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

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

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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Q&A with Jeannie Morris, author of Behind the Smile

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Q&A with Jeannie Morris, author of Behind the Smile

Jeannie Morris, an Emmy-winning journalist and the first woman to win the Ring Lardner Award, has written one of the most in-depth and revealing accounts of the US Senate campaign by Carol Moseley Braun.

At the time of her election, in 1992's "Year of the Woman," Braun was only the second African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, and to this day is still the only African-American woman ever elected to the nation's most exclusive legislative body. Braun has been credited by fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama as a pioneer and important predecessor in his own victorious campaigns for the Senate and presidency.

In honor of this important book's publication last week, we are sharing a Q&A with the author.

The Carol Moseley Braun senatorial campaign ended more than 20 years ago. What was behind your decision to bring this story to light now?

I’ve been harboring a vast amount of material: countless interviews—including with Moseley Braun herself—press reports, my own extensive notes and journals, and the first draft of a manuscript that I chose not to publish after the election. But someone someday was going to write about this complicated, fascinating, and talented woman, and I thought this real-time material should be a part of the historical record.

Since our original intent was to do this book together, I met with Carol in 2011 and asked her if she wanted to revisit her campaign story—update it, get it on the record with the perspective that time allows. Carol flatly refused, saying that those years were the most difficult of her life and she had no interest in reliving them.

But a Google search of this historic figure turns up a paucity of results. I read a series of interviews the US Senate historian did after Carol lost her bid for re-election, and it did not begin to reveal the whole woman and extraordinary politician Carol Moseley Braun truly was. So I decided to re-write Carol’s story as my personal memoir of that 1992 campaign.

I have a second motive, as well.

I want readers to relive the days in October 1991 that led to Carol’s eventual election, that is, the hearings in which Professor Anita Hill testified before an all white, all male Senate panel, explaining to them how Clarence Thomas, whom they were poised to confirm as a Supreme Court Justice had sexually harassed her years before when she had been his assistant. The Senators were not hearing Professor Hill but female America was, and the contempt shown by that panel kicked off what was to become 1992’s Year of the Woman.

The Carol Moseley Braun story is published as our first African American president finishes his second term and our first viable woman candidate seeks to follow him in the oval office. And all of the issues—notably around race and gender—that stirred the electorate in 1992 are still with us today. Hopefully, Carol’s story will contribute some understanding of the deeply ingrained prejudices that still bind our increasingly diverse country. My admittedly cynical guess is that the covert—even overt—sexism Hillary Clinton will face will trump the more subtle racism Barack Obama has had to struggle with.

 

What were your expectations when you first decided to join the Moseley Braun campaign to record it for a book?

I thought Carol would do what she said she would do: that is, let me ride along with the campaign, be accessible, sit for interviews when she had time, etc.

In fact, by the time I joined up at the beginning of the general election campaign our relationship was influenced—as were virtually all of her relationships—by her romantic involvement with her young South African campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews. Interestingly, until the very end when he himself was accused of sexual harassment, Matthews was on board with the ultimate aim of getting a book out of the campaign experience. I’m not sure he understood that I was interested in the truth.

 

What did you find most challenging about writing the narrative of Moseley Braun’s campaign?

Exhaustion? I’m not sure there is anything like an American political campaign for a many-months-long event in which—if you are an intimate part of it– requires 24/7 attention and boundless energy.

Due to their daily action-reaction-action cycles, all campaigns are by nature chaotic and for me the easy part of Carol’s campaign was the journalism part, that is writing about the politically earth-shaking reaction of women to the Thomas-Hill hearings and the subsequent “movement politics” that led to Carol’s victory in the Illinois primary. Once invited to join the general election campaign, and despite Carol’s always welcoming attitude, I was, like everyone else, subject to the whims of her campaign manager—a man with few management skills. As the campaign progressed secrets accumulated. Frustration pervaded. But I persisted, as did a staff that believed in and was dedicated to electing Carol Moseley Braun.

 

How does your reporting in Behind the Smile relate to the campaign’s press coverage of the time?

In 1992 the press didn’t pay much attention to Carol during the primary because nobody thought she had a chance to beat Alan Dixon. When she won, the reporting was generally sound—dedicated to getting to know her and her positions on the issues. As defections from the campaign were reported but rarely explained, press coverage became more probing, and while I did no real-time reporting, it was my mission to discover the reasons behind the tensions that were significant markers in the true story of Carol Moseley Braun. For me, the words in the press were secondary, seeking the secrets behind them was primary.

 

Carol Moseley Braun’s political career was essentially ruined by her choice of romantic partner. Today, people still discuss what Hillary Clinton’s decision to stay with her husband “says” about her. Why do female politicians face so much more scrutiny than their male counterparts?

Hillary Clinton and her husband have a powerful, mutually beneficial partnership—not to mention huge shared interests and ambitions. There was no way Hillary was going to give into the patriarchy and let herself be called a “scorned woman.” She controlled what had to be great emotional distress in the interest of a stable family and her personal vision for a future. Hillary has defied stereotype all her life. And she has paid—and will continue to pay—a high price for that defiance.

Recently I watched a Charlie Rose interview with the movie producer Brian Grazer. At one point Grazer said, “I don’t understand women, Charlie. Never could understand women.” A movie producer who boasts about not understanding women? Why? Because he doesn’t have to. He’s the one with the power. He can hire someone to understand women. But women have to understand men in order to make their way in the world, just as blacks have needed to understand whites to negotiate their way to success. It’s all about power.

And the power belongs to white men, historically and today.

Interestingly, however, in the past two or even three decades, as the cracks in the glass ceiling have widened, the guys in charge have discovered that women make creative and productive workers and especially, good managers. Why? Because they’ve have had to juggle so many roles and hone so many skills—diplomatic skills in particular—to make it in a man’s world.

As she worked her way up to the United States Senate, Carol Moseley Braun had to be a super negotiator, and she was. But Carol always felt—when she was discriminated against or dismissed—it was much more because she was a woman than as an African American. Still, Carol always had two ceilings to battle her way through.

But unlike Hillary, Carol became a victim of her own deep-seated, psycho-sexual needs and fell in love with the wrong man at the wrong time and that man’s manipulations eventually cost her a career. Meanwhile Bill Clinton, who defiled both his family and the office of the presidency, is one of the most popular figures in America.

What does that tell you?

 

How do you see the effects of Moseley Braun’s senate career reflected in today’s political atmosphere?

Illinois is frequently called “the paradigm state,” primarily because Illinois has voted for the man who would win almost every presidential election. But Illinois is also balanced between rural and urban interests and Republicans and Democrats. Historically, it was an important that it was Illinois that sent a black woman to the Senate. Carol Moseley Braun’s election was empowering to multitudes. Barack Obama credits Carol with showing him the way in Illinois. While women and people of color are still not proportionately represented in our governing bodies, twenty-plus years later an African American child can find visible role models from an attorney general to an astrophysicist. You don’t have to carry a tune or dunk a basketball to be rich and famous anymore.

Carol Moseley Braun’s historical bid for and successful service in the United States Senate should not be underestimated in that continuum as our democracy matures.

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