A Conversation with Uzodinma Okehi

I met Uzodinma Okehi at the Franklin Park Reading series in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was drinking a beer, writing in a notebook and he walked up to ask if I was writing a story. I told him I was and he applauded my hustle. Thirty minutes later he stood up and read from his percussive novel Over For Rockwell. I bought his book on the spot and have read it all over the city. The novel tells the story of Blue Okoye, a comic book writer who drops out of school in Iowa City to make it as an artist. Told in non-chronological vignettes, the book follows Blue’s adventures in Hong Kong and New York City along with bits of his childhood in Georgia.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Okehi at a bar in Crown Heights to talk. We had a sprawling conversation about his work, literature, trap music, Henry Miller, comics, and his advice for young writers (like myself). Here’s some of the highlights:

On his relationship to his main character, Blue, and young guy mythology:

Zeke – A lot of people may assume that Blue is a direct reflection of you as the author. What is your relationship to Blue?

Uzudinma – Okay, here’s how I think of Blue. I took a whole bunch of stories, some of that shit is me and some of it is my friends and I meshed it all together. In terms of Blue, I wouldn’t say it’s me really.

Z – How do you feel about him?

U – He’s kind of a chronic loser.

Z – In my writing, I’ve got my own alter ego, maybe like Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski, and I tend to put all of the shit I don’t like about myself in that alter ego. Have you done something similar with Blue in Over for Rockwell?

U – If I was to identify the parts of my personality that I’ve got in Blue, it’s definitely more of the bad stuff than the good stuff. Some of the bad behavior, definitely. But really, I think of Blue as an every guy from that era, that particular late 90s whatever. Like a young guy who wants to be a writer or you want to be some type of artist.

Also, I would say that this motherfucker (Blue) sacrifices personal growth to pursue his art. Recently, a girl came up to me after a reading and she said, ‘If Blue is you I wanna give you some romantic advice. You keep making the same mistake.’ [Laughs]. Obviously, if that was me I’d do something different. Some of this has to do with his artistic pursuit, some of it just his personality.

I mean, we all have those friends who don’t get it. He’s not ugly or anything but he just can’t get a girl. He can’t put it together. I’ve had that friend a couple of times. He’ll be telling me about stuff that happens with girls and it’s obvious that he shouldn’t have been doing what he’s doing. Like, why did you say that? Why didn’t you do this?   Blue’s one of those guys who’s never had a real relationship. It’s not like he’s necessarily a virgin in those Hong Kong scenes but when he sees girls he doesn’t really see her as three dimensional. There’s definitely a degree of objectification. He’s thinking more about moments than he is about really having a relationship. Like he sees his friend making out with a girl in a phone booth with the neon lights of the street behind them and he wants that moment. But a moment is not a relationship or a person.

Z – That’s similar to the way Blue views becoming an artist.

U – Exactly. It’s an image but he can’t deal with the day to day reality. We all know that the daily grind of being an artist is not exactly what we imagine when we read Bukowski or Henry Miller. The reality of coming home after work and being exhausted and trying to come up with new stories. It grittier than you imagined.

Z – If there is an ark for the story I see it’s that Blue comes in wanting to tame the city, wanting to conquer as an artist. The immaturity of the young author –

U – Yeah, that young guy mythology

Z – but he basically just ends up being swallowed by the city – both Hong Kong and New York.

U – Yeah. Also, he realizes whatever city you live in most of the stuff you do is not the stuff you see in a post card or what you talk about to friends. It’s like me in New York. I work at a bookstore. I live in Bed Stuy. I take the L to the G. And pretty much 95% of my New York life is that or it’s me taking my kid to play basketball. It’s not the statue of liberty or the museums or Williamsburg. But our daily life is what we draw on. The real stuff is the only material we have. Unless you are going to engineer some experience. Most people, what you’re drawing on is the more banal grind and then you’ve got to weave the more fantastic elements in it. The art of fiction is taking your limited experience, the fabric and texture of it, and putting it in a fictional experience.


On the structure of Over for Rockwell:

U – First, my basic feelings about structure is either it works or it doesn’t. I don’t want to justify it. But I will say that the book is supposed to be about comics in more ways than one. I wanted the book to reflect comics as Blue is this comics guy. In comics you have a hard grid. Six panels or nine panels. A hard cap on the page count: 22. My set up for Over for Rockwell was that none of the sections in the book would be over 700 words. Some stories are over 700 words, maybe 1,400 words but they are split up into smaller sections. My scale was 90, 120, 200, 300, 500 and 700 words. Those are the word count grouping. Everything hits those numbers on the dot.

Moreover, In comics, there’s really no beginning or ending. They are always in the middle of action.

Z – Sure, in the book, we are always catching up with Blue halfway through an action in which he’s trying to be a hero but he never really succeeds.

U – Totally. It’s like Batman never completely wins and never completely fails. I wanted the story to be percussive and action packed but really a story in which no real action takes place, nothing life-threatening. Much like real life, most of the real action takes place off camera and is only explained through exposition. The real action is him being in a room alone trying to make shit. Insomuch as you can make that action.

