a conversation with Stephen Carter      

Bold Type: The structure of the novel, not to mention the suspense of the last hundred pages and the thrill of the denouement, seem to point to a very shadowy and dangerous world. Have your own experiences, or the information you dug up in researching your subject, revealed the world to be, in fact, more insidious than you had previously believed?

Stephen L. Carter: When I was writing the novel I believed the world a much safer place than most Americans seem to think. The shadowy events I describe are a conscious exaggeration, which is, perhaps, the nature of fiction. The events of September 11 have demonstrated that the world remains a dangerous place, even to Americans, who have generally believed that they are protected from it. But the dangers in the larger world are of a rather different magnitude than what I describe in the book.

I might add that my exaggerations are not simply for effect. They cast in dramatic relief my larger points about human strength and frailty, loyalty and betrayal, which are my real subjects.

BT: The book was, for all intents and purposes, finished before September 11. Did the events and social climate of the fall affect you in any way as a writer, or change the direction of the second book? Many authors who had been writing fiction for decades found themselves suddenly stalled out and emotionally incapacitated…did it take you some time to regain footing, as an artist?

SLC: I am flattered that you think me an artist.

I would say that if anything stalled, it was my non-fiction writing. That is where I was entirely focused prior to The Emperor of Ocean Park, and it is the part of my work that I am now having to re-think. I do not say that my fiction is unaffected, it is simply that, having written none before, I have no basis for comparison, no "before" and "after." And, in the general tragedy, I think a small case of writer's block is in any event no basis for serious complaint.

BT: But it can't be avoided that the current world is, at least for Americans, greatly different than it was only a few months ago. Things in the Middle East are escalating at a rapid and terrifying pace. What role do you think culture plays in a time so fraught with real-time crisis in which we are forced to live in the moment, both needing escape and being unable to?

SLC: A novel is an entertainment. Entertainment helps us escape and sometimes, if we are lucky, it teaches, too. (I make no claim so grand for my novel.)

Of course we live at a moment when people worry and are fearful and often may need to escape. Previous generations lived through more dangerous moments, and survived and thrived. And those ancestors, not our entertainments, should be our inspiration.

BT: Was it difficult to place the history of the Garlands, particularly Oliver, in the realm of true history, since he was a public figure and thereby interacted with actual presidents and other prominent politicians?

SLC: I mention in the author's note that I have rudely shoved around a number of historical figures - not only presidents of the United States, but justices of the Supreme Court, even members of the Senate and of the fourth estate. This is a presumption on my part, of course, and I hope I have given no offense. But I needed at least a few real-life characters to lend my invented Washington some verisimilitude.

BT: You're working on a second book and it follows one of the characters from The Emperor. Is it going to follow the same structure of a plot-driven thriller, or will this one find its roots in a more literary fiction?

SLC: Oh, goodness! I hope The Emperor of Ocean Park is not a plot-driven thriller! For me, the intriguing part of the book was, from the beginning, the characters. Indeed, I had most of the main characters long before I had a story to go with them. In a way, the characters told me the story as I tried to imagine their lives and interactions. It happens that many aspects of their stories are "thrilling." But the narrative could as easily have taken another direction. In that sense, certainly my ambitions are literary.

Yet they are also smaller. I wanted, mainly, to provide a vehicle for my characters to tell their tales, and to do it in a way that readers would enjoy the ride. My hopes for the next book are exactly the same. After all, there are characters whose lives remain unexplored, and who are aching to relate the stories of their hopes and dreams, successes and failures, joys and tragedies.

BT: Well, I definitely feel the need to clarify. In rereading the question, I can see how it might be taken as a slight jab at thrillers or "non-literary" fiction where nothing of the sort was intended. Although, your answer points to the very problem that may be facing both readers and writers in the progression of the literary arts, particularly under the auspices of our great and noble publishers. That is to say (and perhaps it is from being too long in the publishing world) my question above was actually a determination of vocabulary, which in itself is unfortunate and cruel. Literary fiction has become a genre, which is to say that if you are not writing about rogue ex-CIA operatives, if there are no vampires in deep catacombs featured in your books, and if you have absolutely no aspirations to place a full set of lips and a tight, rose-colored bodice on the cover, then what you're probably aiming for is "literary fiction". This, of course, is preposterous. What ends up happening is that not only are almost all 'genre' novels ghettoized into their special sections at Barnes and Noble, but they are looked at with downcast eyes by the bookish elite. So, perhaps a more apt question would be "who do you want to be reading this book?" This is the critical difference between the author's hopes and the marketing team's game plan for maximum sales…

SLC: Nicely rephrased.

