Kia Corthron is the author of the novel The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter which was released by Seven Stories Press in 2016 and was awarded The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. She is also a playwright whose works have premiered in New York and across the U.S. as well as in London.

She was born and raised in Cumberland, Maryland, a valley in the Appalachians on the banks of the Potomac facing West Virginia. Her mother, Shirley Beckwith Corthron, also born in Cumberland, was a homemaker and school volunteer, at times in her younger years working as a nurse’s aid and house cleaner. Her father, James Corthron, born and raised on a Virginia farm, worked at the local paper mill planning shipments.

Corthron attended state schools for her undergraduate degree (Frostburg State College and the University of Maryland in College Park), did a bit of editing in the D.C. area for a while, then relocated to New York City to earn her masters in Theatre Arts at Columbia University.

As a playwright, Corthron has received numerous awards, including several for her body of work: the Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the United States Artists Jane Addams Fellowship, the Simon Great Plains Playwright Award, and the Lee Reynolds Award. In addition, she has written a bit of television. (Edgar and Writers Guild Outstanding Series awards for The Wire.)

Among the theatres that have premiered her plays are Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, Atlantic Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club (New York City); Yale Repertory Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Center Stage, Hartford Stage, Children’s Theatre Company, Alabama Shakespeare Festival (regionally); Royal Court Theatre, Donmar Warehouse (London). She has taught playwriting in prisons for youth and for adults, and at universities and conservatories for undergraduate and graduate students. She has frequently contributed short plays to theatrical evenings curated to address specific current issues, such as the suffering of Iraqis under U.S. sanctions, the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, and as a benefit to aid Haitian earthquake victims. She traveled to the West Bank and Gaza as part of a six-playwright contingent led by Naomi Wallace to meet with Palestinian theatres, and she spent two weeks in Liberia as the country was beginning to transition out of its civil war and wrote a play inspired by the experience. In early 2016 she was part of a six-member delegation to South Africa - a reading tour sponsored by the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, meeting with South African writers and students.

Since coming to Manhattan as a student in 1988 she has lived in New York City, mostly (since 1995) in Harlem.

Q&A with Veronica Liu of Seven Stories Press

You are a lauded playwright and screenwriter. Why did you write The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter as a novel?

The short answer is length. From the beginning I envisioned how expansive the story would be and could not imagine it ever fitting into the confines of a two-hour drama. Still, I didn’t come close to imagining just how expansive! I did not intentionally sit down to write anything epic but that’s what happened, the result of which, hopefully, will allow the reader to experience the moments of the narrative on a more profound level: the joys as well as the losses.

You’ve called yourself a political writer, and your work frequently draws from meticulous historical research. The four protagonists in this novel each have their own detailed narrative. What were some of your influences in writing this novel?

Regarding the appearance of A. Philip Randolph—Having decided that Lon Campbell, the father of Dwight and Eliot, would be a Pullman Porter, I was interested in how the famed organizer of the Sleeping Car Porters might fit in. I read a biography, Andrew E. Kersten’s A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard. I should say here that the fictional Humble, Maryland, of the book was greatly inspired by my hometown Cumberland, Maryland. So in reading Kersten’s biography I was delighted to note that, in the chapter about the porters, there were two photographs of workers on the trains and both happened to be on the Capitol Limited line—the D.C. to Chicago route that is the exact (and only) train that has run through Cumberland for the better part of a century! (Back then it was the New York to Chicago run—precisely the route I’ve taken when going from my home in New York to my birth home, except now it’s two different trains.)

In researching black lawyers of the mid-twentieth century, I read Juan Williams’ biography of Thurgood Marshall and for the first time came across the real story of the “kissing case”—two little black boys in the Deep South of 1958 (my fictional rendering taking place in 1960) arrested and punished harshly for kissing two little white girls. Over time I was able to unearth some appalling information regarding the community reaction to the incident, much of which appears in the novel, but the facts about the case itself were difficult to ascertain—because, as I later came to realize (with much guidance from my writer and lawyer friend Cindy Cooper), of the complicated and ludicrous treatment of juvenile offenders at the time, allowing for the absence of a court record. Separate from all this, my sister Kara gave me a book that she thought I might find of interest: Alex Heard’s The Eyes of Willie McGee about the infamous rape trials from the ’40s. A capital case with the defendant being represented by three lawyers all under thirty—two men and a very young Bella Abzug—and the idea came to me for Eliot and his defense team for little Max and Jordan.

One more: from Deaf Culture Our Way: Anecdotes from the Deaf Community, I picked up a moment for B.J.—his past embarrassment as a deaf man for aiming at the water at the bottom of the urinal rather than at the urinal wall, thus making noises that drew unwanted attention to himself. That was a gem to discover since urinal culture was at least as foreign to me as Deaf culture!

Have any of your own experiences informed the writing of this novel?

Yes! I just wrote above that Deaf culture was something unfamiliar to me. But I grew up being close to a deaf person—my first cousin Darryl, the son of my mother’s very close sister Cleta. Much of B.J. in his youth was inspired by my memories of Darryl as a child. I wrote the very first draft of the novel with no further knowledge of the community. By the time of the second draft, I had read Padden and Humphries’ seminal Inside Deaf Culture, and later took sign language classes which provided me with some interaction with the New York Deaf community—and I was very fortunate through contacts to find Iris Kinley, a deaf person and perfect stranger who was so generous as to read my tome and offer superb feedback. All this did not change B.J. nor April May June as characters per se, but there was now an invaluable cultural foundation that enriched them.

As I said, fictional Humble, Maryland, was very much inspired by Cumberland, Maryland, where I was born and raised, the towns identical geographically, demographically, and socioeconomically. Here’s one detail out of many: driving along the freeway leading into and out of Cumberland to the east, my mother’s brother Leo used to always point out a small restaurant just outside of town. He never forgot the old days, when there was posted a sign saying “Black To Go,” meaning blacks could purchase takeout but were forbidden to come into the establishment. This restaurant, as I have imagined it, appears in the 1983 Dwight section.

A last example: As a child, my sister Kim and I were huge fans of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline. We liked the sequels, but we LOVED the original, and checked it out of the library numerous times. It must have been one of the books on our lists of fifty plus that led to my sister and I earning some certificate from the public library summer book club and getting our picture in the Cumberland News, which I’ve attached. Kim is far right, and I’m next to her, the shortest child.

Photo: The Cumberland Times-News