Anthony Grooms is an author and poet whose novel, Bombingham, was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as "a powerful novel with passages that linger in the mind long after the book is put down." Framed by the Vietnam conflict, it is set primarily in suburban Birmingham during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and grapples with issues of race, justice and morality.
A professor of creative writing and American literature at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, Grooms has twice been awarded the Southern Regional Council for Literature's Lillian Smith Prize for Fiction. He is also the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship to lecture at the University College of Southern Stockholm, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
A second edition of his short-story collection Trouble No More was published in January and chosen as this year's selection for the All Georgia Reads initiative. UW-Madison African American Studies Prof. Craig Werner introduces Grooms -- who will read from Bombingham, take audience questions and sign copies of his book -- at noon Saturday, Oct. 21, in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center, during the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival.
The Daily Page: When I read your characters' dialogue out loud, the phrasings and their cadences sound as natural and real as overheard conversation. How do you accomplish this? And to what extent is your ear for dialogue attributable to your undergraduate studies in theater and speech?
Grooms: Certainly my early training as a playwright has a lot to do with the way I narrate fiction. I tend toward scenic narration which includes a good deal of dialogue. Developing an ear for dialogue, though, is an on-going learning task. It means listening, enjoying what people say and how they say it -- perhaps even mimicking it, but in some way internalizing it. Then I call up phrases, intonations, rhythms and so forth when they seem to fit a scene -- and of course, I revise and revise.
Your appearance at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival falls under "To Establish Justice," the theme for the festival's cornerstone program track, "A More Perfect Union." What is your definition of justice, and how is it established?
Thanks for this complicated and serious question! Iâ,"ve been thinking a lot about American justice in the context of a novel I am writing about a lynching, and I have a lot to say. I'll try to be concise.
Justice, I think, is more a process than a state of being. What is just is a question that societies constantly struggle with, or at least they ought to. Luckily, there are some well established guidelines. First there is the concept of "unalienable rights," as our forefather T. Jefferson put it. For Jefferson, one of the rights was the pursuit of happiness, and I do think that the pursuit of happiness, though not necessarily happiness, itself, is a right. But it is a right that grows out of the provision of more basic rights. These rights might be summed up as the right to be free from poverty. We can argue whether this right is God-given, but it certainly should be a birthright of a person born into a just society that the society should do all in its power to provide the basic nutrition, education and so forth. After all, to do so is fundamentally beneficial for the society as a whole. A rich society like ours, where 12% of the population is poor, then is profoundly unjust.
Another guide comes from the "mythic pattern of justice.' A defendant is accused, then adjudicated, and if found guilty, is punished. This punishment may be thought of as redemption, a payment to the victim and to the society as a whole. From this redemption, we hope, flows transformation or reform, and from that, reconciliation and perhaps transcendence for both victim and perpetrator. It is a multi-layered process that takes time, and truth and reconciliation commissions, such as the one in South Africa, only get you part of the way. Most societies, including the U.S., have not reconciled, much less transcended over their various national atrocities. To add a literary note to this discussion: Often critics describe novels as "redemptive." Reading a novel can not be redemptive (unless of course it is a punishment to read it). What the critics mean is that the novel can bring about a transformation in the reader, but that too is not possible without a redemption outside of reading the novel.
A third guide might be called the "beloved community," a concept M.L. King often spoke about. Here, King calls for a just society which recognizes that there will always be social conflicts, and so, constructs legal means and institutions which equitably mediate those conflicts. It is important in such a model that justice is equitable. We often call this "color-blind justice," but I think justice needs to be "colorful" -- in order to be just we recognize differences as we apply equitable judgments. To be just, we must be flexible, creative, and above all, humane.
Where were you and what were you doing when you first conceived of Bombingham?
I wasn't in any one place or time. The idea of writing such a novel took shape over about 20 years. It became more and more formed after the publication of Trouble No More, but it was and still is to some degree, an evolving idea.
Why revisit the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in novel form?
For me, it isn't so much revisiting a long-gone era. I lived through the civil rights movement, and I am still living it. I see its legacy, both bad and good, all around me, all the time. Besides, it is the cloth I am cut out of as an artist. I want to explore the big social struggles of my time and how they impacted ordinary people. Perhaps I am old-fashioned in that way, but I believe that story telling about this period is important for Americans to read about, and the novel is the best form for me to accommodate this belief.
In what ways do you imagine Bombingham might adjust readers' perspectives on the campaign for Civil Rights 40 years ago, and focus their views of continuing contemporary struggles to overcome institutional, social and economic racism?
In the context of your question, I hope that readers will see better the role of ordinary people in making social change. My characters, like the thousands of children who have marched in Birmingham, in Soweto, and in other places, were ordinary school children. Secondly, I hope to break through the iconic myth of the civil rights movement. This is the King-centered narrative, driven by popular media, that implies the movement began and ended with King. Great as he was, King was but one man in a long complex struggle.
You appear too young to have served in Vietnam, yet Bombingham's scenes set there during the war remind me of Tim O'Brien's detailed verisimilitude. Did you serve in Vietnam, or did you consult people who served?