If you ask which people I would like to see reading this book, I am afraid I must resort to what I take to be the standard author's answer and say, "Everybody." In all seriousness, although I am pleased that so many reviewers find the book thrilling, and I hope that readers who love plot will find it to be a page-turner, I also believe that The Emperor of Ocean Park offers something to readers whose love is setting or character. I also love the English language and, in the book, I am playful with words and phrases. Shall I go on? The book, I think, may also be read as a love story; as a tale of political intrigue; or as a lampoon of campus politics. It is, as I have said, many books under one hat. But it is, for me, mainly a tale told by its characters. If the reader enjoys the book, perhaps even is sorry that it has ended, then I feel doubly honored.

BT: How did you feel when it ended?

SLC: Exhilarated, because I was done. Sad, because I was done. And exhausted, because I was done.

BT: How have things been for you, as a writer, switching from the thought process in writing analytical non-fiction in an academic setting, to writing fiction and putting out a first time novel to unheard of anticipation?

SLC: Certainly the experience has been memorable. Writing fiction is so very different from writing non-fiction, and it is, for me at least, so much more difficult. Because I am a scholar, I am accustomed in my writing to the protection of footnotes: if a reader doubts a claim that I make, I can refer him to my source. If my source is wrong, the critic can show me, and I can change my argument. That dialectical interchange is at the heart of the scholarly mission of advancing knowledge (versus, say, mouthing off).

In fiction, however, there are no footnotes. If a reader finds something implausible ("I don't believe Misha would really do that" or "What makes you think Mariah would say those words?"), I can fall back upon nothing but my narrative imagination. That is, for a scholar, an eerie sensation. I am in that sense quite undefended.

BT: That being said, what kinds of freedoms/comforts do you find in fiction?

SLC: Great question, but too early to tell. I will have a better sense of the freedoms or comforts or pleasures of fiction when I have published at least two novels, at which point, I suspect, I will begin to think of myself as a novelist.

BT: One thing that seems unique and wonderful to Emperor is your use of female characters. For the most part thrillers are limited to two dimensional cookie cutter characters, and if any development or agency is provided at all, it is completely embodied by the main, usually male, character. Here we have numerous characters, each with their own personality, from their faults to their charms, and throughout you have the fully imagined, strong and intact woman. Did you find it difficult to portray such powerful and versatile figures, especially coming from a non-fictional background?

SLC: I am appalled by the lack of depth in the female characters in much of modern fiction, at least by male authors. The women tend to be absurdly wooden, and often seem to exist for the sexual pleasure of the male protagonist, or even for the titillation of the reader, if we judge by the book jackets ("A beautiful young district attorney with a secret life must make a choice that could affect the course of …"). Not wanting to continue that trend, I worked hard on my female characters. If the result is as you suggest, I am delighted.

I might add that I have received many compliments from female readers on the female characters. A few have told me that the women are more realistic and complex than the men!

Still, if the female characters are really as well crafted as you suggest, much of the credit should go to the many strong and powerful and impressive women I have known, my wife foremost among them. I think that black women, in particular, tend to be invisible in modern fiction, unless the fiction itself is by black women, or a particularly sensitive and observant black male author (e.g., James Baldwin). I do not know where America generally, and African America in particular, would be without the many great black women who, against oppressive odds, have built and sustained so many of the bonds on which community rests. I know that I personally would be nowhere.

BT: What was the process for the male characters?

SLC: Again, I was reaching for complexity. I dislike the cardboard figures that populate so much contemporary fiction, particular when we think of thrillers and mysteries. Most people are complex, neither all good nor all bad. For my male characters, as much as for my female characters, I tried to craft their roles with attention to this fact.

