Suzan-Lori Parks sees dead people.
The playwright doesn't shy away from corpses in her writing, mostly bodies ripped from their resting places. The theme shows up in her stage works Venus and The America Play, but becomes the central mechanism behind her new novel, Getting Mother's Body (Random House).
"I've had this exhumation thing going on for a long time," Parks says. "If you look at my work for the past 20 years, this is what I've been doing over and over again. I don't know where it comes from. I don't know and I don't have a need to know."
Parks seems unfazed by all the attention her work is getting these days. Last year, her play Topdog/Underdog made her the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. And this spring, Parks' latest, Fucking A, opened in New York, much to the chagrin of newspaper editors everywhere.
The writer was undeterred by those who told her a celebrated playwright had no business writing a novel. But Getting Mother's Body wouldn't have worked as a play, Parks says, because it dwells so much on the interior thoughts of the characters.
The spare, heartfelt black comedy takes place in the playwright's childhood in west Texas in the early 1960s. Teenage Billy Bede, five months pregnant with an illegitimate child, sets out for Arizona, intent on digging up her mother's grave, rumored to contain a fortune in jewels. What the novel lacks in plot it makes up for in characterization. Parks marches out a colorful cast of misfits to illuminate Billy's journey and shifts to a new voice in each chapter. It's a narrative technique meant to mirror William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, another darkly Southern novel concerned with a matriarch's death. The author says she stumbled upon that book by accident and knew she'd found a kindred spirit.
"I read it and immediately felt a kinship with this writer because he was writing about a dead person, and I'd been writing about dead people for years. So I said, 'Old pal! Friend!'" she says.
Parks calls Getting Mother's Body "a very reverent bow to Mr. Faulkner," yet, for someone so bent on unearthing the past, the writer remains intensely focused on the future. She doesn't take time to read media criticism of her work, she says, because she's always concentrating on the next project.
These days that would be projects, with her plate overflowing mostly with screenplays. She's working on Hoopz, a Disney musical, and has two assignments from Oprah Winfrey's production company, made-for-TV adaptations of Zora Neale Hurston's As I Lay Dying and Toni Morrison's Paradise.
Parks, 40, who also heads the Dramatic Writing Program at CalArts, laughs at the notion that writers have to be chained to their desks for several hours a day. The writing, she says, should come gradually.
"I write every day. It accumulates, like dust under your bed. If you do a little bit every day, by the end of the week, end of the month, end of the year, end of your life, you'll have something," she says.
She also scoffs at artists who allow themselves to be pigeonholed. She says more people would benefit from expanding their own definitions of themselves. This comes from a true Renaissance woman who is also learning to surf and play guitar. She gets to hone her newfound musical skills on the Body book tour.
Her husband, blues musician Paul Oscher, helped her add a handful of song lyrics to the new novel, which she performs while playing her guitar, on the tour. The music, she explains, fits into the bigger picture of her artistic life.
"It's all the same," she says of her art. "It comes from the same root. I'm just allowing myself to continue to grow. And hopefully by my example, people will realize that you don't just have to do one thing with your life. You can actually live the life you want. And you don't have to be great at it right away. That's what I'm hoping with the guitar, anyway."