In Bump’s The New Naturals (Algonquin, Nov.), a pair of Black academics fleeing campus racism form an underground utopian commune in Western Massachusetts.
How did the story develop?
I was living in Western Massachusetts and teaching some classes out in Boston, so I would drive across Route 2 over this big bridge, and there was this little restaurant on a hill. I just became fascinated with those two places, and wondered what was going on in them. Also, I was going through a dark time of uncertainty, anxiety, and depression. After I sold my first book, I impulsively moved to Buffalo. I was writing every morning, and I started working on these characters Sojourner and Bounce who were these people who felt rudderless, without a purpose—and then everything grew out of them. It just became this big clump of nebulous threads about sad people trying to get happy.
Many of the book’s themes come to fruition in scenes of dialogue between Sojourner and Bounce, seekers who join the commune. What do you value about dialogue in fiction?
It is such a vital part of the art form. When Sojourner and Bounce finally come together and they are just talking about what they want from life, they felt so full. It’s all the good stuff we like in fiction like tension, romance, fear, and accepting.
Can you talk about Rio and Gibraltar, the couple who build the commune?
I thought, what is the worst thing that could happen to these people to make them want to do something so drastic and to want to remove themselves. This past January, my wife and I lost our daughter in utero; it was at 21 weeks. It was a horrible, earth-shattering tragedy. During that time, we were still doing copyedits for this book, and I was going back and reading how Rio and Gibraltar felt in their own grief. I understood their emotions in a way that I didn’t when I was writing it. It was so palpable. In that moment—this is particularly thinking from Gibraltar’s point of view—I would do anything to make my wife feel better.
How did you approach the characters’ struggles with mental health?
Bounce is the closest character to me personally. My editor kept making me come back to Bounce and telling me, “You have to tell me what is going on with Bounce. What’s wrong with this guy?” It was like a static in your brain and the feeling that you are always letting people down. Like you’re letting yourself down. All of these things kind of like balling up. I don’t really know what it is called—depression, anxiety, alcoholism. He’s just not doing well, which fits in with the whole purpose of the book: What is a better world? What is this place where everybody can be happy, and everybody can feel fulfilled? What does that look like?