BT: What do you think, as both an African American writer/scholar and lay person walking into a bookstore, about the division of the literature section from the African-American literature section? It seems to me that this separation is a very confused practice, both on the part of publishing companies/book sellers, and African-American writers. On the one hand, it is a foolish and archaic view of literature, and the ability of an American public to find value in books for their own sake, to see merit in all things literary. On the other hand, both writers and the pockets of the publishers want to find their Market, they want to tap into whoever is going to buy the most copies, and if that means sticking it into a divisive sub-genre, then all the better…

SLC: On the one hand, I worry about the separation you describe. On the other hand, I quite recognize that some forms of African-American fiction have become genre fiction, and that publishers turn books out for genre readers, the way others might turn out science fiction or mysteries. I offer no criticism or complaint. That is how markets work, supply responding to demand. I quite see the risks of ghettoization that some fear, but they are avoidable if publishers and booksellers take their work seriously, which, in a thin-margin business, pretty much all of them do.

Having said that, I must add that there are plenty of distinguished works of fiction by African-American authors that should not be considered genre fiction. The cross-over potential for so much of the work is very high, as long as readers are encouraged to look.

BT: At what point does this division surpass its use as a helpful tool for directing people to the materials and become a means of segregation?

SLC: I wish I had the answer. I don't. I would say this: again, the genre of African-American fiction is a genuine market niche. But publishers and booksellers must be wary of the easy assumption that every book by an African-American author fits the niche. The segregation you mention will be avoided if individual books are treated on their merits, rather than as representatives of a class.

BT: Uncle Jack is the somewhat ambiguous figure of evil in the book. Here is a man with shadowy connections to the international underworld who can have the fingers of another man, one hundred miles away, removed and the rest of him dumped in the woods with a simple phone call. Yet, there is some comfort in this draculaen character. His power is often used, although dubiously, as a favor to his friends, including his participation in the dethroning of Oliver Garland. Most of the book is fashioned in this way, in that there is no real bad guy. Each and every negative force in the book is tempered by its own humanity, whether it is a frail, cruel man hiding out in a mountain palace, or a fallen idealist who wishes to clear his name. Do you see evil as an impure force, a perversion of good?

SLC: I do believe that there is evil in the world. I do not believe evil to be merely a construct of the human imagination.

Having said that, I also believe that evil-doers, like everyone else, possess humanity, even when they themselves do not see it. People are complicated. All of us have weaknesses that are, we hope, outweighed by our strengths. I hope that my characters are complex. As a matter of dramatic form, it adds to their unpredictability. As a matter of plausibility, it makes them more real.

Also, if the characters are complex, with strengths and weaknesses, with religious convictions and ideological beliefs, with entire networks of fears and loyalties, we are presented with the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. In short, when we recognize that people are complicated, we can see why making decisions and sticking with them can be so difficult. In The Emperor of Ocean Park, much of the dramatic tension is generated (I hope) not by car chases or gun battles, but by difficult decisions and their consequences.

BT: This, much like the well-developed women in the book, is its special strength. You have somehow managed to create a panoply of well rounded, intelligent, morally questioning/questionable characters. No one clings to his/her cookie cutter role in the narrative. Were there times when you needed to actually abandon certain plot points because they didn't fit the complexity of your characters, or vice versa, abandon your characters' development to further develop the intrigue?

SLC: Yes, there were plot points I abandoned because it was plain that they did not work for the characters. As a matter of fact, there were quite a few. I do not think that I ever edited a character to conform to the narrative. I did take a couple of characters out, however. At least one of them will return in the next book.

BT: Do any of the characters' career paths match your own? Were you always destined for academia or did you ever hold an interest in pursuing the bench?

SLC: None of the characters have had career paths precisely like mine, although my own path - law teaching, a couple of judicial clerkships, a brief period of law practice, then into the academy - is not in the least unusual for a law professor. (One of my clerkships was for a Supreme Court justice, but that is not that unusual among law professors either.)

I have been teaching law at Yale for twenty years. I suspect that when I was younger, I, like a lot of law professors, dreamed of being a judge one day. That life is less attractive to me now. Strange though it may sound coming from a man of middle years, I very much enjoy my work - teaching law, writing about law - and I hope to go on doing it. I am not looking for a career change.

