A Q&A with Rashod Ollison
Happy Publication Day to pop music critic and culture journalist Rashod Ollison and his memoir Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl! In Soul Serenade, Ollison tells his story of growing up gay in central Arkansas, searching for himself and his distant father, and how the consoling power of soul music guided him through the tough times. We caught up with Ollison before he geared up for his book tour, beginning today in Virginia Beach, VA, to ask him what writing the book meant for him and the inspiration that went into it. Check his event calendar to see his tour dates. And once you settle down with his book in your hands, put on his playlist featuring the songs that brought his memoir to life.
Soul Serenade is such a raw outpouring of your childhood. What was the inspiration for writing it? How did the writing process start?
I had just moved to Virginia Beach for my position at The Virginian-Pilot as a music critic and feature writer. After having lived in Philly, NYC and Baltimore, I was very much a city rat. I wasn’t used to the slow and monotonous life of suburbia. (I’m still not.) So I was lonely, met a guy about a month after the move, and fell in love. And that’s exactly what happened: I fell into a hole. That ended after about a year and stirred some unresolved abandonment issues.
Tired of being depressed, I started a program I called “Operation: Re-invent Rashod.” I was a size 48 waist and about 280 pounds. (In about a year and a half, I lost more than fifty pounds, gained some muscle and dropped ten pant sizes.) I joined a gym and hired a fitness trainer, hired a therapist and started working on what became Soul Serenade as a way to challenge myself creatively and to exorcise the burdens of grief, pain and sorrow.
The idea for the book had been rolling around in my head for about ten years, but I thought I would appropriate parts of my childhood for a novel. Instead, it became a memoir written like a novel, with dialogue, fully rendered characters, etc. It was all very organic. I’d write in the mornings before going to the office, edit parts in between deadlines and write on the weekends. It’s some of the most honest writing I’ve done so far and very different from my role as a journalist and critic. I leaned more on my creative writing background—showing as opposed to telling.
What’s striking about your memoir is your use of literary devices normally seen in fiction. You write your father as a ghost character after he leaves and the italicized passages about your favorite singers have a fantastical character. Tell us about how you decided to structure your story around these devices.
All of those ideas came as I was writing the book. I was inspired by Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I lived in my head when I was a boy, and music always urged fantastic voyages. I thought I’d take readers on those trips with me, to give them a brief reprieve from the narrative. But those passages also push the narrative along.
As for my father becoming a ghost, I thought using magical realism would give the reader a vivid sense of how much I missed him. After he left home for good, I thought I saw him everywhere.
Your memoir covers a broad readership: coming-of-age/literary memoir/music/black studies/LGBTQ studies. Did you have a particular audience in mind for it?
I didn’t have an audience in mind. In fact, I didn’t think anyone would want to read it, because nothing about the book fits into the stereotypical narrative arc of so many memoirs written by Black men. I wasn’t beaten, molested or addicted to drugs. I have never been to jail or prison. I’ve never had any racial self-loathing issues. I was never confused about being homosexual. But I still wanted to read a book about the kind of boy I was and what life was like among gloriously funky Black folks in central Arkansas in the 1980s. So, in essence, I wrote the book I wanted to read.
You reference several major writers in the second half of your memoir: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou (whom you got to meet!). What influence did they have on your writing?
Toni Morrison’s work gave me permission to write. When I read The Bluest Eye in the eighth grade, I engaged it right away. I’ve read it at least ten times since then, with each reading revealing something new. And, of course, I’ve read all of her other novels—well, more like devoured them. In The Bluest Eye, I love how she captures the humanity of that traumatized community in language that was so raw but elegant and stunningly lyrical. She didn’t write for white folks and she didn’t explain anything. She assumed the centrality of being Black and steeped the narrative in all these cultural nuances that were very familiar to me, which enriched the humanity of the characters. I knew I wanted to write like that.
With Alice Walker, I always admired the passion of her writing and the deceptively simple but always affecting way she describes very intense scenes. Gloria Naylor is so underrated. Bailey’s Café is one of my all-time favorite books. Like Morrison, there’s so much music and beautiful funkiness in her books. As for Maya Angelou, I always preferred her poetry over her prose. Her poetry, especially her early volumes, was so richly musical and bluesy.
The end of Soul Serenade suggests the continuation of your story in another book. Do you have any future writing projects lined up?
I’m not sure that I want to write another volume of memoir just yet. It took me thirty years to get a handle on my childhood. It may take another thirty for me to understand my life as a grown man. Besides, I’m not really interested in writing about myself again at this point. I’m thinking maybe a book of essays or maybe a novel. I have a germ of one trying to grow. But I don’t know. We will see.
To read more about Rashod Ollison, check out his other interviews with Next Magazine, The Virginian-Pilot, and Guernica Magazine (this one with an excerpt from Soul Serenade). You can also read an excerpt from his book on The Advocate.
About the Author
Rashod Ollison is an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He has been a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lives in Virginia Beach. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.