Released in January 2023, Jeffrey Lofton’s fiction debut, “Red Clay Suzie,” offers readers a charming and heartfelt story of living on the fringes and self-acceptance in Georgia in the middle and late 20th century. Spanning three decades, “Red Clay Suzie” tells the story of Philbet, a gay boy with a physical deformity living with a conservative family in Georgia, and how his life and self-perception change as he grows up through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Philbet spends his younger years hiding his identity and his misshapen chest, finding happiness when he helps his grandfather in the vegetable garden. But after certain events take Philbet’s innocence and test his resilience, he begins to find acceptance in unlikely places.
Author Jeffrey Lofton says the book is semiautobiographical, and he unknowingly began the book in college as he began putting his experiences and memories onto paper.
“I started writing as a natural impulse,” Lofton told Georgia Voice. “it wasn’t something that was conscious, it just naturally felt right to get it out of me. I didn’t know at first that I was writing a novel.”
Lofton said parts of the book are taken from his childhood and parts are fictionalized, yet the whole novel is reminiscent of his experiences growing up in Georgia. Even the title, “Red Clay Suzie,” is in part an homage to the iconic red clay found in Georgia.
Lofton said after starting what would become “Red Clay Suzie,” he took a break from writing for a few years while he focused on school and his career. It wasn’t until he read two particular books, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Call Me By Your Name,” that he felt inspired to get back to his project. Lofton said the character of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and his overall love of “Call Me By Your Name” convinced him it was time to tell his story, so he started revisiting his old journals and got back to writing.
“At first it was for me, it was for me to heal,” Lofton said, adding that at first the experience was cathartic, but about halfway through writing his first draft, he realized he wanted to finish the novel for his “fellow fringies” — a name Lofton uses to describe people who are living on the outside or are excluded because of how they look or who they are.
Lofton said much of his writing occurred on his commute to work every day at the Library of Congress. He even finished the final sentences of the story while sitting on the train, typing on his cell phone. Lofton said finding his routine helped him work on his book regularly, whether he was feeling motivated or not.
Lofton’s first novel was ultimately a successful project, receiving glowing reviews and a few awards, including the Seven Hills Literary Prize for Fiction and the YABC Buzzworthy Book Award. It was also a finalist for the Foreword INDIES LGBTQ+ Fiction Book of the Year and the Somerset Literary & Contemporary Fiction Award.
Still, Lofton found that his author journey did not come without its challenges.
“I’ve always been a writer, but I’ve just never told anybody,” Lofton said. He found that one of the greatest challenges was opening up and sharing his writing with people, be it his editors, his family, or his readers. “But the biggest challenge was being brave, because I think that to be creative is to be courageous.”
Lofton says that he hopes to continue writing and working on future projects and has even considered continuing Philbet’s story in future installments of what could become a series. Ultimately, Lofton wants to continue telling stories that make an impact and help show young people on the outskirts of society that happiness can be found, even if life is difficult for them at that moment. He also hopes that his writing inspires young readers to become active in their communities and politically, especially during a time when so much anti-LGBTQ legislation is being introduced across the country.
“I want this to stand for something, I want it to say something.”