October 19, 2016

Thomas Mullen

Making an empathetic leap for historical fiction
Interview by

Thomas Mullen has a knack for stepping into someone else’s shoes and telling stories from their unique perspective. It’s that ability that fuels each of his novels, including his latest, Darktown. Mullen talked with BookPage about the first black police officers, writing outside your race and more during his visit to the 2016 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.

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Thomas Mullen has a knack for stepping into someone else’s shoes and telling stories from their unique perspective. It’s that ability that fuels each of his novels, including his latest, Darktown.

Set in 1948, the novel follows Atlanta’s first black police officers when the Jim Crow era of segregation was still in full effect—six years before Brown vs. Board of Education, seven years before the Montgomery bus boycott, and before the first key victories of the civil rights movement. In order to make these black police officers palatable to the white community, they had to operate under a number of Jim Crow restrictions. They could only patrol black neighborhoods. They couldn’t drive squad cars. They couldn’t even set foot in the main police headquarters for fear of being beaten by other white officers, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mullen talked with BookPage during his visit to the 2016 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.

How were you, as a white person, able to write with authenticity from a black person’s point of view in the novel?
Doing historical fiction forces you out of your comfort zone. It forces you to try to imagine what it would be like to be in this completely foreign environment. You can’t expect to just parachute into another culture and write about it well. It takes work, it takes a deep amount of respect and knowledge. If you don’t have knowledge about something, then your impressions are going to be thin and flat and, by definition, you’re going to write stereotypes.

There were all kinds of divisions between wealthy and poor and middle class and poor, longtime Atlantans and newcomers, educated and non-educated. So, I wanted to make sure my characters felt very three-dimensional and made use of all this diversity.

I was initially a bit wary that this seems to violate some taboos that some people have, to write a character that is a different race than yourself, but I felt that if I took the time and did the research that I could do this well. I think that fiction is all about empathy and seeing the world through other people’s eyes, whether they are a different race, a different gender, or in a different time period. In the science fiction community, it could be a different kind of creature entirely. That’s one of the great things about fiction. How can I as a writer ask my readers to take that empathetic leap if I’m not even doing it?

 “I think that fiction is all about empathy and seeing the world through other people’s eyes, whether they are a different race, a different gender, or in a different time period. . . . That’s one of the great things about fiction. How can I as a writer ask my readers to take that empathetic leap if I’m not even doing it?”

What was going through your mind as you were reading up on the mistreatment of these officers?
People ask me, were you shocked by what you read? And no, not really. Maybe it’s because I’ve studied the civil rights era and mid-20th century America a lot. It’s disturbing, it’s enraging, it’s definitely sobering and depressing, but I don’t think it should be seen as shocking to anyone. We should be taught enough about this that it doesn’t blow our minds. I thought it was very compelling and there were a lot of possibilities for interesting characters with unique dilemmas that I could bring to life. The civil rights movement is getting further in the rearview mirror, and there are whole generations now that don’t know the stories apart from what they hear on television and what they see in history books. I think that fiction, by dramatizing characters and seeing through their eyes what it was like to go through that, can make certain things pop that don’t quite pop in textbooks.

Did you do any interviews in your research?
The original eight have passed away. I was able to find a few people who started in the ’60s and knew of some of the original eight. They told me that even in the early ’60s it was very dysfunctional in terms of the white cops not working with the black cops. I also found articles written in the ’80s and ’90s catching up with some of the officers. Some of the articles were quite long, and that’s how I read, in their own words, how the white cops would try to run them down, the white cops would make monkey noises, the white cops would drop the N-word in front of them and on the radio. So, a lot of stuff that happens in the book I got from that. I also found a couple of digitized interviews done in the ’80s from a big oral history research project in Atlanta. There were two done with some of the original black cops, so I got to hear their words and stories and the way they spoke and that was helpful.

Was the novel done by the time Ferguson and events like that started to happen?
I sent a draft to my agent around Labor Day 2014 and was tightening and editing stuff in the summer when Michael Brown was killed. At no time did I ever go back and tweak things or alter characters based on what happened. But it was strange to see race and policing land under that national spotlight in a way that hadn’t happened since Rodney King. I can’t say that this book was a response to that summer, but these are issues that have always been percolating under the surface. These will always be relative things to talk about.

You are originally from Rhode Island and spent several years in the Washington, D.C., area, before moving to Atlanta. Do you feel with this book you’ll be embraced as a Southern writer?
I was worried at first that I wouldn’t be embraced. But I’m a writer and where I live doesn’t really matter. My first three books are set in really different places. I didn’t feel like I was pledged to a certain location where my geographic muse was. This is the first of my books actually set in the South that can actually be put with Southern writers or on a regional bookshelf.

You’ve got a sequel in the works?
My editor is editing it right now. It’s set two years later with all the surviving characters in Darktown.

Get the Book

Darktown

Darktown

By Thomas Mullen
Atria / 37 INK
ISBN 9781501133862

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