Louis Edwards is the kind of sweet, gangly guy you knew in high school. He’s shy and considerate, with a self-conscious smile on his bespectacled face that turns quickly into a laugh. In conversation, he steers around controversy, avoiding the slightest meanness. His novel, Ten Seconds, is the opposite. An exploration into the mind of a young black man; the novel looks unflinchingly at cruelty, selfishness, and infidelity, as well as love and tenderness. As Eddie, the protagonist, sits watching a high school track meet, his own sport as a teenager, he has a flash of enlightenment: he’s seen both his past and his future fly past with the pole vaulter. That instant of déjà vous is then revealed, second by second, as is the life of a black middle-class community, in graceful, minute detail.
Ameena Meer Ten Seconds is really fascinating because there’s this whole experience of the black middle-class that to me was a very closed world.
Louis Edwards They’re just regular folk. The kinds of people I grew up with. And true, I hadn’t come across them, nearly enough in literature. And that’s one reason that I wanted to write this kind of book. When I was writing it, I thought, “This is going to have a very limited audience. I don’t know who’s going to want to read this.” But I have a couple of readers—my sister, and a very good friend of mine—who said, “You’re going to be surprised by the people who are going to like this book.” Not to be overly modest, but I didn’t know if Ten Secondscould make someone—an outside reader—cross that line dividing himself or herself from the rather ordinary black folk who inhabit Ten Seconds. I wasn’t sure if the book was exotic enough.
AM The novel takes place in Louisiana, where you grew up?
LE Yes, South End is the name of the city, but there’s no South End in Louisiana (laughter). It’s based on Lake Charles, the city where I grew up, a town of oil refineries and chemical factories. I actually worked at an oil refinery for two summers, right after high school and before my sophomore year of college; it was a set-up for children of employees. My father worked at the same refinery. And so does Eddie, the protagonist of Ten Seconds, and his best friend, Malcolm. I’ve actually just written a companion piece for Ten Seconds. Malcolm, who is ever-present although on the periphery in Ten Seconds, is explored in the second book.
AM I liked Malcolm.
LE I get that comment often, people really like Malcolm. I like Malcolm. The relationship between Eddie and Malcolm is very special.
AM So why did you kill him?
LE Time killed him.
AM He was too good.
LE Maybe he was too good. There’s a line that I’ve never been able to use—at some point you’re witnessing Malcolm’s goodness, and then he thinks to himself, “With a heart like this, you die young.” That next book will take place before his death, of course.
AM How did you arrive at your story structure, moving back and forth, chronologically, switching from narrative to monologue to play?
LE It could be criticized as being artificial, but I think the clock is artificial. Ten Seconds started out as a short story. In the short story, I was supposed to capture a moment of déjà vouswhen it first occurs and then later, when Eddie, in this case, experiences that moment, it would appear to him as déjà vous. The short story that I wrote is now the opening section of Ten Seconds. (This transition from short story to novel sounds typical, but that’s how it happened for me.) The idea of going back and forth, dealing with the future and the past, which are the crucial elements of déjà vous, was an effort to capture the net of time that we are all held by, wrapped so tightly in. After I wrote the opening section and “designed” the second, I thought, This won’t really work, this is dumb, it’s forced. Then I was reading—while I was in graduate school, I finished this book in 1986, at LSU—reading psychological novels for a course and I came across the James Joyce quote that is one of the epigraphs for the novel, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges into the past,” and I said, “Wow, there, that’s it.” It just all clicked for me. And I said, “Well, I can do this, and I can make it believable and make it work.” So I set about writing the second section of the book that way—back and forth, nonlinear. And then later, I read T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” the quote that appears as the epigraph for the second section of the book, and I really felt vindicated then. I thought I was on to something. “A current under the sea / Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell / He passed the stages of his age and youth / Entering the whirlpool.” Eddie, as you know, has an obsession with water.
AM There are a few incidents that seem crucial to the narrative, central to the whirlpool, especially Coco’s abortion. But less than that, the cause, Eddie’s first sexual experience which was with her, his wife’s younger sister. The reader goes back and forth and back and forth through time, over the repercussions of the incident and finally, reaches the incident itself, at the end.
LE It is crucial for the success of the book that that is the last section, before we come back into the present. For me, it’s very sad, extremely sad, but it is the book, in many ways. That incident is what is at the bottom of Eddie’s feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction.
AM I was struck by his seeming lack of empathy for her.
LE It’s a moment for him of self-absorption. It’s crucial that he have this experience. His manhood is dependent upon his having this sexual experience, losing his virginity. And he wants it so desperately that he’s not concerned with her. There’s a moment there, where they’re embracing, and he thinks that this may be all that she really wants. Just to stand there and embrace.
AM Surrounded by her stuffed animals.
