Vol. 1 No. 2 2007


A Law Professor Who Tells Tales

An Interview with Stephen Carter

By Herb Boyd

cover new england white

For many years after he wrote Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, (Basic, 1991) Stephen Carter was content to dash off an occasional article or op-ed piece and to devote time and attention to the classroom at Yale University where he has been a professor of law since 1982. But in 2003 Carter emerged with fanfare in the fictional realm with The Emperor of Ocean Park (Knopf, 2002) which meant that the midnight oil was illuminating more than torts. Four years later, the professor’s second novel New England White ( Knopf, 2007) is raking in the reviews, most of them quite favorable, though Carter says he doesn’t read any of them. He said --Well, let’s allow the lawyer to present his own case.

This interview was conducted at the offices of Random House in midtown Manhattan on June 21:

Herb Boyd: Can you talk about your family a bit?

Stephen Carter: My father [Lyle Carter] was a lawyer in Harlem for many years in the Fifties before departing for Washington, D.C., to work for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. My grandfather, who was Lyle, Sr., was a dentist in Harlem. My parents lived on Jumel Terrace, and I lived as a child at 435 Convent Avenue.

HB: I think that’s the Garrison Apartments where Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. once lived. It’s a historic building just up the block from where Joe Louis and Rose Morgan used to live. I was struck by how often Harlem is mentioned in your latest novel.

SC: My next novel will be about Harlem in the 1950s. In fact, I have a scene that takes place at the Jumel Mansion. I was up there recently doing some research. I was born in Washington, D.C., but I spent the first seven years of my life in Harlem. I attended P.S. 129. We left Harlem in 1961.

HB: Stephen, do you have a particular audience in mind when you write your novels?

SC: I don’t really, and people often ask me that. My aim is to reach as many readers as possible. As a novelist, I don’t think you can spend too much time thinking about whom you’re writing for. You just want to write a story that makes sense that entertains people, a story they enjoy reading. I have no message in mind, other than, ‘Is the book going to be fun to read?’

HB: Your first novel The Emperor of Ocean Park shot right to the top of the charts. Who were the people who bought this book?

SC: I don’t know. It sold a lot of copies, but I have no idea who bought it. But I hear from people all over the country who have read it. A friend of mine who was on vacation in Peru skiing said he ran into someone reading the book on the ski slopes.

HB: But given the size of the book, its length and the subject matter, I don’t think it’s the kind of book you’ll see people, especially young Blacks reading on the subway…don’t you think it’s a bit intimidating for certain kind of readers?

SC: I know that it is. But I couldn’t make it shorter because I had a story to tell and it took a lot of pages to do that. I do recognize that you sell more copies if the book is shorter and rather straightforward, but that’s not the way I write.

HB: Has there been much feedback, reviews and such from African American reporters and critics?

SC: So far, there have been a few reviews, and I’ve heard that most of them like it. I doubt, however, if I’ll hear from anyone who said they hated the book. But by and large, I don’t read the reviews. I don’t think it’s a good idea to read your reviews. If they are bad reviews, they will ruin your day. If they are good ones, then you begin thinking how you might need to please that critic, in the same way, with your next book. So, I try not to read them.

HB: Do you write to please yourself?

SC: I think all writers write to please themselves first. You see, writing is a lonely business. But a writer who sells books has a public. So you have to write to please that public to some extent. My wife [Enola Aird] reads all of my work, and she is, by far, my most thoughtful and critical reader. She’s a lawyer and a real good editor, and a tough critic who will tell me if something is good or bad. Her careful reading has made me a much better writer.

HB: Are there other readers whom you rely on for feedback and response?

SC: Not really. After my wife, there’s my editor and a few close friends with whom I’ll share the first draft. Even so, you can’t write by committee.

HB: Let’s back up a bit. Most of our readers perhaps first heard of you from your nonfiction book Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby then the next time they read about you, you’re the recipient of a huge advance to write two novels. Can you fill in some of the moments between the nonfiction and the fiction?

