Some of it is related to the times. I certainly felt I needed to address state-sanctioned violence and all these horrible things that are going on. I read something about a funeral singer in Chicago who’s exhausted, and that’s where I got the idea for “Wash Clean the Bones.” But the others, I’m not sure where they came from.
I tend to use humor to disarm people and work through difficult material. I don’t tend to approach things head-on with a serious take. The ways it’s easiest for me to deal with things is through satire and parody. It’s kind of a coping mechanism, and it’s a coping mechanism for the characters too.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I love Toni Morrison’s work, I respect everything she does, she’s skillful and brilliant. But those stories are deeply, deeply disturbing. And I didn’t think I would ever write things like infanticide, which you see in Morrison’s novels. I thought I was writing away from that to something lighter-hearted, but I kept getting pulled back.
Originally I was thinking about writers like Colson Whitehead and Paul Beatty, Mat Johnson. I hadn’t read Kiese Laymon’s novel “Long Division” yet, but once I read it, I thought, this is exactly the kind of book I want to do. Ishmael Reed had a huge influence on me, and George Schuyler before that. Those are the people I thought I was in conversation with.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
It’s not one person. I was really inspired by very PG and PG-13 stand-up comedians; people like Sinbad and Dave Coulier, who played Uncle Joey on “Full House.” I wasn’t allowed to watch people like Richard Pryor and George Carlin. I was staying up late to watch Arsenio Hall — my parents didn’t realize I was behind them; their backs were to me on the couch.
I wanted to be a stand-up comedian for a long time. I would take my really pitiful jokes to school and fail. I would stand in front of a little group of my fifth-grade classmates and try to tell them jokes. I even tried to be the class clown and brought in slapstick stuff, like whoopee cushions and gum that tasted like fish. The desire to deal with humor has always been in me.
Persuade someone to read “Heads of the Colored People” in 50 words or less.
If you are a black nerd, or a blerd — or love or care about black nerds — then this book is for you. And even if you don’t, then you probably need to read this book so you can develop some empathy for those characters.
This interview has been condensed and edited.