When the debut fiction of a Yale law professor sold at auction for seven figures, the literary world was stunned. Now, upon the book's release, it's no surprise that everyone has an opinion. To the delight (and relief, surely) of its publisher, most of those opinions have been overwhelmingly positive. When John Grisham
introduced The Emperor of Ocean Park
as the debut selection of the Today show's Book Club
it only confirmed what insiders already knew: Carter's first novel would be among the most talked about books of the year.
"It's an elephant," noted Ron Charles in the Christian Science Monitor, "not just its size, but its strange collection of parts: It's a light thriller for the beach; a wicked satire of academic politics; a stinging exposé of the judicial confirmation process; a trenchant analysis of racial progress in America."
Carter, a professor of law at Yale University since 1982 and the author of seven previous nonfiction books on topics ranging from affirmative action to religion in America, started gathering ideas for his first novel while serving as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. All these years and revisions later, the story of Oliver Garland is equal parts family saga and Beltway drama.
"With great skill, Carter builds toward a series of climaxes that explode over the final 150 pages. Few readers will refrain from racing excitedly through them," Kirkus Reviews cheered. "A melodrama with brains and heart to match its killer plot."
Stephen L. Carter: Thank you. It's been a pretty overwhelming experience. I didn't sit down to write this thinking about commercial success or audience or anything like that. I just wanted to write a book that would give these characters a chance to tell their stories, and I hoped it would be a fun read. I don't think I had any ambitions beyond that.
Dave: And that's probably for the best.
Carter: That's what people tell me. Maybe it's true.
Dave: Well, you have a well-established career in the law so you weren't depending on this novel to succeed. Your day job is secure.
Carter: That's all true, but it's not just a matter of not depending on it. I don't want to say I didn't take the book seriously - it's not as though it was a hobby or something silly like that - but I never thought very much about whether I was going to finish it.
There were days and weeks and months and probably years when I thought I would never finish. Until about two months before I finished the manuscript I wasn't sure I ever would. I'd been struggling with the novel for about four years.
One of the best pieces of advice about writing I ever received was from a professor at law school who said to me, "Stephen, there's no piece of writing that can't be improved by spending more time on it. The discipline is to make yourself stop."
I took that advice to heart with this book only after my literary agent and my wife both told me they thought I ought to bear down and finish it. I think the precise words my wife used were, "Go for it." Classes had just ended. It was December of 2000. The question I'd raised with her was whether I should over the six weeks of intercession spend all my efforts finishing the novel and for the first time in my life become a full time novelist. Before that it had just been something I'd worked on in my spare time, at nights and sometimes on weekends.
Dave: What needed finishing? Did the story need an ending or was it more a matter of cutting and shaping what you'd already written?
Carter: Until then I'd been fiddling around with it. I had a story. I had a beginning, a middle, and an end, but I didn't have a finished, polished novel. When my wife said, "Go for it," she meant stop adding new pieces, stop adding new ideas, stick with what you've done so far and polish that. At that point, she was the only one who'd read it. My agent just knew that I was writing it. My wife had read pretty much everything.
But I can't tell you exactly what I spent those weeks doing because I don't remember. I just know that what had been a part time or even intermittent work became a constant work. Those five or six weeks were exhausting but they were also an awful lot of fun.
Dave: People have trouble classifying The Emperor of Ocean Park. Is it literature? Is it a thriller? It's hard to define. It's highly structured. Most chapters leave you with a compelling reason to turn the page, wanting to begin the next.
Carter: My goal all along was principally to tell the story of the family. I wasn't that concerned, as I began to search for a vehicle to tell the story, about genre. Should I write this kind or that kind of book? However, there came a time when simultaneously I hit upon two ideas: one was to write the story in the first-person and the other was to construct it as a mystery. Whatever else it was, it would also be a mystery.
The family, from the beginning, was much as you see it here. The story centered around the patriarch of an old, east coast, African American family. A lot of those old families tended to be conservative, so he was, too. The characters began to come to me when I was living in Washington D.C. in the early eighties, and maybe because I was a law clerk at the time it struck me as interesting to make the patriarch a judge. He'd have to be a conservative judge. And it struck me that he would appeal to the Reagan Republicans, which is how I came up with the idea of his having had a shot at the Supreme Court and lost it. The idea that he would have tried and failed to be on the Supreme Court I had long before the scandals of Bork and Thomas and so on, but those episodes certainly sharpened my thinking about the shape of the story.
Originally, I imagined telling the story as it was happening - in effect, the story of his Supreme Court nomination, its failure, and what it did to his life. Later on, when I hit upon the idea of telling the story in the first-person, it occurred to me that I could put the story of the father in the past, let the narrator reflect on it, and let the story unfold that way. It was in trying to figure out how to do so that it occurred to me it was easier if the father was dead. And it was more interesting if the father had died under mysterious circumstances, which is how I ended up with the mystery idea.
