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© Bella Stander


Paule Marshall
Author of The Fisher King

February/March 2001

by Bella Stander

Paule Marshall is a shining example of the truth of the old adage, "Slow and steady wins the race." Her most recent novel, The Fisher King (published by Scribner), was nearly 10 years in the making. Her first, Brown Girl, Brownstones, considered a classic of modern African American literature, was published in 1959. There have been five other acclaimed books in the intervening years, during which Marshall also taught at such institutions as Yale, Columbia, the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Virginia Commonwealth University. Currently she divides her time between teaching in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University and writing at her home in Richmond, Va.

"I'm a very slow, painstaking, fussy writer," Marshall states unapologetically. "One of my struggles has been to accept my pace because the pressure is so great to produce a novel every three to five years." But having "risked it" many years ago to be a writer, she isn't about to give way to external forces. "The publishing world is difficult to negotiate," Marshall says in her typically calm yet resolute manner, "but once you make the decision to stay the course, that gives you the reserve and strength to continue."

A key factor in helping Marshall stay her course is the enthusiastic support of her readership, which she modestly claims "isn't huge." In fact, her work is taught in colleges all over and she has traveled to every continent except Australia to give readings and lectures. Among the many honors she has received are a MacArthur Fellowship, the American Book Award and a John Dos Passos Award for Literature. In Washington Post Book World, noted author Edwidge Danticat put The Fisher King at the top of her list of favorite books of 2000, calling Marshall "an extraordinary storyteller who is on every line, of every page, in complete control of the many complex, historical and emotional layers of her tale."

That tale is set in Marshall's native central Brooklyn, where Parisian-born Sonny is brought to meet the extended family that his namesake grandfather, a pioneering saxophonist, left behind decades earlier. She says that the story was inspired by a photograph of her own cousin Sonny, whom she never met due to a familial falling-out, which sat on the piano in her parents' living room. (The photograph and piano figure prominently in the novel.) She eventually learned that in his teen years Sonny became a jazz saxophone player, which was a "phenomenally brave thing to do in my part of the world." Marshall observes, "It was an upwardly mobile community and they had no patience for children who wanted to be artists." Sonny died mysteriously soon after being drafted into the Army in WW II, but over the years, "his willingness and determination to be an artist stayed in my mind. I knew that I had to write a book about it, just in the way of exorcising it. So I decided to invent a life for him, in part to make up for the life he had been denied."

The novel's title (like the 1980s movie) comes from an Arthurian legend about a wounded king who is imprisoned in his castle, waiting for a knight to come heal and protect him. In Marshall's book, little Sonny is always drawing castles, with himself in knight's armor guarding them. He says that he is protecting his grandfather, who died in the Paris subway. "By extension," she says, "I wanted to suggest the need of the artist for that protection and endorsement in society. King Arthur was required reading when I was a kid in public school in Brooklyn. I found this a wonderful metaphor for the importance of black culture and the need to protect it."

© 2001 Bella Stander

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