Two Editors Complete Author Ralph Ellison's Final Work

Famed author Ralph Ellison, who wrote the literary classic "Invisible Man," was working on a second novel when he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. Two editors were given access to his archive and have completed work on Ellison's final work, "Three Days Before the Shooting." Host Michel Martin speaks with the two editors — John Callahan, literary executor of the Ellison Estate, and Adam Bradley — about how they managed to complete Ellison's unfinished work.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's Black History Month, and we're spending some time this month talking about new news about black history. We're talking about new scholarship and untold stories about the journey of people of African descent in the U.S. In a few minutes, we'll tell you about the first African-American to serve a full career as a U.S. diplomat. His name was William Henry Hunt, and we will tell you more about him and his fascinating story in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to tell you about a story that has been waiting to be told, or rather published, for decades. Ralph Ellison, the famed author who wrote "Invisible Man," died more than a decade ago. And while "Invisible Man" ranks among American classics, it was the anticipation of a second novel that kept the literary world abuzz for more than 50 years. Pancreatic cancer took Ellison's life before finishing his long-awaited second novel, but two editors given access to his extensive archive picked up where he left off.

And after ploughing through handwritten notes, typewritten pages and computer files, they have published "Three Days Before the Shooting." But is it really a book, or is it something else? Those editors are John Callahan, the literary executor of the Ellison Estate, and Adam Bradley. And they're both here with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOHN CALLAHAN (Editor, "Three Days Before the Shooting"; Literary Executor, Estate of Ralph Ellison): Thank you.

Mr. ADAM BRADLEY (Editor, "Three Days Before the Shooting"): Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, this is quite a tome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm holding it. It's about a couple pounds.

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah. At least.

Mr. BRADLEY: Probably three pounds, four pounds.

MARTIN: Probably about three pounds. And the story of how this came together is almost as complex and is interesting as the novel itself. There's some mythology around why Ellison never finished the book, that there were all these different stories about why it never happened. So what were some of the stories, and what's the truth? John, do you want to start?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Well, one of the stories is the fire. He lost it in the fire in '67. He lost a summer's worth of revisions, in fact. And then you get into all the kind of funky psychoanalytic stuff about Ellison. He sold his soul to white people and the white establishment, and so he was out of touch with the black folks and he couldn't write the book. He was lazy. He just didn't work very much.

MARTIN: Or maybe he just had writer's block.

Mr. CALLAHAN: He had writer's block, all of them nonsense. I mean, Ellison wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And he focused the book on the very cusp of great change in America, '54 - 1954, 1955, after Brown v. Board. "Invisible Man," of course, is the great novel of Jim Crow and segregation in American literature. And Ellison wanted this to be a novel that kind of anticipated the great changes that were going to come. So all of these things, it seems to me, taken together made it difficult for Ellison to focus not on the material, but certain matters of craft, structure, form, how to bring all this material together.

MARTIN: Okay. Adam, do you have something to add to that? You actually play a role in sort of sorting out some of his material and kind of figuring out that part of it was that he'd kind of fallen in love with the computer.

Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah. I mean, Ellison was one of the early adopters among writers of this new technology. So, as early as the 1980s, very early 1980s, he got this laptop computer. It was called an Osborne. And it weighed about, you know 25 pounds, you know...

MARTIN: Even more than the book.

Mr. BRADLEY: Oh, my God. Yeah, barely. This was a monster. And he started typing away at this, at this tiny little green screen monitor, three or four inches across. And he refashioned the novel over the decade-plus into a series of, really, a kind of a high-literary jigsaw puzzle. For someone like Ellison, who started working by, you know, actually writing out longhand - when he was a young man, he'd draft things out in pencil and write out, you know, passages from Hemmingway, just to get the feel of the pen on the page.

And then he moved to the typewriter, to the electric typewriter, and finally to this laptop for him. And what a story. I mean, in some ways, it's a story in miniature of the 20th century in writing, and the way - the tools that writers use and the effect that it has. For Ellison, one of the effects was that it allowed him to pile draft upon draft of the same scene over and over again without solving some of the basic questions of plot and transition that bedeviled the book.

MARTIN: And you don't solve it for him...

Mr. BRADLEY: No.

MARTIN: ...in this...

Mr. BRADLEY: Absolutely not.

MARTIN: ...work. But John, I have to ask about the decision to publish what it is that you've published. The title of the book is "Three Days Before the Shooting." I'm going to ask you where that comes from, but the unfinished second novel. And there are those who argue that if he didn't finish it, by definition, it isn't his novel. So how do you make the decision of what to publish and when?

