Monday, December 19, 2022

Writing Fiction about Real Historical Characters: Interview with Wesley Brown

This post features an interview with fiction writer Wesley Brown about his latest book, a dynamic novella about the jazz musician Miles Davis. See the end of this blog for Wesley’s full bio.

Author Wesley Brown. Photo by Brian Cornelius

Question: Your new book, Blue in Green, takes place during one day in the life of Miles Davis and his wife, the dancer Frances Taylor. How did you pick that particular time frame for the setting?

Wesley Brown: I wanted to focus on the assault on Miles Davis by police in front of the New York nightclub Birdland on the evening of August 25, 1959. Limiting the action within that time frame was indicative of the compression of Miles’s approach to playing.


Q. The period of the novella, the late 1950s, was a sort of high point for jazz and popular culture in the USA, with such music greats as Miles, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne, who all make cameo appearances in your book; and dancers like Katherine Dunham, Fred Astaire, and Cyd Charisse, who also figure in Blue in Green. What about that period attracted you as a setting for the book?


WB: The late 1950s were a transitional moment in jazz. Miles had taken the modal expression within jazz as far as he could take and was about to move on to his next musical challenge. And this period ushered in the emergence of figures like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

Q. When you have a work of fiction with a very tight timeframe, like this one, what types of moments lend themselves to adding some backstory? For example, there are some fascinating stories in your book about the life of Miles’ wife, Frances Taylor, who was a renowned dancer in her own right. How did you decide where to insert material that takes place earlier in time?

WB: Since the novella focuses on memory, I was interested in the events triggered by Miles’ beating, which were related to his beginnings and the pivotal experiences in his evolution as a musician. It is much the same for Frances. The difference is that she looks back on the trajectory of her artistry as a dancer that she gave up to be with Miles.


Q. What were the challenges of writing fiction about actual historical personages whose life stories are known to many readers?


WB: The challenges were not to focus on the facts of their careers that were well known or could be found in books, but to try and get in touch with their emotional lives which I could only discover through imagining them.

Q. One of my favorite passages occurs when we are inside the thoughts of Miles Davis while his band is playing the song, “If I Were a Bell.” How did you go about imagining what Miles Davis might have been experiencing while he was in the middle of playing a number?


WB: Of course, I couldn’t know what Miles was actually experiencing by playing, “If I Were a Bell.” So, I attempted to use the lyrics of the song as a way to imagine how he might experience them. 

Frances Taylor and Miles Davis

Q. The novella also deals with the complex relationship between Miles Davis and his wife, Frances Taylor. How did you approach that material, given that it shows a side of Miles that is sometimes extremely negative?

WB: I knew about Miles’s violence against Frances from interviews and books. But again, I tried to get underneath what they didn’t reveal by imagining the effects of his emotional and physical abuse had on both of them.


Q. There’s a curious section in the book where Miles Davis sees the film Some Like It Hot, and he reflects on gender, thinking that Tony Curtis in drag is a sexier woman than Marilyn Monroe in the film (some of us might beg to differ about that!). Is that section meant to tell us something about Miles, or was that Wesley Brown riffing?


WB: As the character of Miles says in that section, Monroe was a male fantasy of hyper, female sexuality that she enabled. I was riffing on that. But Miles was attracted to the androgyny of figures like Curtis and Elvis.  One need only look at his gravitation toward Prince.

Wesley Brown’s previously published novels are Darktown Strutters, Tragic Magic, and Push Comes to Shove. He also wrote the plays, Boogie Woogie and Booker T, and Life During Wartime. Brown coedited the multicultural anthologies Visions of America and Imagining America and edited The Teachers & Writers Guide to Frederick Douglass. With Thulani Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, and Amiri Baraka, Wesley Brown co-wrote the screenplay for W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, BĂ©renice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry