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Toni’s Smile

Jeff Stilwell’s novel about power and the first Blatina President. Coming soon!

(Click here to read an excerpt.)

Jeff Stilwell's novel Toni's Smile

A quirk of fate makes Toni the first Blatina President of the United States.  Now that she has the power to serve the people, will she allow herself to actually use it?

A grumpy nation, crises looming both foreign and domestic, and a vice president only too eager to seize the reins for himself all beg the question…

Will she seize the chance?

(Click here to read an excerpt.)

Interview with author Jeff Stilwell

Why a Blatina?

That’s the way Toni showed up. I’ve known several Blatinas in my life.

Customers at our gallery, for example. I’ve long grown accustomed to how so many Blatinas feel marginalized by daily life – not really part of the Black community, not really part of the Latino community. And, how so many express themselves through beauty – since power is out of the question. Black women and Latinas, too. Through their hair, through fabric, through jewelry. We sell a lot of scarves, a lot of skirts, a lot of bling.

And, of course, I’m one of those people who likes to ask others about their lives, particularly when it’s a slow day at the shop and it’s just the two of us.

Is Toni based on someone in particular?

No. She just showed up one day in my head. Which I know makes me sound a bit schizophrenic, but that’s really how it works. She just showed up and said, “Let’s make a novel.” And I asked, “Okay, what’s that going to look like?” And she replied, “I want to be President.” And it went from there.

In crafting her background, for example, I flashed on a Black family that I had known in childhood. I had a crush on the girls. They lived in this dump, a few blocks away, with several piles of dogshit on the floor that they didn’t bother to clean up, or piles of dirty clothes in the corners that they didn’t think to put in the washing machine. While their mother just sat, smoking dope all day and watching tv. But I liked the girls, That was all the world they had ever known. Besides, it wasn’t like I was living in the Taj Mahal myself. So, you just shrug. What else can you do? Like Toni shrugs when her mom walks into a SunTran bus. When shit happened to me, I’d just shrug and go to Mrs. A down the street. When shit happens to Toni, she goes to Mama.

You have a lot to say about power in this novel.

Power is a human phenomenon that has fascinated me for most of my life. Not least because – being a straight White male with the appearance of a CEO – one would expect me to wield it. Yet, the artist in me has ruled the day from my junior high years forward, making it impossible for me to color within the lines. I might have the look, but because I congenitally refuse to kiss the ring, I am denied access to the smoke-filled room.

Of course, no access means no power.

Then, too, there is a clannish aspect to power wielding that fascinates me. From the Philosopher King selection process of which Plato dreamed, down to the modern-day racially based struggle over who gets how much time with the microphone, with the gavel. Much of today’s political upheaval around the world is based in that racial struggle. In America, it’s Whites in, Coloreds out. In China, it’s the Hans in, everybody else out. That process is repeated in different hues of skin, around the globe. Add the question of whether one’s gender determines fitness to wield power and the whole argument gets even more heated.

In her frustration, along her journey of this story, Toni meditates on that problem a lot, trying to find answers that work for her.

Is your characterization of the US presidency just a little too ideal?

I hope not.

There is this monumentalization of our Presidents, yes. But the more thoughtful renditions include images of George Washington genuinely distressed when his two sons – Hamilton and Jefferson – go to political war on each other. Or Lincoln wrapped in a blanket wandering the White House at night, like a ghost, tormented by the number of boys who just died at, say, Fredericksburg.

I have this pressure-cooker theory of the US presidency. No matter how wacky or wild the candidate, how populist or elitist, the pressures of the job mold the person over time. No matter how different the Presidents-elect look entering the White House, they look awfully similar upon leaving it.

We all watched Barack Obama go from black- to gray- to white-haired in his years. W, too, aged tremendously. Now, Trump may prove the historical outlier that disproves my theory. We’ll have to see.

Regardless, Toni, too, is shaped by the extreme pressures of the job. And the depth of her character, her extraordinary fire, her profound strength are found in the midst of that crucible.