JM: Hi Leonard,
The last time I interviewed you Grant Park had just been released and was receiving rave reviews. And speaking of that blog post, you gave me one of the most thought out and earnest answers to my "Time Travel" question that I have ever received from any author. For readers who haven't had that pleasure you can find it here.
Let's talk a bit about The Last Thing You Surrender, releasing in this month: This book is set during WWII and makes reference to a number of real places and events. Can you talk about what your research process looked like?
LP: If I had known how much research this book would require before I started it, I don't think I would have started it. The Second World War was such a traumatic experience for the generation that lived through it that I felt an overwhelming responsibility to get it right - and to not sugarcoat its horrors. I read, re-read or consulted dozens of books, pestered the Army and Navy about picayune historical details (would the deck of the USS Oklahoma have been made of steel?), downloaded a playlist of World War II era music, haunted a number of museums, including the World War II museum in New Orleans, talked to my doctor about the anatomical challenges of cutting off a human head, spent days at the Library of Congress poring over maps and reading old copies of the Mobile Register and drove down to Mobile, where I spent a few days poking around trying to get a sense of the city.
JM: George Simon, one of the main characters, was pulled from a ship that was severely damaged in the attack at Pearl Harbor. What ship was it?
LP: I purposely didn't name the ship, so as to spare myself grief from historians about any liberties I took, but it's based on the USS Oklahoma, which was struck that morning and capsized in about half an hour. The scene of the men trapped in steering aft is based on fact.
JM: What was the genesis of the book? Where did the idea first come from and why did you want to write about WWII?
LP: I've always been fascinated by that era - I consider it the hinge point of the 20th century. I watch the Ken Burns documentary, "The War" every few years, I found myself reading a lot of histories. At some point, I guess, I figured that if my fascination was that intense, there might be a story hiding in there.
JM: Can you tell us about your trip to Mobile during your research? What did you do there, and how did it influence what went into the book? Did you learn anything surprising about the city?
LP: Had it been feasible, I'd have also gone to Japan and Australia, maybe even Guadalcanal. Couldn't swing those, but Mobile is just down the highway. I went to get a sense of the layout of the city, so I did a lot of walking and driving around. While there, I discovered Bienville Square, which I'd never heard of, and which became a sort of minor character in the book. What I came to appreciate about the city - and George speaks to this once or twice - is that it has a self-image as a very genteel place, a bastion of Southern refinement. Of course, as history shows, beneath all that gentility and refinement, the same old hatreds simmered.
"I think of Surrender as a novel of race, faith and war."
JM: In your own words, how would you describe the books?
LP: I think of Surrender as a novel of race, faith and war. It follows two families - one black, one white - from the Jim Crow South through the turmoil of the Second World War and traces the fighting that went on in Europe, the Pacific, and right here at home.
JM: I get the feeling that there is, intended or not, a message from this novel about race and a country moving forward set in the 1940's, that has clear counsel and wisdom for today's world. Was that what you were thinking?
LP: Actually, to the degree I was thinking thematically at all, I was thinking more about faith. I was fascinated by George's struggle to hold onto his even as he saw and experienced more and more the absolute depravity of which human beings are capable.
Which isn't to say, of course, that race is not a big part of the book. As I was doing my research, it struck me that there is a tendency in this country to speak almost casually of a possible future race war. The actor James Woods, a fervent Trump supporter, tweeted an implicit threat to that effect just a few days ago. But It's my contention that the world has already had its race war - 1939 to 1945 - and that if we're smart, we'll never do it again. I know that World War II is seldom framed like that, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Hitler was motivated by hatred (of the Jews and the "Bolsheviks"), Japan rampaged in Asia because the Japanese considered themselves a master race, and the United States plunged into the war to stop them both, using a separate but equal military while at home, it was interning its own citizens by race (mostly Japanese, but also a small handful of Germans and Italians) even as riots erupted in Los Angeles against Mexican Americans and in Detroit, Mobile and elsewhere against African Americans. So an argument can be made that the war years boiled won to a global brawl over our conceptions and delusions of race and racial superiority.
JM: You know I'm a big fan of your books and columns, just out of curiosity, on average, how many emails and letters would you say you receive each week in response to your columns?
LP: Been awhile since I counted, but I'd say anywhere from 800 to 1000.
JM: Finally, I know there are so many things going on in the world, especially right now. Is there a current topic or news event that is really grabbing your interest?
LP: I think the big story of this era is the question of whether and in what form the nation will survive given our current political crises - meaning not just Trump, but the forces that created and sustain him.
About the book:
The Last Thing You Surrender by Leonard Pitts Jr. is an intensely engaging novel of World War II and of an America at war not only with enemies seeking to conquer and oppress, but with its own realities of racism and oppression. It utterly satisfies as page-turning fiction with resonant characters, deft plotting, evocative setting, and visceral depictions.
