. I also have another novel that's in its earliest stages.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin has been a recipient of an Iowa Review Award in fiction and a winner of the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for Novel-in-Progress. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. A native of New Orleans, Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.