Q&A with Maisy Card, author of These Ghosts Are Family
Born in St. Catherine, Jamaica but raised in Jamaica, Queens, Maisy Card is a writer and a public librarian. Her debut novel, These Ghosts Are Family (Simon & Schuster 2020), was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and was longlisted for The Center For Fiction's First Novel Prize. She can be found on Twitter @dracm and on Instagram @librarylovefest.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
Immigrants. When we first came to America we moved to Richmond Hill, Queens. I went to P.S. 121. In elementary school, I didn’t know anyone who was not an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Most of my friends were also from the Caribbean. I felt this deep sense of belonging that I would never have anywhere else.
How does Queens influence your writing?
I think growing up in these kind of dense immigrant communities made me really preoccupied with capturing many disparate voices, stories, and perspectives. Like my first, the novel I’m working on now has a wide cast of characters.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
Luster by Raven Leilani. I ugly cried when I finished that book. There were also a lot of laugh out loud moments.
What inspires you?
Other writers inspire me. The work of Toni Morrison, Lucille Cliff, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Edward P. Jones. Movies and music too. History is a big source of inspiration. I didn’t consider myself a historical novelist when I started writing but I might be headed down that track.
How did you come to write your novel, These Ghosts Are Family?
It was a long process. It took almost twelve years to get to the version that is in print now. I began the novel in my MFA program. I started out by writing short stories and over the years they became more interconnected until it eventually evolved into a novel-in-stories.
You’ve spoken about how much of this novel was inspired by research into your own family’s history and genealogy. At what point did you realize you were going to turn this research into fiction, and did you have to work through any trepidation about that? (Asked as a writer who battles how much real life should inform my fiction.) What has your family’s reaction been?
I’d already begun writing stories that were based on early memories or experiences with my family before I began the research, but it was the research that helped me realize that all of the stories were connected and that they should be a book. It’s a tough call. There are things I want to write about now but that I realize are not my stories to tell. I think you’ll know if they want the story told or not. At the same time, I found that even when I began with a story that was true, by the time I finished with it, there was very little that resembled the real story that inspired it. If you’re uncomfortable writing about family, then focus on telling the emotional truth behind the real story, rather than the actual facts.
My parents don’t really read fiction so I don’t think they’ll ever read my book. That frees me up somewhat. My siblings have read it and liked it. No one from my family has ever been a writer or gotten by on their art so they’re just happy I have a book. My dad keeps having me sign copies so he can mail to people, but I doubt he’ll ever read it.
What was the most fulfilling part of writing this book, and the most challenging?
It is somewhat cathartic to write about emotions you’ve experienced, or to explore emotions that you know your parents have wrestled with but have never talked to you about. I’m saying all the things to my family through this book that I would never say out loud. The most challenging was just staying motivated. It took me a long time to write and I was working a lot and there were many times when I wanted to abandon it for good.
Do you listen to music while you write? If so, was there any particular kind of music or specific songs you found yourself returning to while writing These Ghosts Are Family?
I can only listen to instrumental music while I’m writing. Sometimes I like to listen to some of the instrumental songs that Nina Simone did. Usually I listen to music before I start writing. When I was writing that book I usually listened to reggae music that came out during the time period I was writing about.
What has your experience been as a debut novelist, whose book was published just as COVID cases were rising in NYC? Do you have advice for other debut novelists coming out this year?
The most obvious result was that my book tour was cancelled. I was really looking forward to it, but at the same time the number of virtual events I’ve participated in are probably triple what was scheduled on my tour. Either way it’s nice to have a book out in the world. Not everyone gets to do that. There was a long while where I wasn’t sure it would ever happen for me, so I’m just generally joyful that this good thing happened to me. I think at the beginning of this, Tayari Jones tweeted advice to debut novelists. I’m sure I’m misquoting her, but she said something along the lines of "remember that your book is not going to disappear after this year. It continues to exist."
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I’m working on a second novel about a group of immigrant women working as home health aides in a wealthy retirement community in Florida.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
I like to sit in parks, go for walks. Lately, since I can’t go to cafes and libraries, I like to write in parks, too.