Lyndsey Ellis is the author of Bone Broth, her debut novel. The book centers around a family in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.
I spoke with Lyndsey about her approach to dramatizing the interplay between history and everyday people, the challenges and opportunities in writing placed fiction, and trying to figure out “What the hell was going on in 1972?”
So, the first thing I wanted to talk about was how much of a St. Louis book “Bone Broth” is. Despite some scenes in California, I read this as very St. Louis-specific. It’s cliché to call the city a character. I felt like it was more that the city was working itself out through individuals in the story. I was wondering how you thought about writing such a placed novel.
Yeah, it’s definitely—I like how you phrased that—it does seem cliché to call the city a character, but what you said about the city working itself out through characters … that was huge in this. I feel like with each character it was a little different. In some characters, like the main character Justine, and also Lois—both of those characters were easier to write, in terms of their relationship with the St. Louis, how they are working through the city and how it is intertwined with their actions and histories. With Raynah, not so much. Because she’s coming back [to St. Louis, after living in California]. So, it was harder to place her in her new surroundings, but unintentionally her story turned out kind of similar to my story in real life, in terms of moving back [to St. Louis], so I was able to place her that way and look through her lens to re-experience the newness of the city.
I also thought the paradox of St. Louis being both centripetal and centrifugal was really evident and interesting in the book. For example, Raynah is drawn to California, and Justine is drawn to the suburbs and sort of disassociates from St. Louis. But then for both of them, there is something about St. Louis that keeps pulling them back. And on a different level, Theo says St. Louis is “deceptive” in that it is small, until it isn’t. What are the challenges of capturing the character of a city that can be so contradictory?
Well. Long as I have lived in St. Louis, I am still only scratching the surface [laughs]. Even being raised here, it never stops evolving, like any city… Yeah, it is a very contradictory city. And going back to your first question, and how St. Louis interacts with the book’s characters… that’s the thing, the characters are just as contradictory as the city.
It’s almost a ‘What came first: the chicken or the egg?’ Is St. Louis making these people the way they are or is it vice versa. It’s something you’ll never know, no one will ever know. [The book is] definitely about St. Louis being this ever-changing place, for better or worse, or both. And how the people in the city, specifically the main characters, how they are seeing the city change and how that change then changes them.
You write that, “As much as [Raynah] loved seeing a miscarriage of justice being called out in mainstream America, Raynah wasn’t thrilled that St. Louis had turned into the country’s anti-darling overnight.” So, while she’s happy St. Louis is getting much-needed national attention, it’s also distressing for her to see it get simplified. And you mentioned how Raynah’s life, in terms of moving to California and then returning to St. Louis, mirrored your own. Does that quote also speak to how you felt personally when writing this book?
Raynah’s sentiment there definitely also reflects how I feel. And when I get together with friends, particularly friends who had left St. Louis but then came back, and especially during that sensitive time when Ferguson was happening, that [question of how people outside of the city look at St. Louis] is what our conversations were about. And how unfortunate it is for St. Louis to finally be on the map … but for something like this.
And there is that scene in Oakland where someone asks Raynah if she knew Mike Brown. And I think she feels encouraged people want to talk about it, but it is also sort of awkward and strange for her to encounter such a small, collapsed perception of St. Louis.
Right, that’s exactly right.
I wonder how you thought about explaining (or not explaining) St. Louis references. I was struck by how many specific references there were to places like Clayton or Soulard, and how the references have an effect and purpose in the story, they’re illustrating things about the characters who go there. Like Dawn going to eat somewhere in Clayton instead of at the soul food restaurant. I really appreciated that and was wondering what you thought about not stopping all the time to explain what Clayton is, and what going there would suggest about Dawn. How do you combine talking about these places naturally—because obviously people in St. Louis would not need to explain this stuff to each other—while also making sure the book is accessible to people everywhere?
That was the whole point. I was trying to make it natural. When I pick up other books and I’m learning about a place, the author does not stop to explain everything. I will look up a place that got mentioned if I’m really that interested and engaged in the book. That was the whole point [of how I deployed specific geographic references within St. Louis].