Mr. CALLAHAN: What we did was - "Juneteenth" is a book that is the central narrative, I thought, of this saga. We said, well, look. Let's then bring out the narratives, put them together as - exactly as Ralph wrote them, in the most complete and the most revised sequences that he wrote. So this is what he left, four principal narratives - whereas "Juneteenth" was one - plus two shorter ones. And we had this discussion, shall we say, with the Modern Library, that their copyeditor thought that the novel was submitted by a living person, perhaps who was somewhat of a neophyte writer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CALLAHAN: So we just said no. This material is going to be published as Ralph left it. So the editorial work was actually the gathering together and the compilation, the sorting out the various narratives and drafts. And then the apparatus that we brought to it is simply two introductions: one, a general one, the second one to the computers, and then several editors' notes, period. And we want the reader to play in Ralph's work as he played in his work. You know, it's a book - you're not going to start it Friday night and finish it in time for brunch on Sunday. You're going to dip in and out of this book.

MARTIN: Hmm. Adam, you're making an add to that?

Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah, I'm - I think that the best way of conceiving this book for me, the way that I have come to understand it, is through a musical analogy. I think about someone like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, how we have a classic album from them, Miles Davis' "Seven Steps to Heaven" or "Kind of Blue," and, I mean, it's a piece of perfection. But when Columbia opened up the archive and showed us the alternate versions, when they gave us the fullness of how Miles, you know, was working on this material with his groups. I mean, it's a tremendous thing. And what we see in "Three Days Before the Shooting" are the same set pieces, the same riffs, often, but recast with a different combination of voices, much as, you know, playing "Summertime" in the quintet setting is different from playing it as a trio or as an orchestra.

And then you see those sorts of modulations, and it reveals so much. So for a reader coming to this book, I think that the great challenge of the book, but also the opportunity, is to become a co-creator of the fiction with Ellison himself and to become a jazz artist, in a way, you know, to get in there and riff.

MARTIN: That's interesting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CALLAHAN: This is John again, adding one thing. It is an unfinished novel, and so one of the glories and the exasperations, I think, of reading this book will be the reader is going to be compelled - every last reader is going to be compelled to say: How would I have ended this book?

MARTIN: It's an interesting idea. I mean, we do have - we occasionally get word of a film where, having had a rough cut, the director will decide, you know, that ending just won't work. And then you're curious. You know, what was the original ending? And why is it that he or she thought...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that it wouldn't work? It's curios. Do you really think people will do that?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah. You know, we tried to give them some of Ralph's notes, where he talks about maybe the way that he'll end it. He was certainly going to end it with Sunraider dying. That was one of the...

MARTIN: Okay, well, you better back up then...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Okay.

MARTIN: ...and tell us about the characters...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah, all right.

MARTIN: ...that the book centers on the...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...mysterious relationship of...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah. There's a little boy who is, you know, his - we know his mom is white. We don't know about his - whether his father's black, white, whatever. And - but we know that the white woman gets pregnant with this child and she, to save her own skin and, she says, the skin of the real father, she fingers a guy named Robert Hickman, who's the brother of the jazz musician Alonzo Hickman. And Hickman is in the cab, and his mother's died of shock from her son's lynching. This white woman shows up and comes in, and Hickman - his first instinct is to burn the cab and burn her, the baby and himself up.

But then he ends up mid-wifing, literally mid-wifing the baby, bringing the baby into the world. The woman leaves the baby with Hickman, who names the baby Bliss. He's a little boy. He's - and Hickman says because that's what ignorance is. And then Hickman becomes absolutely connected to the little child and raises the child...

MARTIN: Raises him. Mm-hmm.

Mr. CALLAHAN: ...and becomes a preacher. And the boy, he becomes an adolescent, he runs off, evades his identity and becomes a senator. And then the plot is that Hickman...

MARTIN: The senator being Sunraider...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Sunraider.

MARTIN: Adam Sunraider.

Mr. CALLAHAN: That's right, Adam Sunraider. And Hickman, who's kind of kept track of this guy, gets a sense that his life is in danger, the danger of being assassinated. And he also finds out that Sunraider has fathered a child with a woman in Oklahoma, who's part black and part Indian. So the child has some African-American blood.

MARTIN: Is it okay if I mention...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that the child is the one who is about to kill the father?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Is it okay if I mention that? It's a spoiler. So the novel follows Hickman's efforts to save Sunraider...

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah. That's right.

MARTIN: ...from his own son's hand. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with John Callahan and Adam Bradley. They are the editors of the much anticipated second novel by Ralph Ellison titled "Three Days Before the Shooting." Adam, what do you think the pleasures are - of this book will be to a reader? I mean, everyone is not going to want to engage in the literary detective work...

Mr. BRADLEY: No.

MARTIN: ...that you two devoted so many years of your lives to. But what do you think the pleasures of the book are?

Mr. BRADLEY: Well, you know, one of the things that we were very scrupulous in doing is to ensure, as I think John mentioned earlier, that every word of fiction in the novel is obviously Ellison's. So, I think there are enough -even though it's a fragmented book, in some ways, you know, comprised of these various iterations of the same - often the same theme. Nonetheless, what we have, though, are long passages, long 300-400 page sections of the novel where the reader can get caught up in the fiction itself, can be lost in the fiction. So we have that. But then there's another pleasure that comes into it.

