As I’ve said in previous blog interviews, I hope you will look seriously at these conversations as ways and reasons to consider adding these works to your to-be-read pile! I also hope they provide a slight window into the world of publishing from the author’s point of view. I found Like Trees, Walking three years after it was published (in 2007), so there is time for you to get it still. I appreciated this read and am grateful for Mr. Howard’s willingness to be on the blog. First the backcover copy for the novel and then the interview.
Melanin helps to obscure some bruises, making them difficult to distinguish from the dark skin they’ve stained. Under the strong light, all of the bruises that covered him head to toe were plain to see. The defensive wounds that covered Michael’s palms appeared bold against the pale skin. Seeing Michael’s hands and face, I thought of my schoolyard brawls. After the fights I’d won, I remembered how the rush of victory dulled the pain of taken blows. Then I thought of the fights I had lost, when I felt the pain of knuckles against my face and the hot rush of blood coming to the surface. Those fights seemed important at the time, but we were all just kids. There was nothing at stake besides pride or shame.
Now, the interview.
Tell us about your writing process, your research, giving us a glimpse into what came before this novel’s publication a few years ago. Like Trees, Walking is set in Mobile, Alabama. Though I live here now, I was on the East Coast during the writing process. I made multiple trips here to the local library, as well as other trips just to get a feel for local culture. I wanted to be accurate with neighborhoods and street names, so I tried to learn as much as possible about local flavor to make the story feel more authentic.
I worked in television production for much of that time, so most of the writing was done on weekends, evenings, and vacation time. The challenge for any writer is finding a balance between work, personal lives, and writing.
You tell a story that is very much a part of the history of the United States , bringing before readers the ugly brutality of lynching. How were you personally affected by the strong and hard pieces of the research and plot for the work? I was most affected by the photographs and court testimony of the lynching. It was hard to believe that crimes like the Donald murder happened as late as 1981. I think any writer who lives with material for so long ends up with a personal connection to the subject matter. I think the fact that I live in Mobile now makes certain elements of the crime scene and events more vivid because I travel the streets regularly. I’ve also met journalists and citizens who were somehow involved with the case, directly or indirectly, so that makes the crime feel current. People remember where they were when it happened.
Two central characters, Roy and Paul, are brothers. Their relationship is playful and fun and enduring despite the big losses and fears in your novel. They had different reactions to Michael Donald’s murder. How did you develop their relationship as you wrote? People deal with grief and trauma differently, and the brothers illustrated a small part of the emotional range. While there is often a collective mood of a particular city, era, or event, fiction provides the opportunity to peel away characters and show the impact of moments and conflicts on individuals. Sometimes responses can be reduced to norms or what is considered abnormal. Through characters, readers and writers can explore a range of responses to everyday events and traumatic ones.
What audience did you write this for or who do you hope finds and reads Like Trees, Walking? I really don’t write with an eye on the audience. It’s hard to know who will like a work and who will not. Performers can look out at the audience and know who’s there and who’s not, but our folks are in bookstores, libraries, or online. I think that invisibility can be a good thing. I’m open to anyone who wants to try the book, even the ones who end up not liking it. I think the folks who are constantly reading are central to the mix, but we always need those folks who might not read that often. It’s always helpful to the cause when people discuss their reading with others. That’s the easiest way to spread the word and help a small audience develop into a big one.
You live in Mobile , Alabama . Tell us about the local reception of your book over the last few years. I’ve been pleased with the reception of the book. Prior to the publication of the book, the street where Michael Donald’s body was found was renamed for him. A historical marker was added as well. The city has been receptive to historical remembrances, even for something this tragic. Mobile has had a different relationship to the Civil Rights Movement than other cities. The violence associated with Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Anniston didn’t happen on the same scale in Mobile. But people have been willing to discuss the event and its aftermath in various public forums.
I was struck that the main characters were young—thankful and struck. I imagined how I would have interacted with this as a reader if I were the age of the characters, how much fun or sorrow-filled conversations with classmates might have been. What would you like young people to discuss, to talk about, after reading this story? I want young people to know that they can tell their own stories as well as anyone else. Sometimes young people can look to older generations to explain their times to them. It’s good for students to know that Dr. King was 26 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Claudette Colvin, one of the first women who protested before Rosa Parks, was a high school student. Sit-ins were conducted by college students, and there were school-age children participating in marches. Young people have always had a point of view, and they should feel empowered to write and read stories that reflect their perspectives.
How do you see the role for this history, and history like it, in our country today? The experience of Michael Donald is relatively recent but probably forgotten. Do you see this story pushing us to remember in particular ways? I think the divisive racist rhetoric we’ve heard during this election cycle shows that people still exploit racial tensions. History shows us that exploitation can lead to violence. I think that we should remember recent history with the understanding that those kinds of incidents can still happen if people are allowed to belittle people of color and minimize our contributions to American culture.
What are you working on these days, and how can my blog readers connect with you? I’m working on a piece set in Montgomery in the 1950s. It shows elements of civil rights history and music history, especially the life and influence of Nat Cole, who was born in Montgomery in 1919.
Readers can connect with me at www.ravihoward.com . I’d be happy to hear from them. Thanks for including me in your blog.
Please do visit Ravi’s website and pick up a copy of his novel.
If you would like to enter into my competition to get a free copy of Like Trees, Walking, post in the comments either a) an event, any event, in history that you’d like an author to write about in a novel or b) the name of a novel focusing on a particular event in history. I’ll choose a winner on Saturday, November 6 so post a comment by Friday, November 5 at midnight, CST.