LE Yes. And maybe it is—it’s not a totally omniscient novel so you can’t really know. But he’ll have none of that. He’s on a mission and he’s going to accomplish that mission, so yes, it is a moment of beautiful cruelty, but at the same time, for his being, it is an essential moment and he must act.
AM And later, he’s having affairs with these various women. That’s also an assertion of manhood.
LE An assertion of manhood? It’s more the pursuit of freedom: he feels encaged by his marriage. Which is not a bad marriage really, he’s married to a fine woman, a tolerant person. So it’s more wanting to break out of what he feels are chains.
AM You’ve also got the background of his father’s affairs.
LE He’s not nearly as outrageous as his father. So there seems to be some generational improvement. And then his son, Edward Junior seems very different from Eddie, still. Even a little too different for Eddie’s taste. Edward Junior reminds him of Malcolm.
AM I was also struck by his isolation. There’s a tremendous sense of isolation and that seems to carry on throughout the novel.
LE He does feel isolated, but it has to do with his own silence and his own inability to express himself. And out of his silence comes fear. Because he feels very deep sensations of being, he’s a very human character, I think. But not outwardly so. Nothing he is capable of saying, expressing, betrays his true sensitivity. Someone would look at him and not know who he is and how he feels. And I think he senses the fact that others do not know his depths, that he is, indeed, incapable of making others know him. And that is isolating.
AM Why has he got this difficulty in expressing himself?
LE It’s an individual thing, I think. It’s just who he is.
AM Is it a statement on the condition of modern man or is it more this person?
LE I prefer to look at Eddie as a specific character, and not necessarily emblematic of a class of men, of a race of men, although there are incidentals to his person that are prevalent, I suspect, within society, in black society, in American society. But this is not necessarily a characteristic specific to black men. I think it’s more of a male characteristic than anything else, maybe it’s deep-seated within the gender.
AM And that’s a Faulknerian vision as well, a man being unable to express himself.
LE This is true. It’s Benjy.
AM And the Gulf of Mexico keeps tempting him to take that exit and drive off down the highway. That’s his fairyland.
LE It is. It’s the ultimate escape. It’s oceanic, all the primordial, maybe even the womb.
AM Except that he can’t swim.
LE There is all of that. And I don’t know what it all means—though I’m sure someone will tell me. But it just seemed right. It was an instinct to have him be infatuated with this water. This is who he is.
AM When he does choose to have a long affair, it’s with someone who is as encumbered. She’s got these two kids, she’s a check-out girl in a shop. She’s not really doing anything. She doesn’t seem like somebody who’s going to transport him anywhere.
LE Except that she has the essentials. She’s a loving woman, sensual woman and, at the same time, she’s not threatening in any way whatsoever. Her affection toward him is pretty unconditional, which is appealing to a guy like Eddie. Women for him have a water-like quality.
AM On the other hand, his wife Betty seemed to be reality, reason. He’d be off dreaming and she’d come in, and you’d have these monologues.
LE And she’s vocal, which is key. She’s capable of expressing exactly what’s on her mind. And doesn’t hesitate to do so.
AM Your ear for her dialogue is really good.
LE She’s one of the characters I’ve worried about, in terms of what people might think of her. I wasn’t sure if I got her quite right. Eddie, I figured, people were just gonna hate him anyway. Actually, a friend of mine in New Orleans: he read the book, he’s white, he’s successful. Afterwards, he said to me, “I don’t think I like Eddie. I don’t think I’d want to be his friend.” I didn’t say it at the time, but later it occurred to me, I don’t think Eddie would want to be this guy’s friend either. But that’s not the point, whether or not you like him—there are a lot of people in literature, characters that we don’t like—but that we do identify with on that human level. And that’s what I wanted for Eddie more than anything else.
AM He suffers very deeply.
LE Everyone does, you know. We can all identify with that. In writing this book, I wanted to give a portrait of life, a real presentation of a real life. And life is sad.
AM Eddie is further isolated by his drinking and drugs. Is that another escape?
LE He sees it as that, getting high. That’s also very human. It’s an instinct. People have very different highs and this is his. It’s easy and it works. He doesn’t read a book as some of us would do.
AM Did you think about role models at all?
LE No. In terms of the characters? Not really. Whatever happened, happened. Whoever Eddie turned out to be, that’s who he was.
AM It seems to end with him alone, watching TV. Is he just going to be by himself forever?
LE Well, probably. It’s very sad. He probably dies alone.
LE Yes, he dies alone. But free of all his chains.
AM You’re smiling when you say that.
LE Well, he’s smiling when he does that. People don’t seem to want to admit that, in the end, Eddie comes to terms with himself, with who he is. People don’t want to forgive him, but actually, he finds his own salvation. In the end, it’s about redemption. There’s a photograph happening and he at least catches the flash of the camera and he’s smiling. That’s held. That smile is forever.