Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Chris Ciarmiello, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed John Edgar Wideman about his book Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File (Scribner), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi after he allegedly wolf-whistled at a white woman. Published pictures of his face, mutilated and robbed of humanity, reminded the world of racism’s destructive power and provided a rallying cry for the civil rights movement. In Writing to Save a Life, John Edgar Wideman conjures another face, one that largely had been lost to history: that of Emmett’s father, Louis Till. Accused of rape and murder while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, the elder Till was sentenced to death ten years before his son’s murder. Wideman endeavors to find out the truth about his case, along the way shedding light on a military justice system that was stacked against not only Louis Till but scores of other African-American servicemen who were condemned to death. Wideman’s work weaves together investigative journalism, historical writing, memoir, and, when the Till case runs cold, fiction, collapsing inter-genre barriers in a lyrical, haunting, and, ultimately, hopeful narrative.
Chris Ciarmiello: Is there anything in particular about Louis Till that's come up since the publication of your book that you want to share?
John Edgar Wideman: I got a letter – unsolicited – and the letter writer recalled that he had a letter from his grandfather. And in that letter, his grandfather described knowing Louis Till -- his grandfather was a guard in the camp where Till was held. And actually he said in his little note – I’ve read the note – that Till was a buddy of his, and that Till was kind of a hero to the other guards, because there had been a riot or a fracas and Till had saved one of the guards from an ass- kicking. They took him out of the prison, took him to movies and to hang out. There’s suddenly a story about a Louis Till that I had not a dream about, never imagined when I was writing the book.
So stuff just keeps coming in. In other words, the story’s alive.
CC: For much of the book, you have the goal of finding out about Louis Till. Then, when it becomes clear that there are some parts of the Till story that you can't get to the bottom of, the book becomes a bit more of a personal story. How did that process play out?
JW: The idea of what I was going to do, fiction or nonfiction narrative, was not a closed issue, even as I started to write about Louis Till. And it's very natural for me not to make a hard and fast distinction between my life and the lives I'm trying to imagine and put into words, into narrative. It's characteristic of what I do, and this book is no different. And even pretty far along in the composition – and even at the point where I'd turned the book into Scribner and they were figuring out what to do with it … I was still talking about whether I wanted to call it fiction. See, my problem is this, Chris -- or not problem, but my issue, is, what the hell's the difference? The important difference. How do you distinguish one from the other? And I don't mean in the sense of Mr. Trump, where everything is a lie.
But really, from my point of view as a writer, if I don't get involved in something -- if it's not about me, if I'm not in there somewhere in an intense, intimate way -- then what am I doing, why am I bothering. The more I got involved in writing about Louis Till, the more I realized my interest, what was driving me, was that I was writing about my own experience -- my own family, my own father, my collective history of the African-American people.
CC: Your portrayal of Louis Till is very humane. You don't gloss over his flaws, but you beautifully explain why he was who he was. When you go into the fiction, do you have any reservations about going into someone else's head like that? Do you ever feel like you're trespassing in his mind?
JW: Of course. Of course. And who the hell do I think I am? Is this a kind of identity theft? And do I want to put on the record something that's not true? What if Louis Till was standing across the room looking at me? Would I be ashamed of what I had done? No, these questions are always there. But they're there for me when I'm writing fiction as well, because I want my fiction to have kind of a verity, a kind of weight, a kind of substance. That goes back to the fact that any sort of writing is a projection, is a kind of backwards and forwards tripping into one's own life -- at least the writing I want to do. I know when somebody's doing something, a piece of writing, that they've distanced themselves from. And it can be a piece of -- it's most fiction, which I call kind of "beach fiction." There's nothing wrong with it. It's great. But it's just somebody who has everything sorted out and everything figured out and is going to keep a distance … And when I start reading something like that, I don't care. If the writer’s not there somewhere entangled in it, and I can't feel their presence, I can’t feel the reason they have for picking up the subject, then screw it. I might read it as information. I might read it just because I'm curious about that writer or the subject matter. But it doesn't have my gut.
CC: How have you changed personally after writing this book?
JW: Well I learned a bunch of things that I wanted to learn about somebody else's life, and a bunch of things I didn't expect to learn about my own life. So what the hell do you want for nothing – that's a pretty powerful reward. And I also learned – I was teaching myself how to live with some very unpalatable truths, both about my own life and about Till's life, Louis Till's life, and Emmett Till's life. Truths and facts and information that I didn't want to have to deal with, that I didn't -- it didn't do me any good, in a sense, to know. So then I had to come to terms with all that. How do you accept it. How does one accept it, make sense of it. And for me, the book was one more lesson in making the best of things that are not very nice, usually, or often, or maybe in a cosmic sense don't mean a goddamn thing. But you've got to make a life out of it. You put together a life on the basis of the experiences you have. That's all you can do.
