At 27, Simeon Marsalis has learned one of the most important lessons in writing. “A big part of my process is ‘don’t be afraid,’ ” he said. “You know that saying, don’t be afraid to kill your darlings — I may have taken that too far. ... This novel is the result of a long conversation that’s happened over four years.”
“This novel” is “As Lie Is to Grin,” a startling and thought-provoking debut that already has been nominated for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Begun in New York, finished in New Orleans, it is the mark of a novelist to watch, the story of a young college student’s exploration of the racist past. The title comes from the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “The Mask,” which has the line, “We wear the mask that grins and lies.” Precise and poetic, satirical and wickedly observant, it is assured and devastating.
“My father (Wynton Marsalis) definitely is a writer, and he’s a great reader,” Marsalis said, talking about his influences. “I thought at first I'd be a musician. When I grew up, I played clarinet, but living in New York and playing the clarinet is not the same as in New Orleans, and I always had a talent for basketball so I went with that.
“My senior year of high school, I was in European history and I was assigned ‘The Red and the Black,’ by Stendhal, and that changed the way I read a book — I’m from the Harry Potter generation. But my real awakening didn’t happen until years later. I was on the team bus going to Stony Brook to play for the University of Vermont. I started writing a story. It took me six hours, but I completed it. My basketball career ended after that, and I started to investigate writing.”
His writing journey eventually brought him to New Orleans, where he worked on his book and did social media for the band The Swamp Donkeys. As is the way of things here, writer Lolis Eric Elie took Marsalis to a party where he met Tulane professor Zachary Lazar.
Lazar asked him what he did, and when Marsalis said, “I’m a writer,” he responded, “Really? I’m a writer too. Why don’t you send me a story?”
When Lazar liked it, Marsalis said, “You think that’s good? I’ve got this great novel!” And so began a lasting friendship.
“As Lie Is to Grin” is also one of those great novels of New York, the city observed, as the protagonist contemplates the architecture around him. “I’m from New Rochelle, New York, born in NYC, my father lived in NYC, so I know it pretty well,” Marsalis said. “But like every city, you can’t know everything about it, it’s not possible. So I would take a look at the subjective as a way to view the universal. Instead of trying to fit it all in, I would just go and take walks. We learn so much history from the way a piece of wood is cut, or where we put an outlet.
“It was really the form of the book. It’s about how David forms his identity against an American background — whether it becomes whiteness or American classical architecture.”
One thing is clear — Simeon Marsalis is forming his identity as a writer, unafraid and persevering.
Simeon Marsalis, author of “As Lie Is to Grin”
With Kalamu ya Salaam
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2
Where: Community Book Center
2523 Bayou Road, New Orleans
With Zachary Lazar
When: 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3
Where: Octavia Books
513 Octavia St., New Orleans