Q&A with novelist Christopher X. Shade

Writer Christopher X. Shade's work was featured in issue #9 of Newtown Literary. He is the co-founder of the literary journal Cagibi and his debut novel, The Good Mother of Marseille (Paloma Press, 2019) will be published April 9th. It is currently available for pre-order. Here, he answers a few questions for us about Queens, his process, and his new book. He can be found online at christopherxshade.com, and on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?

I think of sunlight—our apartment has sunlight. We moved out here from a cramped East Village apartment that had brick walls outside the windows. But ask me in another moment and it will be something else, because so many other wonderful and compelling things come to mind, like the 167 languages in my Queens neighborhood, like the inspiring mix of residents, all ages, all family sizes, from many cultures. And how different noise is here than in the East Village, where there was noise all night. Here, there is a hush at night, after a daytime bustle at lively international food markets and transit stations and street corners, everywhere an evocative murmur of numerous languages. How does Queens influence your writing?

Queens represents for me a period of my life in which I’ve been deepening and enriching my work in all things literature. While living here, I’ve co-founded a literary journal, my first novel is coming out (The Good Mother of Marseille), and I’ve now written two new books that are the most personal and ambitious projects I’ve ever undertaken. And that list is too short; I’ve done so much more. Also, more time on the subway means more reading time. I carry books with me everywhere I go. What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?

I recently read and re-read every book translated by Megan McDowell because I interviewed her for Cagibi. I was especially moved by her translation of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream which is haunting and engaged in important issues, and I was moved by the re-reading of all the works by Alejandro Zambra who has been an inspiration for me since I discovered his book The Private Lives of Trees many years ago.

What inspires you?

I love talking to people, asking them questions, hearing their stories. This is the beating heart of my novel, The Good Mother of Marseille. To have conversations about things that are important to you personally. Opening up, being authentic with the person you’re talking to, and being authentic with yourself. It’s a path to understanding each other better, if at least a little bit more with each conversation, and to coming to terms with our own imperfect selves.

​How did you come to write this novel?

I was deeply moved by a visit to Marseille in the year of 2013, the year of its designation as the European Capital of Culture. I had many pieces of stories, like travel snapshots. With the help of an editor, the pieces began to take novel shape. But I always knew, from the beginning, its shape and aim. It’s in the title: the book is named after the basilica on the hill, the Notre Dame de la Garde, what the people of Marseille call la bonne mere, the good mother; and she has watched over them for centuries. So, these people are not alone, they are together, and they have someone who watches over them. They search elsewhere for themselves, because this is what we do, but they are already where they belong.

What does your writing process/routine look like?

I write whenever I can. And read and study. I tell my students to write whenever they can, and find inspiration in any ways that they can. Consistency is difficult with the hectic New York City pace of life that many of us face. Routine is a mirage here. The worst period in a writer’s life, in my view, is a period of routine. I encourage my students to try anything: meditate, run on a treadmill at a crowded gym, do yoga, listen to podcasts during their subway commute.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?

A new novel that reaches back into a family’s Civil Rights-era past. In this story, a man returns to the small Alabama town of his childhood to visit an older family friend, who is in hospice with cancer. Like The Good Mother of Marseille, it is a story about coming to understand each other.

Also, I'm working on a book of poems I've written during a series of visits to a monastery to come to terms with the loss of someone in my life.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do? My wife and I enjoy the city, when we can, and the ways that we experience the city are constantly shifting. We also practice yoga—we go to yoga class together, when we can. I also enjoy editing and publishing: In late 2017 I co-founded a journal of poetry & prose called Cagibi. We have quarterly online issues, and an annual print issue. We also do writing retreats. We’ve published many Queens writers such as Joseph Salvatore, Tim Fredrick, Safia Jama, and Eugene Lim. I also write book reviews, when I can, and support the good work of the NBCC, the professional organization for book reviewers.

What is your favorite bit of Queens trivia?

The game of Scrabble was invented in my neighborhood! This is in Jackson Heights. It was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts. I love this, because I grew up in a Scrabble-loving family. (I understand that this is not uncommon! I read a statistic that three out of every five American homes have a Scrabble board.) When I was a kid in Alabama, raised by a single mom, four kids, the Catholic priest came over and at our little round dinner table played Scrabble with her for hours. And our grandparents and aunts and uncles played Scrabble. Now, whenever I visit my mom in Alabama, we play Scrabble. We also play Mexican Dominoes. She wins at all these games, every time.

Thank you, Christopher!

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