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The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

Winner of the
2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
New York Times Book Review Paperback Row

On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, in a tiny Alabama town, two brothers come of age in a world of model trains, church, and the local chapter of the Klan: Randall, the son of a sawmill worker, a brilliant eighth-grader and lonely outcast, begins teaching his eighteen-year-old deaf and uneducated brother B.J. sign language. Simultaneously in small-town Maryland the two sons of a Pullman Porter, six-year-old hyper Eliot, a gifted student himself, and his brother Dwight who at twelve is discovering he likes boys more than girls, grow up in a world punctuated by the county fair, extended family picnics, a visit from A. Philip Randolph and the legacy of a lynched great-aunt. The four mature into men directly confronting the fierce resistance to the early civil rights movement, and are all ultimately uprooted, navigating a deaf urban world, the working class suburbs of the early calculator boom, a community fresh from the Panther heyday being accosted by the onset of AIDS. Their journey culminates in an explosive and devastating encounter between the two families.

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: Cumberland Times-News