Excerpted from New England White by Stephen L. Carter. Copyright © 2007 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is also the author of five novels and seven books of nonfiction.
Q: New England White is a very evocative title--conjuring images of a cold snowy landscape, but also of the racial make-up of the town where Julia and Lemaster Carlyle live under the glare of their white neighbors. Where did the title come from and what does it mean to you?
A: I am glad that the title evokes the images you mention, because that is what it is intended to do. I was trying to convey a sense of how a family like the Carlyles might envision their enterprise, moving into a small New England town, and viewing it as a winter landscape as they wait for the thaw. I also intend the title to draw the reader into the chilly and somewhat scary landscape in which the thriller is set. Bare trees, cold winter sun, drifts of snow -- you get the idea.
Q: You once said, in reference to The Emperor of Ocean Park, that the characters came to you long before the story did. Is that also true of New England White?
A: Julia and Lemaster Carlyle appeared in The Emperor of Ocean Park, and their four children are mentioned. A couple of other characters repeat from that book also -- in particular, Kimmer Madison. But most of the characters were freshly invented for this story. The character who became Julia's mother, "Mad" Mona, has been in my mind and my notes for a long time, as I searched for a tale in which she could play a role. Probably the story actually began with Mona, even though she has really only two scenes in the book. Having known many African American academics in my life, I began to ponder what their grown children might be like, especially children raised among elite whites rather than elite blacks. Many of the rest of the characters filled in from that beginning. I was particularly interested in figuring out how and where Mona's daughter would raise her own children. I should say a word about my favorite character in the book, Trevor Land. He is obviously the brother of Stuart Land from Emperor. Every old university has a man like him, or used to: a shadowy presence behind the scenes, with no defined responsibilities, through whom any number of decisions are mysteriously funneled. I like characters of that kind. The unseen manipulators are more fun to write than, say, the conquering heroes.
Q: Julia Carlyle is really the center of this novel. When/why did you decide to write a female character as your lead protagonist and was that challenging?
A: The original plan did not demand that Julia's point of view dominate, but the story simply grew in that direction. As she filled more and more "screen time," I cut down other characters more and more until I finally realized that this was Julia's book. Certainly writing her point of view was a challenge for me, but it was in a sense the same challenge of all fiction: for the author to avoid telling the tale in his (or her) own voice.
Q: New England White is in many ways a ghost story--with characters haunted by their pasts and the Carlyle's daughter Vanessa believing that the ghost of a murdered young woman is speaking to her. What made you want to explore this idea of being haunted?
A: We may not all see ghosts, but we are all haunted, aren't we? Voices, faces, ideas, episodes from our past, both those we value and those we wish we could fix -- that is what our memories are. I also found the image of an adolescent troubled by a history that is not hers and that she wishes she could change an appealing one. One thing I admire about Vanessa is her sense of justice.
Q: Your portrait of a marriage--fraught with challenges, resentments, and daily negotiations--is very realistic. What makes you want to explore the complexities of family life, as you also did in Emperor?
A: Love is complicated. Relationships are difficult. Marriage is nearly impossible, and nobody would ever do it, except that it is also impossibly sweet. As in The Emperor of Ocean Park, I try to present personal life as a struggle not an ideal. What our sense of the romantic gives us is guidance on what to struggle toward.
Q: In both Emperor and your new novel it seems that the idea of legacy is very important to you. Is that an accurate assessment and if so why?
A: I do believe in legacy. I believe in the past. I do not romanticize the past, or believe that what our forebearers thought binds us. I do believe that what they lived and died for should influence us. Of African Americans this is particularly true. We have been bequeathed a hard-won legacy of possibility, and we simply do not have the right to mess it up.
Q: New England White is so densely populated and full of plot twists and clues to various murders and secrets. How do you go about beginning and writing your novels--do you work from an outline or do you, in a sense, follow the story where it takes you?
A: I always work from an outline, but, like the plan of battle, it never survives its implementation.
Q: The Los Angeles Times called Emperor "a rare look into the world of wealth and established black families," adding, "One is at a loss to name another book that has sought to convey, with such clarity, such depth of understanding or such cultural analysis, the uniqueness of this experience," and the New York Times wrote, "It's not much of an exaggeration to think that in Stephen Carter the black upper class has found its Dreiser." Why do you think there have been so few novels that seek to describe and understand the issues of race and class that are unique to the experience and characters whose lives you chronicle? What is it about this world that appeals to you as a writer?
