Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Meet: Ravi Howard, author of LIKE TREES, WALKING

I had the pleasure of meeting Ravi Howard in Houston last year at the Go On Girl Book Club Awards Weekend. Ravi received their "New Author of the Year Award" for LIKE TREES, WALKING. He's a good writer, a nice guy and a new father!

When the phone rang at the home of Paul and Roy Deacon in the early morning hours, it often meant that someone had died. The brothers’ family owned the Deacon Memorial Funeral Home and had buried the loved ones of Mobile’s black families for over 100 years. On the morning of March 21, 1981, the call was different. The body of nineteen-year-old Michael Donald was found hanging from a tree on Herndon Avenue. The murder shook the citizens of Mobile, Alabama, especially the Deacon brothers. They had called Michael Donald a friend.

As the brothers navigate their teen years, they face familiar rites of passage; prom night, graduation, college life, but the family business forces them to confront the rites death brings, passages from this world to the next. As Roy and Paul Deacon search for solace, their journeys take them from church sanctuaries to cemeteries, protest marches to courtrooms, from the tree-lined streets of Mobile to the dark beach roads on the Eastern Shore. Added to the grief of a murdered friend, the brothers and their hometown face the first lynching in over sixty years.

Mobile had been as peaceful as its tree-lined streets were beautiful, but the murder gave the city its own sad chapter in the Alabama racial history. Like Birmingham’s four little girls, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, and Tuskegee’s experiment, Mobile had the murder of Michael Donald. In this riveting debut, Like Trees, Walking explores a fictional aftermath of a true story that will both haunt and illuminate. The novel examines death, faith, truth, and justice, elements that often intersect and at times collide. An old tale set in modern times, Like Trees, Walking explores the complexities and the promises of America’s New South.

The Q&A
White Readers Meet Black Authors: Describe your work for someone unfamiliar with it. What's your writing style like? What subjects/themes do you explore?

Ravi Howard: I was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and I learned about the history of the civil rights movement from books as well as personal narratives from folks who lived through that time. I always thought the personal stories were more interesting, even when the people telling those stories were not well known.

There was this vibrant chorus of folks who had small roles but big voices and I've tried to bring that street-level perspective to my work. I guess I consider myself a novelist that deals with grassroots histories.

WRMBA: What's your latest novel about?

RH: My novel,
Like Trees, Walking, fictionalized the story of an actual lynching that took place in Mobile, Alabama in 1981. Although the crime was central, I wanted to explore the ways that reactions to such a crime were different--or similiar-- to reactions to such crimes in the past. (You can listen to the NPR story about him doing research about the murder here.)

One of the questions I had to answer was whether this was a contemporary or a historical novel. In many ways it's both. Certainly, we have to rely on the historical record to revisit events that happened before our lifetimes. I wanted to look at how we react to things that are within our span of memory. How does the public record differ from the recollections we hear from friends and family. I looked at how those personal stories are in some ways op-eds to the historical record that sometimes misses the mark on racial violence and history.

WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?

RH: I would like to say all of those things are part of the mix. I look at my work like a rendition on a jazz standard. I'm not the first to take on any of my subjects, but I hope that readers can appreciate the style and approach each writer takes to commonly told stories of black history.

As black writers and poets take on history, it shows that those moments are fluid and the light we shine on them can create a wide range of images. Once history is etched in stone, I think it becomes less interesting.

WRMBA: What's next for you?

RH: I'm working on a book inspired by the Alabama roots of Nat King Cole. It's a challenging and fascinating journey.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?

RH: William Henry Lewis has a great short story collection called
I Got Somebody in Staunton. (This is at least the 2nd time one of the profiled authors has recommended this book.)


zettaelliott said...

I couldn't agree more with the author's comment about history losing interest once it's etched in stone...great interview, and another great read to add to my pile!

Eva said...

This book sounds so interesting! Thanks for the interview. :) (I've been reading your blog for a month or two, but I think this is the first time I've de-lurked.)

Carleen Brice said...

Eva, thanks for "delurking"!

Doret said...

I loved I Got Somebody in Staunton. That collection help me to realize how good short stories can be.

Like Trees Walking sounds good. Looking forward to reading it.

Lisa said...

I am delighted to say that I have a signed first edition of Like Trees Walking that I got from the Odyssey bookstore in Massachusetts when the book was first released.

It's a great book with a compelling story and beautifully developed characters and I highly recommend it.

I'm looking forward to the next book from Ravi Howard!