Today is the last day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!
I was raised by storytellers who recreated the drab, flat Arkansas Delta world as a place of legend. The smallest events could take on mythic status. Years ago, a farmhand worked for my father. He was a somewhat shiftless young guy, a nephew of someone who my father hired as a favor. One day, he was backing a truck full of soybeans, meaning to turn it around, though he’d been warned just to back it out. As he eased the truck back, he kept repeating, “Doin’ good, doin’ good,” until he backed it into a ditch and turned the truck over, dumping the harvest out. Forevermore, he became Doin’ Good, and the tales of his exploits were legendary.
Doin’ Good was a minor character, though, compared to the legend of my father, whose exploits could fill up a novel by themselves. From the time he learned a brother-in-law was a jogger, challenged him to a footrace in rubber boots, and won, to the practical jokes he and my uncles used to play on each other, my father was a larger-than-life character who imbued my childhood with a kind of magic. When he wasn’t acting out tall tales, he was telling them, from jokes he made up to stories passed down for generations.
When I wrote Man of Clay, I was inspired by these kinds of stories. I looked to the folk tales collected by Vance Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, and others, as well as stories my father told me. One story trope, especially, stood out: the Big John stories. Big John is a trickster character, with origins traced back to the Anansi the Trickster stories that were brought over by African slaves. The spider, Anansi, became Big John, a slave who matched wits with Master, and almost always won, though often at great cost. (These stories further morphed into the more palatable Brer Rabbit stories). I thought it was important that I stay true to the spirit of the Big John stories, but that I make up my own for the book to pay homage.
In Man of Clay, Big John appears as a symbol of hope for the slaves. Some of his stories are fairly whimsical—like the one where Master’s wife tries to seduce Big John, and he escapes by climbing a ladder up to the moon—and some are much darker, like the one about the time Big John dressed his daughters up like sons to hide them from Master. When Master discovers the subterfuge, he murders the girls, but not before being forever humiliated.
The great power of these tales is their tragedy. These aren’t Disney stories with happy endings; they are brutal, sardonic stories in which the only real gain is often a simple revelation of humanity, which might come at the cost of the lives of those Big John cared for most; instead of a Prince Charming or a golden castle, Big John simply wanted to be treated respectfully and recognized as a human being.
CL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.