Novelist Lisa Teasley's 'Heat Signature'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
The novelist William Faulkner said the past is not dead. In fact, it's not even passed. You could apply that word to loved ones who live on in our memories. But Sam, the protagonist in the novel Heat Signature, feels the presence of his dead mother more literally and physically.
The author of Heat Signature, Lisa Teasley, joins us here at NPR West. Welcome.
Ms. LISA TEASLEY (Author, Heat Signature): Thank you so much for having me here.
CHIDEYA: So describe your character Sam to us.
Ms. TEASLEY: Well, Sam is 31 years old. He's a nurse. He lives in Joshua Tree, California Desert with his father - his adopted father. He's in a dead end relationship with a stripper. It's been two years. The most important event in Sam's life was that his mother was murdered 16 years ago.
And though he had come to almost a numbness as a child - you know, trying to numb away the pain - now that her killer has been released from prison, the pain is fresh again. And he, just to get away from all of these incredible emotional difficulties, he gets in a car and drives up the gorgeous California coast to try and escape his problems, but also to try and be alone with his mother.
CHIDEYA: Tell us about those moments when he feels himself in his mother's presence.
Ms. TEASLEY: It comes to him - instead of with a coldness that some people talk about when they feel that they're being feeling visited by the spirit of a loved one - he feels it as a kind of heat. Heat, headache, a dizzying presence. So his journey is really to try and come to terms with what it is that he thinks she's trying to tell him.
CHIDEYA: As he journeys though, he also - he travels to some amazing places. And why don't you read us a section where he's visiting the Henry miller Library?
Ms. TEASLEY: Okay.
(Reading) Sam doesn't make out the sign he passes, but with recklessness he U-turns for shoulder parking at what turns out to be Jade Cove. He takes the path through a wide stretching field of tall, stiff grasses. He is entirely alone, embracing only the company of wild vegetation thriving in fat-grained, sandy dirt leading to the marine terrace.
Tempting vertigo, he looks down the steep trail that seems as long as half a mile, leading to the bluff in the rocky coves he imagines falling down and dashing his head against. Who would find his body here?
With painstaking care, he begins his scale of the hill, at times grabbing on to the prickly bushes that mock his fear in their sturdiness. What if he were followed and shoved? What if he were forever lost in the infinite body of water?
CHIDEYA: You also are writing or creating through this man who has constant conquests of different women. He may not think of them as conquests because it seems in the writing that the women just sort of gravitate towards him. What was it like to write a character like that? Did you find it difficult?
Ms. TEASLEY: No, I didn't. Because just as you mentioned, he doesn't see the women as conquests. I saw him as searching, and I saw him as seeing every new woman as a possibility for refuge and a possibility for this is the love. You know, but still, I think that with each attempt at a relationship, he finds that he's still, quote-unquote, “damaged goods,” which is what he called himself in the beginning.
Because in order to be a whole person in a relationship, you've got to figure out who you are first, open up your closet of horrors and come to terms with what it is that you need to find out to be whole so that you can then love someone.
CHIDEYA: You're a black woman that writes outside of African-American genre fiction. And by that, I mean stories set in black neighborhoods and, you know, black communities. What drives you to kind of expand your world, or is this just the world you live in?
Ms. TEASLEY: Well, it's a bit of both. It's the world that I live in, and I never - well, although I grew up in a black neighborhood, I went to predominantly white schools. And so - just as very long ago in the ‘80s, Trey Ellis coined the phrase cultural mulatto. That's something that I feel that all of us are influenced by. We're all somewhat cultural mulattos if you will, and that we're living in worlds that aren't predominantly anything.
It's, you know, it's very much a melting pot. It's very much about trying to understand our differences and our, more importantly, our commonalities. And so as African-Americans, we are entirely diverse. There isn't one opinion. There isn't one group. We're just as multifaceted as we are in our many different hues and shades.
And so for me as a storyteller, it's important to show individuals rather than African-Americans first.
CHIDEYA: Finally, I want to talk about your writing process. We get the privilege of talking to different authors, and every one seems to have a different process. You have a family, including some kids. And how do you fit in the time, or are you one of these people who writes in, you know, every day at 6:00 a.m.? Or how do you plan your writing?
Ms. TEASLEY: Well, my schedule isn't as rigid. Because, again, having a daughter, having a 10-year-old, I have to be available to her if she comes, you know, knocking on the door of my office. So definitely, everyday I do write or, actually, I paint. It's a different feeling of working with paint - the smells, it's more physical, standing and working out, working out imagination through color.
CHIDEYA: And how important is this imagination to your life? How important is it to you to create?
Ms. TEASLEY: For me, it's one of the most important things, I mean, I think for all of us to be creative is the most important kind of self-expression. When I was a kid and going to the library and checking out books, I just found it so amazing that you could be inside of anyone's skin, travel anywhere in the world between the pages of a book.
And I understood that that journey was a creative journey, that it was someone who created the story. And so then from very early on, I knew that I wanted to be a storyteller, someone who used the imagination to communicate with the world and to learn something about us as human beings, our beauty and our ugliness, and something about myself and who I am in the world - who we all are.
And also just a sense that the mind is all powerful.
CHIDEYA: Lisa, thanks so much.
Ms. TEASLEY: Thank you so much. I've had such a good time talking to you.
CHIDEYA: Lisa Teasley is the author of Heat Signature.
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CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and African-American public radio consortium.
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CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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