Z – I’ve seen some of these vignettes published as contained short stories elsewhere. Did you set out to write a book or were you just writing these stories?

U – Well, really, I was just writing flash fiction for websites. Originally, I was writing these longer stories and getting caught in the middle of them. So I said I’ll do flash fiction and get my stories out faster. At some point, HobartPulp was like how much of this shit do you have? Do you have enough for a book? So then I started thinking about this as a book. Instead of trying to write this as a conventional novel, I said, ‘fuck it. This is how I write now.’ I mean, I wasn’t getting a book deal from Harper’s Collins. So I made the the formula. Then I wrote the rest of it based on the formula. The stories I wrote towards the end are all mixed in.

Z – The book isn’t chronological but there is a certain emotional logic. Can you talk about that?

U – Though things are a little different now with graphic novels, the comics from the time that Blue would’ve been reading them and the time I read them, from the late 80s and 90s, everything is set up in these looping arcs that continue and never end. The only larger thread in Over for Rockwell is that this is just one guys life. That’s just like the X-Men. Now they fight Magneto for 6 issues and then they do something else. It’s like, now Blue is in middle school for 6 chapters or now he’s in Hong Kong for a few chapters.

Z – Even some of the phrases in Over for Rockwell are repeated.

U – Yeah, in comics there are these little catch phrases and tags they come back to. Sometimes I’ll use bits of a story in another story or certain things Blue says.

It’s a real skill that a lot of writers have in bringing together all these threads in one conventional novel. But, at the same time, there’s something false about a lot of the way those things feel. There’s an aspect of realism that you have to give up to make that sort of satisfying plot. Like, obviously there are things that I can’t do in my book like a real novel. But there are other things that I can do that other novels can’t. There’s a certain realism. For instance, if you think about how memory works — I mean, really works. You’re always looping back to points in your life that may or not have any relevance.   But they are just coming up.

Z – I definitely thought of memory in the way this is structured. Also in the manner that all of the action and language is heavily filtered through Blue’s perspective.

U – I mean, he’s a really sensitive guy. I’m not really that touchy. But for the purposes of writing something like that, you need somebody really really sensitive. Like everything sticks out to him, all the details. Just how memory actually works. The perfect example to contrast this with is I’m reading My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I mean there’s some really well-done and funny parts but it’s like you don’t really need to describe the sky and the water everywhere you go. This book is 500 hundred pages, man.


On Trap Music and a theory of writing:

U – Trap music is like a black hole, there’s so much of that shit. It’s so intense about shit that’s seemingly mundane. Like letting the top down on your convertible or some girls ass, they are just so passionate about that shit. It kind of dovetails with my personal theory on writing generally. It’s like, there’s a lot of books about tragedy. Still, if you think about it, most of the meat of your life is not in those tragedies. I went to work today and then I came to this bar and, just in terms of details, it’s not that exciting. But within my own life these details are exciting. The stakes that I experience doing this stuff are high, it is exciting and there is meaning infused in that. So if you think about trap and these guys being so passionate and insane about this mundane stuff like their convertible or a girl’s ass, that’s exactly the sort of action movie feel you get about your own life.

P – That’s exactly the feel I get in Over for Rockwell. You write in such a way as to make an action movie of the mundane details of life.

U – Definitely.


Advice for young writers:

U – You can’t approach writing like a career. You aren’t going to get what you’re looking for. There’s not enough material resources in it. If you just keep going, though, you’re gonna get to a critical mass where you have so much piled up and you keep sending it out, that you get to the point that you have to get published. All that has to happen is that the dam has to break. Somebody’s story falls out and they need something. And, not to be cynical, but once you get in there and then motherfuckers see you around, you start rolling. I mean, not to say it’s all about connections but the hustle is important. I mean, so many of the places I used to get rejected by are now sending me emails asking if I’ve got something new. Keep in mind, the stories in the book are the same stories that they used to reject — almost without me changing much of anything. At a certain point you cross that threshold. It’s almost like some Drake song. At first you’re like, I hate Drake but then you hear it enough.

Z – That’s exactly how I feel about Drake.

U – When you first hear it you’re like this guy is too emotional.

Z – Then you’re singing Fake Love to yourself.

U – Exactly. I was just listening to that earlier today.


Favorite Authors and liking most things:

U – I love Henry Miller. I love Bukowski. I like James Salter, he’s really cool. I’m trying to think of non-outsider novelists I like. I’m not one of those dudes that has a lot of stuff I hate. Even dudes that everybody likes that I feel like I shouldn’t like. Like even Junot Diaz. I’ve seen him in person and I really didn’t like this guy. Like I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. But like half way through The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I’m like you got me. This isn’t the type of book that I usually like but it’s good.

On Henry Miller, I will say that I don’t think he’s really a good writer. I mean, there’s something about that guys voice that is so warm, so conversational. He seems much smarter than what he’s saying. You’re reading and rationalizing leaving your wife and kids to go with some girl to Paris. That was a different time but to smear a layer of like, this is all about love and passion. I think there’s a darker side of his personality that he’s glossing over. He’s trying to say that ‘we’ve forgotten our morals’ but he’s a racist, he’s a misogynist. Even by his own standards he fails.

