The late author spoke to his publisher about his next novel before his death.

By EW Staff
April 19, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Eric Jerome Dickey, Son of Mr. Suleman
Credit: Joseph Jones; Penguin

The beloved author Eric Jerome Dickey, who was known for his dozens of novels that depicted Black life (and Black joy), passed away in January after a long illness. He was, at the time, preparing to release his next novel The Son of Mr. Suleman, which will publish on April 20. He spoke to his publisher, Dutton, about the book, and they're sharing his words on the book — a story that takes on everything from colorism to microaggressions to the impact of Jim Crow — with EW readers.

 How did the initial idea for The Son of Mr. Suleman come to you? 

It came bit-by-bit. I'm talking over a few years here. First came the idea for the funeral scene. It was in my "notes of possible plots" or "scene in a novel" for what seemed like forever. I have no idea where that… yes I do. The inspiration for that one scene. (Insert old-school Batman BAM!) Decades ago, in the very late '80s, I went to a funeral as a young adult, and an unknown child of my deceased uncle-by-marriage walked in like [Mark Morrison's] "Return of the Mack" was his theme song. He was post-college, preppy, and looked just like my year-or-so-younger-cousin, just two shades of melanin darker. Same bowed legs and everything. Same dimple. Literally looked like twins. Talk about a rumble. And a lot of Southern laughter as we stood over my uncle's coffin. Then another unknown son entered. LOL. Shit became comedy. Families have secrets. All families. Wow. I remembered. 

As the dead are buried, the truth rises and lies are unearthed. 

Just remembered that initial two-minute moment, literally, as I'm in my Cali bed in my skivvies thumb-typing this at 3 a.m. with CNN and the pandemic on mute and Johnny Cash singing "Hurt" on my good old Echo Dot. Don't judge me. So I wrote that moment from the main character's POV. Gave it to Pi 20, 30 years later (damn! Never throw anything away!) and allowed it to be its own original moment with new motivation, conflict, and energy. It was repurposed, given a new definition and made it fit what I was working on, which eventually became The Son of Mr. Suleman. All characters were still unnamed. 

Then I wrote the car accident. Another organic scene after someone love tapped my hoopty on La Brea as I headed to Kaiser. Both parts, short scenes that yielded action, were dropped in act two. Then the big event at UAN which was eventually created as the opening. I created UAN, soon populated the novel, tried to create unique and interesting characters of various backgrounds yet with common experiences to be in Pi's gravitational pull. 

Memphis is a character; South Memphis is a more specific character; Kansas Street and Blair Hunt Drive live and breathe. East Memphis is its own character, a whole another other, as we say. Looking westward, Los Angeles is a different world to Pi. It's a foreign country. He feels what Gemma feels in Memphis on some level. I know the feeling from landing there on the other side of nowhere on October 17, in the year of just-as-the-dinosaurs-died. I tried to create several distinct and class-driven communities from the South to the Pacific that Pi Suleman had to navigate. In each, some level of language adjustment was needed, or he had to code-switch, become either a defensive or a different version of himself. 

The life of blackness in America. 

The beauty and complications of familial relationships is a theme that you've always explored in your work, but this theme feels especially prominent in The Son of Mr. Suleman. Why did you make the protagonist Pi's relationships with his parents such a central element in this novel? 

 It explains the sum of Pi. We see edges of the affair between his parents; we see their youthful mistakes through his discoveries. Through the absence of presence of parents during our lifetimes, there is an impact. On how we see the world if nothing else. It's not a judgment call. 

It was what it was seen through Pi's eyes, graded by him. Graded harshly and reviewed as the story moves on, same as with his student Komorebi Jackson. We are all the results of the heated relationships of others. We're influenced, programmed, and brainwashed by the cultures, religion, and politics we are born into. Then, for some, like Pi, the red pill. We are the sums of our existences created by those who existed before us. We are the story created by the combined and fleeting stories, the interactions and decisions of others. Then we create stories. 

Eric Jerome Dickey
Eric Jerome Dickey at the 5th Anniversary of the African American Literary Award Show in 2009
| Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Pi and Gemma reflect on the very different experiences they've had with their racial identity and racism in the United States and the U.K. in their conversations. Why did you decide to have Gemma be from "across the pond" and was it an intentional decision to include such direct conversations about their differing experiences, or did it just feel natural that they would? 

