‘The sloppy reality of being human’: An interview with Mary Lou Hall, author of ‘Wirewalker’

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In Virginia Commonwealth University alumna Mary Lou Hall’s debut novel, “Wirewalker,” Clarence Feather, a 14-year-old boy, is pushed into running drugs to help support his family. Clarence struggles with this unwelcome twist in his life and worries about being the person his late mother — a victim of gun violence — wanted him to be. As he navigates his new set of challenges, Clarence befriends Mona, a large albino Great Dane who lives in the neighborhood. He soon discovers Mona needs his help. 

Paul Griffin, the author of the novels “Stay with Me” and “Burning Blue,” said, “Mary Lou Hall’s ‘Wirewalker’ is a daring leap into magnificence. This is storytelling at its bravest and most beautiful. Seeing life through Clarence Feather’s eyes, feeling it through his wounded, magical heart, I fell in love with the world all over again.” 

Hall received an MFA in creative writing from the Department of English in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry at VCU. She spoke to VCU News about Clarence and the creation of “Wirewalker.”

What was the inspiration for the character of Clarence Feather and the very difficult circumstances he faces?

During late college and through graduate school, I waited tables and tended bar in a swanky, successful restaurant where the money was good. During my time there, I became friends with a co-worker who was six years younger than I was. At that point in my life, the age gap seemed significant. He was barely old enough to legally work. To me, he seemed like the quintessential innocent kid encountering the so-called real world for the first time. I was wrong. 

Over time, as I got to know him, he shared his story with me. In the neighborhood where he’d grown up, his brother still worked as a drug dealer. Drug money largely kept the household afloat, and when my friend was 11 years old, his brother initiated him into that world. My friend ran drugs for his brother for several years before leaving to wash dishes in the restaurant where I met him. About a year later, his brother joined us there, taking a job in the restaurant’s kitchen, leaving dealing behind “for good,” he claimed. 

My friend openly admitted that he was sometimes still angry at his brother for using him as a runner, and I watched his brother take that anger on. He owned it. Most of the time, though, I watched them joke and laugh with each other, and my outsider’s perspective couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing. I wondered how a boy — and then a young man — could get past that kind of betrayal by a brother, who for all intents and purposes, had functioned as a father in his life. Their story, and my unreconciled questions about trust and forgiveness, stayed with me long after the restaurant closed and we finally parted ways. 

Years later, I lived in a formerly thriving community that was falling into economic decline. Drug dealing was becoming a visible presence in the neighborhood, as were the boys who played their parts, like my friend in the restaurant, in those dealers’ success. These circumstances made me think about my friend and his older brother, about how the lines between love, loyalty and survival might fall in different places for different people. Little by little, over a long period of time, Clarence Feather — and his conflicted relationship with the men who are raising him — came to life on the page.

The novel examines some challenging topics, including substance abuse, dog fighting and gun violence, but it also maintains a sense of hopefulness. Can you explain your approach to depicting both the struggles and successes of Clarence’s life?

I think my approach was very tied into my own general perception of human experience, and the many ways we struggle with the gray areas between moral absolutes. In “Wirewalker,” Clarence has just recently turned 14. Seeing the world in a binary way — good vs. evil, hero vs. villain — initially gives him comfort and a sense of security, particularly after his mother’s murder. His purposefully dualistic perspective draws clean, clear lines between types of choices, types of actions, and types of people, but it doesn’t accurately reflect his own reality or my own view of the necessarily grand, painful, sloppy reality of being human. 

Clarence’s notion of “walking the wire” between moral poles serves him in one way but sabotages him in another. He’s framed his life so rigidly that there is no room for a wrong step in any direction. For much of the story, he defines his own “success,” as you put it, in terms of this ongoing, stressful act of staying upright on this personal wire, no matter what. The challenging topics you mentioned are simply the forces which, in his mind, threaten to knock him off the wire. He believes his dead mother is watching him, and if he falls, he fails. 

The novel employs both gritty realism and a sense of fantasy. Why was it important to you to tell Clarence’s story using both approaches? What did it allow you to do

Honestly, I think I simply gave Clarence a consciousness that I recognize and experience every day. It wasn’t really a choice; it just happened. I think that for many people, reality and fantasy are concurrent, fluid states and that between the necessary focused tasks of “real life,” our minds travel — sometimes against our own wills — into multiple potential pasts and multiple potential futures, slipping into little dreams throughout the course of a given day. In calendar time, we walk through our days and years in a seemingly linear way, but our minds don’t always recognize those linear constructs. I believe that for some folks, including Clarence, it is in that stream of both wakeful and sleep-induced dreams that we make connections and see possibilities that the rational mind won’t allow.

Did your experience in the Creative Writing Program at VCU help you in the creation of this book? Were there professors or classmates who were particularly influential in your development as a writer?

Readers are people, after all, and people want specifics; they want to see and hear lives come to life

Tom De Haven, who still teaches in the M.F.A. program here at VCU, taught me everything I know about writing real stories. I remember his response to one of my early stories; he told me that it was beautiful writing but that nothing was happening, that I needed to let the characters move around, to interact and use their voices more, to engage in conflicts that would play themselves out, in concrete ways, on the page. Of course, I’m summarizing his message, which is appropriate here, but his teaching gradually moved me away from summarizing human experience and interaction in stories. Readers are people, after all, and people want specifics; they want to see and hear lives come to life; they want to believe they are there, that any story’s world in some way belongs to them. 

Tom taught me to write tight, compelling scenes and realistic dialogue in order to accomplish these goals on the page. He taught me to consider character’s pasts, to become intimate with them, even if I would only give glimpses of those pasts to the reader. I wrote two novels before “Wirewalker” but never sent them out to agents or publishers. I hadn’t yet learned to create characters and lives that were completely real to me, and I figured that if they weren’t real to me, there was little chance that they’d be real to someone else. But, long after graduation, Tom stayed close to me and my work while I continued to try to find that place of truth that lies somewhere between craft, reality and imagination. And for me, as a writer, that place of truth emerged in the character of Clarence Feather. Clarence is real to me, as is his entire story. Tom’s influence and encouragement made “Wirewalker” possible.