CC: You say in the book that you "must find ways to address Louis Till in the manner Louis Till speaks to me. Not only with words." Could you talk a little bit about how you are addressing Louis Till? Is it the whole process of writing this book? Is it getting inside his head through fiction? Is it meditating on who he was and what happened?
JW: All of the above. All of the above. One little interesting piece is that I have almost no words of Louis Till -- words that actually issue from his mouth, secondhand, written down. So there you have this silent person. … He's been erased. So that was part of the appeal. How do I, writing with words, even begin to embody that silence, or project that silence, or make sense of it. That was a writer's problem that intrigued me.
And it's a problem or an issue that's intrigued me for a long time, because in a sense African-American history, great parts of it, whether it's my family history, or slaves in the South in the 17th and 18th century, you don't have reams and reams of testimony of words, set down in documents and paper. So how do you reconstruct that? Well we're learning more and more how to do that.
CC: The question marks -- or the lack of question marks -- in your writing. I read in one interview that you said it was because you don't like the way they look. [JW laughs.] I'm wondering –
JW: Excuse me, but you won't find many exclamation points nor those funny little things, quotation marks. I try to minimize that. Part of it's just pretension, probably. Part of it’s being a fan of James Joyce and being so happy that he got rid of conventional punctuation in lots of his stuff. I hated in school having to learn all those rules, where it's, does the quotation mark come before the period at the end of the sentence, inside, when do you do one quote inside of two quotes, what if you have a quote inside that quote inside that quote. And also, that makes a text writing. That really gives it away as writing, when it has all that help –
CC: As opposed to –
JW: As opposed to, let’s say, Molly Bloom's soliloquy. After a while you stop looking for periods and commas and quotation marks, and you learn to listen or see the speech on the page word by word. I much prefer that… So I have on one level a kind of superficial prejudice against how traditional punctuation looks on the page. The other is a little deeper. It's my attempt to capture in language what speech seems like, language in its most basic sense, noises that we make to try to communicate.
CC: I guess I was focused mostly on the question marks, given that your writing raises a lot of questions that either don't have answers or have answers that are difficult to deal with. A question mark implies that an answer is coming. And a lot of the time an answer maybe isn't coming, or at least not the one that we want. I don't know if I was reading too much into that.
JW: No no no, I've played the game with you. In a way, the books I like best… they probably left me with the feeling of a big question mark, or many question marks. So that’s the question mark that means something to me – meaning, deep meaning. Comprehensive meaning. Meaning that goes beyond the words on the page, but which you get to by reading the words on the page. So a lot of little question marks inside the text are of much less concern and a little bit distracting -- and sometimes a shortcut for writers who aren't good. Look, it's a code. It's a hand-holding device that seems to me simplistic and at times abused, misused.
CC: [In the final scene of Writing to Save a Life, the narrator addresses Louis Till directly, telling Till a story about a hive of bees that fight ferociously against a honey-stealing bear.] To me, a big part of this book was about understanding. That final passage seems to be you reaching out and saying, "Louis, I understand who you are.” Right now in our world, it seems like most people don't really listen to or understand each other as much as we should. When you look at something like both Till cases as much as you have, do you have hope that we can get to a point where people understand each other, and are willing to listen? Do you still have hope after all of this?
JW: Well I have children. So no matter what my experience has been, I would not like to think of myself as passing on to my children a sense of hopelessness. Number two, I had a good time writing that last little bit of my book. At the same time, I knew it was very audacious, and I was taking a big chance. But I also felt comfortable enough and relaxed enough and I put in enough time that I was prepared to do that. The gesture itself is a kind of hopefulness, and it's a story about hopefulness. No matter how bad things get, there's always a chance that all the stuff that's necessary or all the stuff that might be able to help us start over again is not gone. It's not gone.
John Edgar Wideman is the author of more than 20 books, including Philadelphia Fire, Brothers and Keepers, Fatheralong, Hoop Roots, and Sent for You Yesterday. He is a MacArthur Fellow and has won the PEN/Faulkner Award twice and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and National Book Award. He has taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Brown University.
Chris Ciarmiello is a reformed journalist and financial writer. He is now a nonfiction MFA student at The New School, where his writing recently has taken him into the high-stakes world of competitive cat competitions. He apologizes to John Edgar Wideman for the question marks.