by Joseph Ross

Though the Civil War is relatively distant memory, the story of the American South remains a conflict.—the reality being that the South belongs to the ancestors of those who fought under the rebel flag as much as it belongs to the ancestors of those who fought to escape the institutions for which that flag stood. Alabama native Ravi Howard represents the most recent generation of African-American southern writers telling the story of their south–its wonders and its terrors.

Following his acclaimed debut novel Like Trees, Walking, Ravi Howard returns to print this year with the publication of his latest novel, Driving the King (Nat “King” Cole, that is). Though imagined, this tale of two men brought together and haunted by violent southern racism has been characterized in the New York Times as “a thoroughly convincing story”–one that riffs on the facts of Nat Cole’s history as a performer and activist in Alabama. In Nat Weary, the narrator and Cole’s confidant, readers encounter a representative of the many individuals who propelled the Civil right Movement but were never lauded or even named in history’s annals.

In this interview, Howard discusses the challenges and the draw of singing an alternate Dixie in his work.

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JOSEPH ROSS: In Driving the King actual historical events ground the plot. Describe some of the challenges and joys of writing fiction that weaves in and around historical events, especially when writing about such a beloved person as Nat Cole.

RAVI HOWARD: I guess I like to venture into the unknown of a character, but when the character is a public figure, that approach brings certain challenges.  The benefit is that most history makers are anonymous.  So much change comes out of a collective where the known names are rare.  Nat Weary comes from that space.  I wanted Nat Cole and Weary to be on opposite sides of the line between the familiar and the anonymous history makers.

One big challenge was separating Nat Cole’s speaking voice from his singing voice.  The reader is eavesdropping on these conversations, so I wanted the words to have the edge and the tone that Nat Cole wouldn’t show in public.  I’m not a performing artist, but it seems like the public persona, the famous version, is the outer layer of the performer’s craft.  Maintaining the outer shell was hard work.  The difficulty is revealing the interior of Nat Cole, showing how much work it took to keep the outer shell intact.   Doing that required a narrator in Nat Weary who earned his confidence.

JR: Tell us about the process that resulted in Driving the King. How do you start and when do you know you’re finished? What role does revising play in your process?

RH: I like to let work rest during the writing process.  Sometimes it’s because of the fatigue and the worry that comes with writing, but it also gives me time to forget some of the lines.  While writing, I might be hearing what’s in my head, and memory fills in the holes on the page.  When that happens, the feeling is coming from me instead of the work.  I have to let all of that cool for a few weeks or longer, so that any feeling I get comes from the writing.

Starting and ending can both be tricky. I just read an interview where Attica Locke relayed advice given to her by Dennis Lehane.  He said some material that you add to the beginning of the novel is a result of writing the ending.  That made sense to me.  We are writing into an open-ended narrative. Once the loop is closed, even in a rough draft, the work can then be tightened and connected.

I also spent some time in sports television production, and learning to edit film footage taught solid narrative lessons about flow and pacing.  That’s helped me to revise.  We don’t just cut out what doesn’t work.  We also have to cut out good material for the sake of pacing and transitions.  We start with pieces, but I feel like I’m finished when I’m able to let go of those individual pieces for the sake of the whole.

JR: In Driving the King and your first novel, Like Trees, Walking, I found myself caring deeply about the characters. I especially felt for Nat Weary in Driving the King. I found his measured response to injustice and his consistent struggle against bitterness to be inspiring. Tell us a bit about how you create and develop characters whose genuine humanity shines.

RH: I wanted to show how the characters in both books had a long relationship with their hometowns and the American South. Even in the absence of violence, the racial tensionwas something they negotiated daily.

Human flaws were a liability in civil rights leadership, so many people remained in the background. Active but mostly unknown.  Those flaws can be shown in fiction in ways they couldn’t in the true-life moment.

Nat Weary was in a war and in prison for a decade.  He was one of those who saw freedom and uplift as a daily grind.  He was a veteran of war and the racial violence of America, so I wanted to see him draw from both experiences to cope with 1950s America.

JR: Both of your novels are set in the past and illustrate, among other things, the difficult relationship between Black communities and law enforcement. Have you thought about how your novels might contribute to this evolving conversation?

RH: I think about the motto of law enforcement “to serve and protect” or some variation.  That mentality causes them to draw a line between those being served and protected and those outside. Their main job was to hold the Jim Crow line in the South and the versions of the line elsewhere in America. Like Trees, Walking was set in 1981, and Driving the King took place primarily in the mid-1950s.  We can see the after effects of Jim Crow policing in the distrust among Black citizens that continues today.

Police forces are big on nostalgia. Historical fiction can challenge the haze of nostalgia and the notion that things were simpler and better back then. Better how? Who says?

JR: I always tell my poetry students that writers of poetry must be readers of poetry. As a novelist, what other novelists do you read and whose work moves you? Do other genres, like poetry, ever find their way to your book list?

RH: I enjoyed reading Mitchell Jackson’s Residue Years, Jacinda Townsend’s Saint Monkey, and Kiese Laymon’s Long Division. Amina Gautier’s short stories in Now We Are Happy and At Risk, show a vividness that can be heard in the dialogue and seen in the visual story.  All of those writers create place in a way that’s evocative. Lots of young characters dealing with new versions of old problems. Racism, mobility, migration. The styles of the writers are evident from the first pages, and that powers the ride through the work.

Poetry is essential for fiction writers, I think.  We ask readers of historical fiction to stay within the subject for hundreds of pages, so the words need to move beyond facts and reference points.

I enjoy the work of Vievee Francis and Gregory Pardlo.  Pardlo speaks about the importance of writing into the silences—having that difficult conversation.  Francis looks at the interior mapping, and that also examines the self in ways that are both insightful and difficult.  The language sells those moments, and I enjoy their practice.  I recently read Kevin Young’s Book of Hours, and his work around recollection and grief are powerful.  Rita Dove wrote about the Montgomery Bus Boycott with texture and vividness in On the Bus with Rosa Parks.  I strive for that flow and the precision of language.  She shows how to take historical characters beyond the reference level and give them room in the creative space of history.

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JOSEPH ROSS is the author of two books of poetry: Gospel of Dust (2013) and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poems appear in many anthologies and literary journals including Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review and Drumvoices Revue. He has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and is the winner of the 2012 Pratt Library / Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. He recently served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in Howard County, Maryland. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes regularly at www.JosephRoss.net.