- Published: 07 February 2019 07 February 2019
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