Dawn Major interviews Jeffrey D. Lofton, author of “Red Clay Suzie”

Associate Editor Dawn Major recently had the opportunity to meet Jeffrey Dale Lofton at her virtual book launch for her debut novel, The Bystanders. Lofton embodies what one might imagine to be the epitome of a Southern gentleman—poised, articulate, perfect manners, and wearing a smart bowtie. It’s hard to imagine that underneath all his Southern gentility a small boy once resided who carried such heavy secrets: forbidden love, homosexuality, and a malformed chest. His main character, Philbet, lives in constant fear that his secrets will be exposed and he will be rejected by his family and what few friends he has, but it’s those very secrets that make Philbet who he is.

Red Clay Suzie is a brave and touching account inspired by Lofton’s childhood, and though Major had a vastly different childhood than Philbet’s, she feels this novel belongs to every person who struggled with or still struggles with self-love.

 DM: Let’s begin with a fun and easy question. Did you ever get your childhood dream car— the green 1968 Mercury Cougar? 

 JDL: I got the car, but only in my dreams. And maybe that’s for the best, because if I had, it probably couldn’t have lived up to everything it came to symbolize in my child’s furtive imagination—elegance of line, thrilling power, renewal of self, and escape from my problematic day-to-day life.

 Red Clay Suzie reads like a memoir and was inspired by your childhood. What made you decide on writing fiction versus nonfiction?

JD Lofton

 JDL: I chose a fictionalized memoir because I wanted to include some elements of my childhood story that didn’t happen but should have. Perhaps an example serves best here. You mention the character of James in your review—a Black boy who is Philbet’s one true friend from grade school all the way through senior high. James is pragmatic, wise, funny, and disarmingly matter-of-fact about things that trouble and preoccupy Philbet. James helps my protagonist see the world in a different way. I loved writing the James character more and more as the novel’s story unfolded; but, I didn’t have a James in my life growing up. There was a Black boy in elementary school I thought might want to be my friend, but I was too afraid to approach him, conditioned as I was to rejection and humiliation, careworn and fearful being my descriptors in those days. So, writing that character was, in a way, a righting of that wrong. It is my tribute to a friendship that might have been had I the courage to act.

 DM: In his youth, Philbet seemed to wear rose-tinted glasses, but you effectively chip away at his realization of the world and identify that moment of lost innocence. Why is this moment so important to realize as a writer of a coming-of-age novel?

 JDL:  Perhaps such people exist, but I’ve never known anyone who didn’t have several moments of life-defining clarity on their journey to adulthood and even on into old age. It’s part of the human condition, and it’s one of the reasons that I love learning about the people around me—their stories, their hopes, their misgivings, their belief systems. And these moments of lost innocence, as you so aptly describe them, are opportunities to grow, to reassess. I think that’s why they so often become the clothespins on which to hang your story arc, the through-line of your plot. I can’t imagine writing even a short story without at least an implied moment of clarity.

Dawn Major

DM: I read that you wrote most of Red Clay Suzie on your phone. You must have fast thumbs! Are you crazy? How long did Red Clay Suzie take to write? What are your writing habits like?

 JDL: I began my novel—little realizing it at the time—when I left home to go to college. Although a scant thirty-five miles down the road, LaGrange College felt like a faraway oasis, a place where I could reinvent myself, into what, I hadn’t a clue. As part of that process I began furiously writing in journals, pouring out my white-hot memories like lava pouring from a long-dormant volcano. I put away my journals when the rigors of college life got in the way, intending to put them up again once I got my college sea-legs, but I didn’t look at them for over three decades. After re-reading Harper Lee’s incandescent To Kill a Mockingbird and devouring Andre Aciman’s stirring Call Me by Your Name, I was drawn to those journals again, an inexorable pull that had me searching closet shelves and attic boxes until I found them carefully put away, filed chronologically by date. I re-read them with a mixture of fascination and embarrassment so raw was the emotion and straightaway started to write during my only regularly scheduled free time—my daily commute on the subway from home to the Library of Congress. With earplugs deadening the ambient noise around me, I tapped away on my mobile, trying to make sense of the ambient noise inside my head: re-ignited emotions that spilled out in story form. I learned from that experience that my best writing comes from sticking to a routine, a time each day that I sit in front of my laptop (or exercise my thumbs on my telephone) whether the writing muse comes to me or not. Inspired or perspired, I write.

 DM: I mentioned in my review that I thought automobiles, the real one or toy ones Philbet obsessed over, acted as an extended metaphor and were symbolic of his concept of perfection. Do you agree?

Peddle Car on Georgia Red Clay.

 JDL: Yes, oh perceptive one, that is very much the case. Much like me, Philbet looks for the perfection of form in cars that is sadly lacking in his body. He also thinks of cars as living beings almost. They are his companions and his friends. In fact, Philbet dreams of the day he can have a car for every person he has ever loved. Metaphors aside, I still love cars and can identify the year, make, and model almost unfailingly after just the briefest glance of a fender, a headlight, a door. My partner says I’m a car savant. He may be right!

 DM: What’s on the agenda for Jeffery Dale Lofton, the author, now? Are you working on anything else you’d care to share with SLR’s readers?

 JDL: Right now, I’m focusing on getting Red Clay Suzie into as many public libraries as possible, so young people in particular who may not have the means to buy a book can simply borrow one. That’s not to say I don’t have an interest in books being sold, because I’m donating a portion of my proceeds to the Born This Way Foundation and The Trevor Project, two organizations doing important work every day to help at-risk youth who, like Philbet, feel the sting of outsiderhood. (I’m not sure that’s a word, but I like it!) And the more books sold, the more I can donate. I see Philbet’s story as a three-novel arc, and I am more than half-way through my next red clay story. Beyond that, I’m working on a children’s book, and I just wrote a short story that was accepted for publication in a journal (the details of which I’m not yet permitted to disclose). I’ve been fortunate to be invited to several literary festivals this year, there are more bookseller events on my calendar, and I am counting on a few languid days this summer sitting in our back garden with my wonderful partner and our 7.5-pound toy poodle, Petunia, whose high opinion of me is something I strive to live up to each day, all too often falling well short of the mark.

 DM: Red Clay Suzie was such a pleasure to read. It’s a real gem, and on behalf of Southern Literary Review, we hope readers love it as much as we did.







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