SC: That’s a fair question. But the answer goes back a bit, because I’ve always wanted to write fiction. When I was a little boy in Washington, D.C., I would purchase those little spiral notebooks that cost a dime and I would fill them with my stories. There would be stories about dinosaurs taking over the earth, those kinds of childhood fantasies. The point is that I’ve always wanted to write. I’m not sure where that comes from. I wrote seven nonfiction books before I was able to get back to what I wanted to write all along. One of the things that helped me to get into fiction again was that I had characters that I wanted to write about., and with these characters in my head, I was just waiting for a story to come along…

HB: They were characters in search of a plot…

SC: Right. Most writers, I believe, start with a plot or a scene. But I think about characters and their relationship to each other, and that’s what generates the story. In The Emperor of Ocean Park, I had in mind this Black judge who was involved in a mystery, and bit by bit his family suggested itself, his wife and circumstances came into play.

HB: Have you read much fiction over the years, and are you currently a reader of fiction?

SC: I’ve read fiction most of my life, but like a lot of fiction writers, I’ve read less fiction since I started writing it. It’s hard to enjoy it as much. Now I tend to read it as a writer rather than as a reader. I read a book and think how I would have done it differently. So, that takes a lot of the fun out of it. Mainly, now, I read history, biographies, and some theology. Right now I’m reading a book by David Brion Davis on slavery.

HB: There’s so much economic theory in New England White, so you must have boned up on that.

SC: I do a lot of research, which I don’t mind doing since I like to have my facts straight. For example, I talk about antique mirrors in the book, and I didn’t know anything at all about them, so I had to do some research. Antique mirrors are not a hobby of mine, but I had to learn about them. The parts [of the book] that I didn’t make up, I like to have my facts accurate.

HB: Speaking of making it up, are there some famous Black writers you’ve read who influenced you?

SC: I usually stay away from talking about living writers because invariably someone will ask me why so and so wasn’t mentioned. Now, James Baldwin is a writer I greatly admired. I was always struck by his characterizations. I really think his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain is one of the great novels of the Twentieth Century. And you can’t help but to be influenced by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. Hughes had a remarkable ear for dialogue. Baldwin had this ability to bring about the power of emotion, and Ellison on the complexity of an individual’s experience.

HB: I think your female readers are certainly going to appreciate how well you handled Mrs. Carlyle…

SC: I didn’t start out to make a woman the main character. It just developed that way, she was so dominant. A lot of women who have read the book believe I’ve done a good job capturing her voice. And I hope that’s right.

HB: Two of your characters, Vanessa and Gina, and their relationship reminded me of the ghost elements in Toni Morrison’s Beloved…

SC: No one has pointed that out to me. I don’t know if there are similarities. I read the book, but I didn’t see the movie. The Toni Morrison book I like best is Song of Solomon.

HB: And the next novel, will it explore the lives of other characters who are only vaguely present in the current one?

SC: Well, let me say this, the next book will cover the period of the Fifties to the Seventies, and will include a lot more about Harlem.

HB: You’ve discussed a bit of your writing process, that it’s done mostly in the morning at a computer with no set number of words to write per sitting. What advice do you have for that writer struggling to complete a project?

SC: I always tell my audience that a lot of people can write stories, but most people don’t.Why? Well, you’re not a real writer until you can say to people you like, whose company you enjoy, that you can’t hang out that night -- that you have to write. You have to treat it like any other job. A lawyer can say he can’t come to dinner tonight because he has a brief to write and [has] to be in court in the morning, and a doctor tells you she can’t be at such and such place because she has to rest up for surgery, then you, as a writer, should be able to say the same about your craft. You have to take it seriously.

Herb Boyd is an author and senior editor of New World Review.

New England White

by Stephen L. Carter

$26.95, Hardcover, Knopf (June 2007)

ISBN-10: 0375413626

ISBN-13: 978-0375413629

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