Decide? For conflict. Without conflict, the pages don't turn. Used the name Gemma because it's very common across the pond. She needed to be the opposite of Memphis. Being from the USA wasn't enough in my mind. She was the fish out of water. A rich fish. She had landed where she had the accent. Had no friends. Her style stood out. She was different. If Pi had been born in London and Gemma in Memphis… if the setting had been London… if Pi had been monied and was a professor at a uni there… if her African father had died…. so many combinations and permutations… none are wrong… you pick one, play "What if?" during the midnight hour and stick to your choices. Or change them as you move along. What you get at the end is never what I started with. It's edited over and over and how I feel about a character on Monday might get deleted or reassigned to another character on Friday. But some things don't change. 

Blackness is disrespected globally, so that is always a conversation starter for the children and stolen children of Africa. Or an unseen barrier when dealing with mixed relationships. We see it played out in social media every day. Blacks. We live everywhere we walk. We don't feel safe. We've been telling that for four hundred years to deaf ears. Regardless of income. We all have police stories. Black men and Black women. It's a dark connection. It's unignorable. 

There is a lot of comedy amid the seriousness too. Take away the deadliness it rains on society, racism would look like a bad joke. "Mork calling Orson. Mork calling Orson. No intelligent life here. Nah-noo Nah-noo." 

Anyway. I used to have conversations with my British amigos when I had a flat on Queen Street at Bank and a lot would get lost in translation. Small moments. A term or word would have different meanings here and there. 

You create the Gemmas and Pis and Momma Nikes and dynamic siblings like Sis and first make yourself believe your characters exist, believe their world is possible. South Memphis or Mars or a school of prepubescent wizards. That holds true for every genre. The writer has to believe his or her fiction before they can sell it to others. 

Pi navigates a harrowing combination of microaggressions, outright racism, and sexual harassment in the workplace. What do you hope readers take away from reading about these experiences from Pi's first-person point of view? 

An average day in the life of many in America is the same as Pi's imagined life. Buckle up. Enjoy the ride. And remember, his experiences are common, only graded differently based on zip codes. We are all from different trees planted in the same earth. 

You have hundreds of thousands of fans from all around the world, many of whom engage with you frequently on social media. How does it feel to see so many people sharing their love for your work? Does it ever get overwhelming? 

I love it. It amazes me that someone in the West Indies is chatting with someone from East India about a character and storyline I created in California. It still blows me away to do an event in Alabama or NYC and the amazing readers know the characters better than I remember them, primarily because they just finished reading the novel while I've moved on to the next project, or by then, I might be two projects removed. 

Fan clubs. Book clubs. Random DMs. Never overwhelmed. Always appreciative. Rather have my box flooded than empty. Makes me smile. Means someone is listening. The opposite would be bad for ego and business. 

Over the course of a 20-plus year career as an author, you must have witnessed a lot of changes in world of writing and publishing. What advice do you have for other authors on building a career with longevity and riding the tides of change

Focus on writing. Study the craft. Write. Study different genres and techniques. Study. Write write write. Just fucking write. It doesn't have to be stellar, just write. I have some musings from when I first started that I should've burned back then. ROFLMBAO. But I stayed with it. Loved it. Joined writers' groups. Enrolled in a writing program at UCLA. Took master classes after I was published. Did the work. Writers will write regardless. Writers will grow in the craft. It takes years. Get the skill first. Get your style. Find your voice. Don't be an imitator or a duplicator. Too late to sing like Whitney Houston; she got there first. Be you. Write what stirs your soul, won't let you rest, and moves you to stay up until 3am, happy the world is in a coma so you can write in peace. Thanks to social, I'm watching a lot of impatient and ill-prepared fame chasers realize this is work, hard work, then see them crash and burn on page two. Don't let others get in the way of your growth or success. Use time wisely. Your efforts may be inspired by other writers, and your initial efforts may be emulous, an imitation of those you adore, but at some point, you need to break free from that orbit. 

Another thing, a big thing, if it's not for you, it's not for you. That's cool. You're still an amazing person. I know people. A lot of people. Just like everyone can't sing, er'body can't write on SJK level. Not all can edit (My acting teacher used to come at us hard; it got me out of acting, made me realize I was better and more interested in dealing with the scripts, so I'm passing on the pain). Not many can get into the occupation, be accepted, and when the rubber hits the road, continue to crank out at least one novel a year. You have all your life to write your first book. The second is due in a few months. Real talk. Square peg, round hole. Enough of the bull. This isn't an idiot's occupation. Don't come here to rest. There are no rest stops. Be ready. 

Again, do the initial work. Seek education, edification, and inspiration, not fame. Determination and discipline get you from point A to B. The bookshop is filled with writers, excellent writers most of us never heard of, many of whom had to maintain a full time job to support their writing obsession. Don't come here for the lottery. And there needs to be an obsession. A love. A cant-not-not-write thing in your heart and soul. IJS. LOL.

The Son of Mr. Suleman is available for pre-order now.

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