A Conversation with Stephen L. Carter, author of The Emperor of Ocean Park
Q: You have written numerous works of acclaimed non-fiction. What inspired you to write a novel and where did you get the idea for The Emperor of Ocean Park?
A: When I was a child, I dreamed of writing fiction, and I suppose the idea has always been in the back of my mind. In the case of The Emperor of Ocean Park, I would have to say that the characters came to me long before the story did. Most of the major people in the book sprang into my mind, almost fully developed, many years ago. In boxes in my bedroom and my study, I still have dusty, dog-eared drafts of earlier efforts to render the same set of characters in several very different stories.
Some of those early stories were lighter than the one I ended up with, and some were quite a bit more dreary. The characters themselves were up in arms. I'm not sure just when I hit upon the story in its final form. I can say, however, that the characters themselves continued to pester me until I came up with a way for them to present their various tales.
Q: What kinds of research—into the Senate confirmation process, the workings of the FBI, the Federal and Supreme Courts, the political lobbying behind judgeships—inform this novel?
A: Although I wouldn't say I planned it this way, many of the subjects in the novel that require expertise are matters about which I have written non-fiction books and essays. For example, a few years ago, I published a book about the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices, and much of what I learned in the course of that project informed this one. Similarly I have written a lot about being black and middle class in America.
But some of what might look real in the book is fiction. And some of what looks like fiction is real.
Q: You have been careful to remind readers that this is a work of fiction—that Talcott Garland, law professor, is not an alter-ego for Stephen Carter, law professor. That said, do you identify with Talcott in any special way?
A: I have had a lot of trouble persuading people that Talcott's story isn't autobiographical, or that the Garland family is not my own, but there is really very little overlap in the life experiences of me and my family, versus Talcott and his.
I'm flattered that people find my characters so realistic that they assume they must be based on real people. But they're not. Like most writers, I hope that readers will find something familiar in all the major characters. Still, the characters are all inventions, and, often, I myself did not know them very well until the book was complete.
I should add that there is absolutely no similarity (other than the facts that both are black and very accomplished) between Talcott's difficult wife, Kimmer, and the wonderful woman I have been blessed to be married to for more than twenty years.
Q: Chess plays a role in this novel. Are you a big chess player? How much research into this topic—specifically "chess problems"—did you do? How does the novel parallel an actual game of chess?
A: I love chess, absolutely love it. I am a life member of the United States Chess Federation. I play less chess now than I did when I was younger, except online at the Internet Chess Club, where I try to visit several times a week. Although I have never been anything more than an amateur in playing strength, I remain a great fan of the game, its players, its history, and its endless possibilities.
The integration of chess into the novel required me to learn about a part of the chess world less familiar to me, the world of the chess problemist, where composers work for months or years to set up challenging positions for others to solve. Fortunately, I had some help from a columnist for a leading chess magazine in making sure that I made as few errors as possible in the way I described this world in the book.
(Incidentally, the fact the number of chapters in the book is the same as the number of squares on a chessboard is a coincidence.)
Q: This is an amazingly intricate plot—full of well developed characters, locations, and multi-leveled conspiracies. How do you craft a novel like this? What is your writing process?
A: Lots of late nights and long walks! Lots and lots of talks with my wife, who read endless drafts and helped me avoid some really bad ideas. And lots of online chess to relax and clear the mind.
I should add that I have come to agree with the many writers who insist that once you get the characters right, the story writes itself. Even in this era when so much fiction tends to be plot-driven, I think believable characters must come first. But they tend to take on lives of their own. I was occasionally surprised by the messes my characters got themselves into, and the indignant, presumptuous way that they demanded that I write a way for them to escape!
Q: In addition to being a novel of suspense and intrigue, The Emperor of Ocean Park is also a novel about families—the things that bring them together and tear them apart; the secrets they keep from one another and the rest of the world; the legacies they pass from one generation to the next. What made you want to explore the idea of family and how did you begin to imagine this fascinating Garland family?
A: Families, nuclear and extended, have always fascinated me. But I cannot begin to explain where the Garlands came from. I think I had the name first, then the Judge, and then it seemed right that he should have children, and that their relationships should be complex and stormy. (In another story that I attempted, the Judge was a White House aide; I also tried him out as a professor; but, in the end, only the judicial role really fit.)
The tale of the family's origin came to me before I quite knew which of several possible stories of the Garland family to tell. I experimented with several possible narrative voices, and several different ages for the characters, before settling into a voice that was a comfortable one, even if it was so unlike my own.
