Monday, June 29, 2009

An Interview with Richard Doster

Your first novel, Safe at Home, dealt with the racial tension of the early 1950s in the setting of minor league baseball. This one follows that story chronologically, but is not set directly in the world of sports. What is it about this era in American history that keeps drawing you back?

This was a time when the country was fundamentally changed— when we saw righteousness confront evil—and righteousness won. It was a time when the courage of humble, anonymous, and powerless people overcame the self-interest of entrenched power. And it was the
era when our understanding of justice was challenged and redefined. In the Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln talked about a “new birth of freedom.” In many respects the civil rights era was, for people of every color, exactly that.

Both books feature “cameos” by historical figures. How did you go about researching their stories so you could present them in a believable light?

Well, I live in Martin Luther King’s hometown. I’ve been to his boyhood home several times, as well as to the civil rights museum that’s right down the road. I’ve roamed around Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father were copastors. I’ve been to Dexter Avenue Baptist and to the manse on South Jackson Street in Montgomery. These places are full of books, papers, documentary presentations, and important artifacts from the era. We have access to King’s speeches, sermons, and books. With a couple of clicks on YouTube, you can hear him speak, study his mannerisms, and be captivated by the rhythm of his oratory. So many of the people involved in this story left a thorough and very personal record. We have the columns and books written by Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore—their firsthand testimony through which we sense the tension of the times. This is one of the most thoroughly documented periods of American history, and I live within a few miles of the research library at Emory University where, it seems, every article ever written is at your fingertips.

What surprised you most as you did your research for Crossing the Lines?

I came away from the research and writing with enormous gratitude for the way Martin Luther King Jr. changed the hearts and minds of America’s white population. Here are a couple episodes that illustrate what I mean:
Early in the book, when Jack asks King about the purpose of the Montgomery bus boycott, King tells him that he hopes to awaken a sense of moral shame. He explains that the effort is ultimately about fellowship. The aftermath of it, he tells Jack, is redemption and reconciliation—a redeeming goodwill for all men.
Most people, I suspect, think of “the movement” as being about rights for black people. I was surprised to learn that it was—thoroughly and from the very beginning—about justice for everyone. King’s concern was for a society in which every human could flourish. This twenty-six-year-old pastor recognized, in a thoroughly biblical way, the need for cross-cultural fellowship. He recognized that whites were just as impoverished as blacks by a segregated society. King saw that white people—especially those in power—needed to be freed from the restraints of a segregated society.
There’s a point in the story where King tells Chris Hall that he’s not interested in ending segregation. The goal, he says, is integration—the creation of a “beloved community” of all God’s children. King was always mindful that no one could thrive until everyone had equal opportunity.
Toward the end of the book, in Nashville, we see jailed black protesters refuse to pay bail, even after it’s been lowered to a token five dollars. Diane Nash, one of the black leaders, explains to Jack that their goal wasn’t to get out of jail; it was to transform an inequitable
society. To pay bail, she pointed out, would be to participate in—and thereby perpetuate—an inherently evil system.
Here again, the objective was all-encompassing. It was never about winning rights for a few, but rather, creating a righteous society for all.
I was surprised by the nobility of the movement, and by the courage of the people who took part. Looking back, I see something very Christlike about the whole campaign. There was an intentional way in which these people suffered on behalf of those who persecuted them. They were beaten, arrested, and verbally abused for the sake of their enemies. To win freedom for everyone, they strove to enrich the lives of those who hated them.
It’s interesting; this movement so thoroughly transformed American society, and yet it never insisted on a single fundamental change. Rather, it called on the country to embrace the principles of freedom and equality that it had always proclaimed. It simply asked Americans to be fully American. It didn’t demand that the church change; rather, it called on the church to embody the truths of Christ-centered community that it already preached. In other words,
it asked the Christian church to become more Christian.
To the extent that we still view this in black-white terms, it’s clear that white people were the primary beneficiaries. While the movement changed conditions for black people, it changed the hearts and minds of white people. Which gives us more to celebrate, and more to be
grateful for.
Many writers talk about novel writing as something of a discovery process—claiming the characters often take on a life of their own as they write. Did this happen for any of your characters, or did you know from the start how they would grow and respond throughout the story?

I don’t think any of the characters took on a life of their own, but I will say that character development in this story was … different. Fictional characters, like real ones, are defined by what they love and want most. We build characters around a single driving force and the tensions it naturally causes. But in this story the characters find themselves in this awkward, embarrassing in-between time. They’re proud Southerners, they have a stake in the “Southern way of life,” but the foundation’s cracking beneath them. They know that change is coming, but no one’s sure how to navigate through it.
There’s an episode where Flannery O’Connor talks about the “grotesque characters” of Southern fiction. She explains that Southern writers live in this chimerical, Christ-haunted territory—this place where they’re forever confronted with the region’s failings. As a result,
O’Connor explains, they, unlike writers from other regions, see the distance between “what is” and “what ought to be.” These characters embody that distance; they illustrate our deficiencies—as well as our longings.
The grotesque character of this story is racial segregation. I hope, through what’s depicted here, readers see our still-lingering biases, as well as an always-emerging hope for the “beloved community.”

The novel doesn’t hide the ugly truths and the frequent missteps that marked the beginning of the civil rights movement, but it also presents a different picture of the South—a hopeful, culture-rich picture. What inspired you to capture both of these aspects of the South in the 1950s?

I needed to capture both because there’s a direct connection between them. And in the connection, there’s a vivid picture of our humanness: we’re brilliant, creative, and high-minded one moment—evil, oppressive, and hypocritical the next.
It’s hard to believe that in the same era (generally speaking) when Faulkner was crafting works of genius, Martin Luther King Jr. was pleading for racial reconciliation. During the days when Sam Phillips was inventing rock and roll, when he was introducing the blues to a whole new audience, producing the music of B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett, Ike Turner, Jackie Brenston, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley—black students were being jailed for ordering coffee at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. As Flannery O’Connor penned enduring works of fiction, Georgia governor Marvin Griffin was vowing to stop the 1956 Sugar Bowl, to prevent Georgia Tech from playing a Pittsburgh team that fielded one “Negro” player.
This was an era when Southerners were, at the same time, creating the very best of the world’s culture—and the worst. And the fact is, we’d have never had the one without the other. We now realize that:
• It is because of our once segregated society that we now
know the thoughts and theology of Martin Luther King Jr.
• It was a long history of racial oppression that gave birth to
the blues.
• Without a history of racial strife, we would never be enriched
by the “Christ-haunted” and guilt-inspired fiction of so
many great Southern writers.
The worst of Southern culture spawned the best. This is the paradox that sends Jack Hall down a career path he never envisioned.

What do you hope readers walk away with after reading Crossing the Lines?

I always want people to walk away with an enjoyable reading experience. I want them to be delighted with the language—with its power to draw us into a story and stir our emotions.
Beyond that, I hope readers come away admiring the courage of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Dian Nash, and hundreds of others who were responsible for the civil rights movement. And I hope they come away inspired—eager to create in their own neighborhoods and cities, with whatever tools are at hand—something that comes close to the biblical ideal of the “beloved community.”

Will you be revisiting the Hall family in any future novels? What writing plans and dreams do you have now that Crossing the Lines is on the bookshelves?

I don’t have any plans to revisit the Halls, but … you never say never. Right now I’m working on a story about a young woman—a singer from rural Georgia—who’s forced to contemplate the purpose of her extraordinary talent; to figure out why it’s been given to her, how it’s to be used, and the implications of fame and celebrity. We’ll see where it goes.

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