Tiffany Clarke-Harrison, BLUE HOUR

Tiffany Clarke-Harrison, BLUE HOUR

Zibby speaks to debut author Tiffany Clarke-Harrison about Blue Hour, a raw and transcendent novel about a Black Japanese woman struggling with infertility and questioning if she should even bring another Black child into the world, especially after her photography student is a victim of police brutality. Tiffany discusses the themes she explored so beautifully: grief, motherhood, marriage, resilience, art, race, and violence, admitting that it was, at times, a grueling experience. She also shares how writing made its way into her life, how a professor’s advice and an unexpected multiple sclerosis diagnosis encouraged her to finally get published, and how thrilled she is to share this moment with her children.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tiffany. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Blue Hour: A Novel.

Tiffany Clarke Harrison: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I was just telling you, because I couldn’t even hold it in any longer, how much I loved your book and how deeply emotional and powerful it was. Its slim size should not mislead the reader. It packs a huge punch. Really great, moving job. It’s just really a special read.

Tiffany: Thank you so much. I’m really proud of it. It was hard to write, for sure, but I’m really happy with how everything turned out.

Zibby: Why don’t we start with you telling the listener about what your book is about? I have to say, I did not go google you or anything like that, so if there’s background that links you to the book or that I should know, I apologize, but I did read the whole book. You can give us some context on your own life vis-à-vis the book, which I am totally curious about now.

Tiffany: First, I’ll start with what the book is about. Blue Hour is a fragmentary novel, so it’s told in these small vignettes. The narrator is a Black Japanese woman who is an accomplished photographer and a wife. She’s also dealing with infertility. She’s always had this ambivalence about motherhood and what that would look like or could look like for her. When another active police brutality happens and this time the victim is one of her photography students, Noah, she tells her husband, who is white Jewish, that “If this round of IVF that we’re about to go through doesn’t work, I don’t think I want to try anymore. I don’t want to bring a Black body into this. I don’t want to bring a Black child into this.” He desperately wants to have children. Clearly, this creates a strain on the marriage. She continues in her career. She’s embarking on this documentary on motherhood where she’s interviewing Black and brown mothers of police brutality and also secretly visiting Noah in the hospital as he fights for his life when she realizes that she’s impossibly pregnant. This, obviously, turns things on its head for them again. They have to decide what their future is going to look like together. That’s what the book is about.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. It’s also about just the resilience of getting through so much on every side. I feel like it’s a woman at the breaking point and how she deals with that. You’ve put her in this, it feels almost like this position of fear and desperation mixed, of not knowing how to get up and do the thing that needs to be done. Things just keep happening to her and people she loves and cares about and the world, all of it.

Tiffany: I loved writing her because she’s someone who’s so outspoken. She knows what she wants. At the same time, there’s still this little girl inside of her that is so terrified of, am I going to screw it up? I’m going to totally F this up. That’s not what I want to do. That’s not who I want to be. That’s part of her ambivalence around motherhood too. Another part is just this identity piece. What does that mean for me to be married? There’s a part in the book where she references a Carrie Weems painting where the woman has tape across her mouth. She’s in her wedding gown and veil and everything. She’s like, isn’t this what marriage is? Isn’t this what motherhood is, giving away all these pieces of myself to the point that, what would be left for me? Her finding her way through, “Oh, I can create this to look like whatever I want it to look like. My husband and I can make this be whatever we want it to be,” but then also still recognize there is this outside piece — there is still the world. She’s not just a mother. She would be a mother to a Black child. There is that added layer. She’s grappling with quite a bit. She strongly feels like, I just don’t want to mess this up. Everything is messed up enough already. I don’t want to mess this up. I think that’s something a lot of not just mothers, but women in general —

Zibby: — I was going to say, that is a very familiar feeling. Everybody — I don’t know. Maybe they don’t admit it. I feel like that’s a very common, deep-down feeling. It’s always about to fall. This has become my therapy session with you. Now I’m going to cry. No, I’m kidding.

