MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Before he started writing novels, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter wrote bestselling nonfiction books about race, religion and politics. So it wasn't surprising when his first work of fiction - the legal thriller "The Emperor of Ocean Park" - was packed with sharp and sometimes cutting observations about race, religion and politics.
Carter's second thriller, "New England White," also examines a circle of upper-class African-Americans. And it, too, focuses on the university town of Elm Harbor. He says a strong sense of place is key.
Professor STEPHEN L. CARTER (Law, Yale University; Author, "New England White"): I think that any novel is more than just a story and characters. A good novel, I think, should always bring you somewhere. It shouldn't be happening on some abstract world. There should be a place you go to and in addition to solving a mystery or reading a family saga, or whatever the reason for reading the story may be, you should also be introduced a little bit to some place you haven't been or done as much about as you may think.
NORRIS: Now, I don't want to give away too much for…
Prof. CARTER: Oh, good.
NORRIS: …for people who have not yet read the book since this is a thriller, but could you give us a briefest description of the central story of this book?
Prof. CARTER: These - we'll look at it as this. The main character is a woman named Julia Carlyle who is a black woman, who is a dean at a university divinity school. Her husband, a very successful lawyer and judge, he's West Indian, has recently been named president of the university. They lived in a white suburb of a white college town.
And as the novel opens, they're on their way back from a dinner and they find a body, which turns out to be the body of an economist at the university who was her former lover back before they were married. We also meet their troubled 17-year-old daughter who believes that she communes with the ghost of a little girl who was murdered in the town 30 years earlier.
And the mystery in the story and the thrills, I hope, are provided by the convergence of these two stories - that is the murder of the professor today and the murder of the teenager in the same town 30 years ago. Being now the convergence, the convergence that ends up possibly having an enormous effect on the outcome of a national political presidential campaign.
NORRIS: Now, the action in the novel takes place over the course of a very rough winter in New England. It seems like there's always a snowstorm bearing down on this town. Where you in the middle of a very bad winter in New Haven when you wrote this?
Prof. CARTER: You know, people tell me that the winter is never this bad. In fact, the story begins in snow in November, and snow in November in New England is very rare unless you live really way up north in November. But I always thought that New England College campuses in winter are inherently scary places.
It gets dark early. There are all those gothic towers. There are shadows everywhere. There is snow, people are slipping and sliding and stumbling as they hustle and bustle along wrapped in their scarves, not watching the world around them. There could be all sorts of mysterious things happening in those gothic towers, in those shadows. Not (unintelligible). It was time when the campus novel was a fairly common part of the American fiction canon, and it's really not much anymore.
NORRIS: You build a tension throughout this book. It's built as a thriller as opposed to a mystery. How do you see the difference between those two things?
Prof. CARTER: I hope, in some way, it's a thriller and the mystery. I think of it that if there is a difference, it's one that Alfred Hitchcock once captured when he was writing about film. Hitchcock once tried to explain why he thought mysteries don't work on film and thrillers do. Hitchcock said, the problem with a mystery on film was that in mystery you have to keep flipping back and looking at that clue you saw a few pages ago. So it works in a book, it doesn't work on film. A mystery is fundamentally about who did it and a thriller is fundamentally about how you're going to stop them from doing what they're trying to do.
NORRIS: Now, Professor Carter, it seems that writing thrillers is all about tension and pacing and getting the pacing right. How do you do that? How much do you reveal at the outset to make sure that you wet the readers' appetite, that you propel the story forward?
Prof. CARTER: That's a great question. I wish I could answer. I think that writers are the worst people to try to describe their own writing processes. And it is an interesting problem. It is like the "Dance of the Seven Veils." The reader has to believe in a thriller or a mystery that it's worth going to the next chapter to find another answer, although, of course, also, there is still another question.
In fact, I've come to think that one reason that so many lawyers end up writing thrillers and mysteries is that an important aspect of a thriller-mystery is the constant changing of the facts. Well, what if this happened or what if this changes? And that's the way lawyers think. In a thriller, you make those hypotheticals real. The terrible things that you think up in the classroom to challenged students with in a thriller or simply on the page. You turn the page, something really does happen.
NORRIS: Throughout the book, there are observations on religious theory and many observations on race, and particularly the rendering of these people who occupied this university town with the social clubs, the ladybugs, and their clannishness and their obsession with status and history. Is this, in some ways, a commentary on black America today and the perils of power or success?
Prof. CARTER: Well, commentary is a little strong. I would say there are a couple of hints and pricks along the way.
NORRIS: Hints? They're strong, if they're hints.
Prof. CARTER: Well, this - I don't want anybody to think that I'm writing some sort of message book. I want it to be a thriller. I want people to enjoy it. But certainly, in trying to describe some of the club life of the community, I think a lot of people who aren't African-American, maybe aren't middle class in African-America, don't understand the enormous hold that the club life exercises, continue to exercise, over much of the social life of middle-class Africa America. I don't mean a hold in some tyrannical way, but only that these clubs, these fraternities, these sororities, these social organizations, are really tremendously important to their members.
That began a hundred years ago when there was a white social order and a black social order and well-to-do black people at that time, educated black people at that time, needed to find organizations, places where they could hang out with people who want to talk about the same kind of things they do. Now, the society is more integrated, but they're still, I think, is in mind, a many black professionals that need to sometimes have places to be with other people of color.
NORRIS: The books begins with this wonderful scene inside a New England candy shop, where there's a very chatty woman behind the counter who knows all the town secrets and will tell them, but only parse them out, you know, in bits. So you have to stay there long enough to hear the whole story. Is there, in your own town, a little sweet shop like that?
(Soundbite of laughing)
NORRIS: And how much chocolate did you eat in the course of writing this…
Prof. CARTER: Well, you know, I…
NORRIS: …in writing this book?
Prof. CARTER: My doctors don't let me sweets anymore and that's too bad because I really miss them. There's not a little shop like that in the particular town where we lived, but little shops like that are common. I don't want to claim that the woman in that shop, with her attitudes, is modeling any particular part of any particular shops. I like the idea of the candy shop as a kind of a Greek chorus. But Vera Brightwood, the woman who owns the candy shop, does keep popping up every now and then to give us more of her opinions about what's going on.
NORRIS: And her little green ribbons do seem to tie that town together.
Prof. CARTER: That's nicely put. I wish I thought of that.
NORRIS: Professor Carter, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much for being with us.
Prof. CARTER: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much.
NORRIS: Stephen L. Carter's book is "New England White." You can read about the dead body that launches the intrigue at npr.org.