LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:
It's 1992. Your hair is gelled up, you're sporting high-tops, maybe still listening to Run-DMC on cassette, and that's the setting for a new coming-of-age novel that's also a look at race in America. The book, titled "Green," follows a friendship between two adolescent boys in Boston, one black and one white. The author is Sam Graham-Felsen, and he joins us now from our bureau in New York.
SAM GRAHAM-FELSEN: Hi, Lauren. Thanks so much for having me.
FRAYER: Thanks for coming. So who tells this story? Who's your narrator in "Green"?
GRAHAM-FELSEN: The narrator is a 12-year-old boy named Dave Greenfeld. He is half-Jewish, and his last name is Jewish, and he's pretty embarrassed of his last name. He's one of only three white kids in his entire middle school, and the last thing he wants is to also stand out for being Jewish. So he sort of gives himself a nickname, Green, which he thinks sounds kind of like a cool MC-rapper name.
FRAYER: Green is 12. He's just starting to wrap his head around some big concepts, trying to put them into words. And there's this thing in the book that he calls the force. What does he understand the force to mean?
GRAHAM-FELSEN: So the first time Dave sort of comes up with this concept is - he's watching the news on the day of - or one of the days of the LA riots. And there's a particular moment during the LA riots where a guy named Reginald Denny, who was a trucker, was stopped at an intersection where there was a lot of rioting going on. He was pulled out of his truck and beaten, and he was a white guy and presumably targeted because of that. And Dave sees this on TV, and he finds himself, even though he grew up in a very progressive household - you know, raised by very sort of anti-racist activist parents - he finds himself sort of rooting for this white trucker, and he feels kind of ashamed and embarrassed of it. And he says that what comes over him is something called the force.
FRAYER: And that force also comes between him and his best friend, Marlon.
GRAHAM-FELSEN: Yes. The force is kind of how Dave sees race interfering in all aspects of life. You know, he and Marlon - Marlon is his best friend, his black classmate. They have a really amazing, you know, easy friendship when they are in Dave's house together. They dress up in costumes. They make funny homemade videos. And then when they leave the house, all of a sudden, the simple world that they live in is kind of disrupted by these big, adult forces, including racism.
You know, they - one minute, they're jumping off trampolines, and the next minute, they're out shoveling snow and trying to make money, and no one is coming to the door when they ring the doorbell. Marlon then says, Dave, let me try something. I'll wait around the corner, and you ring the doorbell with your little brother Benno, and if two white kids are ringing the doorbell, I bet they'll answer. And it turns out that Marlon's right. And, you know, it's lots of little microexperiences like this that slowly waken Dave up to the fact that his friend is treated very differently by society than he is.
FRAYER: Marlon is dealing with some family issues, and yet we never hear his inner thoughts, his perspective. We have the inner life of the white character, but not the black character. Why was that?
GRAHAM-FELSEN: Well, the book is told from Dave's perspective. And, you know, part of the sort of tension in the book is, Dave is in his head. He's - you know, he's a 12-year-old going through adolescence. His body is changing. He's getting his first crushes. You know, frankly, he's a little bit self-absorbed, and he's not fully able to fully empathize with what his friend Marlon might be going through.
FRAYER: This is your first novel, but you've had some experience writing. You were the chief blogger for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. How did that experience inform your ideas of race and inform the book?
GRAHAM-FELSEN: So as Obama's chief blogger, I was helping to further the message of hope and change. And I mean, I really felt hopeful that an Obama victory would signal a sea change in America and would bring about, like, real racial progress. I never thought we would turn into a post-racial country overnight, but when I saw the sort of enormity and swiftness of the backlash against Obama from the Tea Party, it really gave me pause.
FRAYER: Is that when you started writing the book or had the idea?
GRAHAM-FELSEN: I started - I had the kind of idea in my head as I was working on the Obama campaign. And then after the campaign, I sort of felt more of a sense of urgency. I wanted to explore, you know, why is racism such an intractable problem in this country? And I realized, hey, you know, I have this fairly unique experience as a white kid who went to mostly black schools growing up, and maybe if I dive as deep as possible into my own past, I can kind of understand what happened to me better and maybe a little bit better about what happened to my city and even my country.
FRAYER: Sam Graham-Felsen is the author of the new novel "Green." Thank you so much, and Happy New Year to you.
GRAHAM-FELSEN: Thank you. Happy New Year to you too.
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