Tiffany: In terms of background that you asked for, I started this book around 2015, somewhere around there. At the time, my children were very small. I have two kids. Dealing with, okay, who am I with these two kids? — my kids are two years apart. Also, having friends who were experiencing miscarriage and infertility and how they were feeling so much shame — even I’m carrying shame around, I don’t want to be with them twenty-four/seven. I love my children. Even the fact that mothers feel like they have to say that piece — don’t get me wrong. I love my children. It’s like, well, yeah. That you even feel like you have to say that before you say, but I am my own person — really, it’s not “but.” It’s, and I am my own person, and I have these other things I want to accomplishment, and, and, and. Part of it was just bringing those conversations to light because there was so much shame around talking about miscarriage. There was so much shame about not saying things that aren’t the loveliest about motherhood. That was part of it.

Then I put the book down for a good little bit, maybe a year or so. Then Michael Brown was killed. I remember being on Facebook and seeing comments from people — I couldn’t tell you specifically what they were — and reading through them, looking at it like, are you kidding me right now? He was a human. That’s a human being that you’re talking about. I remember shortly after, it was my son’s fifth birthday. I can distinctly remember — I can still see it in my head. He was blowing out the candles on his cake. I was looking at him. I said, one day, people are going to look at that little boy, and they’re going to be saying that stuff they were saying on Facebook about Michael Brown, this kid right here just blowing out the candles on his cake. That’s what they’re going to be saying. That’s when I knew this is a piece that’s missing. This is a piece I want to incorporate. Then the story just bloomed from there.

Zibby: Wow. You did it in such a beautiful way and such a moving way. I love even just the imagery of the photographs, how everything is coming to light, literally. It’s all just developing. You’re showing the reader — I don’t mean to be cheesy. I feel like the reader is getting the development of all of the story as the photos are — I used to be the photo editor of my yearbook. I took all these photography classes. I loved the darkroom. I loved the chemicals and the smell and hanging them up and the magic of watching an image come to be. That’s so what it felt like with them and also even the characters. It was all this magical developing, just like the images. I don’t usually say this much nice stuff, I have to tell you. I don’t know why. It just really hit home.

Tiffany: Thank you. I’ll take it.

Zibby: The miscarriage parts were very emotionally and physically grueling in the book to go through. You feel like you’re actually going through this. The scene on the floor with the bar and when she’s kicking, oh, my gosh. Writing those scenes could not have been easy. I don’t know whether or not it was your own experience or your friends or whatever. Having to go through that sort of trauma of being in that person’s body and writing about it, tell me about that and how you decided to write it. Tell me about those scenes in particular.

Tiffany: I take a deep breath because, yes, they were very hard to write. Allowing myself to truly understand — I’m even rocking in my seat now as I think about it. To be this main character — she’s nameless in the book. To be this main character who is so hard and so soft at the same time and what that must look like — when I write, I do a lot of embodiment. I might be sitting in this chair, in my bed, or wherever else, and I think of what the scene looks like. I know how I might respond, but I’m not the character. I need to filter my response through my character’s lens. Because she is more of this harder person, someone who is so hard on herself and afraid of this being, this human that she and her husband have created, for her to — I don’t want to spoil too much of it — for her to behave so lovingly towards it, that felt like something Tiffany might do. For her, who, again, feels like she messes everything up anyway and this is yet another mistake I have made — look at this other thing that I did wrong. I want it as far away from me as possible. I remember that just came to me, that she ends kicking this piece that came from her. Even I was like, oh, my gosh.

I work with authors writing their books too. I led a workshop last year. I shared about that piece. On Zoom seeing their faces, they were just like, oh, my gosh. It shocked me too. I didn’t expect that to happen. She is this person who is like, I need to get away from my mistakes. I need to get away from all of the shame. Get this as far away from me as possible, while at the same time, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you so much. I’m so sorry. Writing that, I remember, I think I was actually sitting in this same spot at my dining room table. I was just thinking of her in the bathroom and how she would be crouching down. As I’m talking now, I’m doing the same movements. I’m like, okay, she would hold onto the pipe because this piece is passing through her. What happens next? The thing I saw was she kicks. It was so uncomfortable. That’s why I knew it needed to be there, because it was so uncomfortable. It was so very her. Those were definitely challenging and the kind of thing where afterwards, you write, and you’re like, okay, I need to take some space. I need to go walk in some grass barefoot or get some sun on my face or watch an episode of nineties Will & Grace just as a palate cleanse. I need to come down from this.