A: I like writing this world for the same reason that others like reading it: the black upper class is a continuing fascination, and unlocking its secrets is rather fun. (Including the dangerous and chilling secrets I invent.) Even now, after the success of Emperor, the world of the black elite remains largely unexplored in fiction. Although there are notable and important exceptions, too many novels still seem to feature black "stock" characters, and even those meant to be positive -- the judges and prosecutors, the generals and surgeons -- are often defined by the authors according to the humbleness of their beginnings, and the obstacles they have overcome. This world is not of course the world of most black Americans, and I do not mean in any sense to suggest that the backgrounds of my major characters are typical. Yet the upper middle class is home to far more African Americans than most Americans, white or black, seem to think.A
Q: A key to unlocking one of the murders in New England White lies in deciphering economic and mathematic clues. Where did you get this idea and what kind of research did it entail? Or among your many talents are you also an expert on economic theory?
A: I suppose every law professor nowadays has at least an amateur's interest in economic theory. But, actually, as I developed the character of Professor Kellen Zant, whose murder roils my unnamed college campus, the clues set in economic jargon simply began to suggest themselves.
Q: The world of Ivy League academia is fraught with murder and mayhem not to mention lust, jealously and secrets. So...is this what life is like at Yale? Seriously, though, what do your colleagues make of your fictional campus?
A: My colleagues are remarkably forgiving of human frailty, and I suppose my novels are just another foible. Seriously, Yale is full of people who have done remarkable things -- argued great cases, negotiated settlements of civil wars, found shelter for suffering people -- and it is not likely that they are too terribly impressed by my authorship of a couple of novels. Nor should they be.
Q: The Emperor of Ocean Park was your first foray into fiction and went on to become a #1 nationwide bestseller. What was it like for you to suddenly be a bestselling novelist and did that make it easier or harder to embark on your second novel?
A: Writing the second novel was a challenge for me, and I changed topics several times -- an absolute no-no among serious writers. I am glad to have it finished, and I hope the fans of the first one will find it as thrilling.
Q: What is next for you? Will we be seeing more of Julia Carlyle?
A: My next novel, which begins in Harlem of the 1950s and ends in Washington, DC, of the 1970s, includes, among other characters, Mona Veazie, Julia's mother. The reader will also get to see what some of the main characters in The Emperor of Ocean Park (including Oliver Garland) were like when they were younger, and, in one scene, will meet Misha Garland (the narrator of Emperor) as a young boy. That novel, too, will be mysterious, and, I hope, thrilling, following an unsolved murder across two decades, and taking the reader through the tumultuous events of the Sixties.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What does the portrayal of the Carlyle family reveal about the complexities of the African-American community? In what ways does their life represent the historical divide between the entrenched upper class and immigrants and other strivers in American society? What do the beliefs and attitudes Julia grew up with reflect about the specific history and traditions of wealthy, successful blacks? Do they differ from the attitudes of upper-class whites? If so, why do you think this is the case?
2. When the police question him, Lemaster says that although he had berated Kellen for spending more time consulting with private corporations than on serious scholarship, reports of a feud between them “was media silliness, hunting for stories to make African Americans look bad” [p. 24]. Do you think this is a fair claim about the media? If you are familiar with the much-examined controversy between the noted African-American writer and critic Cornel West and Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, discuss the parallels between the two situations. Can you think of other examples of the media's tendency to focus on the racial aspects of events they are covering?
3. Boris Gibbs remarks to Julia “the racism your people have to face these days is depressing” [p. 29], and her best friend Tessa forgives her own ex-husband's unfaithfulness by saying it was “simply a need all black males possessed, born of centuries of racial oppression, to liberate themselves from the repressive strictures of bourgeois sexual custom” [p. 62]. What do these “sympathetic” statements show about the assumptions made by whites? Do you agree that many white intellectuals are guilty of “quick, sloppy racial judgment” [p. 62]?
4. Mona disdains both Kellen and Lemaster because “neither of them [is] really quite one of us” and also objects to Julia's raising her kids in an all-white suburb [p. 35]. Is her criticism hypocritical, given the choices she has made in her own life?
