David Eric Tomlinson’s The Midnight Man is a unique mystery that covers almost seventy-five years on Choctaw reservation and how a past crime haunts another. David will be joining us December 7th for a signing and discussion with Matt Coyle and Con Lehane. We caught up with him to discuss the book and how the culture he wrote about had an effect on the story.
MysteryPeople Scott: The backdrop of the story is the Choctaw Nation. What did you want the reader to know about the people?
David Eric Tomlinson: The Choctaw were one of the first civilized tribes to embrace the English language and legal system, in an effort to fight the systematic oppression of the conquering Americans. They studied the treaties they’d signed, and began to argue the finer points of the language in court, often with success. This was a double-edged strategy, though, because by embracing English, some felt that the Choctaw culture and language were gradually being lost.
I was also fascinated by the Choctaw tradition of storytelling. It involves manipulating point-of-view to frame a prophecy from some past moment in history. The prophecy then looks forward … from THEN, to NOW … and in this way, reconciles the past with the present. In many ways, this structure influenced what I was trying to do in The Midnight Man … I stepped back to the mid 1990s, and told a forward-looking prophecy to the Oklahoma City bombing.
MPS: How did you manage the multiple points of view?
DET: I spent about a year outlining this book, weaving the various characters into and around one another’s lives. In the end, I wound up rewriting it five times. Multiple storylines and characters were eliminated. But at heart, this is a very simple story: every character has an arc, and everyone eventually realizes they cannot achieve it on their own. To get there, each has to ask for help … and be willing to give it.
MPS: Another backdrop is the nineties, particularly during the O.J. trial. How did that period serve you?
DET: The 90s served as a mirror to today. Back then, we had a new form of communication (the Internet), a grassroots conservative wave sweeping across the country (the Republican revolution), the beginnings of reality TV (Court TV, which was constantly streaming the OJ Simpson trial), violent separatist militias (The Michigan Militia, Koresh’s group in Waco), and right-wing radio jockeys / politicians using language to demonize and label their opponents (Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich).
Consider where we are today. Over time, these forces have become even more divisive. Now we have Twitter and the Bundy Brothers, Make America Great Again and Fake News.
This novel tries to show that political language, by forcing people to choose one side of a wedge issue, inhibits actual communication. Real communication requires empathy, vulnerability, and understanding. It requires being open to changing your mind, or yourself … something all of these characters are struggling to do, some with more success than others.
MPS: What was the biggest thing you leaned about dealing with a time period many of the readers have lived through?
DET: I think the biggest struggle for me was in seeing, on the one hand, how far we MIGHT have come since then – in terms of integrating more diverse racial, sexual, or political views into mainstream American life – and in how short we’ve actually fallen of that promise. This last year has revealed just how powerful and entrenched racism and bigotry are in our politics and culture.
The past is a road map to the present moment. Looking back at the mid 1990s, you can see how we arrived at this uniquely frightening moment in American history. The seeds were all there.
MPS: Family is a major part of the story. What did you want to explore with it?
DET: Family serves as a metaphor for the opposite of this divisive political rhetoric swirling around us every day. Also as a metaphor for teamwork. For various reasons, there’s a lot of basketball in this book. And like a basketball team, there are 5 characters in the novel. Over time, each overcomes his own biases, regrets, and fears, and they help one another evolve into better versions of themselves. It’s a kind of post-racial family unit. This all happens during the course of a capital murder trail, and in the year preceding the tragedy of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But I wanted to show that tragedy – on a personal level – doesn’t have to be inevitable. Hope is possible.
MPS: What can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
DET: Right now I’m on the second draft of a novel about an Army veteran who runs a suicide hotline for other vets. I guess you could call it literary suspense. It’s an important and very personal story, and I’m hoping to share more news about it soon!