Excerpted from Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter. Copyright © 2008 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. 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: Palace Council is, like your other novels, a page-turner about families and secrets, but it is also a departure from your previous novels in its historical scope. At its heart it's a novel about the 1960s and the tumultuous events and radical politics of that decade. What made you want to explore this particular period in history?
A: I once heard a great novelist warn that one should never disclose the source of one's ideas for stories -- not because there is some great secret to be kept, but because any answer will be a lie. There is a sense in which the novelist never knows the answer.
Still, if I cannot give the answer, I can at least give a clue. I have long held the view that modern America was shaped in the 1960s, which I date as the era from the Supreme Court's desegregation decisions in the 1950s, to the end of the Nixon Administration, and of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s. I have touched on the importance of this era in some of my non-fiction work, particularly my 1996 book Integrity. I suppose the lasting influence of those years, on my life as well as on the nation, led me finally to decide to explore the era in fiction.
There is also, now that I think about it, a simpler reason that must have played a role. I wanted to continue the stories of some of my characters from The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White, but what I wanted to know was what they were like when they were younger. The years this novel covers are also the formative years for many of those characters. In that sense, the time period suggests itself quite naturally.
Q: What are your own recollections of this particular time in your own life?
A: Oh, dear. I remember so much! I can close my eyes and see the Harlem of my childhood, the shades, the sounds, the excitement; or the Washington, D.C., of my late youth; or the Ithaca, New York, of my adolescence. The Kennedys, King, Nixon -- all fresh in my mind. It is difficult sometimes for those of my generation to remember that when today's college freshmen were born, JFK had been dead for nearly thirty years!
Q: Without giving anything away, of course, can you tell us a little about ‘The Palace Council’ and the people who make it up?
A: The world is today as it is in my novel: people of power get into lots of trouble when they are determined to do what they consider the right thing, and not interested in anyone else's opinion.
Q: This novel spans the decades from the 1950s to the Watergate scandal. Was it difficult to cover so many years in the lives of your characters but also of the country?
A: It was actually fun. All the action in my first novel took place in less than a year. My second, not much more. I found filling the scope of two decades a liberating experience. It meant, necessarily, that I could not cover every detail of the lives of my characters. But that forced upon me the discipline of deciding what the reader really needed to "see", and what could happen, as it were, "off stage".
The biggest challenge, I think, was helping the characters grow up logically, so that when we see a person in, say, 1955, and then the same person 15 years later, the person is recognizably the same, yet plausibly different.
Q: Many real people show up throughout the pages of this novel--from the Kennedys to Langston Hughes to J. Edgar Hoover to Richard Nixon, who features quite prominently. What was it like to put words into their mouths?
A: Putting words into the mouths of actual people was a challenge, and a fascinating exercise. I spent a lot of time doing research, trying to get both the ideas and the conversational styles of my characters right. I am sure the results are not perfect, but I did try to honor my subjects. I hope readers find the "real people" in the book interesting and plausible.
Q: One of your main characters, Eddie Wesley, is a writer--of both fiction and non-fiction. As a writer--of both fiction and non fiction--what did you bring to this particular character?
A: Talk about loaded questions! Let me just say that Eddie's views are not my views, and leave it at that.
Q: Loyalty is an idea that runs through this novel--loyalty to family, to self, to causes, to country. Was that a theme you intentionally set out to explore?
A: Absolutely. Each of my novels has dealt, in some way, with what we owe to others, the things we must pay for even when we would rather not. This is also a staple of my non-fiction writing. I suppose it is fair to say that I think the success of human civilization rests on our ability to inculcate strong notions of obligation to others, even when those obligations are not required by law and are not identical to our desires.
Q: Again, without giving too much away, do you think anything similar to the secret plot at the heart of Palace Council could ever come to pass?
A: I get questions like this a lot, because I like to write conspiracies into my fiction. But I do this only because it is fun. In real life, I am not and have never been a conspiracy theorist. Bad people do bad things. Occasionally, good people do bad things. Some bad things happen through accident, or incompetence, or by chance. When people band together to do bad things, they are rarely able to keep that secret. In fiction, it is fun to pretend that people will do terrible things to protect their secrets. In real life, most people call their lawyers.
Q: You really bring to life the machinations that go on behind the scenes of political life. Is this something that is on your mind more these days as we approach an election year?
A: No. Electoral politics does not interest me that much. Human motive and human weakness interest me, and politics happens to highlight those weaknesses.
Q: From the time you write about in the novel to where we are now, how do you think politics has changed in the last forty to fifty years ?
A: A number of real politicians play roles in the book. Kennedy is a friend of Eddie's, for example, and Nixon is a friend of Aurelia's. I try to portray the politicians themselves as genuinely likeable people, even when my characters are highly critical of their policies. I believe this to be a truism about politics-- that the give-and-take of political battle, along with the need to earn election, constantly distorts the policies of well-meaning people on both sides of the political spectrum. In that sense, politics is possibly unchanged, and maybe even worse. Interest groups have more sway today, and political parties have less.