5. How would you describe the Carlyles' marriage? What is the significance of Julia's explanation of their relationship-“He forced me to fall in love with him . . . I didn't have a choice” [p. 18]? Based on their conversations, as well as the descriptions of life in their household, is Julia justified in “wondering if her husband even liked her, or viewed their marriage, as he did most of life, through the stultifying lens of duty” [p. 96]?
6. Despite her assertion that Kellen “had no right to drag her back into his life, even by dying and leaving a puzzle behind” [p. 65], Julia is soon caught up in the mystery. What particular people or which events convince her to pursue her own investigation? Discuss the cumulative effects of her conversations with Mary Mallard [pp. 44-47, pp. 113-16], Seth Zant [p. 55-59], Frank Carrington [p. 81], Tony Tice [pp. 142-45], Cameron Knowland [pp. 225-28], and Senator Whisted and his wife [pp. 302-304].
7. What elements of a traditional mystery novel help drive New England White? Consider Carter's use of such conventions as cleverly coded messages, misleading statements by witnesses or suspects, and false conclusions about the motives and interests of various characters.
8. Compare and contrast the way Julia and Bruce Vallely conduct their investigations. What advantages does each one have in gathering information and putting the pieces of the puzzle together? Why is Julia reluctant to share her findings and feelings with Bruce? Could either of them have solved the case alone?
9. How valid is Lemaster's perception that “both parties [have] moved . . . far from any real interest in the future of African America” [p. 117]? What was your reaction to his saying, “You know what the trouble is? The Caucasians aren't afraid of us any more” [p. 117]? Compare this to Astrid's argument that “the best of our people reach a certain level of success, and they decide that they have moved beyond politics” [p. 102]. Which statements most accurately reflect your own impressions or opinions?
10. Is Carter's portrait of a top-notch university realistic? How does he use humor and satire to bring various aspects of the academic community to life? Discuss, for example, Bruce's meetings with Trevor Land and his interview with Arthur Lewin [pp. 177-91], as well as Julia's encounters with her dean and other colleagues at the divinity school.
11. In addition to her obsession with Gina Joule, what role does Vanessa play in the novel? How and why does her relationship with Julia change over the course of the book? What insights do her attitudes and behavior provide, either implicitly or explicitly, into the confusion and ambiguities that upper-class African Americans face in white America? What do the portraits of Preston and Jeannie reflect about the same issues?
12. Mitch Huebner says, “You look at any town in New England, Mrs. Carlyle, and you'll find a line down the middle. On one side are the people who don't know the secrets. On the other are the people who've always been there, who hold on to the town's history like the roots that keep the trees standing” [pp. 346]. Discuss how the division between those who know the secrets and those who don't applies not just to the events in Tyler's Landing, but to the novel as a whole.
13. Byron Dennison is proud that he taught Lemaster and other protégés “about power. How to use it. When” [p. 379], and goes on to say that power should not be used in pursuit of justice. Do the events in the novel support his point of view? Are there instances that contradict it? In light of both historical and contemporary race relations in this country, is the way the Empyreals use their power understandable? Is it ethical or is it a corruption of the values, however elusive, that define a civilized society?
14. Miss Terry represents a part of the African-American community far removed from the world Julia knows. Do her attitudes and opinions [pp. 423-27] express a reality the majority of African Americans-including those who have “made it”-experience? If, as Miss Terry maintains, “the white folks get to set the rules,” does the responsibility for changing this lie within the African-American community [p. 426]? Talk about the different ways prominent public figures, both black and white, have approached this issue and how they relate to questions raised in New England White.
15. A variety of mirrors turn up as clues during Julia's investigation. Using Mona's argument that “the people in the mirror aren't free at all. . . . They just do what the people on this side of the mirror let them do” [p. 489] as a starting point, why is the mirror an appropriate symbol for the themes the novel explores?
16. Julia ultimately recognizes that Lemaster's “politics were the politics of pure and perfect righteousness” [p. 608]. What do Julia's decisions regarding her future reveal about what she has learned of the ways in which power, idealism, and purely practical considerations affect both personal lives and politics realities?
17. In addition to racism, both blatant and subtle, what other biases do the characters confront? What light does the novel shed on how gender, economic status, and professional stature distort our perceptions of ourselves and others?
18. In his widely discussed nonfiction book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Carter addressed the impact of programs designed to promote racial equality in this country, including the pressure on black professionals to behave in a “politically correct” manner. In what ways is this thesis revisited in New England White? Do you think fiction is an effective tool to explore-and help clarify-real-life issues?