I read Ravi Howard’s debut novel Like Trees, Walking a little late. As in summer 2015 late. Some seven years after it was originally published and had already won the Ernest Gaines Award and had been named a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award. But it wasn’t the list of accolades that made me buy and read Howard’s book. It was something much simpler. I heard Howard read from his new novel at an AWP panel, and, afterwards, when I went to the exhibit room to buy it, I saw that an older novel he’d written was also for sale on the publisher’s table. I knew I wanted to read the new book Driving The King, but I also hate to be left out of a literary conversation, so in order to listen in I started from the beginning and read the books in order. I’m glad I did. Howard’s first novel, set in Mobile, Alabama, is about a lynching that occurs in the 1980s. Howard’s second novel, set in Montgomery, Alabama, is about a man who saves singer Nat King Cole from a mob and ends up with a job as his chauffeur. Of course, both novels are about so much more.
This interview was conducted over email with the author.
The Rumpus: How long did it actually take you to write each of these novels?
Ravi Howard: The first book took about four years for me to write. I completed a short story entitled “Like Trees, Walking” for my M.F.A. thesis at the University of Virginia in 2001. I started working on the novel draft in 2002, and I let it rest for months before I would revise. Driving the King was a bit longer, about five years. I followed the same pattern with rest periods because they helped me to see more of the page during revision.
Rumpus: What did writing Like Trees, Walking teach you about writing a novel and how did that knowledge inform the way in which you went about writing Driving the King?
Howard: One of the big lessons Like Trees, Walking taught was about the notion of the 1980s being a historical period. I remembered the era and drew on memory for much of the story beyond the lynching. I had to keep that in mind when going to the 1950s. I wanted to stay true to the notion of recall and recent history. I have family and friends in both Montgomery and Mobile, so I asked about the historical events as I was reading newspaper clips and other research. I wanted the research to take the shape of those shared memories.
The Rumpus: Like Trees, Walking and Driving the King both appear to be the products of meticulous research. In Like Trees, Walking, the narrator comes from a family of morticians and in Driving the King, the narrator comes from a family of taxi cab drivers. After reading the first book, I swore you had been a funeral director in a past life, and after the reading the second book, I suspected you were driving taxis at night. This is all to say that your research makes your writing so realistic; as a reader I find myself fully inhabiting the worlds you’ve created. What were your research processes for writing your two novels?
Howard: It was a bit of a shock for me when I first toured with Like Trees, Walking and people asked about my family and the funeral home business. That was new territory for me, although I did talk to an uncle who used to drive hearses and teach mortuary science courses. I wasn’t sure that was a world I wanted to explore as I wrote, but I think discomfort can help the process. I needed to balance that with some lighter research. I went to the beaches where the jubilees happen. I rode a Mardi Gras float in Mobile to get that perspective. Thinking about the question, I realize now how much driving I did around Mobile, which was a city I thought I knew well before the book.
Driving helped me to understand Los Angeles a bit better, and that was the challenge—writing about a character’s home when it wasn’t mine. I tried to map black Los Angeles of the 1950s, Capitol Records, NBC, and I drove quite a bit. I wanted to get a present day feeling and see how a day might have felt to Nat Cole and Weary. I also had to remember which spaces were off-limits to black people in both Hollywood and Montgomery.
I can’t forget the records. It’s easy to get carried away buying vinyl. I didn’t go too crazy, but I started a decent collection. That’s a word we don’t get to say much anymore.
Rumpus: Care to elaborate on what ended up in your collection of vinyl? What music did you listen to as part of your research?
Howard: I bought a few sets of Nat Cole records. I have a few copies of a few songs, but that was helpful—hearing how he changed up over the years. My favorite of his is Nat King Cole at the Sands. You can hear the echo in the room. Also, you can hear the applause, which became important to the research. The people listening knew the work, so applause is a backstory, returning to a good memory. I tried to remember when I was building the histories of the characters. A studio is supposed to be silent and invisible, but the live albums remind you that these are people in a certain space at a certain time. As much as giving a sound and a feeling, the live albums helped me build the spaces. Plus, crooners tell a good story. They can make you look forward to a sad song even when you already know the ending.
