Thomas Mullen’s Darktown found critical acclaim when it came out last year, winning fans in crime fiction and “the literary set” alike. His second novel of the first black officers serving in a Jim Crow, Atlanta, proves their is much to mine in the subject. Our Matthew Turbeville caught up with Mr. Mullen to talk about, research, race, and writing.
Matthew Turbeville: I’ve been reading your novels for a while, but was especially intrigued by your Darktown series. Can you tell me a little about what inspired these novels?
Thomas Mullen: A few years ago I was reading a book on Atlanta history called Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz. It’s a big book that traces 150 years of ATL via two prominent families, one black and one white. In the middle is a four-page passage that covers the circumstances around the 1948 hiring of Atlanta’s first eight African-American police officers, and, most interesting to me, the insulting Jim Crow restrictions they operated under: they could only patrol “colored neighborhoods,” they only worked the night shift, they could not drive squad cars, and they could not set foot in the police headquarters and instead had to operate their own makeshift precinct in the basement of a YMCA in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood (where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up). Last but not least, they could not arrest white people. If, God forbid, they ever saw a white person committing a crime, they were supposed to call in white officers to help. But the idea was that since this was a time of such strict segregation, and they were patrolling black neighborhoods, they shouldn’t even see any white folks, let alone white lawbreakers.
The fiction writer in me immediately asked, well, what if? Life tends not to confine itself to such strictly drawn lines, and I found myself imagining the plot of Darktown¸ in which two of the black rookies do in fact come upon a white criminal, and begin to suspect a white cop helped him murder a young black woman.
Because this was 1948, I felt pretty early on that this had series potential. Darktown is set in this historically overlooked period after the end of World War II but before the Cold War and before the first key victories of the Civil Rights movement. So I found myself thinking of the different stories I could tell if I followed some of these characters over the next 15-20 years and traced how they, the city, the South, and the country changed as a result of the Civil Rights movement—and the white backlash to the movement.
Other inspiration came from the many great books in which writers take the ingredients of the classic hard-boiled murder mystery and do something unexpected and odd with it. Three of my favorite recent novels are Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; I love how they’re able to do something fun and novel with a classic form this way. And when I learned about the offensive, insane Jim Crow restrictions that Atlanta’s first black officers had to work under, I felt I had the ingredients for my own twist on classic noir.
Finally, I’m a big fan of what I’ve dubbed “totalitarian noir,” or murder mysteries that up the moral ante by placing their hero inside a corrupt, totalitarian regime. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels in Russia, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series in Nazi Germany, Olen Steinhauer’s series in an unnamed Warsaw Pact country. It occurred to me that I could write my own totalitarian noir right in my own town, because the South was every bit a totalitarian nation if you were black.
MT: I imagine it’s really difficult to write about an issue you can’t directly place yourself in. How did you prepare to write about Black police officers—from the mid-twentieth century? What research did you have to do to fit yourself into their shoes?
TM: It’s definitely challenging, and it helps that I’d written other historical novels and so had a sense of where and how to start. I’m not the kind of writer who writes autobiographical fiction, where the protagonists are lightly fictionalized versions of myself. Because my books have been set in different times and different places, I’ve always had to work hard to create characters who had very different daily experiences than me, different hopes and dreams and obstacles, different worldviews, different concepts of what was and wasn’t possible in their world.
Research is always a big part of that, to determine what people were dealing with back then, what were the issues of the day, the debate and divisions, the jobs and roles people had, the dreams they could reasonably aspire to.
To learn more about Atlanta’s first black cops and their white counterparts, I found newspaper articles from ’48 and ’50 that offered some great context, but not too much in terms of what life was really like for the black officers, probably because they were hesitant to speak too candidly to the press back then. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s journalists ran some retrospective stories and talked to some of the initial eight African-American officers, most of whom were still living and some of whom were still cops. In those pieces, they didn’t hold back about their mistreatment from white cops and judges. Much of my books’ details about how they did their jobs came from those pieces, and from some recorded interviews two of them gave in the late ‘70s for an oral history project.
Finally, I read lots and lots of books. I’m more of a secondary-source guy, so rather than spending too much time in the archives (which I do some of), I would rather let the real historians do that, then I go and read the big books they write. I have bookshelves full of histories of Atlanta, midcentury America, African-American history, the Civil Rights Era, policing, biographies and memoirs, fiction from that time period, etc. I also read a lot of books about more contemporary issues with race and policing, because I want to make sure I don’t write anything that’s informed by misconceptions about the more recent past, like the war on drugs and our current over-incarceration of African-Americans.
MT: You tend to write largely from historical points-of-view. What about history—and not the present day—is alluring to you? Do you think mysteries set in different times and places speak more to an audience, or at least differently?
