- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
This item may be
Check for Availability
Palace Councilby Stephen L. Carter
Author Q & A
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.
What Our Readers Are Saying