Zibby: How did you get your start writing? Where are you from? Give me some context of your life.

Tiffany: I am a military brat originally. My dad was in the navy. I was born in California and lived lots of places. I started writing in middle school. I would dabble a little bit. I remember the first story I typed out. It was . I was twelve. The first story I typed out, it was in the nineties, so I even printed it. I don’t know if you remember the reams of paper with the perforated sides in the printer.

Zibby: Yes, yes. Aren’t they called dot matrix, or was that something else? Wasn’t it dot matrix with those things? No? Anyway, whatever.

Tiffany: , but I just remember I was that old. I printed it out. The name of the story was “Camp Juicy Fart.” I don’t know why. I have no idea why that is. That was in middle school. I remember I wrote a poem. I thought it was good enough. I remember reading it to my parents. Whether they were being honest or not, they were like, “Wow, that was really wonderful.” From there, I would just dabble a bit. It wasn’t until undergrad in college where I started playing with a novel form. It was birthed out of just journaling. I remember thinking, oh, this could actually be a story. I was an English major, creative writing concentration. Then wrote that novel. Didn’t do anything with it. Then like I said, I started Blue Hour about 2015. Then I was working in marketing. In 2017, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I remember one of my first coherent days in the hospital, I said to my husband, and one my first thoughts was, “I have not published a book yet.”

Sometimes people hear that, and they’re like, what? How could that possibly be one of your first thoughts? That’s all I’d ever wanted. I had a professor at undergrad my senior year — when I was graduating or last class, he’s passing back our portfolios. He handed mine to me. He said, “You got a B because you don’t talk enough, but you will publish a book one day.” That had never ever left me. About a year after my diagnosis, I quit my job. I applied to grad school for an MFA program. I’d already written about two drafts of Blue Hour. It was go time. It just really was go time. That was my focus for about two years. What that professor said never left. Actually, when the book was acquired, I found his email. He’s no longer teaching, but I found his email. I said, “Hi. You probably don’t remember me. I graduated in 2001. You said I would publish a book one day, and I just wanted to tell you that my book was acquired.” He did not remember me, but he was like, “I’m so glad I got something right.” He was really excited for me.

Zibby: I love that story so much. I have goosebumps everywhere. Oh, my gosh. Honestly, I feel like that is one thing that so many writers who actually cross the finish line say. Somebody saw something in them and said, wow, you really have talent here. You’re going to do something with this. I can’t wait to see where you end up. Just something, some little thing. Think about what a throwaway line that is for someone to say. It’s so easy to say if you mean it. The power, that that could be something in that hour of your life, that that became top of mind, you just don’t give up, it’s amazing.

Tiffany: It would come around every two or three years. Hearing those words would come around. It’s like, you haven’t done it yet. It wasn’t in a shaming way. Even when I woke up in the hospital, it wasn’t in a shaming way at all. It was in a, it’s go time. We’re not messing around with our life anymore. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t think it was practical. Oh, I write. I’m a novelist. Actually, I got a master’s in business when I was thirty. My daughter was seven months old. I went for a master’s in business because it was practical and graduated and was like, I don’t want to do anything with this. I was thirty-nine when I got into the MFA program. Truly, I went in there, I knew what my vision for Blue Hour was. It was like, we’re going. This is going to happen. I had already had an agent interested. Like I said, it was just go time.

Zibby: I’m so excited for you. I’m just so excited for you. That’s so great. It’s not out yet, right?

Tiffany: No, April 4th.

Zibby: April, oh, my gosh. How do you feel with this around the corner now, then? Are you worried?

Tiffany: No. It’s a little bit surreal, or a lot bit surreal, actually. No, I’m not worried at all. Again, it’s a little bit surreal but also feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is what I was meant to do. I tell a story. One of the first workshops I had in my MFA program, it was my first workshop in fifteen, twenty years. It was nerve-racking, all the things that workshop is when you’re getting critiqued. I remember speaking to the professor afterwards. He said glowing things. I was walking to the parking garage, and I started crying, was by myself, and I just started crying. I said out loud, “I’m where I’m supposed to be.” It was the first time I had felt that way in very, very long time. Going back to what we were speaking about earlier with — you get married. If you decide to do these things, you get married. You have children. There’s this piece of you or pieces of you that fade to the background. Yes, everything happens in seasons, but sometimes those pieces of you, you don’t seem to get them back. You forget them. That’s something, too, that the main character of Blue Hour, she was so afraid of. I don’t want to lose myself in being a wife and in being a mother. I still want to be this person and — it’s not an either/or. It’s an and.