It is also much more. Pitts weaves The Last Thing You Surrender around three connected but very different people from the Jim Crow South. In so doing, he brings his keen insight to bear not only on American racial injustice but on the dehumanization around which warfare revolves.
Luther becomes a soldier in the all-black 761st Tank Battalion, finding new connection as he serves, though he has seethed against his country and its privileged since witnessing the lynching that orphaned him.
Luther’s sister, Thelma, is widowed by the attack on Pearl Harbor and contends with loss, trepidation, and the opportunities and perils presented by the local shipyard's need for workers. She also contends with the outreach of a white marine who survived the attack that killed her husband.
George is that surviving Marine whose guilt, fear, and burgeoning realizations as a fighter and prisoner profoundly alter him. Through these characters we are immersed in a world of deep conflict, change and moral questioning about who matters and why.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of the novels Grant Park, Freeman, and Before I Forget. -- Stephanie Jones-Byrne, Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville, NC
- Published: 07 February 2019 07 February 2019
When I was a boy growing up in the mountains north of Asheville, North Carolina, I lived in an old, quarry-stone farmhouse at a place called Sanders Court, because once upon a time it was a tourist court owned by Colonel Harlan Sanders (he of fried chicken fame).
My mother, Helen Roberts, was an eminently kind and devout woman, who believed in Billy Graham and the King James Bible. Every night when I went to sleep as a boy, she would sit by my bed, and I was required to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.
To truly picture this, you need to imagine that old stone farmhouse on the flank of a mountain ridge, with winter wind howling around the corners and under the eaves. Faraway, the warbling cry of a screech owl, which sounds for all the world like a muffled human scream. There I am, a small boy, curled up under the blankets, reciting for Mama from memory, my voice whispering within the wind.
Appreciate that my mother was a kind and gentle soul—smart and funny and hard-working—in her essence a giving and always sweet presence. If religion, in this case that old-time religion built on the solid rock of the gospel, came into your life through Helen Roberts’ mind and voice, then it was a religion that gave rather than took, forgave rather than judged.
"My problem was that I was word-cursed as a child."
On Sunday morning, however, Mama took my sister and I to a local Baptist Church where we were subject to sermons preached in the old style, full of fire and flame—sermons that imprinted the idea of Hell on the acute sensibility of a young boy much more intensely than the notion of Heaven. When you walked out the door of that Baptist church on Sunday at Noon, heaven might have been a distant, foggy notion but hell was real. It was pronounced in two syllables (“hay-ell”), and you or I were in danger of going there. At any moment…due to car wreck or sudden illness.
My problem was that I was word-cursed as a child. I actually listened when the preachers were thundering away. I actually lay awake and thought about what the words of 23rd Psalm might mean (“he leadeth me beside the still waters” … “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” …). I wrestled with words on a visceral level, and I still do.
And so these many years later I ask you…. Is there a god? Is he—or she—loving and forgiving? Or angry and vindictive?
Out of that deep question came the character of Jedidiah Robbins, a prohibition-era evangelist and bootlegger. That’s right … evangelist and bootlegger. An agnostic preacher and con man. A lost soul in search of his own salvation, wherever he might find it. Does he believe? And if so, in what?
The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival is his story, and I invite you to join him on his quest.
Terry Roberts’ direct ancestors have lived in the mountains of Western North Carolina since the time of the Revolutionary War. His family farmed in the Big Pine section of Madison County for generations and is also prominent in the Madison County town of Hot Springs, a consistent setting in his novels. Among his forebears are prominent bootleggers and preachers but no one who, like Jedidiah Robbins, from The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival, combines both occupations.
- Published: 11 November 2018 11 November 2018
Bren McClain Receives $10,000 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction for
ONE GOOD MAMA BONE
Author Ann Kidd Taylor given Special Recognition for The Shark Club
Distinguished panel honors life and writings of Pat Conroy
Willie Morris Award for Southern Poetry Announced
The Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction has named the recipient of its 2017 literary award: Bren McClain for her novel One Good Mama Bone (Story River Books). McClain was honored at a ceremony at the New York Yacht Club where she received the award’s $10,000 prize. Author Ann Kidd Taylor received Special Recognition at the ceremony for her novel The Shark Club, for its originality and insight.
Since its inception in 2008, the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, founded by novelist Reba White Williams and her husband Dave H. Williams, has recognized annually a writer whose work is set in the South, exemplifies the tenets of Southern literature—quality of prose, originality, and authenticity of setting and characters—and reflects, in the words of Willie Morris, “hope for belonging, for belief in a people’s better nature, for steadfastness against all that is hollow or crass or rootless or destructive.” Past recipients include Mindy Friddle, Stephen Wetta, Terry Roberts, Katherine Clark, and Kim Wright, 2016’s honoree for her novel Last Ride to Graceland.
