Lewis Shiner is the author of six novels, as well as a wide range of short stories (collected in several volumes), nonfiction pieces, and even comics. His first book, 1984’s Frontera, established him initially as a science fiction writer (and associated him particularly with the rise of cyberpunk), but in the quarter-century since then, he’s resisted being confined by genre. Two of his best-known novels — Glimpses (1993) and Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story (1999) — delved into the world of rock and roll musicians and achieved high acclaim both from critics and from fellow writers. (George Pelecanos, for example, called the latter book “the Citizen Kane of rock and roll novels, a human and moving piece of work.”) And Shiner’s latest novel, last year’s Black & White, serves at once as literary mystery, historical fiction, social realism, and more.
Black & White begins in 2004 with Michael Cooper awaiting the death of his father, Robert, in a V.A. Hospital in Durham, North Carolina (Shiner himself has lived in the area since 1996). The older man has lung cancer, and Michael finds himself puzzled by his father’s desire to return to Durham in his last days and then curious about the years his parents spent there in the 1960s — and then troubled about his own past too, particularly by contradictory accounts of his birth. Soon investigations into his personal history lead to the discover of a long-buried secret: the body of a labor and civil rights activist who’d disappeared mysteriously decades before. Michael’s story segues into Robert’s story: the tale of a white man whose work introduced him into Durham’s black communities and whose various interests led him deeper into that world and then into the more dangerous world of voodoo. And an entire family’s history broadens into the tragic history of a place: Hayti, a prosperous black community in Durham that was bulldozed (literally) in the late 1960s to make way for the Durham Freeway and the development of the Research Triangle Park. As the old saying goes, the past isn’t really past, and the events of that time soon come to impact the present.
The L.A. Times named Black & White one of the best crime fiction books of 2008 — and helped to call my attention to a fine novel that I’d unfortunately (and inexplicably) missed last year. I was pleased to read Black & White over the holidays, and I touched base recently with Shiner for a conversation about the book and his career overall.
What drew you toward this story? Hayti’s history in specific? the opportunity to look at race relations in general? Or was the genesis something about the plot itself, which then drew in these larger stories and themes?
There were two components to the book: Hayti and the family stuff. I first heard about Hayti when I moved to North Carolina from Texas in 1996. A friend at work named Pam Footman told me about the history, and my immediate thought was, wow, there’s a novel in this.
I look like a lot my father and very little like my mother. I had a troubled relationship with both my parents, but especially with my mother in her later years. I had a fantasy that I wasn’t really her child, but the product of an affair that my father had had. This was just something I amused myself with, until I saw how it could be the plot engine for the Hayti novel.
I consider myself to be a very political writer, so the aspects of the story that involved racial conflict and government dirty tricks were certainly part of the attraction for me.
The book considers racial issues and changing race relations at a time when race is very much in the news in general, in large part because of our recent election, of course. What perspectives on that broad topic do you hope that your novel might offer?
Even though Hayti was leveled in the 1960s, I insisted on setting the main plotline in more-or-less contemporary Durham (2004). I’m always offended by novels about racism set in the past that seem to imply “thank goodness all that is behind us now.” It’s not, and that’s the main perspective I wanted to get across. I think the Obama campaign made a lot of people wake up and smell the racism that’s still so much a part of this country — and this planet.
Black & White is a novel; Michael and Robert and others are fictional characters. But much of the events here are true. You outline some of the differences between fact and fiction at the end of the book. What were the particular challenges you faced trying to keep all that in balance as you were writing it? imagining a story on the one hand but wanting to maintain some fidelity to the truth of a place and its history on the other?
There were many times when I worried that I was doing a disservice to the raw material by fictionalizing it, and especially by using it as the background for a suspense novel. But the bottom line is that I like to read suspense novels. I hoped to reach readers who didn’t think they had any interest in urban renewal, and make them care about what we lost in Hayti and what we stand to lose every time we bulldoze a culture that isn’t part of the white, affluent mainstream.
In many ways I enjoyed the challenge of adapting my story to the facts. I put together the most accurate timetable I could for the construction of the Durham Freeway, for example, and followed that timeline in the book. The hardest part, and the scariest, was when I simply could not get the information I wanted — for instance, about vodou practice in the area in the 1960s, or details of the construction of the IBM facility in Research Triangle Park. In those cases I pulled in factual material from elsewhere that seemed right. I don’t consider myself an imaginative writer, so research is the best way I know to make the fiction seem real.
