Writing in the Moment: Reflections on Writing and Alice Randall’s Pushkin and the Queen of Spades

I picked up Alice Randall’s 10-year-old novel from the clearance shelf at a local indie bookstore for one reason: I recognized Pushkin’s name. Years ago in Germany, I found out that the famed Russian writer was a black man, so I took the chance that this novel using his name was by a black writer and about black people. I was right on both counts. I found that Randall is a black woman and that her novel focuses on a black woman. However, I also found that the book was not about what I assumed with the cover. I expected a romance, not ruminations on race, the nature of blackness, class, education, gender, nationality and identity among a wealth of other topics. This is a literary novel.

As I continue to develop as a writer, I find that I learn most of what I know about writing from reading. I mostly read black women authors and I hope to find myself among them in themes and style without emulating them. Even with all the writers I admire, I never really find one who addresses the types of issues I want to address in that literary style. However, I seem to have found exactly what I’ve always wanted in a writer in Randall.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that we both have close connections to Tennessee where Randall lived at the time. (I’m not sure if she is still there after 10 years.) However, I did wonder if this had something to do with the connection I felt with her work. I had lots of think about when I finished reading Pushkin and the Queen of Spades besides the story. I began to ponder my own writing style and if I would ever be able to capture this type of literary approach that easily mixes the language and rhythm that typically peppers the writing of black women. See Randall has a knack for stream of consciousness that support the plot. I have a fondness for this type of style in my writing, but it usually serves to reveal or develop character and I’m never sure how well they serve the plot.

This is something I want to work more on as I write. I spend so much time working on characters that I forget to make them do stuff. I forget that sometimes going across the street to get sugar from a neighbor can be “action” that drives the story. The trick is bringing the reader along. But this leads me to another problem I often encounter when I construct stories.
Just how much detail should I include. I often have trouble determining when to describe a person, a room, a street or other points of the setting in detail. I found myself studying the way Randall incorporated such details. For instance, she writes:

The room at the Plaza was sumptuous; it evoked a sense of mythic wealth. When the bellman, grave, gray, and solicitous, an old man from the Old World, left with ten dollars of Pushkin’s cash money crossing his white-gloved palm, I locked and bolted the door, trying to shut out the reality of how quickly black wealth passes back into the white world.
The color–draped, upholstered, and painted–through the suite was intoxicating. There was so much eye candy, almost too much ease. I felt like Daisy when she first saw all of Gatsby’s shirts. Knowing how that story of wealth after poverty ended, I worried for Pushkin.
I flashed back to my very first fancy New York hotel room, in 1964. My daddy bought it for me. I was five years old. In 1999 I was almost forty. I wanted to turn my back on this new room.

Randall gives just enough details without overbearing the reader. She uses frames of reference to help the reader get the picture. In my own writing, I am never sure if I am focusing too much on details such as these or if I am cheating the reader by not giving every minute detail beginning with how the person entered the room to walking through the door and moving to the next action.

Then there is the fine line between homage and copying. Randall tows this line as she shows the influence of Pushkin and black writers such as Toni Morrison, but she never crosses over to the copying part. She finds that voice she needs. Even when she does not turn the phrase as she does in an epic poem toward the end of the novel, she still finds a way to use language beautifully.

Interestingly, I find myself using some of the same techniques she uses: repetition of phrases with slight changes, rhetorical questions, breaking the fourth wall, etc. However, sometimes I feel a bit foolish and silly when I do this. I hesitate with voice sometimes because I feel that the leftover academic voice in me is unreal. The theoretical, black feminist voice may not be the best because who really speaks this way in the real world? These are the reasons I hesitate, yet Randall has that voice and uses it effectively as she mixes it with AAVE in a completely believable manner. It’s not simply a matter of code switching. We shift the voices in our heads when our minds wander, so the shift in Randall’s voice with the mother and son who have appreciation for the likes Chaucer and Pushkin never seems forced or unnatural.

And I must explain just how impressed I am with an entire chapter that seems to have stemmed from the month of April. Randall does so much with making this month significance in the lives of her protagonist and other characters for a variety of reasons. For instance, the protagonist, Windsor, has a son who plays football, so for him, April meant the NFL draft. Using April as a jumping off point, Randall creates a scene that makes the draft an important part of the plot. Then she jumps to another significant April in the protagonist’s life, the spring in which she found herself a pregnant freshman at Harvard fighting to make herself not fit into the stereotype of the black welfare mother even though she has made it to one of the most prestigious universities in the country. She brings the entire chapter full circle with one phrase: “April is the cruelest month.” She again makes the Russian Pushkin resonate in her own work.

I imagine a lot of these brilliant strokes of literature occur during the rewriting process. I’ve never been good at this part of the writing process. I can tell when my writing doesn’t feel right to me, but I’m never sure how to go about fixing it in any way. This would be where community comes in. However, I know that editing and beta reading are timely processes and I would never feel right asking someone to go over my work without compensation.

So I am left in a bit of limbo while I try to figure out how to create this voice and work out my own writing. I love coming across works such as Randall’s and at least making an attempt to challenge myself. She is the kind of writer I would like to be, but I know I could never do it the way she does. However, it is great to be reminded of what good, solid writing is and how it can move a person if done correctly.