As to the thriller aspect and the question of chapters that seem to invite the reader to read the next one, at first I wasn't doing that consciously; some chapters just seemed to end that way. But after a while it became kind of fun. I didn't contrive new plot elements. It was a matter of deciding where the chapter breaks could be. If I rearranged things a certain way, I could have this kind of flow.
Dave: And perhaps putting the father's story in the past and letting the son tell it helps the family aspect rise to the top.
Carter: I think that's right, although when I first decided to put it in the first-person, I still wasn't entirely sure what role the narrator would play in the action. I mentioned before that most of these characters have been with me for a long time, but Talcott, the narrator, is not one of them. He was originally conceived as a literary device: I needed someone to tell the story.
The family as I originally conceived it was the father, Oliver Garland, who in some earlier versions was called Louis Garland; his wife, Claire, who had a larger role in an earlier version; the older son, Addison; a daughter who at that time was named Valerie, who became the Mariah character; and a younger child who had died in an automobile accident years before.
In those earlier versions there was no Talcott. In fact a lot of the work that Talcott does in the story was done in the earlier versions by Valerie, but when I had the first-person narration, the stories of what other people were doing simply became implausible.
I've always hated when I open a book and people sit there and talk for pages about what they did. Talcott had to do more and report less, and therefore the principle role in the story became his. My original thought had been that he would be a detached observer who would tell the story that happened to other people. That just didn't work.
Dave: Kimmer, his wife, is begging him to remain detached. Mariah wants him to act. He knows there are reasons why he shouldn't get involved, yet there are reasons why he must. Regardless, things keep happening to him to make it impossible to run away from the situation.
Carter: That's Talcott's story. As the narrator, he wants us to think of him as someone who was drawn kicking and screaming, unwillingly, into this mystery. But as the writer and as a reader I am skeptical whether that's the true story.
It strikes me that he has what someone once described, I can't remember where, as the strength of water. You can push at it and push at it and you always feel like you're making progress, but at the end you're exhausted and the water is still flowing.
I think that Talcott is actually the captive of a kind of fierce ambition. If we think of ambition as a vision of a future for which we're willing to sacrifice other things, it's easy to see the book as a cautionary tale. It's easy to see how the ambition of Talcott's father nearly destroyed his family, the typical ambition of someone who believes the scandal either won't come to the surface or he can talk his way out of it. It's easy to say maybe the ambition of Talcott's wife to be a judge helped damage their family.
Talcott tells the story as though he has no ambition of his own. I think he does. The ambition to solve this mystery is percolating in him fairly early. At least three different times within the book Kimmer all but begs him to stop. It becomes clear that this isn't just about the effect this will have on her nomination; she's talking about the effect on their marriage. And still he won't stop. Whether it's obsession or ambition, there's more to him and his passivity than he wants us to imagine. One has to read the narrator's account understanding that the one thing the narrator is least likely to be clear-eyed about is himself.
Dave: Talcott is a black law professor at a college somewhere geographically near Yale. It's the nature of the story that he ends up commenting on any number of issues upon which you've written in the past: affirmative action and religion, to name two examples. As an author of fiction forming those arguments in Talcott's mind, making a whole person out of him, could you give an example when you're writing on his behalf and you simply don't agree with him at all?
Carter: I could but I won't. The reason I won't is because I want Talcott as a character to stand on his own. Let me give you an example why my view doesn't matter, instead.
One of the aspects of the book that causes the most comment are the asides Talcott makes that reflect his view of life as a black man in an integrated workforce. For example, in the first chapter, he mentions that he often feels there is a white law school social circle that swirls around and of which he catches only glimpses. Later on, there's a chapter in which he goes to the all-white day care center to pick up his son, and he makes a reference to the teacher's grins of welcome for every dark face and how he's offended by that. So readers often say to me - white readers often say - "Do you, Stephen Carter, really feel that way?" The point I try to make is that it doesn't matter if I feel that way. Here in Talcott I'm trying to give voice to a sense that a lot of non-white professionals have when they work in predominantly white environments. Whether I have that sense is beside the point. The point is that it's a very common sense.
It also, by the way, doesn't matter if the perception is true. That is to say, if a lot of black professionals believe they're being condescended to, my point is not that they are; my point is that there's a lot of work left undone in integration as long as those feelings exist.
