In 2017, The Village Voice’s Greil Marcus raved about your essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. “Not a day has sounded the same since I read him” is the line that often gets quoted, but I wanted to ask you about another one. Marcus identified you as “a pop critic from Columbus, Ohio.” How has coming from Columbus shaped you as a writer?
I think the best way to say it is that I have always felt like an outsider to much of the culture I’ve loved. But there has been a real generosity to that. Because of that outsider nature, I can be a little more patient. I can take my time listening and witnessing, and that helps me write slower, more thoughtfully. I don’t feel a demand to have a take on something in the moment.
Your latest book, A Little Devil in America, celebrates the history and beauty of Black performance: music, film, dancing, sports. How have you handled a pandemic without live performance?
I’ve handled it mostly by watching videos of old performances. Working on the book, for example, I was digging through archival footage of Soul Train. It’s been really useful to immerse myself in performances that have already occurred—to be as in awe of them as the first time I saw them. What I love about archival footage is that it doesn’t really make me long for anything. The performance has already occurred. It’s already an artist I love. Sometimes it’s a band that has already broken up. Because of that, the range of longing is much shorter, and there’s something really fulfilling about that. These videos have also been useful because I can’t really fathom a world where I get back out and see live performances any time soon. I bought some tickets for the fall because I want to support smaller venues and indie musicians—Julien Baker, Japanese Breakfast, shows like that. Coming back is a big deal for them, and I hope to go. But I’ll see how I feel on the day of.
One exception, I suppose, was this spring when you profiled The Black Keys for The New York Times. There’s a great scene where you sit with them and watch as they jam with blues musicians. What was it like to experience that?
It was overwhelming. I went there in March, and I hadn’t seen live, in-person music in any form since January 2020. We were sitting in a circle in their studio, the band and a couple other folks. It wasn’t loud—just a live blues songwriter circle kind of thing. But I had forgotten how the movements of live music work, especially in that setting where people are crawling toward each other and figuring each other out. To be in that room, to see live music that close, was delightfully jarring.
Some of A Little Devil’s best case studies come from Black performers in the Midwest. Was it fun to celebrate your home region?
Oh yeah. I grew up on Midwestern music in all of its forms, and the Midwest sound means a lot to me. I’m also fascinated by musical places that are often overlooked. Indianapolis is a good example. It’s not as well represented, even when thinking about Midwestern music history, because so much of that history leans on Detroit and Chicago. But I think of Indianapolis venues like the Walker Theatre and artists like Wes Montgomery. The city’s music history, especially in blues and jazz, is rich. I also think there’s something joyful about the collaborative nature of Indianapolis music.
This year, for Indie Bookstore Day, you bought the entire stock of your books at various Columbus book – stores—more than a hundred copies of A Little Devil, for instance—and then told your Instagram followers to visit those stores and get your books for free, though of course they could also “use the money you were gonna spend on my book on another book.” Why do local bookstores mean so much to you?
At first, I thought I wasn’t going to miss touring for my new book at all, but I ended up missing it a lot. I missed the booksellers I meet on the road who are so kind and eager to show me the world they live in: restaurants, sneaker spots, music spots. Being in an indie bookstore is a glimpse into a community more broadly, and I really appreciate that.
This fall, you’ll be at Butler as the Booth Tarkington Writer-in-Residence. You’ve visited Butler before. Why come back?
I love the community there. I don’t have a background in academia, but the students and writers are so generous, and that’s what I need. I don’t believe in educational hierarchy. I just want to learn from people, and Butler was a place where I felt that was happening.
You’ll also be presenting as part of the university’s famous Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. Any plans for your own performance?
I haven’t even thought about the in-person reading thing yet. It’s a lot like going back to live concerts—I can’t really fathom it until it happens. But I can tell you I’m looking forward to it.