Everything about Mathea Morais‘s debut is pitch perfect. The vibe. The honesty. The romance. The nostalgia. Everything.
It’s a combination of a domestic drama about two former flames and a musical nostalgia trip. After a favorite record store is closing down for good, two people come back together and revel in the past and how their futures changed and stayed the same.
Reading There You Are felt cozy and familiar on every page even though I have never spent more than a few hours in St. Louis. That’s part of the author’s charm. She is very specific in location and music, but all are welcome.
I corresponded with Mathea Morais about writing, music, and romance.
I wanted to start with introducing readers to who Mathea Morais is. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew I wanted to be a reader and I think that maybe that’s the same thing. As a little little kid I spent a huge amount of time playing in imaginary spaces that were completely real in my head. As I got older, and too cool to do that sort of thing, I replaced that with occupying the imaginary spaces I found in books and in music.
As an adult I thought I wanted to be in magazines for a while and that’s where I got started writing. I’m very grateful for what I learned writing that way as it really teaches you what you need and don’t need when it comes to words. Unfortunately, I entered the journalism world right as magazines began to fold and internet start ups took over. It wasn’t until I had my first daughter (I have three) that I started wanting to write fiction. I think it was because I found myself with so much time to think. I had my kids pretty young – when none of my friends were even thinking about having children – so I spent a lot of time alone. I remember, as I was taking my baby for a walk, or just sitting for hours holding her while she slept, that – as they did when I was small – the stories just started coming to me. After my second daughter, I began to write them down. Unfortunately, being a young mom (and pretty soon a single-mom) with two kids does not bode well for going back to school to get an MFA. I didn’t know anything about residencies – and it wouldn’t have mattered if I did because I couldn’t have taken weeks away from my family or afforded to even pay the application fees, let alone the cost of the actual residencies. So I wrote a lot, but I didn’t know anything about what to do next. I didn’t have any connections or understand that I should have been submitting to journals, etc. Which actually leads to the next question!!
You also are the Director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard. Can you tell us more about what the center does?
Noepe was started in 2007 by a poet named Justen Ahren here on Martha’s Vineyard. He ran it out of a B&B for about ten years before the B&B was sold and during that time he hosted over 300 writers as students, residents, and teachers. I was one of those students and was heartbroken when he had to shut it down. After a couple of years, I asked him how he would feel if I took it on. He was open to it, but the challenge of finding a space remained. There’s an amazing art center on the island called Featherstone Center for the Arts and the Director, Ann Smith, was immediately open to my bringing it to that campus.
Like I said above, I came into writing almost the wrong way around so my mission in carrying Noepe forward is to continue what Justen’s mission to create a community for writers, but to also create something that is viable for what I call “working writers.” I want to create a community that is accessible to people who have jobs, who have families and responsibilities. Those of us who maybe cannot do a two-week residency or take a week off work to attend a workshop. To that end I tried to offer our summer workshops from Wed – Sun so that folks wouldn’t have to take a whole week off to come. This fall we started Open Writing Hours – which is something totally brought on by my own selfish needs. I always want to write on Sunday afternoon, and it seems like something I should be able to do, but I have kids and a dog and laundry – and no place where I can go in my house to get away from those things. I figured that if this is a problem for me, it’s got to be hard for others. So far it has been great and the people who’ve come have been amazed at the amount of work they’ve been able to get done in just a couple of quiet hours. I am hoping to offer intensive weekend workshops in April for folks who live on the island and those who maybe can’t get here in the height of summer because it’s so hard to find a place to stay.
What was the genesis of There You Are?
There were a lot of things, but mainly, I really wanted to write about growing up in St. Louis. When Michael Brown was killed, I saw all of these different variations of St. Louis being shown in the media – and all of them were true and none of them told the whole story. St. Louis is such a complicated place and I felt like that complexity needed and deserved a place on the page. Another thing that created the story came from my relationship with my husband who I grew up with. There has always been something about the fact that we have known each other for so long that makes being adults together so much easier. I wanted to capture the feeling of what it means to be connected to someone that way, to have someone know who you were before all the trappings of adulthood get added on.