And I still hope that somebody will come along and do a really big, in-depth history of Hayti, that talks about heroes like Howard Fuller [one of the leaders in North Carolina’s Civil Rights movement] and gives voices to the people who were driven out by the renewal. I talked to a few of them, but there are so many stories that are left untold.
Michael learns something about his father, his past, and himself here; Robert too learns something about himself (I love the early contrast, for example, between Robert in the ballroom of the Biltmore hotel and Robert on the patio of the country club). Readers too learn something from a book like this — particularly North Carolina readers who might see local history in a new perspective. But I’m also intrigued about what writers learn from spending so much time immersed in a project — about literature, about the world, maybe even about themselves. What did you learn from writing this book? beyond facts from your research, I mean?
I think the biggest thing I learned is just exactly what you would expect. I’m a white man who grew up in the last days of Jim Crow and spent most of his life in places where the majority of African Americans still live in defacto segregation (like Dallas, or the Raleigh-Durham area). I don’t know that it’s even possible for somebody like me to ever lose his sense of white privilege, but I think I was able to get a glimpse, every once in a while, of what it means to be black in this country. And it’s not pretty.
Much of your past work has included a focus on rock & roll. Here, jazz is a recurring motif. Was it tough to swap genres?
As a high school kid in Dallas, I used to listen to jazz on WRR late at night. I loved Coltrane and Davis and some lesser known guys like Duke Pearson. Plus you had Ramsey Lewis and Cannonball Adderly and Vince Guaraldi on Top 40 radio, back when you got everything from show tunes to psychedelic rock to country to R&B on the same station. Plus there’s the swing music that my father played when I was growing up — Goodman and Ellington and Basie — which I listen to a lot these days because I love to swing dance. So all in all, I was pretty comfortable writing from the head of a jazz fan.
Speaking of genres: You started out in science fiction; you’ve written “rock & roll” novels (for lack of a better term); and now comes a mystery. I admire that diversity, but it must be a double-edged sword given the marketing emphasis in contemporary bookselling. First, what are the challenges from a craft standpoint of hopping genres? And second, have you seen this as a challenge in building an audience for your work from book to book?
I’ve always felt that any individual book of mine is going to have more in common with my other books than with other books in the same “genre.” I think the emphasis on genre comes more from publishers than readers. The readers I talk to just want to read a good book (whatever that means). It’s the big conglomerate publishers who want to turn books into predictable commodities so they can sell the largest number of units each of the smallest number of titles. That doesn’t serve writers or readers, it just serves the publishers — and them only in the short term.
Finally, much of your writing is now online — short stories, novel excerpts, and even the full text of Black & White in a PDF format. You’ve articulated, in your Fiction Liberation Front manifesto, many of the reasons for posting your work online, but I’m curious about the decision to post the novel there as well. I recognize that it’s far more economical to buy the book — a beautiful edition, I should add! — than it is to print a PDF at home, but what do you see as the benefits of making the novel so widely and freely available?
All the research shows that making books available for free online actually helps sales of the physical editions. It’s a way for people to sample as much of the book as they want, and if they like it, they’re likely to buy the physical book, because it’s just not that much fun to read a novel on your computer. The Kindle and other ebook delivery systems may eventually change all that, but right now there are still a lot of people who love books made out of dead trees. I’m one of them.
In the long run, it’s about getting people to read your work. There’s not much money to be made at this anyway, unless you’re James Patterson or Danielle Steele — and even for them, the real money is in film and TV adaptations. So you get it out there any way you can, and hope that people read it and like it.
On that note, though the trade-run of the book is sold-out (and congratulations there, of course!), there are other editions available and forthcoming, correct?
Our current plans are to bring out a trade paperback of Black & White in late November 2009, along with a massive Collected Stories hardcover. My publisher, Subterranean Press, is committed to bringing my backlist into print in trade paperback, but we’re still trying to figure out how to make that work in this disastrous economy. So things are a bit up in the air. In the meantime, there are still a few copies of the limited edition available at the Subterranean site at a pretty reasonable price.
— Interviewed by Art Taylor