Flattery will get you everything! In fact, I am of the Vietnam War era, and came within a lottery of being drafted. I was not drafted, but I knew people, only slightly older, who had been on the front lines. Most of the detail of my book comes from hearing their stories -- when they would talk -- and from reading oral histories and good fiction like O'Brien's.
Is racism more or less dangerous and damaging when it is subtle than when it is violent?
Who can say? How can you measure the damage -- the loss of potential, the humiliation, the loss of self-esteem, the self-hatred and the depression? Both forms are dangerous -- for both the victims and for the society in general. At least, though, with the overt racism the victim has clear targets at which to aim his anger. But in truth, the perpetuators of racism have always been subtle and slippery. Even in the most violent times, the real perpetuators have had smiling faces while they elected racist governments, tolerated violence and maintained an inequitable status quo.
When and why did you go to Ghana, and what did you bring away from that experience?
Ostensibly, I went to Ghana to teach. Walt Whitman, anyone? But really I went to explore, to learn more about life outside of the Western world, and what I brought away is still difficult to put into words even five years later -- but I am writing a book of poems about it! Importantly, I gained a better understanding of the effect of Western consumerism on the economies of poor countries. I do not understand this as an economist, only as a person who came to realize that the plump child in the village lane was edematous, who went to buy new shoes for a child but could only find hand-me-downs from Europe, and who watched the big trees, freshly cut from the rain forest, being shipped to Japan without being milled in a country where half of the people are out of work. I think I learned, at least at a gut-level, something about how poverty is perpetuated and how indifferent we in the rich countries are to our ravenous consumption of everything. It made me realize better that poverty is a problem that can be solved! I also learned that, in Ghana, this African American hipster was obruni, a white man.
What circumstances led to Richard Bausch being your mentor?
After undergraduate school, I went to metro Washington to wait on tables. I was having a life crisis since I had a degree in theater, but no enthusiasm for a life in the theatre. So I took poetry and fiction writing courses at a community college, and there I met Dick Bausch. He was just beginning to publish novels, and was the first published novelist I had ever met, so I sought him out as a teacher. One night, standing in the aisle of a burger and beer joint, Dick asked me to join the writing program at George Mason University. I didn't think I was graduate student material and told him so. He gave me a look, somewhat casual, but nonetheless emphatic. "But you are a writer," he said. It was an existential moment for me, a sudden shift in the way I thought of myself. I rushed home to tell my girlfriend: I was no longer a wanna-be writer. Dick said I WAS a writer. I enrolled in the program at Mason and found generous and thoughtful mentors in Dick Bausch and Susan Shreve.
How does the writing of poems affect your prose style?
I have always, even as a child, written poems along with prose, so perhaps the two forms are mutually influential. I tend to be a strongly narrative poet, and I pay attention to poetical organization in prose -- especially, sound and rhythm. Dick Bausch stressed the importance of poetry reading for developing short story writers. He often read poems to us, his students, in fiction class.
In terms of gratification, how does a Lillian Smith Award for Fiction compare to a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship?
My NEA fellowship was for arts administration, not writing. It was not a grant, but rather an internship. Though it was a worthy experience, it was not a recognition of my ability as an artist. The Smith award, which I have been granted twice, is especially important to me because it recognizes both artistic merit and social awareness.
If there is one sentence or phrase you have written that gave you more satisfaction than all others you have written, what was your reaction upon writing it, and how did it serve the novel, story or poem?
Geez. They all give satisfaction -- for about three minutes. Then the pleasure dissipates and the work begins. The work, also, is pleasurable. What a privilege to able to write! I'm not homeless. I'm not a child soldier. I'm not yet dead. A lot of writers talk about how much they suffer -- and some do -- but writing is not the source of the suffering.
When and where do you prefer to write?
I prefer to write at home, in my basement office, in the late morning, when my house is quiet.
In addition to Trouble No More, Amazon.com customers who purchased Bombingham also ordered Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones; Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, by Bebe Moore Campbell; and Warriors Don't Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals' memoir of the battle to integrate Little Rock. If you were to recommend another book to purchase along with Bombingham, what would it be?
Probably, I ordered those books. If it's a movement theme you want, then I would also look at Glen Eskew's But for Birmingham, a history of Birmingham's social movements and perhaps, King's Why We Canâ,"t Wait. Ernest Gaines' A Lesson before Dying is the kind of company that I hope my books will keep. It might also be fun to read Bombingham along beside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, which do you find most intriguing?
They are all intriguing as writers because they are all writing about important social issues and our national values. Marge Piercy, of course, is very well known as a novelist and poet, and those are my forms, too.
When readers approach you after public appearances such as the Wisconsin Book Festival, do you prefer to be addressed as Professor Grooms, Anthony or Tony?
Tony -- it's really my given name.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend, and why would you recommend it?
I would recommend Edward P. Jones' The Known World. It is wonderful storytelling, that opens us to new insights into human behavior.
Do you have any tattoos?
No. I have scars, instead.