It doesn't matter if I feel that way. Talcott is speaking in the voice of an awful lot of people who do. And in fact, if you get together a group of black professionals who work in integrated workplaces and there are no white people around them, when they talk about their jobs - no matter how successful they may be, how many promotions they've gotten, how much money they may earn - the talk will very quickly turn to their sense that the white people around them don't treat them well or condescend or go around them or over their head or this or that. The people they're talking about may be the most liberal, progressive people; that's not the point of the story. Very often when black folks are alone white liberals come in for special criticism and condemnation. You can't explain it. It's not something you can justify. It's just an observation that I and others have made about the way these conversations turn. I can't even say that I know why they turn that way, but very often they do. That's the sense I was trying to get at.
In Talcott, we see both sides. He's not invited to this party, so he thinks he's being ignored. But when he goes to the day care center and the teacher smiles at him he thinks he's being condescended to. You can't win. And the inability to win is a mark of the scar that racial oppression leaves on society, even integrated society. That's why I say it doesn't really matter what my views are. The point is to understand why a black professional would express the views that Talcott does.
Dave: The double-edged sword of integration politics is apparent throughout Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. You can't win. As a beneficiary of affirmative action, for example, whatever success you later enjoy will be called into question by the advantages you'd been given, and in fact you can't ever prove that you'd have fared as well on an even playing field.
Carter: I wrote that book a long time ago. I was a lot younger then and, like a lot of younger people, I was more prickly and more passionate about certain things. Some things that upset me then probably upset me a little less now, but a lot of people are still upset by them.
There's that moment in the novel when Talcott sees all the young black professionals crowding around his brother-in-law, a wealthy, white, investment banker. They're trying to curry favor with him because he's a powerful investment banker in New York. Talcott there reflects on and reminds us of the way a lot of the black nationalists of the 1960s opposed affirmative action because they thought the program of mainstreaming the best and brightest black kids, sending them to colleges and corporate jobs, would transform the vote for equality from a movement that challenged fundamental assumptions about American capitalism to a movement that was about getting a slice of the capitalist pie. And that prediction was of course correct. It's exactly what has happened.
But that's happened to virtually every social movement of the sixties; pretty much all of them have become movements about jobs and bigger slices of the capitalist pie. It's not unique to affirmative action and the civil rights movement. If you think about the history of the struggle for equality in America, the history, the sacrifice, the radicalism, and the radicalism in the sixties and seventies coalescing in this idea that what was really important was to get kids into college and into the mainstream...I happen to think that was a good idea, but you can see why from the point of view of the radicals it might have seemed a very peculiar or even dangerous idea. It did indeed make virtually impossible the kind of radical challenge to corporate capitalism that so much of the talk of the sixties was about.
Dave: Another place where books and themes intersect: there's a great scene in the novel when Talcott comes to Morris Young's defense at the dinner party.
When The Emperor of Ocean Park was sent to me just about the only thing I'd heard about you was, "He's kind of a Christian. He's kind of religious..." I thought, , I'm not sure exactly what bearing that has, but okay. I wondered what role religion might play in the novel, particularly after picking up The Culture of Disbelief [subtitled How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion].
I have to say that I found Morris Young to be one of the most interesting, wise characters in the book.
Carter: I'm a Christian and happy to be one, but I didn't write the novel as a Christian novel. It wasn't designed to express a particular religious view, but there was something I did want to do. I told you before that the book for me began with the characters. I wanted my characters to be rounded, to have real lives.
What's really striking in modern fiction is how few authors, when they present well-rounded characters, give them religious lives, unless religion happens to be a theme in the plot. There are some exceptions - John Updike, Toni Morrison; there are some people that do - but by and large, authors don't give religious lives to their characters unless it's a plot element. And it's peculiar to live in a country where ninety percent of the people claim they believe in God in some way or other, and thirty or forty percent claim they attend some sort of religious services regularly, where in fiction people rarely have religious lives.
So I wanted my characters to have religious lives, though various religious lives. I didn't originally plan to include those long conversations involving Morris Young, but they emerged as a way to get a richer picture of Talcott as someone who was nominally a Christian but wasn't much of a deep thinker about the implication of his own faith. A searcher. The role of being a searcher is very common in the boomer generation. Talcott searches in a lot of different corners of Christianity and he finally settles on Morris Young as a kind of mentor.
In Morris Young I was able to create views, as you say, that are wise, but also views that are in some ways radical. Or subversive might be a better term. I've always argued in my scholarship that one of the great values of religion to democracy - if one feels religion has to be justified, which I don't - is its power to be subversive; not its power to support the status quo but its power to challenge it. I really see Morris Young as that kind of character.
Elsewhere in the book there are ideas that, if not subversive, are at least meant to be unusual. At the very same party where Morris Young talks at length about God and Satan and so on, Mark Hadley, the self-proclaimed atheist, talks about why the institution of marriage is unconstitutional, which is subversive from a very different direction and yet also the kind of idea that can make for a healthy and interesting dialogue as long as we can all keep our feet on the ground while we have that conversation.