One thing I loved about the book was how you captured a specific era without making it seem stereotypical. It felt like a true love letter to the era, the music, and the vibe. What has your relationship been like with music throughout your life?
I have never not had music in my life. I come from a family that sit around and sing songs when we get together (the titles of which are written on a crumbling piece of paper taped to the back of my mom’s guitar). But more than those folk songs that I grew up with, I don’t think I can remember a single time where I wasn’t obsessed with music. For me, music has always offered that same sense of escape that making up stories or reading books has. I can leave the space I’m in – whatever that may be – and go someplace completely different. Sometimes that place comes from the lyrics of the song and sometimes it comes from the images that the song creates for me.
As far as my love of records and record stores, my older brother is likely the origin for this as he started collecting records when he was about eight and I was four. So from a very young age it wasn’t just listening to the music – it was the records themselves that I was experiencing. The covers, the liner notes, the movement of one song to the next as it played. And with records, of course, comes the record store which, for me, feels very much like going to church.
I’m sure there are many more, but what are five albums/artists you listened to growing up that you feel this generation absolutely must listen to?
You’ve got to know how hard this is for me! Marcus Moore recently nominated me to do the whole 10 covers in 10 days thing and I thought that was nearly impossible. But I think I can say that these artists had huge impacts on me growing up (I know, it’s 6 but I really couldn’t eliminate any of them):
- Jimi Hendrix
- Bob Marley
- Boogie Down Productions
- De La Soul
- Joan Armatrading
The relationship between Octavian and Mina is so refreshing and honest. How did you approach writing such a complex relationship?
It was really important to me that all the characters in the story be real. And therefore I needed all of them to have faults and fuck up – sometimes in unforgivable ways – like real people do. As a reader and writer, and even as a person, I love characters who you want to be with in spite of all the things that they do wrong. With Octavian and Mina – the thing about them that sets them apart for each other is the fact that they’ve known each other since they were so small. Because of this as teenagers, and adults, even though both of them struggle to understand themselves, they are unable to lie to each other about who they really are. That felt really emblematic to me about all my relationships with people from St. Louis. I feel more like myself around them than I do around anyone else.
What was your favorite section of the book to write?
My favorite section of the book to write was the part near the end when Bones and Fred are talking in the storeroom. I’m not one of those writers who has no idea what’s going to happen and sort of lets the characters lead the way – I pretty much know what’s going to happen each step of the way. But I did not plan for that part at all and suddenly, it was there. And I was so grateful because I was definitely not smart enough to make that happen – that was completely on those two characters.
What was the most difficult?
St. Louis is a difficult place. I’ve met the best and worst of people there. It has so many dimensions and I really wanted to include all of them – even the ones that suck, that I wish to god weren’t there. Because, in essence, that’s what the book is about – the complexities of growing up in a place where some of the most beautiful souls – both white and black – are living within the most blatant systemic racism. And how those people – both white and black – navigate that. But that’s really hard to do without stereotyping anyone, or glossing over anything. I had to check and recheck myself – even when that meant telling a truth about myself that might be hard to admit, let alone write out on a page.
Looking forward, what are other types of stories you hope to explore?
The novel I’m working on now continues to examine what it means to tell the truth about who we are. As a white writer, I believe it is on me – and others – to write about racism. We have a level of intimacy with white supremacy that people of color don’t have, even in – and maybe especially in – our most liberal circles. And only we can put that on a page. Fiction is one of the tried and true ways in which we can tell truths about ourselves and therefore I think it is imperative that we do so. Nothing is going to change until white people take on the realities of racism and, as writers, we have the ability to put that forward, to show our white readers that not only is racism an issue that we created, it is also one that is ours to solve.