BT: Although turning from scholarly writing to high profile fiction is, in a sense, a career change…

SLC: Well, let's hope not.

BT: Did you use any authors as inspiration or reference?

SLC: There are many authors I admire, of course, but none of them were models or inspirations in the sense I suspect you mean.

If you want to know what authors of fiction I admire, I will mention a few, in no particular order, and without pretending to be exhaustive: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, John Updike, Walter Mosley, E. L. Doctorow, Sue Grafton, James Joyce, Chinua Achebe, John le Carre, Ernest Hemingway, Don DeLillo, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Langston Hughes, Isaac Asimov, Wole Soyinka, and, if you want to stretch back further, William Shakespeare and Dante.

I suppose I do go on a bit. My tastes are rather catholic, not to say eclectic.

BT: What is your position on legal thrillers, the John Grisham and Scott Turows of the world? Do they have their facts straight?

SLC: I am not a courtroom lawyer, and thus wouldn't really know whether authors of legal thrillers get their facts straight. I suspect that those who have practiced law mostly do. I have found an error here and there, but I am not a nit-picker when it comes to fiction, and I am sure people will find mistakes in my work, too.

I have no "position" on the genre. Certainly many of the books are really wonderful reads. A couple of the courtroom scenes in Presumed Innocent stand with some of the great dramatic moments in modern fiction.

BT: In reading Emperor it is sometimes difficult to decide whether it is a treatise on the legal system, an exploration of family, or simply a thriller. Do you have a place you see the book sitting firmly in?

SLC: Perhaps it bends genres!

To me, the book is a love story. I do not mean that it is a romance. I mean that the tales the characters tell seem to me in many ways to press our contemporary understanding of love. Much of the drama in some way revolves around an older sense of love, a sense once common to the Christian and Jewish traditions, love understood not as feeling or desire or need, but rather as duty and obligation and action. Love is not what we feel but what we do, and, in the older tradition, love counts most not when it makes us happy or when we get something in return but when we give of ourselves without hope of return. The nobility comes in that constancy. (Consider the role of loyalty in Plato's Republic, or of fidelity from a hopeless distance in Dante's La Vita Nuova, or of obligation in the Bible.)

What interests me in the human character is how we behave when we can't get what we want. Only when we stand to lose something for our actions do we discover our true principles.

BT: But it's like sitting in a movie theater and watching the girl get up in the middle of the night for a drink of water when the man with the axe is standing by the sink. You want to scream out to him what is going on…Talcott participates in the traditional sense of dutiful love, he is there for his wife no matter how clearly written the signs are that point to her infidelity, and yet he is thwarted again and again. Not only has his wife been cheating on him, and trying, albeit weakly (these scenes, incidentally, are some of the most on-point in the book) to admit this to him without saying outright, but his friends and relatives seem to be aware of her transgressions in ways even he has not been able to figure out. With the arrangements we are as in the dark as Talcott, trying to figure out what they are, why they are, and where they are. I suppose it is as if the arrangements have been so well and carefully hidden so that we are forced to follow Talcott, so that we simply must feel compassion for him and his failing marriage, him and his growing son, him and a world seemingly bent on his (emotional, professional, etc) destruction… Taking your message of love into account, what kind of hope is there, if this is a question one can even answer, for dutiful love in a society that does not seem to provide any positive reinforcement to those who practice it? In the face of a society so bent on seeking out the bigger, better, more expensive, newest version?

SLC: Not much hope, but always some. To the ancients and the romantics, as well as to many of the scholars of Christianity and Judaism, love in this sense of duty did not depend on what others happened to think was right. But it is true that American society, in which everything seems readily traded for something newer and better, does not give much support to constancy. I fear that our mania for change will come back and bite us one day.

BT: Have you told your students about the book, or are they just going to find out when it hits the bookstores?

SLC: I am afraid that my students were aware of much of the publicity surrounding the book before I was! But they are, as Yale students tend to be, rather cool about the whole thing.

BT: Who did you let get an inside peak? Was there anyone in the family who 'helped' write the book? What were their suggestions/ critiques?

