Novelist Ravi Howard on 'Like Trees, Walking'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
The legacy of lynching has influenced American fiction as well as non-fiction. Take the first lynching in Mobile, Alabama, in more than 60 years. Twenty-year-old Michael Donald was killed by Klansmen in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. The incident inspired Ravi Howard's first novel, "Like Trees, Walking."
Howard tells the story through the eyes of Roy Deacon, a high school student who is being groomed to take over his family's business. The youth not only helps bury his victim, he goes on to live with the terror the killing inspired. Here again is NPR's Michel Martin with novelist Howard.
MICHEL MARTIN: I understand that as a native of Alabama, you remembered this terrible killing from your childhood, but do you remember how you heard about it?
Mr. RAVI HOWARD (Author, "Like Trees, Walking"): I remember hearing it from family members who were just shocked that a crime like this had happened, especially in 1981, given everything else that was going on. So this kind of recounted - it was recounted to me through just family phone calls and my parents telling me about it.
MARTIN: Do you remember in your child's mind what you thought was going on, I mean, were you personally scared?
Mr. HOWARD: I was actually a little bit, because also at this time an interesting point is that the Atlanta child murders were going on. And that was something that many, I think, black families in the South were watching from afar and were really feeling the pain of a lot of families in Atlanta. But then for those in Alabama with the killing of Michael Donald, a lot of people thought that it might have been a copycat crime. So there was concern from a lot of people.
MARTIN: What prompted you to write this as a fictional piece? I mean the real story is very compelling.
Mr. HOWARD: I think - that is an interesting point, a lot of people have raised it. I think the story is wide and very rich with so many storylines within the non-fiction of what actually happened. But I think the way I told it is consistent with what I've enjoyed about stories or what has been compelling, which is more of a street-level view coming from one person's perspective.
And I think sometimes when I look at history, I think about what if, what if I was there, what if I had to experience some of the things that were experienced by others. And so, as I writer, I just put fictional characters within certain situations to kind of see how they might react.
MARTIN: One are the things that you write about in the novel that you capture, I think, with great detail is the way that the terror of this one incident seeks into everybody's daily life, and I wondered how you got the idea for that.
Mr. HOWARD: I think it was important to me because I love, you know, non-fiction books, but I think with the fiction I wanted to kind of capture within that moment when the characters did not have access to the aftermath or what's next. So I just wanted to show just in as realistic a sense as I could what actually happens as these characters are living their daily lives, having to deal with this aftermath.
I mean, these are high school kids. They're dealing with, you know, preparing for the prom, dealing with school plays, all of these things that are normal in their development as young people. But they're also dealing with the aftermath of this horrific crime. And in our lives we can't necessarily separate those. We still have to go about our daily business. But I wanted to kind of show how this people cope.
MARTIN: The other device that you used is that of the funeral home. And your protagonist is the seventh generation of this long line of family members who ran this funeral home, and you imagine the passed down knowledge of how to repair a body broken by lynching. Where did that idea come from?
Mr. HOWARD: Well, I do have an uncle that works at a local funeral home in Mobile, Alabama, so that was one source of research. But also just looking at the role that, you know, funeral homes have played in the black community as not only businesses, but also as, you know, spiritual avenues, because they are there in churches when people are being buried. Because sometimes that's really the only avenue throughout history, the only avenue that a lot of black people have had after a death like this.
They might not get the kind of legal remedy they wanted, but they will look for some sort of honor for that dead person through a funeral, through a church ceremony, through the religious rights that kind of made everyone feel like there is a better world somewhere.
MARTIN: What do you imagine your African-American readers taking from this story? What do you imagine your white readers taking from this story? Do you think it will be that same thing or different things?
Mr. HOWARD: That's an interesting question. Because I think for some people -especially African-Americans like myself who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama -there are a lot of people in our families that have first-hand knowledge of certain things that happened in the '60s or '70s.
So I would want them as well as, you know, the white readers to take away, you know, these are moments of history that happened. And we can't necessarily be ashamed of things that happened in our past, because I don't think there's any shame in discussing history or reflecting a fully textured version of American history.
MARTIN: So you got the first novel out of the way, what are working on now?
Mr. HOWARD: I'm working on a couple of short stories. And also I have a second novel that I'm working on that's going to take place in my hometown of Montgomery. So that will be interesting to kind of compare my life growing up there with some of the things I want to look at that happened in the 1950s there in Montgomery. So we'll see how that turns out.
MARTIN: Ravi, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. HOWARD: Thank you, Michel. It was great.
CHIDEYA: That was writer Ravi Howard, author of "Like Trees, Walking." The novel was inspired by the 1981 lynching of 20-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama. He spoke with NPR's Michel Martin.
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