Excerpted from Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson. . Excerpted by permission of Villard, 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.
Q: What prompted you to write Standing at the Scratch Line?
A: I wrote it as a back story for another novel. This other novel centers around King's grandson and King is only depicted in flashbacks, but because I was attempting to establish the grandson's memory of King as a force that had the power of affecting his actions, I needed to know King better. The grandson saw his grandfather as evil, but I knew that King was more than that. Thus, I had to flesh him out, determine what events motivated him, attempt to explain how a violent man may not necessarily have evil in his heart.
I also wanted to show that while a character may have achieved dominance over such things as he could control, the truly important elements in life such as health, love, the birth and death of children, lie in the hands of fate, or in other forces far beyond our ken.
Q: The underlying messages in your novel seem to be family and black self-reliance. Why did you choose the action/adventure genre to present this message?
A: I didn't write this book with a message in mind. I'm a storyteller. I simply wanted to bring to life some of the people that I knew in my childhood and I wanted to entertain readers. If I happen to stumble across a few truths in my writing, so much the better but while I'm still in the first stage of my career as a writer, there is no message; I merely seek to entertain.
It's true, though, that when I look around at American fiction I don't often see strong African-American male characters who are unbeaten at the end of the story. But I knew such men, men who grew up while racism and discrimination were still the standard of polite white Americans. I wanted to see such a man, who was undaunted by the vagaries of his time, brought to life. Standing at the Scratch Line is written as an adventure because I like adventure. I like tension. I like scenes that suck you into them. And it's a good story.
Q: We are constantly bombarded by the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," but most people do not pick up guns in response. What is i . t about King that allows him to fight fire with fire? Was he born this way, or is it the result of socialization?
A: The right to bear arms and stand up to injustice is an underlying theme in the American concept of masculinity and bravery. All one needs to do is look at the formula used in many of the movies being made. I don't necessarily subscribe to this thinking, but if it didn't exist the NRA would have vanished years ago. This is an American story about an American who came of age fighting in the First World War. There is nothing unusual about it except that the hero is black. King Tremain's violence was a product of his times. In 1919 over a hundred black men and women were lynched. Free black people have had to defend themselves from the brutish aspects of racism since this country was born.
King Tremain may be an anomaly in American fiction, but he was not in American life. Men like King existed throughout the United States and especially in the Deep South. Otherwise Black Americans would have owned nothing in such states as Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma. In disputes over water rights and land ownership they certainly couldn't expect the local authorities to defend their rights.
Q: How much of King was based on your own grandfather?
A: The idea of King Tremain sprang from memories of him. Some of him is definitely in Scratch Line, but he is much more visible in the sequel, Echoes of a Distant Summer. A few scenes in the first book are loosely based upon some of the stories I've heard about my grandfather. Although the sequel is primarily about his grandson, King figures mightily in the twists and turns of events. King is revealed through flashbacks through which he establishes himself as a force majeure in his grandson's memory.
Q: As a novelist do you feel any pressure being the son of a famous writer? Has it had any effect on you as an artist?
A: I wouldn't say that I feel pressure, but I am aware of how difficult it is to be a successful writer and what a mountain it is to climb and how, unlike Everest, one must climb it alone. I would say that it has been an advantage to be the son of a writer. I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how rigorously one must work to master the craft, how one must discipline oneself and what to do when the muse deserts the effort.
Due to my mother, I have had the good fortune to grow up around some of the great writers, actors, musicians, and dancers of our time. The recitation of poetry and prose was an important aspect of my home life. I have benefited greatly from having a parent who valued creativity and loved reading. for she passed that love and value system along to me.
As for being an artist, everyone passes through that portal by themselves. I'm not sure I'm there yet. For now, I'm just happy to be a writer.
1. The period between World War I and World War II was a time when African-Americans began experiencing real gains in their status and wealth, but it was accompanied by equally vicious reprisals on the part of whites. King represents this spirit of rebelliousness and his success is met with jealousy and reprisals. Why do his enemies react with such vehemence toward him? He inspires fear in many; does he inspire love? Do you like or dislike King? Why?
2. When we first encounter King, he is a teenager living in Louisiana; from there he travels to France, New York, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and finally to San Francisco. Each of these places represents a different
stage of his life, from the anger and naivete in the bayous of his youth to his becoming the seasoned businessman of San Francisco. How does King evolve as he moves from one place to another? What remains the same? What changes?
3. King's attempt to live life on his own terms inevitably clashes with others' inability to accept his authority or his race. He cannot seem to stay in one place or out of conflict for too long. Despite all the trouble it causes, is this unwillingness to compromise the key to his success? What does this say about his future? How is his son Jack different from him?
4. When Serena discovers Mamie's picture in her husband's possession she becomes fixated on Mamie's color. Are Serena's feelings sparked by jealousy or hate? What role does color play in black society at that time? In the present?
5. King does not shrink from violence and feels no hesitation about using it against anyone who threatens him. Interestingly, King rarely initiates violence but automatically reverts to it when provoked. Is King the cause of his violent altercations or is he simply reacting? Are his actions justified? Do you think that Sergeant McGraw got what he deserved?
6. Having spent much of her youth escaping from under the shadow of her father, Serena feels she has left her past behind by marrying King. But it is King who later accuses her of following her father's example. Is this true? Why does she choose to withhold information regarding King's first son even when it becomes apparent that her children may die as a result? What about Serena and King are so different?
7. King feels little remorse at killing those he thinks are a threat to him, but when people close to him are hurt or killed as a result of his actions, he is pained. How does King deal with the death of those like Uncle Jake and Professor? Do the deaths of his family and friends affect his behavior in any way? Does he accept responsibility for them?
8. Mace, the mayor of Bodie Wells, resembles King in spirit and courage but differs in his loyalties. Where King claims no permanent attachments, Mace has deep roots in Bodie Wells. When King kills a deputy, Mace accuses him of unnecessarily jeopardizing the town. King claims the townsfolk's cautious and conciliatory ways only invite further trouble. What makes it easier for King to say this than Mace? What are the costs of action or inaction? Why did black townships cease to exist?
9. What kinds of characters do Mace, Professor, Phillip, and his father, Claude, represent?
10. What does King's relationship with Sampson reveal about him?
11. Many of King's targets initially discount his role in their destruction because of his race, only to realize too late that he has capitalized on the arrogance of their own racism. Johnson alludes to the black community's long history of guerilla warfare and sabotage during slavery and beyond. Discuss this legacy of resistance through manipulation and subversion. How do the characters in Standing at the Scratch Line adopt it?
12. Johnson covers a wide range of the history in Standing at the Scratch Line, moving from Louisiana in 1916 to California in the 1940s. Describe the changes we see in American society in that time. How do the fortunes of King and Serena mirror these changes?
13. What compels King to act the way he does?
14. Do you feet this novel accurately reflects the racism and prejudice that African-Americans experienced in this country?