Having this come up now — my children are older too. My children are fifteen and thirteen. When the book was acquired, my husband had told my son when he picked him up from school. My son came home. He was like, “So does this mean you’re famous?” I said, “No. I could be maybe someday, but right now, no. When you go to a bookstore, you’ll see my book.” He goes, “So you’re famous.” I said, “Sure.” So I’m famous. My daughter is an avid, avid reader. When I got the advance copy of the book, she’s looking through it. She’s like, “Can I read this?” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe. It might be a little much for you at fifteen.” Just seeing them and having them be old enough to fully understand — not fully understand, but understand as much as they can, look what Mom did, and also showing them there is another way — success can look so many ways. Success isn’t just a nine-to-five. It doesn’t have to look this one particular way. Even in the work I do with authors, I designed that. I put that together myself. It’s not something I go somewhere else and do. Having my kids being able to witness that, it’s wonderful.

Zibby: That’s amazing. My memoir came out last July. My kids were saying the same thing. They’re like, “Here it is. Are people going to recognize –” I was like, “No one’s going to recognize me.” It’s only in two bookstores, but it’s fine. I know, kids are so funny. I also have a fifteen-year-old. I have fifteen-year-old twins and then little guys. That’s really exciting. Are you still writing? Are you working on something new?

Tiffany: I am. It is in the very, very, very early stages. I’m playing with psychopathy. That’s been really fun to go into the even darker places that maybe aren’t as sad as Blue Hour might take people. Just to go into, really, the recesses of a darker mind has been fun, actually. It was interesting. This character, the psychopathy didn’t come until I started watching Killing Eve. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched.

Zibby: I haven’t, but I know of it.

Tiffany: It was a few episodes in. I wasn’t even really working on it yet. It was just kind of in my head. It clicked that my character could rank pretty high in the psychopathy scale. She’s not an assassin or a murderer like in the show. It just was really exciting and an alluring, fun thing to play with, psychopathy and sexuality and some other things. Like I said, it’s very, very early.

Zibby: What you were saying earlier about how your career doesn’t have to look a certain way, we were talking at the table, and one of my kids was like, “Maybe I’ll be an author.” I was like, “That’s great, but you know, that’s not all you can be. That’s something you could just do on — authors have lots of other jobs too. You could be a teacher. Go teach Japanese.” When we were young, I feel like the narrative was so much, what are you going to be? I’m forty-six. I’m a little bit older than you. It was always like, I’m going to do this. Now we’ve all done a million things. I’m still trying to decide what my answer is to that. I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer still. I do a lot of things. We all do a lot of things.

Tiffany: It could change, and that’s okay. That’s why I tend to write, too, more creative characters. Like I said, the narrator, she’s a photographer. She’s embarking on this documentary. Her husband, Asher, he owns a men’s boutique.

Zibby: That was awesome.

Tiffany: He designs ties. He used to be a line cook. This was before The Bear. That’s when I love writing those types of more creative people. One, showing that, yes, people can be successful at these things. Let’s please start to do away with this idea of, all artists are starving. They don’t have . Two, they dabble in these different mediums. It’s okay to see, oh, I like this over here. I like this over here. Now I’ve created this career where I have elements of these different things that I like pulled into one. I can do that. I’m allowed to do that. I don’t have to follow this particular narrative. That’s one thing that I love about both the main character and her husband in Blue Hour.

Zibby: You did a really nice job, too, from his point of view. I know it was from the unnamed narrator. People don’t often talk about the emotional effect of miscarriage on the man in the relationship. You really develop that with him being like, this is affecting me too. This didn’t just happen to you. Let’s do this together. It was lovely chatting. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’ll be rooting for you when your book comes out. It’s exciting.

Tiffany: Thank you so much. It was nice meeting you.

Zibby: Take care.

Tiffany: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

BLUE HOUR by Tiffany Clarke-Harrison

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