ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Back now in Union Station in Kansas City to talk with writer Whitney Terrell. He's from here. He went away for college. He moved to New York. He tried to sell a novel. He couldn't. And so he came back home and found his true inspiration - Kansas City.
Mr. WHITNEY TERRELL (Writer): Writing about Kansas City for the first time was like the eureka moment for me. I mean, I started thinking about home and I started thinking about the river where I had spent a lot of time playing, growing up. I had built a raft and floated down on it when I was a kid. And I loved it and I started thinking about that landscape and I have - the first 60 pages of the book are set in and around the river. And that was how I became a writer, really.
CHADWICK: "The King of Kings County" especially, this is a story of what happened here. Yeah?
Mr. TERRELL: Yeah. We're sitting here in the middle really of land that was at the heart of what "The King of Kings County" is about. "The King of Kings County" is about a real-estate developer that buys up a lot of land south of downtown and begins to develop it in order - in the hopes of attracting people away from the city center into the suburbs.
And they used, in my novel and in reality, the company that my novel draws from, used racial covenants as a way to get people to move out to this land. And in fact that movement of people south into this - these neighborhoods, which are beautiful, was also predicated on this idea of separating from the more complicated, diverse population of downtown and to set the city on a particular kind of course that now is only just starting to reverse in some ways, I think.
You know, I mean I was growing up when the country was transformed in that way. They're building these highways and the transformation of it is like - it's a story, and I had never seen that that's a story. I mean, it really changed America here in the Midwest, in this radical, radical way that's so hard to tell the story about it.
But it happened in Kansas City and I assume in another places like a cataclysmic event that happened very slowly. So when I interviewed people around Kansas City about, well, do you remember the city before the highway? Yes, they'll me about it. Do you remember the city after the highway? Yes, they'll tell me about this. Oh, I remember when this field was gravel or this field was - this was just a cornfield and now there's a Lowe's there, right.
But I say do you remember the highway being built? And nobody remembered it. Not one person could tell me what it looked like. It was like it had happened during a moment of forgetfulness, you know. And in some ways I think that we sort of chose as a city to forget it happening in order to not have to admit that it could have been done differently, that perhaps the city didn't have to turn out the way that it did, because we made decisions that we're still dealing with.
CHADWICK: I'm interested to hear you say earlier how much interviewing you do in order to know more about your subject. People would say, well heck, you come from Kansas City, how much more you need to know?
Mr. TERRELL: When I started writing about racial covenants in Kansas City and why the suburbs were all white and why - it was just like a magic thing like, oh, everyone moved out to the suburbs, why did that happen?
It wasn't until I started interviewing people in my neighborhood, which was an African-American neighborhood, or I started talking to realtors who had lived during that time, that was when I realized this is for me the missing link in the story of suburban growth in Kansas City, that there was a racial, a strong racial component to it. And it wasn't widely talked about and hasn't been up until the last few years.
CHADWICK: Well, so what is the future of Kansas City? What is going to happen now? What's going to happen when your kids grow up here?
Mr. TERRELL: I would say the best thing is, the one good thing is this story that I'm talking about in "The King of Kings County," it was good that I wrote it when I did because I think that story is starting to change. And I think that if you look downtown in the last five years, there's been an extraordinary growth and interest in people moving back downtown. We're building a new arena downtown. Restaurants are moving in. There's art galleries. So I think that he will live in a much more exciting city than I did.
When I was in high school - there's a scene in "The King of Kings County" where Jack Acheson and his father, Alton, who's a real estate developer, go to the middle of downtown, they're drunk, and they hit golf balls down Grand Avenue. And that was very conceivable when I was in high school in 1985. I would go down there to drink. My friends and I would go down there to drink because the bars were so desperate for patrons, they did not care. I mean, you could have been 5 years old, and gone in there and gotten a drink.
Now, you could not walk down Grand Avenue and hit a golf ball in the middle of the night because you would hit cranes that are putting up the new arena. And I'm extraordinarily happy to see that. It's been one of the greatest things that's happened to me since I moved back here - just to get to watch that.
CHADWICK: What are you writing about in your third book? You told me a little.
Mr. TERRELL: I'm writing about a brother and sister. I keep reminding myself this, that it's a family novel - a novel about a family, not a war novel. It's a novel about a family that involves the war. And it's about a brother and sister who go to college together, Princeton, who were from Kansas City. My sister and I both went to school together at Princeton. And it's - and she is in ROTC and she goes to war, and her brother does not want her to go. He ends up taking a summer internship in the Green Zone because he's so worried about her and upset about what she might or might not be doing.
I wanted to imagine how that would affect a brother and sister and a family. This is a place where students that I teach are going to war. You know, when I did my embed in Iraq, I wore the flack jacket and - I shouldn't say this probably but I don't want to give his name - I wore the flack jacket and helmet of one of my wife's students who had come with us on a trip to France. He was, you know, he'd done his tour in Iraq, and now he was doing a summer abroad in France. My wife is a French professor. And I wore his flack jacket and his Kevlar to Iraq, still bloodied from the - an injury that his - a very severe injury that one of his officers had received.
So everyone knows somebody who's been involved in the war. It is a very odd thing to live in what is a totally peaceful, completely calm, very beautiful city, knowing that there's an incredible - a large number of young men and women who are in a completely different place - fighting - while we're all here having this sort of very nice conversation in the park. And it becomes more personal when you have seen what the places are like that they're going to.
CHADWICK: Whitney Terrell, thank you.
Mr. TERRELL: Thank you. It's an honor.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.