Jeffrey Dale Lofton is currently a senior advisor at the Library of Congress. He is also the author of Red Clay Suzie, a queer coming of age story set in rural Georgia.
The author answered Debutiful’s recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know him better.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
I dearly loved Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, which I would check out again and again from the bookmobile that would stop every two weeks in the parking lot of a gas station and convenience store across the street from my house. On those mornings Mama would prepare buttery, sugary cinnamon toast to make the day an occasion. My love of the endlessly kind and sometimes hapless anthropomorphic bear has endured. I have an original Pooh Bear illustration by E.H. Shepard—A. A. Milne’s illustrator—hanging in my bedroom, and I can never look at it without smelling in my mind’s nose the enticing aroma of cinnamon toast.
How might Pooh have shaped my childhood? Well, this I remember: I never identified with Christopher Robin, only with his beloved teddy bear. Pooh was single-minded in his love and pursuit of “hunny” (as it was spelled), and I had just such a devotion, mine to cars—their sounds, their shapes, their personalities, and what they said about the people who drove them. And, Pooh was relentlessly sunny in his dealings with his menagerie of buddies. Whether calming exuberant Tigger, cheering gloomy Eeyore, coaxing shy Piglet out of his shell, listening patiently to pontificating Owl, or humoring meddlesome Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh was a steadfast friend. I guess on some deep level I identified with Pooh’s innocence, and longed for his effortless inclusivity. I always felt I was an outsider looking in on my world, my own hundred-acre wood. As a little kid, I suppose Pooh showed me there was another way, and for that I am eternally grateful to A. A. Milne.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I would absolutely encourage children to read the Winnie-the-Pooh books. His gentle grace has lasting appeal, and his life lessons are timeless. As regards my philosophy on what children should read: anything (age appropriate) that excites and feeds their naturally curious, inquisitive minds. Early nurturing of the imagination is a key element in developing over time a rich interior life. And true happiness is ever elusive without a full life inside oneself disconnected from keyboards and screens and fads and trends and the expectations of others.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
Beowulf was on our high school English syllabus, and I read it only grudgingly, scarcely giving it any thought, except for the bare bones of the story arc, so I could answer any question posed in class or proffered on a test. I was determined not to like it—It’s a monster story, I get it!—so I didn’t. Reading this extraordinary epic poem, perhaps more precisely an elegy, with more care as an adult, I have discovered the beauty of its Old English and its timeless allegorical themes.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
In my early teens I inhaled the young adult novels of Paul Zindel—My Darling, My Hamburger; Confessions of a Teenage Baboon; Pardon Me, Your Stepping on my Eyeball; The Pigman; among others. Today, I remember them, or possibly misremember them, as being implausible, indulgent, and over-dramatic. But, that’s likely because I now see the works from my reality-grounded adult perspective—not as a teen whose judgement is under the influence of the contradictions, chaos, and drama of teenhood. (I’m not sure that last one’s an actual word, but I’ll leave it in!)
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
Not far into writing Red Clay Suzie, my debut novel, I paused to reread Harper Lee’s incandescent To Kill a Mockingbird and read for the first time André Aciman’s heartrending Call Me by Your Name. Lee’s masterwork captures figuring out life as a child of the Deep South with enveloping affection and writerly precision. Aciman’s nuanced love story examines the intensity of young love, that passionate feeling of being part of another person. The way he described and showed intimacy broke me open and almost demanded a re-examination of how I thought about that purest of connections with another human being. Without question, both Lee’s and Aciman’s works helped shape the way I thought about telling the story of Philbet, a gay, physically misshapen boy from rural Georgia who feels the sting of bullying and body-shaming, all the while longing to be loved by Knox, the boy he idolizes. Red Clay Suzie, inspired by true events in my childhood, is a mix of my life, my loves, and my favorite literature.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
There are so many. Hmmmmm. Well, if I must choose one, it’s The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher. It’s my favorite book. It sustained me—no, that’s not so; it carried me—through a very lonely and painful period of my early adulthood. I’ve heard it described as a serialized food column all strung together book-length. It’s so much more than that. I learned how to be okay with myself, how to accept my difference (inside and out), how to be alone, and how to be with another. It’s a life lesson, a handbook on how to open oneself to the world without fear, without safety, without regret. It’s brave, and it transformed me and the way I live. I had more courage, and still do, because of this book. I hope that Red Clay Suzie has a similar impact on readers.
What have you been reading/do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
I plan to reread my well-worn copy of Christopher Castellani’s novel Leading Men. I can’t wait.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
Red Clay Philbet.
One thought on “A Life of Books: Jeffrey Dale Lofton, author of Red Clay Suzie”
OMG! This is quite a story well told! Jeffrey, the way you intensely and lovingly draw the audience into your heart. I was hooked in the first minute until the very last second, and wanted more! I don’t remember ever reading a book so fast! A wonderful read for any human who wants to become more human, incredible!
I can’t wait to hear what’s next, Thank you!!!