So St. Louis Homecoming: A Q&A with Mathea Morais
Though the cassette-making and CD-burning era of sharing music is long gone, the iconic records of past decades still remain. In Mathea Morais’ debut novel, “There You Are,” classic hip-hop, soul and jazz hits are used to illustrate the lives of two St. Louisans making sense of friendship, community, heartbreak and homecoming in the modern-day city. Since its release, “There You Are” has received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.
Like the book’s main characters, Morais grew up in St. Louis in the 80s and 90s and developed a voracious love of music from spending countless hours in one of The Loop’s most iconic and beloved longtime staples: Vintage Vinyl. Morais describes The Delmar Loop of her adolescence as “this place where, if you didn’t fit in with the other parts of St. Louis, The Loop was where everybody came to be somebody they didn’t have to be at home …. It wasn’t until I left it that I realized how special and unique [St. Louis] is.”
Currently an English teacher for fifth and sixth graders and the newly-named director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, Morais wrote “There You Are” as a nostalgic, meaningful ode to the city she still calls home. Guided: St. Louis spoke with Morais ahead of her Dec. 29 reading at Subterranean Books in The Delmar Loop.
Guided: The book begins in St. Louis during the period of unrest in 2014—but the unrest itself is not the main focus of the book. What went into your decision to frame the story with such a politically charged topic?
I had already been wanting to write about St. Louis, the record store and growing up in that community. And when [Michael Brown] was murdered and there were the protests—I just felt like there was a piece of the story that I needed to tell. I wanted to talk about the human beings in St. Louis.
And yet, I also wanted to talk about what it felt like to be removed from it—to be watching what was going on from far away. I couldn’t write about the protests because I wasn’t there, but I could contribute to the conversation in terms of talking about what it felt like to watch it from the outside, and then also talk about how historically this has been what it’s always been like [in St. Louis]. What was new about it was that people who didn’t know about it all of a sudden knew about it. People were protesting all over the world for what was going on in St. Louis. That blew my mind.
Guided: Let’s talk about your main characters, Octavian Munroe and Mina Rose. What was your process like bringing them to life in “There You Are”?
St. Louis is already so full of characters. Some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life are from St. Louis. There are certain things that are just so St. Louis and I couldn’t put every character or wacky person that I knew into the book, so I had to make these amalgamations. And as they amalgamated, they became their own people. [The story] is more about the people who live in St. Louis and what it was like trying to navigate an interracial relationship in the early 90s in St. Louis. What would they be dealing with? What would they be thinking about?
Guided: The 80s and 90s soundtrack-driven aspect of “There You Are” is a really interesting detail of the book. Can you tell me how that came about?
The music came from pretty much being a Vintage Vinyl groupie [laughs]—I can’t even lie. All the people around me were vinyl-heads. I was listening to DJ Quik and I was listening to New Order and Pink Floyd. It was about what was good and it was never about what type of music. Most of my understanding of music came from just being a fiend and never being able to get enough. So that’s how I built this ridiculous catalogue in my brain.
Guided: Vintage Vinyl is still that kind of communal anchor for The Delmar Loop. I’d love to hear more about your history with the space.
To me, [Vintage Vinyl] is like the definition of a safe space. You’re only going to get judged walking in there if you come in with negative energy. It’s where you could go and be yourself, and that’s a powerful thing. Part of why I wanted to write the book is, what would happen if that went away? When all of these record stores were closing, it would seize me with panic to think, what if Vintage Vinyl didn’t make it? What if it closes down? It became so incredibly important to write about it.
Guided: St. Louis obviously has its own iconic blues and music history. Did you imagine a kind of St. Louis soundtrack for the city when coloring in the soundtrack for “There You Are”?
I tried to embody a lot of that in [the character] Bones. To me, he’s such a St. Louis character. He’s kind of like this white blues man who calls everybody ‘daddy’ and doesn’t ever come out of character. St. Louis is so musical that’s almost just taken for granted. If you live in St. Louis, you listen to good music. You don’t have to, but it’s right there. When I go home, I’m blissful when I turn on the radio. It’s just right there—it’s always right there.
Guided: And now switching gears a bit, you have a reading coming up at Subterranean Books, right? I’m sure you’re excited to bring “There You Are” to St. Louis in person.
I’m thrilled to do [the reading] at Subterranean because again, it’s one of those bookstores that, when I come home, it just anchors me. I just want to celebrate with people I know and people who love music, love The Loop and love Vintage Vinyl. I feel most like myself when I’m with people from St. Louis. And I hope they all know that this is my attempt at honoring them and honoring all of the complications and joy that come with being from [St. Louis]. It’s a complex and beautiful place.