Looking forward on a Thursday morning to my interview with Kim Dobson on his radio show “Parallel University” on KAOS Radio 89.3 FM, I imagined how I might respond to questions he might or might not ask about my novel, Tupelo, starting with a question about how race was handled in the book, which is set in Mississippi in the years leading up to and throughout the civil rights struggles. My imaginary response was this:
Throughout the process of writing it, I was painfully aware of the pitfalls of trying to write about race relationships from the viewpoint of a white boy born into privilege. I kept thinking of all the movies dealing with the oppression of Blacks in America in which the hero is always a white man. I wanted to avoid at all costs any hint of that kind of attitude, and I wanted my story to be unsparingly truthful. I think I was successful in that, and so far the critics have agreed.
I think of Tupelo not so much as a book about race but as the coming-of-age story of Kevin Lumpkin. Racial relationships, lynchings, sit-ins, the riots on campus at Ole Miss and the trial of a Black man wrongly accused of the rape and murder of a white woman can all be found within the pages of the book; yet these things are not so much what the book is about, but rather they are the milieu in which the story takes place. They touch Kevin’s life almost tangentially and, up until a certain point, only marginally affect him. The things that more profoundly affect him are his family life, his love-hate relationship with his twin brother, his budding sexuality and his boyhood sweethearts, football, high school dances and fights both physical and verbal with his major antagonist, Joshua Culpepper—the mean child of a mean father, even at so tender an age as four or five, a bully during his school years and an asshole in college, who matures into the youngest District Attorney in the state of Mississippi, who prosecutes the afore-mentioned trial of the Black man accused of rape and murder.
The statement above was written Thursday morning. That afternoon I drove out to The Evergreen State College and walked the long walk from the parking lot to the building that houses KAOS radio in a deluge. Kim Dobson, the host of “Parallel University,” met me there. Each of us was wearing a fedora with rainwater pouring from the brim. We took off our wet coats and hats and got started on the hour-long interview, which was informal and chatty, and which I felt went very well. The interview was broadcast live. Kim will post a recording of it online, and I will post a link to it on the Mud Flat Press website.