And it's a pleasure that is really rare to come across, certainly with a writer of Ellison's stature, which is to be able to see something of the process of the fiction, the way that he went about honing his work. And to me, that's such a fascinating story, to see the shape of it as Ellison responds to American history as it is happening before his eyes. This was a novel that began in the 1950s. It was set in '55. Ellison started writing it just before then, and he kept writing it through all of these major changes in our nation - you know, from the civil rights movement, on through the Vietnam era, through women's rights liberation movement, you know, all the way to the digital age. And that trajectory is charted in this novel, you know, in its fragmentary form in ways that are both explicit, but also implicit.

MARTIN: Now, you two devoted many years to this project. And I wanted to ask, first of all, what it was like, and what it's like now that your work is done, in essence, for this project. Adam, why don't you start?

Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah, I mean, Ellison once said of "Invisible Man" that it's invisible man's memoir, but it's my novel. And I would say that this book - I'd be so audacious as to say that it's certainly Ellison's novel, but it's somehow my own biography, in a way. It tells a story of my...

MARTIN: You kind of grew up as a scholar with it.

Mr. BRADLEY: I did. I began - you know, I was 19-years-old, Michel, when I started this thing, when I started working with John and - as a teacher of mine and a mentor. And, you know, John exposed me to this unheralded opportunity. I mean, if you think about the, you know, going from Spanish class...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADLEY: ...to Ellison's unfinished, you know, what you...

MARTIN: You started...

Mr. BRADLEY: ...(unintelligible).

MARTIN: ...you know, what a college...

Mr. BRADLEY: I was a sophomore. I was 19 years old.

MARTIN: ...you were a sophomore, a college sophomore, as I remember. Yeah.

Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah. I mean, that's - it just was astounding to have that experience, and it shaped the direction of my life to now.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now? Do you feel, in a way, a little bit of all kind of like post-wedding letdown?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You spent so many years planning it, and now it's over. What do I do now? Who am I?

Mr. BRADLEY: The thing about it is that Ellison has taking up residence in my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADLEY: And I think that for readers, the novelists and the writers that most appeal to us, they always do this. We have their voice with us, even individual characters from works of fiction. People are minds, and they look through our eyes at the world. So, for me, I always have part of Ellison looking out through my eyes. And the things that I noticed about this country, you know, thinking about the election of our first black president - in light of Ellison's vision of black America, where he writes in 1970, a Time Magazine article, "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks," he says: Whatever else a true American is, he is also somehow black.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. BRADLEY: You know, thinking of these moments, these scraps of insight, these lyrical passages from his works of fiction, these are things that are with me at all times and are with me in the work that I do and the way that I am in the world.

MARTIN: John, what about you? I mean, this is the work of your life.

Mr. CALLAHAN: Yeah...

MARTIN: Not complete, obviously, because...

Mr. CALLAHAN: No, because, actually, Ralph - I've been working on Ellison's second novel, both coming to "Juneteenth," and now also - they kind of release in me the novelist I wanted to be and never was. And I wrote one, called "A Man You Could Love," and I'm now working on another one. In terms of this book, this volume, "Three Days Before the Shooting," I have a kind of serenity because I think in bringing this out along with Adam, I finally was able to fuse the two things that really are in this book like Braille, and that is Ellison's own characterization of writing and what it's like to be a writer. He said that same pain, that same pleasure.

I knew Ralph very well the last 17 years of his life. And yes, he was exhilarated by writing the novel. It was play. It released the boy in Ellison, as well as the mature man. It was also excruciating, however, because he knew he wasn't finishing it, really. And it was giving him fits. And yet he continued to be able to create. So for me in finally bringing this to fruition with Adam, bringing Ellison's work out there so people can do with it what they will as he left it, to me, it kind of is a wonderful combination of the human range: pain, pleasure, excruciating, difficulty, and the exhilaration of creation.

MARTIN: How do you feel now, now that it is done? To the degree that it is ever done?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Satisfied.

MARTIN: Because you point out, that it will - we can continue to kind of play with it ourselves. How do you feel now?

Mr. CALLAHAN: I feel great. I feel really good, like this - it has taken its course. First, "Juneteenth" dissents(ph), well, the central narrative, but okay. It is what it is. It's a part, not even maybe 20 percent, 25 percent of the totality, and then that wrapped into the totality now. It usually goes the other way. It's one of - it's an Ellisonian reversal, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: John Callahan is the literary executive of famed author Ralph Ellison's Estate, along with Adam Bradley. He's the editor of the long-awaited second novel by Ellison, titled "Three Days Before the Shooting: The Unfinished Second Novel." And they were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CALLAHAN: My pleasure.

Mr. BRADLEY: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: To hear excerpts from "Three Days Before the Shooting," please go to our Web site: npr.org. Click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.