Dave: And the point is having that dialogue. Questioning the status quo is really at the root of so much of this. Maintaining a healthy skepticism, perhaps.
Carter: Skepticism is important, but I think it's a mistake to embrace skepticism as a philosophical position in and of itself. I don't believe that skepticism is a philosophy; skepticism is a turn of mind. One of my favorite legal philosophers is a fellow named Michael Perry, who has made the point in several of his writings that one cannot use skepticism as an excuse not to do anything. I think the way Perry puts it is that at any given moment our convictions are what they are, but we cannot refuse to act on conviction simply because we recognize that our convictions are of necessity tentative. They're contingent; we could be wrong. But if we refuse to act because we could be wrong, we live in a state of ethical paralysis; we simply let things happen, and no matter how wretched the situation may be we have to say, "Well, I'm a skeptic. Since my moral outrage could be mistaken, I best not do anything."
We have to balance in life between the willingness to have our convictions challenged and the necessity to act on them - or simply be acted upon.
But I wanted to come back, on this and the previous question, to one theme that is both a Christian theme and an otherwise ethical theme that I do try to develop in the book, one I believe we think too little about in society: I'm speaking of repentance and forgiveness. In American life we have very strong ideas about good and evil and very weak ideas about sin. When I say sin one doesn't have to be Christian or religious at all to get the sense of it. With the notion of sin, I have in mind simply the notion that all of us fall, all of us are far from perfect, all of us will make mistakes and do things we wish we hadn't done.
When we have political campaigns and we search for dirt on the opposition, when we have confirmation fights and we search for dirt, we're denying the idea of sin and embracing the idea of evil. We're saying if you did something ever that we can find, you must be a wretched person now.
The idea of repentance is that one can consciously and determinately turn from the past and say, "I'm not going to be that way anymore. That's the person I used to be; this is the person I am now." For whatever reason, we are not very attracted to that idea in our politics. Even as we recognize in our own lives that we're not pure, we expect a degree of purity from our politicians and our nominees for public office that's absurd. And if someone made a mistake in the past, we want to bring that into the present and say, "This is something you have to answer for today."
One of the things I was interested in exploring in The Emperor of Ocean Park was precisely that dichotomy between the notion of sin followed by true repentance - that should ideally lead to true forgiveness - and the idea of wrongdoing followed by punishment. They're overlapping ideas, but they're not the same. To be sure, Christianity has a lot to say about that, but the truth is that most of the world's great religions have a lot to say about the notion of repentance, the notion of turning from the past, turning from evil and trying to do good.
One of the most famous stories in the Bible, the story of David and Bathsheba, is a story in which David, in basically murdering Bathsheba's husband so he can have Bathsheba, has done a terrible, terrible thing. But the way the Biblical narrative is written, the result is not to say, "Therefore he is a horrible person forever." Despite the terrible thing he has done, he's able to turn from that and determinedly become a different and better person. That's the aspect that we often miss in American life: that one can turn from the past and put it behind.
Dave: That subject and various related issues are discussed at length in The Confirmation Mess. How, for instance, a judge's entire future is extrapolated from the history of his or her past. We appoint these people based entirely on how we believe they're going to decide cases in the future. That's so counterintuitive, particularly in relation to a judgeship, when it's supposed to be about objectivity and approaching an argument without a predetermined bias.
Carter: You know from my work that I'm not a fan of our confirmation process, and that's one of the reasons. We treat them like election campaigns. It's bizarre. When one gets confirmed and goes to take the oath to sit on the Supreme Court, one pledges to do justice without respect to persons. That strongly implies that the judge is promising No, my mind is not made up, and yet just the week before, sitting in front of the Senate and the television cameras, we insist the judge tell us, "My mind is already made up."
We want the judge to say, "I am close minded on this issue. I promise, Senator, I do not have an open mind. You don't have to worry." It's a very strange system, and I think one that does us absolutely no good and in fact a great deal of harm.
Dave: You will continue to write nonfiction, and you'll continue to teach, right?
Dave: Do you sleep?
Carter: When I was writing The Emperor of Ocean Park I didn't sleep, and that was a big mistake. I have to pace myself in a different way. I wrote the book late at night and occasionally on weekends mainly because I didn't want to slight time with my family. I didn't want to slight leisure time. I didn't want to slight my day job. In fact, although I can hardly believe it myself, I finished a couple of nonfiction books while I was writing this novel. I know that I can't work at this pace anymore. It was perhaps as much as anything else a mark of the obsession that I felt about the book.
I don't know how I'm going to get everything done that I have to balance now. I'm really not