TM: I never set out to be a “historical novelist” — my third book was contemporary, and I do have other contemporary ideas — but yeah, here I am with 5 books now, and 4 were set in the past. It’s a good question I don’t fully know the answer to. Maybe it’s because there’s so much amazing material, so many incredible stories, in our country’s past. Maybe it’s because it gives me an unusual lens through which I, and the reader, can view issues that remain important today, that we’ve also dealt with in the past under different circumstances, and therefore we can make unexpected, nuanced observations about then and now. Maybe it’s to avoid being another writer who just writes autobiographical fiction about myself and life in 2017. I honestly don’t know the answer.
MT: What is your process like when preparing to write a book? How were you able to release two books in the Darktown series so close together?
TM: As noted, I do a ton of research. But what I most love is writing, and I really can’t take doing a huge chunk of research at once, so I parcel it out. With a new idea, I’m likely to do some research first, just enough so I have an understanding of the time period, then I start writing. I do this because I need to know whether I can really write in that time, with these characters, or not; the last thing I’d want to do is spend 6 months on research only to sit down later and find I just can’t find the voice to write it. So once I’ve done some research, and then some writing, and I’m feeling good about the project, I might stop writing and do some more research, to really dive into the era. Then I’ll write again in earnest, occasionally stopping to do some supplemental research if I find there’s a specific topic I realize I need to know more about.
As for the new book coming out only a year later, that was a happy accident. I started writing Lightning Men about a month after finishing the first polished draft of Darktown, before my agent had even read Darktown. She’s normally a speedy reader but she had a full plate at that time, so by the time she read Darktown and had some edits for me, I’d already written a good 100 pages of the new one. Which meant that, by the time we finalized Darktown and had offers from publishers, I already had a great head start on the second book.
I continue to do lots of research, as there’s really no end to the important works I could be reading about this time period and these topics. Even if I ever felt that I’d caught up, each year brings the publication of several new, important works on the Civil Rights era, race and policing, etc. (For example, two of the nonfiction books that were just nominated for the National Book Award were about Emmet Till and about race and housing, so I’ve read them.) I’m pretty much always in the middle of a book I’m reading for research, and I’m finding that the writing goes a bit faster now that I have a solid knowledge of the era, as well as a pre-established setting and characters.
MT: Darktown seems especially necessary in today’s world—a world filled with hatred, racism, and bigotry. What would you say Darktown and Lightning Men’s essential messages are? What do you hope readers gather from these books?
TM: It is extremely unfortunate, and enraging, and disappointing, and heart-breaking, and maddening, that we are still having some of the same debates. As I type this, on Monday 9/25/17, the main story is about whether African-American athletes have the right to protest, something that was a hot topic in the 1968 Olympics when some athletes held raised fists during the anthem (one of those athletes was Tommie Smith, a name I sort of borrowed in my books). It shows that these issues run deep, and in my opinion issues of race and power cut to the core of America, what it is today and what it’s always been, which is why I wanted to write the books in the first place, when I started the project in 2012. As for the messages, I’ll let the readers make those judgments themselves. If nothing else, I hope readers come away with a more nuanced understanding of our recent past as well as our present, and a more empathetic mindset about people different from themselves.
MT: In relation to the time period, what was the most difficult aspect of writing Darktown and Lightning Men?
TM: Hey, it’s all hard. And it’s all fun. Writing a novel is never easy, and I take what I do extremely seriously. I know that I’m handling material that can be sensitive, and that I have a responsibility to get it right. I feel extremely fortunate that I get to imagine stories for a living, and I want to make the most of that opportunity. I hope that the books not only entertain people but also illuminate areas of the world that they might not have thought about, illuminate elements of human nature that bind us together.
MT: One of the quotes that opens Lightning Men is concerning The Birth of a Nation, a film which grossly fictionalizes history and inspires the KKK to this day. What do you think a book like Lightning Men will do for society? Do you think you are playing a role in correcting history?
TM: It feels a tad grandiose to wonder about my books’ impact. I’m just glad that they exist and that people are reading them, and I hope more readers come to the series as I continue it.
And I don’t know that fiction can “correct history,” but I can work hard to present things accurately and honestly. That means avoiding nostalgia, that means refusing to whitewash the past. I recently observed that writing historical fiction is equal parts keepin’ it real and makin’ shit up. The making up is the fiction part, the fact that I’m taking invented characters through an invented plot. But it only works if the surrounding world is real: if it’s historically accurate, if it’s realistic as opposed to nostalgic and sentimental, and if the characters act and think in ways that feel human and alive. I’m not trying to correct history, only to respect it in its fullness, all its glory and ugliness, tragedies and triumphs. With the series, I want to pay homage to overlooked heroes (the Southern African Americans who were willing to serve as policemen despite all that they had to overcome in their Jim Crow cities) and their undeniable triumphs, while never losing sight of all the defeats and tragedies along the way.