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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Kekla Magoon: Writing Historical Fiction

inter­view by Ric­ki Thomp­son

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Aladdin Books, 2009

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 mêlée.

RICKI: The Black Pan­thers was a con­tro­ver­sial par­ty. Many of your char­ac­ters, includ­ing your pro­tag­o­nist, Max­ie, are mem­bers. Why did you make this choice?

Aladdin, 2012

Aladdin, 2012

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?

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Hen­ry Holt, 2014

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?

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Can­dlewick, 2015

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?

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Blooms­bury, 2015

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.

 

 

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