The growth of cynicism in politics today worries me. At times I even feel it in myself. I do not think that the political leaders of the past were larger or more ethical figures than those of today; overall, they might even have been worse. But we spent less time in those days scrutinizing their moral errors and blowing their words out of context. Reporters thought their job was to tell us what the politicians thought, not what the reporters thought. All of that has changed, and for the worse.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Carter writes, “The social distinctions mattered little to the great mass of Negroes, but Eddie had been raised, in spite of himself, to an awareness of who was who” [p. 16]. How does Eddie's father's position in the community, as well as his own experiences at a prestigious college and graduate school, influence Eddie's self-perception and his ambition? Do his experiences working for Scarlett and in various low-paying jobs affect his outlook and his understanding of (and sympathy with) the lives of “the great mass of Negroes”?
2. Despite the claims made by others, “Eddie did not consider his short story revolutionary. He did not consider it anything, except finished” [p. 15]. What does this show about the way Eddie thinks of himself as a writer? Is he naïve? Self-serving? Does his view of the role of a writer change in the course of the novel?
3. What does Aurelia's approach to her career and marriage reveal about the things that matter to her? Do her ambitions justify her rejection of Wesley [p. 16]? Does the information about her that emerges later in the novel help explain the opinions she voices and the decisions she makes? In what ways is she a typical example of many smart, well-educated, upper-middle class women during the period in which the novel is set?
4. Palace Council covers the vast changes in American politics and society between 1954 and 1974 through the lives of individuals. Discuss how the following characters contribute to the broad and complex picture Carter draws: Edward Wesley Senior; Gary Fatek; Perry Mount; Matthew and Kevin Garland; Benjamin Mellor.
5. Eddie is subjected to extreme psychological and physical intimidation throughout the novel. What do the threats from Hoover and his henchman show about the way power operates in Washington [pp. 100–101]? What do Eddie's experiences in Saigon [pp. 319–325] and his horrific kidnapping in Hong Kong [pp. 368–372] demonstrate about the acceptance of extreme measures to achieve a goal? Do the differing perceptions—and mutual suspicions—of opposing political groups or interests inevitably encourage extremism?
6. John Milton's Paradise Lost holds the keys to the nature and scope of “The Project.” How does the great epic poem about the battle between God and Satan illuminate the moral themes of Palace Council? Milton's purpose was to “justify the ways of God to man.” Is there a parallel theme or “purpose” underlying Palace Council? To what extent do the characters embody the ideas of good and evil that are at the heart of Paradise Lost and of traditional Christian belief?
7. Aurelia asks herself, “Why did the group identify so completely with Satan, who is doomed to defeat?” [p. 346]. What answers does the novel provide?
8. In his celebrated essay “The American Angle,” Eddie identified the qualities that define the country in 1967 and concluded, “If America failed to change the angle from which it looked at life . . . then the nation was at a moral dead end” [p. 313]. Are these still the salient characteristics of our politics and our culture? In your opinion, has the situation improved or deteriorated over the last forty years?
9. Many of the secrets the characters keep from one another reflect the need (or desire) to protect both their public roles and their private lives. To what extent are they driven by a sense of loyalty—to their families, their causes, their ideals? What does this show about the relationship between individual and social responsibility?
10. In describing his novel and the people in it, Carter said, “Human motive and human weakness interest me, and politics happens to highlight those weaknesses” [Vintage interview]. What does the Council and its convoluted history reveal about the motives that drive people to commit themselves to a radical course of action? Do you think the kind of conspiracy Carter describes is possible?
11. Throughout the book, Carter imagines the conversations of prominent people like J. Edgar Hoover [pp. 93–99], Joseph Kennedy [pp. 132–135], and Richard Nixon [pp. 463–469]. Discuss the “legitimacy” of putting words into the mouths of real people. Do their voices conform to your impressions of them? Does Carter capture both the tone and the content of their thoughts in a realistic way or does he distort or exaggerate them to make them relevant to the fictional narrative?
12. Were you familiar with the larger history that forms the background to the novel? Did you discover things you hadn't known before? Are specific events adequately explained and put into context? In the author's note, Carter writes, “I chose to fiddle a bit with history. My only excuse, other than the needs of the narrative, is that I have tried to reorder the decades in a way that does honor to my subjects.” [p. 514]. Does a novelist have an implicit obligation to present an accurate record of the times he is portraying? Do the modifications Carter describes enrich the depth and impact of the book?
13. If you came to Palace Council with prior knowledge of Empyreals from reading Carter's previous novels, did you find yourself using that knowledge as you read? Were the recurrent characters (the Garlands, Aurelia, and Mona Veazie, for example) consistent with your recollections of them? Did this prequel inspire you to read (or reread) Carter's other books?