Before I read the Bone Broth I had seen it described as being largely a post-Ferguson novel, but I was struck by—and I’m curious if you would agree with this characterization—I was struck by how much this novel is really as much of a Pruitt-Igoe novel as it is a Ferguson novel. [Pruitt-Igoe was a massive housing project in St. Louis city after World War II. It became a symbol of urban decay and the failures of government housing. Ultimately, the city did not just close the project but famously blew it up on live television in 1972.]
How did you think, then, about the challenges and opportunities of dramatizing an object of history, like Pruitt-Igoe, that literally does not physically exist anymore, but paradoxically looms so large over the city, despite not actually being there? It seems challenging to portray such a strange mix of absence and presence.
It was hard. I knew I wanted to have pieces and history of Pruitt-Igoe in a book, even before Ferguson. Because Pruitt-Igoe was just one of those things I heard so much about when I was growing up. It figured in my mind. I was just trying to figure out, ‘What happened?’ And how could this have happened. And the fact it does not get as much as coverage as it should. I interviewed a lot of former residents. But as many documentaries as have been made about Pruitt-Igoe, or articles, or however it pops up, despite all that, nobody ever talks about the fate of the residents. The standard coverage is like ‘There was this place, this is what happened. Because of urban decline or urban decay or whatever. White flight.’ Boom. That’s it. And then no one really focuses on it. So, it was my own curiosity. And being a member of the so-called next generation, I figured there have to be a lot of people who feel the same dissatisfaction with the coverage and the same curiosity I do.
So, that was where that came from. And you’re right, it is an absence but also a looming character in the background. It’s fueling … and it’s bringing up a lot of sore spots.
That’s very interesting. [Continuing on theme of geography,] did you feel it was important to show, as you did with the book’s main family, that there is also a significant, often untold, story of movement [suburbanization] among Black St. Louisans?
Yeah. It’s funny, I guess right before the book was going to be published—you’ve probably seen it. It’s become a trend—you started seeing all these stories about the same thing: Blacks migrating to the suburbs. People asking, ‘What about Black suburbia? We’re always talking about Black inner-city life, what about minorities, not only Blacks, and marginalized groups that supposedly, in the past, were not supposed to have access to that type of life?’
But yeah, I was always interested in showing that dynamic, but also that the diversity, even within the Black community, that Black people are not a monolith. As no group is a monolith. Of course, there’s going to diversity of thought, of action, of preference … It just really shows the dynamics of class intersect with racial injustice as well. It’s just so complex in that way.
Right, I think you bringing in all these other elements really does justice to a much fuller, more complicated story. I have one other question about Pruitt-Igoe, and this may just speak to Justine’s personal psychology, but she had a quote: “After the mess with that televised explosion [of Pruitt-Igoe], it could’ve been anybody to put a word in my ear about getting back at the system, and I would’ve took them up on it. I was just that mad.”
Why is it that the destruction per se of Pruitt-Igoe is the ultimate indignity? It seemed noteworthy that that was really what set her off, rather than the slow accumulation of disrepair and disinvestment and all the civic failures over the years. Was it just the sheer spectacle of a massive explosion, or did it touch off something deeper about dignity?
Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head with the d-word: dignity. Just in terms, it’s like with anything, and I hate to compare it with this, but I do want to compare it with how everything erupted after Ferguson.
It’s not just the fact that you have this police brutality, this outright murder of a Black boy on a hot summer day just out of nowhere. It’s not just that, you know? It’s not just that that set people off. It’s an accumulation of things. And people just reach their boiling point. And that’s not just this. You got it with the Watts Riots and Rodney King, you could go on and on, George Floyd. All this stuff that happens … you just have something that breaks the camel’s back, cliché as that is, it’s really what happens. So, I think in [Justine’s] mind, what I was trying to get across, it’s not just the razing of Pruitt-Igoe, it’s the idea that all of this had built up, and she says, ‘You know what? This can’t happen anymore. Something has to be done.’ And she’s thinking ‘It’s just little old me, but I’m about to do something that I think will make a statement.’