Indeed, that was probably the hardest part of the project: sustaining the narrative voice of Talcott Garland, who sees the world so differently than I do. Imagining the family that whirls around him helped me to visualize life as he understands it.
Q: Did you intentionally set out to explore the issue of race in this novel?
A: I don't think it is possible to write a realistic story about the black experience in America without race—and racism, real or suspected—being a part of that story. There was no need to invent situations in which to explore the problem; once the characters and settings were developed, the tensions that would inevitably arise seemed to me to be obvious.
At the same time, I do not think Emperor is a novel that is mostly about race, and I do not for a moment want any reader to think I see race as a constraint on either the freedom of the characters or my own freedom to create a world for them to live in. I am less interested in how racism influences their lives than how their own strengths and weaknesses do.
Q: This novel has many relationships—familial, marital, and professional—that are destroyed by ambition. Is this novel in some ways a cautionary tale?
A: Definitely. Ambition lies near the heart of the individualism that can be so destructive to the solid values of family and community that make a nation great. All of us have seen people and families sacrificed for the sake of someone else's career.
Yet I am also interested in the virtues that might enable us to withstand the tug of constant advancement. The one who dies with the most toys doesn't really win, and neither does the one who dies with the best resume. The one who has the strongest relationships with family and friends probably doesn't win, either (because life shouldn't be about winning), but, as I hope the novel makes clear, he or she does have a more successful life. And the virtue of faith—of following God, of recognizing our obligations to a source higher than our own will—seems to me the most powerful antidote to the pressure to build resume points.
So I have peopled the novel with characters, like Talcott and his friend Dana Worth, who struggle to find their faith, as well as others, like Rob Saltpeter and Morris Young, for whom faith is already a solid, implacable fact. And then there are the many more, like Kimmer Madison (Talcott's wife) and Marc Hadley (his colleague), for whom the careerist drive dominates.
Q: Religion plays a role in The Emperor of Ocean Park—especially the idea of letting forgiveness come before revenge. As someone who has always been interested in religion in the modern age, was this an idea you set out to explore or something that arose over the course of the story?
A: I myself am a believing Christian, so it would be surprising if Emperor were uninformed by my faith, just as it would be surprising if it were uninformed by my race. And, certainly, much of my non-fiction work has dealt with the application of religion to everyday life. But I did not set out to write about religion. Again, the characters came to me first. The details of their different religious understandings, their different visions of obligation to God, slowly arose and found their way into the story.
I included both an aggressive atheist and an aggressive Christian evangelical, for instance, not because I was engaged in some search for balance, but because the characters suggested themselves and I found a fit.
Q: Talcott remembers distinctly his father's advice to draw a line between the present and the past and then choose the side you want to live on. Good advice?
A: I think it's good advice up to a point, but, like most good advice, should be taken in moderation. I meant for the father's "wisdom," which Talcott recalls at various points in the book to be ironic, even platitudinous, although always containing a grain of truth.
Talcott tells us several times that his father urged the children to draw a line and put the past on one side and the present on the other, which is probably excellent advice if, for example, one is trying to forget a painful love affair. But it is not a rule that should be applied to all situations. Surely the great lesson of the century just behind us is that we should immerse ourselves in the past—not because people in the past were wiser or greater than we, but because there are vital lessons, of what to do and what to avoid, hidden away in history.
So, for example, the difficult moment in which we are now living has historical antecedents. By studying that past, we can learn about our troubling present.
Q: Did you find it difficult to make the transition from writing non-fiction to writing a novel?
A: The process is so very different. The long walks are the same, and so is the need to craft every sentence with care. But I was accustomed to resting my arguments on a rock in my other writing that was missing when I sat down to write a novel: footnotes. With non-fiction, the author, challenged about the plausibility of a particular event, can say, "Well, that's just the way it happened!" Many a novelist will say the same thing, but I am a little uneasy, because what I really mean is, "That's just the way I invented it!"
At first I found this change unsettling, but I have come to appreciate the particular freedom it grants, and the limits of that freedom. Art, I have finally remembered, is as important a human virtue as science.
Q: So what is next? Will we see another novel? More of the Garlands?
A: The next novel is well underway. All I am prepared to say about it, however, is that some of the characters from Emperor reappear. And that I'll probably be taking more long walks!
I also have a number of non-fiction projects in the works. I still see myself first and foremost as a law professor and legal scholar. But if I have written a story that people enjoy reading, if they are satisfied when they are done, yet sorry that it ended, if it diverts them for a while from present tragedies, I will be happy and grateful.
From the Hardcover edition.