Ravi Howard won the 2008 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for his novel Like Trees, Walking. He was also a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction in 2008. Howard has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Howard’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, Salon, Callalloo, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. He also appeared in the Ted Koppel documentary, The Last Lynching. He also received an Emmy in 2004 for his work on HBO’s “Inside the NFL.”
Howard will be visiting AU’s campus on September 30 as a part of the Visiting Writers Series, presented by the Department of Literature. For more details, please visit the Visiting Writers Series web site.
CA: Your work has been referred to as fictionalized memoir, fictional non-fiction, and revisionist history. I’ve found that in other works of blended genre, the people and events that inspired the piece end up either edited into complete fiction or preserved to the letter of history. Your work, though, perhaps a little more transparent in keeping the integrity of certain nonfictional elements as well as adding fictional elements, is unique and inspiring to read. What makes you choose to keep the historical inspirations so close and present in your fiction?
RH: I wanted to create a story that has some connections to the historical line as well as some distance. I took a great deal of license with both time and geography. Cole was attacked in Birmingham in 1956, and he never returned to Alabama. What if he did? That’s pretty much the premise.
The body of non-fiction on both Cole and the Civil Rights Movement is substantial, so I wanted to riff. I like to keep an active mixture of historical facts and what-if moments.
We know all of the spoilers in the historical record, and sometimes it’s easy to let that certainty enter the narration. It’s important for me to keep the questions of the present moment in the minds of characters. The doubt and uncertainties show them moving forward into an unknown future. Historical fiction is a contemporary world for the characters, so I like to make sure the reader is at eye level with them.
CA: I couldn’t put Like Trees, Walking down once I started reading it. For an entire day I lived in 1981 with Roy Deacon and when I raised my head I found myself steeped in a terrible sadness and that quiet kind of fear that accompanies living through a horrific and far-reaching community experience. How were you affected by writing this book and what kind of effect did you want for your readers? Did you have a specific audience in mind while you were writing?
RH: The research of Michael Donald’s murder was difficult to read, but I had to absorb the facts with the understanding that they were necessary for the storytelling. It helped to let the work rest between drafts. As far as effect and audience, I do want the space they enter to have a sense of clarity and honesty. I was living in Mobile when the book was published, so some local readers knew the story well, but it was new to so many other readers. I had to make sure that either audience saw the story space clearly.
CA: I understand that Like Trees, Walking comes from a biblical verse about a blind man who regains partial vision. He sees people but they just look “like trees, walking” – a very evocative image. Can you expound upon this choice for your title?
RH: Titles can be tough, but I came across this one while I was in graduate school working on an early version of the story that eventually led to the novel. In the parable the healing happened in two steps. As a historical element, I think the idea of partial progress was evident in the years after the Civil Rights Movement. Change was something of an arc, and it didn’t happen in a single moment. Resolution can be fragmented. It’s true in novel structure as well.
CA: In your most recent novel, Driving the King, you move through the Civil Rights Movement with fictionalized character Nat Weary and his interactions with famous singer and musician, Nat King Cole. History is vast, yet you’ve chosen a very specific man to explore in your work. Why did you choose Nat King Cole, and why did you choose to explore him through a fictionalized character such as Nat Weary?
RH: Nat Cole was one of the most famous entertainers in America when he was attacked on stage, and that moment fascinated me when I first heard about it. Black celebrities of the Jim Crow era were the focus of aspiration and escape for black fans, but they dealt with the same realities of racial violence during that time.
I wanted to show how fame affected the sense of kinship and distance between the lives and circumstances of Nat Cole and Nat Weary. Historical fiction gives writers a chance to build biography for the lesser known or anonymous figures during a time period. Away from spotlight and expectations, they had the kind of honesty that we look for in dialogue.
CA: I am interested in how you structured Driving the King. We fluctuate between Nat Weary’s experience in the war, Nat Weary’s time in prison, and two different Nat King Cole shows. I found that these shifts distinctly mimic memory and the fast/slow feeling that the passage of time can induce. Was this structural choice inherent in the piece when you began writing, or did you decide to structure the novel this way later in the process? What was behind your decision to fluctuate between times periods in this way?
RH: The structure came later in the writing process. Earlier drafts were chronological, and that helped me to get a feel for the era. Moving away from chronology let memory drive the story more. The memories didn’t have the evenness of chronology, and I wanted to show which aspects of memory and history carried more weight for Nat Weary.
CA: In a recent interview with Salon Magazine you said that it is important for Black writers to claim and be claimed by the South. Could you expand on this idea a bit more and perhaps talk about how Driving the King does this?
RH: In that interview Tayari Jones and I talked about the layers of Black Southern culture. I know so many writers who show the Gulf Coast, Appalachians, or the Tidewater. As far as time periods, some write the historical and others favor contemporary stories. That range is healthy, and we can’t let the market or expectations compress that variety. The challenge is to show both the tight frame of the local and the more panoramic view. The layers can let the space feel familiar and new, and the challenge is to deliver both elements.
Bron Treanor is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.