2017 award winner Bren McClain is a native South Carolinian, who now resides in Nashville, TN. One Good Mama Bone is her debut novel and in addition to widespread acclaim was also a finalist for both the Southern Book Prize by the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance and the 2018 Crook’s Corner Book. She is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and the recipient of the 2005 Fiction Fellowship by the South Carolina Arts Commission. She is now at work on her next novel, Took, which received the gold medal for the 2016 William Faulkner –William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress.
- Published: 24 October 2018 24 October 2018
“Why do you always pick books that no one else ever reads?”
That’s what my sister’s husband asked me when I, still in high school, came home from the library with four books I’d carefully selected from my public library. I still remember the books: Reynolds Price’s A Long and Happy Life, Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal, Joanne Greenberg’s brand new I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and a fourth book I’ll mention later. I wasn’t bothered by my brother-in-law’s question. One of my favorite things to do was to rove through the fiction stacks at my public library to see what jumped out at me. Yes, I also read the books all my friends were reading, but when it came to fiction, I was always hungry for more than just the bestsellers.
Why did I pick those books? I’d never heard of Reynolds Price—and in retrospect, I’m surprised his first novel was in my New Jersey library—but he looked kind of sexy on the back cover and I liked that his protagonist was a teenaged girl. That was enough for me, and reading A Long and Happy Life turned me into a lifelong Price fan intrigued with southern fiction.
- Published: 24 October 2018 24 October 2018
Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is historical fiction that combines poetry, prose, and pictures for young readers. I sold the manuscript in 2015. But I never met illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, until this summer when we signed books in New Orleans. I found this Caldecott Honor recipient to be inspiring, with strong opinions about the South. He lives in Atlanta where he owns and operates Gas-Art Gifts. Sharing dinner in New Orleans, over a plate of fried duck wings, we played a game of "top five." ~ Alice Faye Duncan
Greg Christie: Which top five cities in the South do you like to visit?
Alice Faye Duncan:
- Bentonville (AR)
I love museums and the Crystal Bridges Museum allows me to see every major American artist under one roof.
- Asheville (NC)
The Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful and I will never forget how a visit to Malaprops Bookstore introduced me to notecards illustrated by Jonathan Green.
- Austin (TX)
The One World Theatre is where I first heard Diane Reeves in concert.
- Clarksdale (MS)
I love Hick’s Tamales! I could eat them every day.
- Memphis (TN)
It’s my hometown. I can view the Mississippi River, eat Cozy Corner BBQ, visit Burkes Book Store and feast on the best banana pudding from Makeda’s Cookie Company. A Memphis staycation is really my #1 choice.
AFD: Which top five writers inspire your creative process?
GC: My interests are human nature and history. When I encountered these books for the first time—I could not put them down.
- Chinua Achebe--THINGS FALL APART
- Phoebe Hoban--A QUICK KILLING IN ART
- Phillip Roth--THE HUMAN STAIN
- David Bayles & Ted Orlan--ART AND FEAR
- Tom Feelings--THE MIDDLE PASSAGE
AFD: Who are your top five booksellers in the South?
GC: My top five:
- Little Shop of Stories (Decatur, GA)
They make shopping a wondrous experience.
- Avid Bookshop (Athens, GA)
The clerks don’t stop until they find the right book for you.
- Parnassus Books (Nashville, TN)
They keep you up on what’s new from your favorite writers.
- The Book House (Mableton, GA)
There’s no congested traffic and their dedication to serve the community good books is the best.
- Octavia Books (New Orleans, LA)
I love NOLA and Octavia is a treasure within a treasure.
GC: Which Top 5 picture books should every adult own?
AFD: That’s easy!
- MEMPHIS, MARTIN AND THE MOUNTAINTOP
- CHARLIE PARKER PLAYED BEBOP
- DRAGONS LOVE TACOS (Book One)
- I WANT MY HAT BACK
- PLEASE, BABY, PLEASE
AFD: Here is my last question. You were born and raised in New Jersey. How has Georgia impacted your life?
GC: Let me count the ways. (1) The South is "not me." And yet, something greater than myself requires that I stay here to make a difference with my art. (2) Some of the most charming people live in Georgia. (3) I find the rural countryside beautiful. (4) Some days living in the South causes me to miss my travels abroad. And lastly (5) I live in my art. Therefore, I bring my world and perspective to the South through art.
AFD: I live and get lost in the creative process when I write. Let’s make the world a better place--one book at a time.
GC: We can do it.
About the Authors
Alice Faye Duncan is the author of multiple children's books, including Honey Baby Sugar Child, which received an NAACP Image Award Nomination for Outstanding Literary Work for Children.
R. Gregory Christie has illustrated more than fifty books for young adults and children. His work has won a Caldecott Honor, a New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year Award (two times), the Coretta Scott King Honor in Illustration (three times), the NAACP's Image Award, the Boston Globe-Horn BookAward, and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. He currently operates his store of autographed children's books, GAS-ART Gifts, in Decatur, Georgia. Visit gas-art.com.
- Published: 23 September 2018 23 September 2018