Q&A with Leonard Pitts, Jr., author of GRANT PARK

October 14, 2015

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a nationally syndicated and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, as well as an accomplished and critically acclaimed novelist. Following the breakout success of his previous novel, Freeman, Mr. Pitts returns with a taut, thrilling page-turner in Grant Park.

His newest book takes on the past 45 years of US race relations through the stories of two veteran journalists, a superstar black columnist and his unsung white editor. The novel moves between two eras: Martin Luther King Jr.’s final days in Memphis during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, and Barack Obama’s 2008 election-night rally in Chicago’s Grant Park.

To celebrate the book’s publication, we are sharing a Q&A with Mr. Pitts.

What was the genesis of Grant Park? Where did the idea first come from?

My books usually start with themes, and then characters and plotlines flow out of them.  So this particular book began with a frustration not unlike what motivates Malcolm when he reads the racist email from Joe MacPherson. I was less interested, though, in exploring the racial aspect of communiqués like that than the sheer illogic and incoherence of them. In my experience, as in Malcolm’s, that sort of facts-optional absurdity has become pretty ubiquitous in discussions of race—and other contentious social issues—in the last half-century or so, whether on cable news, online, or in the local paper. If you’re emotionally invested in resolving such issues, it’s a deeply frustrating thing.

So I decided to write about one man’s response to that frustration and, through him, to talk about how our approach to the things that divide us has changed in the last 40 years. That was the nugget of it. From there, of course, the book sprawled to include themes of fathers and sons, the splintering of the civil rights coalition, and the loss and reclamation of hope.

Your book explores themes that have everything to do with the civil unrest that has affected Baltimore, Ferguson, and other parts of the country. Does a fiction writer have any advantages over a journalist when it comes to shedding light on these issues?

Oh, yes. Reality is seldom neat, for as much as pundits like myself like to try to impose social and ideological order upon it.

In dealing with serious real-life issues in a fictional venue, however, you can order the world according to your own specifications to show whatever it is you’re trying to show and to say whatever it is you’re trying to say. The world is what you say it is, subject, obviously, to the constraints of internal logic. But within those constraints, you can manipulate the “facts” in hopes of finding the truth.

As a journalist, was it challenging to fictionalize well-known political figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Barack Obama?

Writing Obama was not challenging at all. In the first place, he doesn’t have a whole lot to say in the book and second, he is in our ears almost every day, so I’m very familiar with his speech patterns. For instance, the whole “Hi, everybody,” with which he enters the room in the book is pretty well known to us after six-years-and-change of his presidency. My biggest challenge in writing him was to get the behavior of the Secret Service correct.

King was just the opposite. The only scene of him not taken directly from the historical record, of course, was the long dialogue with Malcolm out back of the hotel. I rewrote that scene several times. I think I was intimidated by the idea of putting words into the mouth of a man who is so revered and well remembered. I wanted to present an off-duty King, shorn of the marble in which he has so long been entombed, but on my first pass at that scene, I had him speaking essentially in bursts of rhetoric, all of which could be sourced to his speeches and books.

Problem is, even great speakers, when they are off duty, do not speak in rhetoric.  They speak like people. So I really had to struggle with giving myself permission to write him just as a man. Much of what he said and does (the drinking and smoking) are still traceable to the historical record, but I also consciously pushed myself to go beyond that and speculate about what he would have said in this particular circumstance.

It was really kind of a scary, but exciting, thing.

Your rendering of King plays a very active role in the story. How do you think your King compares to other popular depictions, such as the King depicted in Selma?

Well, as already noted, I wanted to present him in a less formal and structured way than we are used to seeing, and I think that’s what the depiction in Selma was about. At the end of the day, I think my novel and that movie are both doing the same thing—trying to free him from the amber of our reverence.

It’s interesting. Over the years, we’ve seen warts-and-all cinematic portrayals of other revered figures—John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson—but only now are we beginning to see that of Dr. King. He was a great and noble man. He was also a drinker, smoker, and philanderer who suffered from depression in his last days. Only now are we getting around to presenting this truer, fuller portrait of who and what he was.

This novel unfolds primarily through two distinct points of view: that of celebrated black journalist Malcolm Toussaint and that of his white editor Bob Carson. Which character’s story was more difficult to tell?

Neither character was particularly difficult, though I did have to take a few passes at the chapters of young Malcolm to get the tone right. For some reason, the scenes of him in Memphis as a teenager interacting with his father were difficult to get a handle on.

Otherwise, the characters were pretty easy. I particularly enjoyed playing with each man’s late-life disillusionment and how each reflected the other.

What are you working on next?

It’s called The Thing You Last Surrender. It’s about George Simon, a Marine during World War II. He experiences a kind of racial coming-of-age when his life is saved by a black Navy messman at Pearl Harbor. He forges an unlikely friendship with Thelma, the sister of the man who saved him.

As the war grinds on, George finds himself in a very real sense struggling to hold onto his humanity while fighting under brutal conditions in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Thelma is in their shared hometown of Mobile, Alabama, facing a very different racial coming-of-age of her own.

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