Structurally, too, this guy is literally writing the same book over and over again, five or six times. Huge parts of his books are totally nonsensical. Even among plotless books, the logic by which he’s trying to structure the book doesn’t make much sense. Emotionally it makes sense when you’re reading it but so many of his stories just trail off. I mean, you compare that to Bukowski, whose stories really punch. They give that satisfaction. They are set almost like jokes with punchlines. I think Bukowski is better for that reason.

Z – People could accuse you of doing something similar to Henry Miller in Over for Rockwell. The vignettes rarely come to solid conclusions. They always leave the door open.

U – Definitely. There’s a lot of my stuff that doesn’t have that punchline. Part of that is just the sacrifice of me making something more realistic like I was saying before. Whatever path you choose in terms of the technical way you approach it there’s going to be weakness.


On people who are against MFA-style writing, judging writing:

U – The MFA thing is just a style of writing. I feel the same way about that as people who are against first-person narrators. And we aren’t talking about anything specific about what the actual MFA style is but on the other hand we both know what we are talking about. And honestly, there’s cats who do that shit really really well. Then there’s pretenders. For every genre there’s a Michael Jordan in there and then there’s other cats who aren’t as good.

If you want to know the worst thing about an MFA situation it’s not that type of writing. It’s more that there’s a group of people sitting around a table deciding what’s good and bad writing. It’s personal. Why are we wasting time deciding what’s the perfect writing?

Z – I agree. For instance, in basketball. Like with Steph Curry, in the right situation he may be the best basketball player in the world but in the wrong situation he might not be in the top 20.

U – The wrong situation i.e. last years finals. This dude was unreal in the regular season but he gets to the finals, bad match up, and he doesn’t look good at all. With art it’s even more complicated.

Like, I love Henry Miller but the first time I read Henry Miller I was high school. I was on spring break. I was on a surfing trip. I was sitting on the steps of the Holiday Inn. So much of that situation led to me having that sort of deck clearing emotional experience that I did. If I picked up that book now, it could be a complete different thing. So much of your life bleeds into what you get from something. Everything is limited in terms of personal context.


On race:

U – On my own I never talk about race. Like, I understand. Does race need to be the focus of every discussion? Maybe it does so that these things can get ironed out and changed the way we all know they need to get changed. Does that mean that I want to talk about it all the time? Do I want to continually have the same conversation about racism that I’ve been having my whole life — like you’re on a dark street and you see a black guy with a hoodie what do you do? No, I don’t want to have that conversation.   I have great respect for people who pursue a political agenda but in my own life the only things that concern me are the things that keep me from doing what I want to in my life.


On Trump and Obama:

U – I don’t care. Another old rich white plantation owner motherfucker. I mean is that gonna stop me from writing another book? Trump doesn’t care about me and I don’t care about Trump. Obama doesn’t care about my book coming out.

Z – Some of the writers you get lumped with might be considered political just based on their outsider status. Many of them probably consider their work a political act. What do you think about that?

U – I mean, my question to other writers is, what are you really doing (with your art)? I’ve got a friend and he was always saying that what we were doing should mean more political. My perspective was don’t trick yourself into thinking that writing poems is improving people’s lives. Not when you’re talking about homeless people, starving people, people dying in other countries. Poetry is not helping them. We used to get in shouting matches about that. This guy’s poems are great but he went and joined the army.

Z – He’s mentioned in the book, right?

U – Yeah, he is. My thing is like, you should stop killing people and write more poetry. You can make fun of me because I’m sitting on the couch watching the Knicks but at least I’m not killing anybody.


On the state of literature:

U – I hate it when people say that there’s nothing really good going on in literature. It’s bullshit. There’s so many good books out there. So many people self-publish or get books out through these tiny publishers and they don’t get a lot of readers. I work at a bookstore and we have this dollar cart where so many of these anonymous books end up. There’s some great books in there. So many of them never get attention or are seen.

That’s why the hustle matters. Most of the books you see now are the result of as much talent as ambition. Somebody had to really want people to read this shit. These people had not only a burning desire to write shit but also a burning desire for you to read it.


You can Purchase Over For Rockwell here .

UZODINMA OKEHI spent 2 years handing out zines on the subway. Wasn’t as fun as he thought. His work has appeared in Pank, Hobart,Bartleby Snopes, and many, many other places, no doubt, you’ve never heard of. He has an MFA in writing from New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. His son is 8 yrs old, smiles a lot, (too much?), and will absolutely, cross you over and drain a jumper in your face. Over For Rockwell is his first novel.

ZEKE PERKINS has spent most of his working life fighting for social justice as part of the labor movement. His fiction and essays have appeared in Queen Mobs Tea House, the Bard Free Press, and Lab Letter. He has a bachelor degree from Bard College in Written Arts. He lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.

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