What I found most striking in the revelation that earlier in life Justine had been an activist, was the type of activist she had been. Her activism really wasn’t … this is such crude chronology … but she’s very much a post-MLK kind of civil rights activist. She’s not the type of historical actor who gets glamorized, that’s always appearing in textbooks and novels. I think she’s in this very specific, early-70’s, disillusioned, more confrontational [milieu]. Would you say my characterization is fair? And if so, was it important to be so specific in your portrayal of her activism, in terms of style, time, and place?
Yes. Because it’s weird, researching that time period, it’s funny, stuff would just come to me, and again and again it was from 1972. Everything interesting I came across, it just always happened to be 1972.
I was thinking, ‘What the hell was going on in 1972?’ [Laughs]. As I’m looking all this stuff up, it felt like you said, it was this post-1968 and post-Dr. King type activism, past that whole civil rights era, but we’re not quite into the 1970’s yet. People were kind of in limbo. ‘Like, okay. What do we do next? And how do we fight the system now?’ I kind of wanted to have Justine represent that. And I also didn’t want her to have such a big part in it, to show that she was still just trying to figure herself out, too. As in, ‘I know I want to do something. I don’t know what that is. So, I’m gonna do this.’
Building on the types of politics that do and don’t exist in this book, I think Theo [a fictional former alderman] is the clearest, or only, spokesman for this 1968-ish style of civil rights activism. And he’s not really taken seriously. Or seen as particularly inspirational or insightful. I actually did a quick scan for the names McCulloch, Slay, McCaskill, Clay, [referring to—and the office they held in 2015—St. Louis County Prosecutor, Bob McCulloch; St. Louis Mayor, Francis Slay; Missouri Senator, Claire McCaskill; St. Louis Congressman, William “Lacy” Clay] and even Obama—those names combine to appear zero times in the entire book. Was this an intentional statement about the actual importance—or lack thereof—of mainstream politics, that it’s somehow separate from the story your characters are living?
You know what, that’s probably exactly the case. Even though I was not even intending to do that. But it was, I guess, unconsciously [a statement not to include them in the book] … When I moved back to St. Louis in 2018, it was a total culture shock, just like moving to the Bay Area was. When I was moving back, I’m coming back from this ultra-liberal place [Oakland], where even people that weren’t directly involved with politics still at least knew who the players were. And what was in play and at stake. When I moved back to St. Louis, it was like, I don’t know, just the opposite. You had some people who knew [what was going on in politics] and then you had people who were like, ‘So what? I’m living my life. Whatever happens over here, if it’s not going to affect me directly, or if I don’t see the residual of it tomorrow, then it doesn’t matter.’
So that’s kind of where, even if I didn’t mean for it to happen like that [to exclude the names of ostensibly relevant politicians], I was trying to focus on the everyday thoughts of everyday people. And to them, Theo is the outcast. Because he’s this person in the limelight. But no one is really [that concerned with who he is or what he is doing in politics].
So, you said you returned to St. Louis in 2018. Do you think this book could have been written in 2005?
It probably could have. Obviously, Ferguson wouldn’t have been in there. But other than that, a lot of the same issues that are in play have just been playing out in different ways over the years.
To flip that question, it’s hard believe, but it’s almost been a decade since the events and time-setting of this book. If you were writing the book today, what do you think the biggest differences would be?
Hmm. Well obviously, how the pandemic has affected politics and caused a whole additional divide we weren’t ready for and that no one expected … It’s interesting because people have asked for it, including my mom, ‘You should write a sequel.’ And I don’t see it.
But it’s funny because even though Justine is the main character and I love her and really enjoyed writing her because it helped me not necessarily to understand but to navigate through the thoughts and actions of elders, the people I look up to in my community. I always say Justine is an amalgamation of the elders I grew up with in the community, so it’s been great focusing on that and her. But I think the person that really resonated with me the most was Lois. Because she’s been here [in St. Louis]. And I always say, if I were to do a sequel, she would be elevated to main character role. Because not only did I think she had one of the biggest transformations in the book … you also have the housing crisis [the Lois character is a realtor]. I’m thinking, how would she respond to all this? And how would she respond to this today.
You can read more about Lyndsey Ellis on her website lyndseyellis.com as well as on Twitter @lyellis and Instagram @lyelliswrites.
Ryan Thier is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the following outlets: Literary Yard, Poor Moses, Full Stop Magazine, and the Yale Law Library short story contest.