Rumpus: I want to ask about violence and narrative. In both novels, acts of violence against black males trigger much of the main conflict. In Like Trees, Walking, Michael Donald’s lynching is the central conflict, yet the story is not told by Michael nor seen through his eyes. In Driving the King, the “King” in the title is Nat King Cole, but the story is much more about Nat Weary. How do you decide who gets to tell the story? And does violence have anything to do with it?
Howard: I wanted to pick narrators who were close to these incidents and affected by them, but I also wanted the characters to be outside the public eye. Also, I like to use reluctance as a point-of-view element. Both narrators would have preferred it if the circumstances didn’t exist, and maybe that connects to that idea of writing from a space of discomfort.
The unknown folks were telling the stories of the famous, and that’s been my experience of listening and learning history by people who were on the outskirts. I bought a CD box set Central Avenue Sounds about the Los Angeles music styles of the 1950s. Several of the tracks were listed as “unknown female vocalist” or “unknown male vocalist.” Those tracks became fascinating for the music and for the anonymity of the musicians.
Rumpus: Something that really impressed me in both of your novels was the way in which you wrote about black communities. As one whose background involved living in various fractured poor communities where no one comes together and nothing gets done, I felt like I was reading about these strange, alien worlds and I wanted to go to them. In both of your novels, you’ve depicted southern communities full of middle-class black professionals who all band together to combat the external threats levied at its members. Are these the kinds of communities in which you grew up? What inspired your depictions of the two neighborhoods/communities in your two novels? I’m sure you’ve heard it said before by some that integration actually harmed black communities and businesses. I’m not asking you to weigh in on that one way or the other, but I’m curious to know how much of a role class, wealth, and segregation play in your depictions.
Howard: Some of the areas I describe in Driving the King were in my old neighborhood, near Alabama State, a black college where my parents worked. When they were students, their professors had to leave the South for graduate school. Yes, some people achieved a great deal in spite of Jim Crow, but the system was designed to limit achievement. Black business owners were licensed and taxed by local governments that denied them the vote. They paid for services they couldn’t use. My family always told me that most places didn’t even have a colored fountain. There was a white fountain, and black folks were just thirsty. Or maybe they had a water hose. Separate but equal was never real, even for people with education or business success.
Also, I heard that story about Paul Williams. This black architect worked on the Beverly Hills Hotel, which was segregated, so he couldn’t stay in a place he made possible. So black labor was all over the landscape, but black people could only thrive in a small corner of it. Those borders needed to shift. Those lessons I learned about Montgomery were true in Nat Cole’s Hollywood. They’re true now.
Rumpus: I’d like to talk more specifically about the second novel. In Driving the King, you seem to be deliberately playing with timelines, moving back and forth between 1945 and 1955-56. What was your intention in using the time arc you employ? Why not tell the story chronologically? Why the quantum leaping back and forth through the space-time-continuum?
Howard: I started to draft chronologically and then I revised toward a structure that gave memory more weight. The first workshop instructor I had talked about real-time story, and I think about that when I’m trying to structure. With this book I wanted real-time to flow on one track, and I wanted to let near memory, distant memory, and imagination work on separate lines also. I think about the lessons of Kindred, and Octavia Butler makes those jumps from modern day Los Angeles to antebellum Maryland. A lot of us let characters time travel to a memory with flashbacks, or they jump to an imagined world of what could have been.
Rumpus: What were the difficulties, if any, involved in incorporating an historical figure into an otherwise fictionalized book?
