FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Yale law professor Stephen Carter is a multi-talented man, law professor and novelist. His novels are set in the world of wealthy and well-educated black Americans. His third novel is called "Palace Council." It's historical, and contemporary. Carter sets his novel against pivotal struggles over race and politics in the 1960s.
Right now, American voters are debating whether to put a black man in the White House. In "Palace Council," a reporter named Eddie Wesley finds himself both professionally and personally connected to race, political violence and murder. I asked Professor Carter how he balances his life as a novelist and a Law Professor at Yale?
Professor STEPHEN CARTER (Law, Yale University; Author, "Palace Council"): I think it was more of an escape. When I'm a law professor, I deal with difficult and even depressing subjects. I teach in areas like law and religion, or integrity and ethics, things like that. Writing novels, for me, writing fiction turns out to be a good balance. I write them mainly as entertainment, it's fun for me to write them, and it seems to be fun for readers to read them. Anyway people keep buying them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Always good. This book really enters some very heavy research territory. As you flip through "Palace Council," you will see John Kennedy referenced, you will see the Vietnam War referenced, Richard Nixon referenced. Tell us a little bit about the structure of the novel, and why all of these actual people show up?
Prof. CARTER: My first two novels, although they were thrillers, I guess I'd call them campus thrillers. They were both set on a mythical Ivy League campus in New England. This novel is, I guess you'd call it, a historical thriller. It begins in the '60s and runs through the '70s, and it tells the story of a massive conspiracy among families. Some very powerful and shadowy families. Some white, and some black, too, aiming at control of the Oval Office.
My two protagonists, my heroes I guess, Eddie Wesley, and Aurelia Treen(ph). We meet them first as young people in Harlem, and we grow with them as they grow through careers, and they grow to be people of some importance in American life. And therefore, even as they're trying to tease out this conspiracy over a 20-year period, they also meet some of the major figures of the era. And some of them, like Richard Nixon, for example, turn out to be major characters in the story.
CHIDEYA: How much research did you put into it, in the sense that sometimes fiction can be killed by research? I guess, you know, I'll just put it that way. You know, if you don't - if you focus too much on the research, and not enough on the imagination, then you lose the reader. And you have this story that really interweaves both. So what was your process?
Prof. CARTER: While my main concern in the story is the story and the characters - I hope it moves along at a good clip - I wanted to get as many historical details as possible correct. And I spent a lot of time researching, reading books, reading letters and memoirs, interviews, looking at photographs, because I wanted to convey a sense of the late '50s and the '60s without overwhelming the reader, of course. But I wanted to make sure I got as much of my background as possible right, even while I mainly paid attention to the story.
CHIDEYA: Let's go a little bit into the story, without giving too much away. I'm just going to throw out a few phrases, and you can tell us as much as you want to leave things to the imagination.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. CARTER: OK.
CHIDEYA: OK. Palace Council?
Prof. CARTER: Well, the term palace council in the title is left as a semi-mystery to the reader, but I'll give a bit of a clue. It's a clue to the structure of the conspiracy that Eddie and Aurelia spend the book trying to tease out. The conspiracy that I mentioned influenced the highest levels of American government. I kind of like the name, because the idea of a palace council is the advisors behind the throne, rather than the people exercising authority. And that's, of course, how the powerful families in this book see themselves.
Prof. CARTER: The term Agony in the novel is the name of a radical, left-underground group in the 1960s that blows things up. I made up the name, but not the idea. Eddie's sister, Junie (ph), disappears early in the novel, then turns up later on as a member of this radical, underground group, and Eddie spends most of the novel really trying to search for his sister. For him the conspiracy isn't central, for him his sister is central. Aurelia, my other protagonist, is trying to track down the conspiracy. Eddie runs into the conspiracy while trying to track down his sister.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned that Agony is not a real group, but that there were, of course, groups that did go around doing this kind of domestic terrorism-slash-disruptive action. And what resonated with you about going back to that kind of a theme?
Prof. CARTER: Well you have to understand that I'm old enough to have lived through the '60s, and I remember what a fascinating, if occasionally scary, time in our history it was. It was a time of great violence, some by the far left, some by the far right. In the old days we look at American politics, and we talk about the nation, and we act as though we're helplessly divided. But I think we were a lot more divided in those days, when Americans were actually blowing each other up for supporting the wrong cause than we are today. And I think it's useful to have a reminder of that.
CHIDEYA: How does race play into this novel, which has obviously, you know, black main characters, but also this mix of historical figures, black and white, some of whom are dealing very directly with this racial polarization?
Prof. CARTER: I don't think it would be possible to write an accurate, a historically accurate novel about the '50s, '60s and '70s without talking about race. It's easy to forget today that race was the central issue in American politics in those days. You could not be a serious public figure without coping with the issue of race, and perhaps the issue of poverty, in America. So of course it has to be central, but at the same time, there's a cautionary tale as well, because one of the divides, say between Eddie and his sister, for example. His sister is attracted to the radical alternative. Eddie goes to work in politics, he works in the Kennedy White House. His sister Junie goes underground and begins blowing things up. They have very different views on the right way to accomplish racial justice, and I hope the reader will ponder on those differences.
CHIDEYA: Let's talk a little bit about things that aren't in your book. You actually clerked for Thurgood Marshall, and recently we, like so many other organizations, covered the centennial of his birth. What do you think he would make of where we are today on race, including the presidential race?
Prof. CARTER: There's something about Thurgood Marshall I think is not widely understood. He was a great Supreme Court Justice, before that a great lawyer, he was also a great human being. And in fact, in the last year of his life I got to know him even better because all the retired justices do oral history projects for the Federal Judicial Center, and I was Justice Marshall's interviewer for his oral history.
We didn't finish, and he died before it could finish, but we got 30, 34 hours of tapes, something like that. And one thing that became clear in those tapes and all the time that I spent with him is that he would never speak ill of another human being. He always went out of his way to find the good in people who are adamantly apposed to his entire agenda.
I mention this because I think one of the things that tended to dismay him toward the end of his life, at least in my experience of talking to him, was how divided we were in our politics. That people fought - that people that disagreed with them weren't just opponents, but enemies. That somehow condemnation, the politics of hatred, the politics even of mocking people, as opposed to sitting down and talking to them, never made any sense to him.
To Thurgood Marshall, politics was the art of the possible. The idea was to sit down and get things done, not to get applause by mocking your opposition. I really learned a lot from the time I spent with him, and that's perhaps the strongest lesson that I learned. And I think applying it to today's world, while I think he'd be very proud to see a black man with a chance to be elected to the presidency, he'd be very sad to see how the supporters on both sides spend so much time mocking and hating the candidate on the other side.
CHIDEYA: Well, Stephen Carter, thank you.
Prof. CARTER: It's been my pleasure, thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: That was writer and Yale law professor Stephen Carter. His latest book is "Palace Council."