Interview with Walter Bennett
Leaving Tuscaloosa is a provocative title–how did you come up with it?
The title has particular significance for me, because I “left” Tuscaloosa, where I grew up, both physically and mentally, as my adult life took me to other places. But I think it has meaning on a number of levels that make it a dramatic title. The word “leaving” might imply an emphatic leaving of some place-“To hell with this place-I’m outta here”-or, it might imply a forced leaving; or, it might imply sadness at voluntarily leaving a place and its memories behind. Then there is the multi-dimensional aspect: physically leaving a place; psychologically leaving it (putting the effects of a place behind you); emotionally leaving (one’s heart is gone, regardless of where one’s body is).
Then there are the boundaries within boundaries, defined by race and economic circumstances. Some of the characters “leave” Tuscaloosa (as it was then, including the racial limitations it imposed on both blacks and whites) without actually leaving the physical boundaries of the town. When one crosses from the white section of the segregated town into the African-American neighborhood, in a sense one leaves what many white people considered “Tuscaloosa.” That is the “colored” section was not part of their unconscious map of the town. From the African-American point of view, leaving the “colored” section of town was crossing a boundary as well. So, I think the idea of “leaving,” is a deeply complex idea and creates a lot of questions (mystery and anticipation) for a prospective reader of this book.
How does the historical setting of the story resonate for you? How did you come to be passionate about Civil Rights causes?
Some years ago I took a writing workshop at Skidmore College taught by the great American author, Russell Banks. He said that issues of race were the defining moral issues of our time. Since he and I are approximately the same age, I assumed he was talking about our generation, but I suspect now that he had in mind a larger, more global view-not just the black/white duality of our youth, but including many races, ethnic groups, and the conflicts that arise from those differences. In any event, race is clearly very present-consciously or not-in our current, public discourse.
But I think that for a lot of people like me-particularly white people in the South who were at the time uninformed and unconscious about the evil of our racist society-a growing consciousness about race, engendered by the Civil Rights Movement, became a defining moral issue in the development of our own conscience and in seeing the truth about our society, its history, its creeds, and its failings. I see this as a journey that is still unfolding for me and our society as a whole.
I became passionate about civil rights when I began to understand what “we”-our white-controlled society and political institutions-had done to people of color, the irreparable damage it had caused, the horrible, moral offense of it. Part of my “passion” about it was guilt, but part of it was an effort to set things right, to join a cause that was fundamentally decent and human and dealt with what I believe was the defining moral issue of our time.
Are there any elements of personal experience in this fictional story?
Yes. And I cannot imagine that would not be true–directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously–of any writer of serious fiction. That is, the story comes from some part of the writer’s accumulated character, his/her psyche, and–to use an overused term–the “soul.” Some of the events of this novel were taken directly from experiences of my adolescence. Traits of many of the characters are traits observed in people I have known, though no character in the novel resembles to any real degree any person I have known.
You’ve written quite a bit in your life, yet this is your first full-length novel. How did you decide to go ahead with it, and how was this experience different from your previous writing experiences?
I’m not real clear about the answers to any of those questions, but my guess is that what I’ve said above: the importance of racial issues to my own moral development and my belief that it is the key moral issue of our time, impelled me to pursue this theme for the novel. The story kept pulling me in. Characters began to speak things I’d not consciously thought of before. The story began to take on a life of it’s own, to shape itself, and I began to have faith that the whole of it was “there.” I just had to get out of the way and let it come. Not easy to do for someone who is formerly a trial lawyer and used to making every effort possible to control the show.
How long did it take to write Leaving Tuscaloosa? What was your favorite part of writing this book? What was the most difficult part?
I’m not sure when I started writing it-probably around 2000 or a bit later. I put it down for a number of years to work on another novel that never went anywhere. When I came back to it, I began to understand that this was the story I had to write-probably before I could write any other. I don’t have a favorite part of writing the book, but I took great joy in seeing characters I’d not thought of appear on the stage and start talking. Chief among these was Rosemont Greene, who all but took over the book. The most difficult part of writing the novel was editing it, which I did from the start, over and over. That said, it was also one of the most rewarding aspects of writing the novel.
How do you hope readers in the South will respond to your story?
I hope it will make older readers from the South and elsewhere think back over our common past and our roles in it. I hope the story and characters will seem honest and authentic to both white and black readers. I hope also that in some way, even though things are far from perfect in terms of racial justice in our society, readers will see that we’ve come a long way and that many people before us paid dearly for that progress and showed incredible courage.
This strikes me as a coming-of-age story. Is there a particular message or lesson you’d like young people to take away from reading this book?
That the only life truly worth living is a never-ending moral journey involving continual learning, reflection, and growth. These things cannot be achieved through physical pleasure, material possessions, and self-indulgence. Also, I hear from African-American friends (and I know from my own experiences with students of both races) that young people in our society often have a very sketchy knowledge of the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I fear they do not appreciate the horrors of racial oppression, the roll of white society in enforcing it, and the tremendous courage and heroism of those people-black and white-who fought to overturn it.
Is there a message you would like readers to take away about the historical significance of the 60s?
I’d say that the 50s and 60s were the crucial decades in the Civil Rights Movement. It was during those decades that African-Americans rose up to demand that America, as Martin Luther King said, “live out the true meaning of its creed.” They began to claim full personhood in our society. And thinking white Southerners (and other whites in other parts of the country as well) were brought face to face with the evils and injustices of our society and what we were doing to perpetrate them.
What would you like for all readers to most remember about this story?
That it is a story about the human heart and that they-as readers-are part of the story.