SLC: My wife has always been my most loyal reader, and my most loving yet firm editor. I show nearly all my work to her before sharing it with anybody else, and she graciously makes time in her own busy life to read what I have written. If she tells me (as she often does) that the work is not quite ready for prime time, then I go back to the drawing board. She is usually very specific about what is wrong, and often proposes wonderful ideas I had not considered. I do not see how I could have written The Emperor without her constant help.

I am very shy about showing my work to people in early stages, but, in the case of The Emperor, I knew I could use some help! So, in addition to the many drafts my wife was kind enough to read, I also shared a more polished draft with my father and his wife and with a couple of very old and very dear friends. And, believe me, everybody had ideas! This process was enormously helpful. Some of the suggestions made it into the book.

BT: Does/will writing fiction-now that you have the possibility of making a real career out of it, and knowing the demands of an editor to get things in on time, combined with the concentration one must devote to truly reshape the world according to one's imagination-affect the amount of time you dedicate to teaching and or writing non-fiction?

SLC: If my fiction comes to interfere with my other work, I will be in a difficult position, as I love both. But while I was writing The Emperor of Ocean Park, I taught a full course load, wrote a non-fiction book, attended lots of conferences and workshops and gave literally dozens of lectures. Perhaps I did not get enough rest, and I am trying to pace myself a little better now.

BT: Do you think the new novel will come easier, or be more intensive emotionally or otherwise?

SLC: The new novel is well underway, but it is difficult to characterize the experience as easier or harder. I have already learned what writing seven non-fiction books has taught me, that books are so different from one another that the creative process is hard to compare. So far, I find that writing the second is less emotionally taxing. Certainly I hope this will continue to be true.

BT: Chess plays a formidable role in the book, as strong as any of the side characters. Do you write chess problems yourself, or did you have to do research?

SLC: I have loved chess since I was a child. I am a better-than-average player, but nothing remotely exceptional. I just enjoy the game.

I do not compose chess problems, although I sometimes wish I had that gift, and the patience and discipline to exercise it. But I have always loved trying to solve them. I did consult an expert with respect to some of the details of the particular chess problem that shows up midway through the book.

BT: Could you talk a little bit about when chess came into play in the writing of the book? Did you always have chess in mind as a feature and build from there, or did it work its way in?

SLC: The book, as I have mentioned, began with the characters. The chess motif, I would say, emerged much later on. The scene in the Elm Harbor chess club was written fairly early, after the decision to include the chess theme but before its details were worked out.

BT: The plot of Emperor is so carefully, for lack of a better word, plotted. What was your process in approaching the various clues and actions in order to give it such a fast pace (and for 654 pages that is saying a lot) and such a tightly wound coil of suspense?

SLC: First I had the characters. Their relationships with each other began to suggest dramatic ideas. From those ideas, more characters and settings emerged. For example, the book was not originally to be in the first person, but this began to make sense. Moving most of the action to a campus was also a choice I had to make as the plot began to fall into place. This meant emphasizing some characters who had until then been but vaguely realized for me, and de-emphasizing others who were more fully drawn.

I prepared an outline, transferred it to index cards, and taped (not tacked) the cards to a board. I used this outline for a few months, then junked it, because the characters were too restive.

The plot grew too thick, and I had to prune. The pruning again sharpened some characters, softened some others. A couple of characters came out of the book completely, although one of them will be back

I am relieved, and thrilled, that you find the story fast-paced. It took a little bit of trimming to make it that way. But, once again, let me emphasize that it is the characters who drove the story, not the other way around.

BT: In the author's note at the back of the book you make several references to the fudging of geographical data to fix or make more appropriate the action of the story. How important was it for you in imagining the book to have every detail in place?

SLC: I had to present the story as it unfolded in my imagination, once the characters were in place. This did indeed require some changes, both in geography and in history. (I have in mind, for example, the role of Antonin Scalia in the narrative of the Judge's life.) I suppose that is what fiction is, wouldn't you agree? A writer takes the world as it is, and twists it around a bit to create a good story. If the reader enjoys the story, is moved by it, intrigued by it, angered by it, delighted by it, reacts to it at all, then the twisting has been worthwhile, and the fiction works.

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    Photo credit: Elena Seibert