New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s new memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is scheduled for release Tuesday. So far, headlines about the book have focused almost entirely on one thing: Blow’s grappling with his attraction to other men. The author says that’s fair and that the attention to the issue is understandable.
The story is about much more than just his sexuality, though. It poetically chronicles the writer’s life, taking readers on a journey from a painful childhood in a Louisiana town to a role as one of America’s most respected journalists, in a coming-of-age story with universal lessons.
We spoke to Blow, a 2014 Root 100 honoree, about the process of writing the book and its message about what he calls “the splendid variety of the black male experience.”
The Root: Why was now the right time to write your memoir?
Charles M. Blow: It’s not exactly that now was the time. I’ve been writing since the first time I decided to scribble things down nine years ago. I was just commuting back and forth to [Washington,] D.C. all the time and writing things from my life. But in 2009 there were two little boys, both of whom were 11, and they hanged themselves 10 days apart from each other after they both had endured tremendous amounts of homophobic bullying, and it occurred to me in that moment that this writing I was doing needed to be a book. I knew that pain and heartbreak, that level of ostracism and what it felt like to feel there was no way out …
They don’t have language, but I do. I wanted to write that narrative about feeling that overwhelming sense of pain, dealing with it and struggling with it over a lifetime and coming into who you are.
TR: What do you hope people take away from the book?
CMB: That it is your moral obligation to love yourself as you are. That there is a tremendous amount of pain in the world and you don’t always see it, particularly in children. Remember that whenever you see a child who’s struggling.
There are also some peripheral things that I’m happy my life happens to touch on. For example, I don’t believe we fully understand the depth and reality of poverty in America, and I think the book paints a picture of what that looks like away from urban poverty.
I like that I get to survey the splendid variety of the black male experience—heroes, villains and other complex characters, and they’re full people. We as a society draw masculinity too narrowly, and we certainly draw black masculinity too narrowly. I’m happy I got a chance to draw it very broadly and to see real people in complex ways across two decades.
TR: How was the experience different from writing the columns that you’re known for?
CMB: They’re two different animals—a book is a sustained argument, while a column is 800 words, so you’re writing to that number whether there’s more to say or less. It’s a bit of a treadmill because it has to happen on a schedule. You train your creativity to be on this cycle—it has a certain ephemeral nature to it. However good or bad this particular column, there’s going to be another one a few days later.
A memoir is totally different—there is no schedule until you get a publisher and the pub sets that schedule; you’re writing at your leisure. Also, particularly for memoir, it’s very personal—more scene setting, character studies, developing a narrative that doesn’t have to play out very [much]. There’s a difference in pacing and a difference in treatment.
TR: How do you feel about the focus on the bisexuality part of the story?
CMB: I feel like that’s one pillar of the narrative, and it’s perfectly legitimate for people to point that part out. I don’t run from it; I saw a few things that incorrectly assumed that I avoided or hated the word, which is totally not true. But the excerpt that is used, and a lot of the book, is about coming to terms with a heavy subject. I don’t think it should be a topic that’s off-limits, and in fact, I want people to feel free to focus on any part of the book that feels helpful to them. There is no shame.
There is no hierarchy to humanity. Sexuality expresses itself in myriad ways, and no one is better or worse than any other. They’re just different in a sense that we choose to apply labels; we use the best labels we have. So the passage refers to the wordsmith in me struggling with the idea that I didn’t think it was as precise as I would like, but it’s the best we have, the best word we have. There should be no kind of misunderstanding that because I, as a younger man, struggled with whether this was the best word to use, that I was trying to deny or step away from it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.