Howard: Readers can easily imagine Nat Cole’s voice and public persona, and I had to find a way to find some new space in that familiarity. I looked for a candid layer, and I wanted to imagine the language that he would never say on camera. The difficulty is imagining an interior for someone so well known. His candid voice was probably more important than his stage persona, at least in fiction where the backstage feeling becomes central.
Rumpus: Are you a big Nat King Cole fan? Why did you choose to fictionalize his character and include him in the central narrative? Why not someone else?
Howard: I lived a few blocks from Nat Cole’s childhood home, so I grew up with this sense of having a famous neighbor. I wondered what life what have been like if he’d stayed in Montgomery. His father was a minister, so it’s possible that might have been his profession during the boycott era. Also, he never returned to Alabama after the real-life attack in 1956, so I wanted to bring him back.
Rumpus: It seems like there are more women as prominent characters in your second novel. There’s Almena Lomax, Lucinda, Mattie, and Marie, yet even the more minor characters, like Evelyn and Miss Vee, get to speak and have their moment. One of the things I really appreciated about Driving the King was that most of the women you depicted were just minding their business and living their lives. They seemed to have existences outside of their relationship to the main character. There are so many times when I pick up a book by a male novelist that reads as if he has forgotten that women exist for anything other than being the protagonist’s mother or lover. How much of a concern is gender when you are building a novel?
Howard: I’ve always liked works that develop an ensemble, and ignoring female voices undermines the story. The earliest boycott planners were English professors in the Women’s Political Council. I connected Mattie to them. Without that storyline, I’d be ignoring history. I took a lot of historical license, but you can’t use license as a form of erasure. The women you mentioned had different forms of activism that was one part of lives that included love, family, work, and all the rest of it.
Rumpus: Why doesn’t anyone ever condemn Weary for his actions in defending Nat King Cole? His parents, his siblings, his ex-girlfriend are all down with what he does. No one, not the people in his hometown or his new acquaintances in Los Angeles, seems to think he made a mistake. So what does his act mean to mean? What did you want it to mean to the novel?
Howard: I didn’t state it explicitly, but I imagine those people were relieved he wasn’t killed. I think they also knew it was in his character to act. You mentioned Almena Lomax, and she was one of those writers who didn’t support the idea of non-violence. Many people didn’t, so Weary’s actions might have connected with lots of folks. They lived through Weary’s experience as they might have lived through Joe Louis. They wouldn’t have chosen his actions, but I think that even nonviolent activists understood why he acted. I think they recognized that Weary didn’t choose that fight. Activists chose their fights strategically, and maybe they were grateful for those who couldn’t.
Rumpus: I noticed that these characters are so calm. And it’s not just Weary. I mean, you’re writing about Weary coming back home from prison and stepping smack dab into the Montgomery bus boycotts. The situation is real and he and his folks are right in the thick of it. Yet they are so calm. Calmly, they practice methods of peacefully resisting arrest, and plan and practice how to go to jail—the women careful to remove their wedding rings and to stash tissues on their person in preparation for the prison toilets. Calmly, they print off newsletters and materials of protest under the cover of a garment factory. Calmly, Nat King Cole takes to the stage and completes his concert, sick with fear, with ulcers and blood in his stomach. It reminded me of WEB DuBois’s “double-consciousness” theory, the “twoness” struggling beneath the surface of a calm demeanor. What kinds of considerations or decisions did you make about tone and diction to achieve this character calmness?
Howard: I read in one his biographies that the piano players of Nat Cole’s era developed an improvisational style because they were going to venues with bad pianos. If a key was out of tune or broken, they had to work around it. That was something I wanted to mimic in the way the characters spoke and acted.
There was definitely showmanship in the civil rights movement. I think the media savvy was similar to the entertainment world. They had all learned patience the hard way, especially Weary, so they could outlast segregationists. The masking was self-defense. It was diplomacy in hostile spaces. I wrote quite a few backstage moments in the novel, also boycott planning, and I wanted to capture those last private moments before that crossover into the public self.