interview by Ricki Thompson
RICKI: Kekla, thanks so much for joining me and your other fans (old and new) on Bookology! Your novels have been described as “well-paced,” “deeply-layered,” and “elegantly crafted.” I especially admire the uncomfortable issues you confront and the risks you take in your stories. You’ve authored a number of engaging books, but today let’s talk about your companion YA historical novels, The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets, and the research involved in writing them.
Your novels take place in Chicago, 1968, a powder keg time and place. 1968 was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot. It was the year that thousands of protesters and police clashed violently outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Did you choose this volatile setting, or did it choose you?
KEKLA: I wanted to write about the Black Panther Party, and though the organization was started in 1966 in Oakland, I wanted to show a broader picture of the civil rights struggle too. So I chose a city I was already familiar with, and where riots had erupted in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination (this happened in many cities nationwide, but not Oakland, because the Panthers helped calm the community). Chicago happened to also be the city where the DNC [Democratic National Convention] was held, which allowed Maxie’s story to open amid that melee.
RICKI: The Black Panthers was a controversial party. Many of your characters, including your protagonist, Maxie, are members. Why did you make this choice?
KEKLA: The Panthers were controversial because a lot of people didn’t understand their goals. In the media and in historical discussions, they tend to be portrayed as violent and scary, when in reality their work in the communities was broad and often very positive. Most people think of them as a militant group, which they were, however their “militancy” was based on a strategy of self-defense against police brutality. When they were not being attacked, they focused on creating positive change and empowering people within struggling black communities. The Black Panther Party operated schools, ran food programs, offered legal aid, and provided health clinics for poor people who did not have anywhere else to turn. I wrote these books in part to offer up the Panthers’ side of the story and to show how exciting their presence in the community was to young people who longed to make a difference and were tired of marching and protesting for change and being beaten down for their effort.
RICKI: The Black Panthers believed in carrying arms in order to police the police. A number of the characters in your books handle guns. What kind of research did you do to learn about firearms?
KEKLA: I read about the types of guns the Panthers used. I’ve never had actual firearms as a part of my life. I’m a little bit intimidated by the idea of guns, and while it appeals to me in theory to learn to use them for the purposes of research, I didn’t ever take it that far.
RICKI: Chicago, 1968, doesn’t exist anymore. But some of the people who inhabited that time and place still do. What role did personal interviews have in your research?
KEKLA: Not much for The Rock and the River. I didn’t personally know any former Panthers at that point, though I had spoken to a number of people who lived through the time and participated in the Civil Rights Movement in other capacities. By the time Fire in the Streets came out, I had the opportunity to speak to a handful of former Panthers, some of whom are still well known activists and educators.
RICKI: Did you explore the places in Chicago where your characters lived and worked? What did you learn from your explorations?
KEKLA: I went to college in Chicago area, but I lived in New York when I wrote these books. I have been to the neighborhoods where I picture Sam and Maxie living, but the community I created for them is really a conglomeration of places and things.
RICKI: Your novels make reference to a number of famous people—Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton. If you could have lunch with one of them, whom would you choose? Why?
KEKLA: Oh, wow. I would love to sit with any of them. Of your list, the only person still living is Bobby Seale, so I will try for that one in real life at some point, along with Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver and anyone else who will hang out with me. But in terms of those who are gone, I would probably choose Fred Hampton. He is the one on the list who had the least chance to speak in the world (shortest life, smallest platform during that life) and I can only imagine how much more he would have had to say.
RICKI: Authentic dialogue is so important in historical fiction. How did you learn the slang (such as “pigs” for “police”) and the everyday vernacular of the period?
KEKLA: Just from reading the Panthers’ historical writings, I was able to pick up their language and style. I certainly could have carried that aspect of the stories further, but I wanted modern readers to be able to follow the slang, so I chose a few things to use regularly. “Pigs,” to me, is Panther-specific and very evocative.
RICKI: What experiences, questions, cravings, in your own life connect you to Sam in The Rock and the River and/or Maxie in Fire in the Streets?
KEKLA: Well, the main question that drives ROCK is which path to choose—passive resistance or self-defense, broadly speaking. And in FIRE, it’s how far will you go to stand up for what you believe in, which is a shade of the same issue. So these novels are partly driven by my wondering what I would have done if I had lived back then, what choices I might have made in that time and place.
RICKI: Can you talk about your research process?
KEKLA: I did a lot of reading about the Black Panther Party: books, magazines, newspapers. I’d already studied the civil rights movement in general for many years already, but it was interesting and informative to dig into a less-often-discussed topic. I watched documentaries in which the founders and early members of the BPP spoke and the organization’s history and controversies were highlighted. I read their writings and speeches from the period, and autobiographies of, and I even viewed some old microfilm copies of the original Black Panther newspaper. Later, I traveled to Oakland and viewed copies of the real newspapers and other ephemera in their archives.
RICKI: And how did you keep track of your research?
KEKLA: I was supposed to keep track of it?
RICKI: You said your mom helped you in your research. How?
KEKLA: I can imagine myself saying that, but out of context, I’m not actually sure what I meant. She was a young teen in the late 1960s, so I’ve certainly talked with her about her own experiences and memories of the time.
RICKI: You’ve no doubt heard the expression “Your research is showing.” What riveting information did you have to eliminate for the sake of the stories?
KEKLA: Well, 1968 was quite a rich year in terms of historical context, so I left a lot of compelling material out of these stories. But it’s also a near enough moment in history that the kinds of historical details that authors sometimes get bogged down in retelling—daily food preparation rituals, transportation, period technology—weren’t too much of an issue. I did have to pay close attention to my own assumptions about the world—I had to eliminate references to Chicago’s Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), which hadn’t been finished yet, and pens that “click” open had to become pens with caps. The long curly cords of telephones that I remember from my 1980s childhood weren’t in fashion yet, so you couldn’t walk around the kitchen while on the phone, you had to stand in one place to talk. This is the kind of detail that my mom and other older readers helped me correct. And, of course, I realize that the very detail of using a corded phone may be news to some of my young readers!
RICKI: Fire in the Streets ends on a strong but edgy note. Can we hope for a third novel to join your other two?
KEKLA: Oh, I doubt it. I guess you never know when an idea will strike, but for the time being I’ve moved on to other topics. The nearest thing to a third “companion” for ROCK and FIRE is my non-fiction book on the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party, which will be published by Clarion in Fall 2016.