Monday, June 06, 2016

Writing With Purpose Book Tour - Introducing Leonard Pitts, Jr., Author of Grant Park


About The Book

Grant Park is a page-turning and provocative look at black and white relations in contemporary America, blending the absurd and the poignant in a powerfully well-crafted narrative that showcases Pitts's gift for telling emotionally wrenching stories.

Grant Park begins in 1968, with Martin Luther King's final days in
Memphis. The story then moves to the eve of the 2008 election, and cuts between the two eras as it unfolds. Disillusioned columnist Malcolm Toussaint, fueled by yet another report of unarmed black men killed by police, hacks into his newspaper's server to post an incendiary column that had been rejected by his editors. Toussaint then disappears, and his longtime editor, Bob Carson, is summarily fired within hours of the column's publication.

While a furious Carson tries to find Toussaint—at the same time dealing with the reappearance of a lost love from his days as a 60s activist—Toussaint is abducted by two improbable but still-dangerous white supremacists plotting to explode a bomb at Obama's planned rally in Grant Park. Toussaint and Carson are forced to remember the choices they made as idealistic, impatient young men, when both their lives were changed profoundly by their work in the civil rights movement.


SNEAK PEEK AT GRANT PARK - CHAPTER ONE

Martin Luther King stood at the railing, facing west. The moon was a pale crescent just rising in early twilight to share the sky with a waning sun. He leaned over, joking with the men in the parking lot below. A couple of them were wrestling playfully with James Orange, a good-natured man with a build like a brick wall.

“Now, you be careful with preachers half your size,” King teased him.

“Dr. King,” called
Orange in a plaintive voice, “it’s two of them and one of me. You should be asking them not to hurt me.”

“Doc,” someone called out from below, “this is Ben Branch. You remember Ben.”

“Oh yes,” said King. “He’s my man. How are ya, Ben?”

Another voice yelled up from below. “Glad to see you, Doc.”

As Malcolm Toussaint moved toward King, it struck him that the preacher seemed somehow lighter than he had the last time Malcolm had seen him. It had been late one night a week before, by the Dumpsters out back of the Holiday Inn. The man Malcolm met that night had seemed… weighted, so much so that even Malcolm had found himself concerned and moved—Malcolm, who had long scorned the great reverend doctor, who had, in the fashion of other young men hip, impatient, and cruel, mocked him as “De Lawd.”  But that was before Malcolm had met the man. That was before they had talked. Now he moved toward King, his mind roiling with the decision that had sprung from that moment, the news he had come to share. King, he knew, would be pleased. There would be a smile, perhaps a heavy hand clamping on Malcolm’s shoulder. “Good for you, Brother Malcolm,” he would say. “Good for you.”

Malcolm was vaguely amused to find himself here on this balcony, anticipating this man’s approval. If you had told him just a few days ago that he would be here, ready to go back to school, ready to embrace nonviolent protest, he would have laughed. But that, too, was before. Malcolm meant to raise his hand just then, to catch King’s attention, but a movement caught his eye. Just a reflected ray of the dying sun, really, glinting off something in a window across the street. Something that—he knew this instinctively—should not have been there. He wondered distractedly what it was.

King’s voice drew him back. “I want you to sing it like you’ve never sung it before,” he was calling to someone in the parking lot below. “Sing it real pretty.” And Malcolm realized he had missed something, because he had no idea what they were talking about. His attention had been distracted by… what was that?

“It’s getting chilly.” Yet another voice calling to King from below. “I think you’ll need a topcoat.”

“Okay, Jonesy,” King was saying. “You really know how to take good care of me.”

And here, the moment breaks, time fracturing as time sometimes will into its component parts, until an event is no longer composed of things happening in a sequence, but somehow all happens at once. And you can see and touch and live all the smaller moments inside the right now. This is how it is for Malcolm Toussaint now.  King is laughing. Malcolm is taking a step toward him. King is straightening. Laughter is echoing from below. King is reaching into a pocket for his cigarettes. He is becoming aware of Malcolm on his left. His head is coming around. There are the bare beginnings of a welcoming smile. And Malcolm knows. Suddenly knows. And Malcolm is leaping, leaping across space, across time itself, becoming airborne—he was sure of it, that detail felt right, even though by this time King is barely six feet away. Malcolm grabbing two hands full of expensive silk, yanking Martin Luther King off balance, yanking him down hard in the same instant they all hear the popping sound like a firecracker, in the same instant he feels the soft-nosed 30.06 bullet whistle past his cheek like a phantom breath, in the same instant he falls awkwardly across King’s chest.

And then…

And then time seems to reel for a crazy breathless moment, as if decide-ing what to do now. The fulcrum of history teetering, the future hanging, suspended in midair. Until all at once and with a brutal force, time decides itself and slams back into gear.

A woman shrieked.

Someone yelled, “Somebody is shooting!”

Someone yelled, “Doc, are you OK?”

Someone yelled, “Stay down!”

Malcolm’s breath was ragged in his own ears. His heart hammered like drums. Then from beneath him, he heard a familiar baritone voice say calmly, very calmly, but yet, with a touch of breathless wonder. “Oh my God. Was that a gunshot?”

Their eyes met. Malcolm didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak. “Brother Malcolm,” said Martin Luther King, his voice still suffused with wonder and yet, also, an almost unnatural calm, “I think you just saved my life.”

Malcolm was overwhelmed by the thereness of the man. He was not myth and mist and history. He was not a posterboard image on a wall behind a child dutifully reciting in a child’s thin, sweet tenor, “I have a dream today.” No, he was there, beneath 20-year-old Malcolm Toussaint, who had fallen crosswise on top of him. Malcolm could feel the weight and heft of him, the fall and rise of his chest. He could see his very pores, could smell the tobacco on his breath, the Aramis on his collar. Martin Luther King was there, still alive, beneath him. Malcolm opened his mouth to speak.

And then, he awoke.

© 2015 All rights reserved. Book excerpt reprinted by permission of the author, Leonard Pitts Jr.   Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author's written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.


About The Author

Leonard Pitts, Author
Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald and winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, in addition to many other awards. He is also the author of the novels Freeman (Agate Bolden, 2012) and Before I Forget (Agate Bolden, 2009); the collection Forward From this Moment: Selected Columns, 1994-2009, Daily Triumphs, Tragedies, and Curiosities (Agate Bolden, 2009); and Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood (Agate Bolden, 2006).

Pitts’ work has made him an in-demand lecturer.  He maintains a rigorous speaking schedule that has taken him to colleges, civic groups and professional associations all over the country.  He has also been invited to teach at a number of prestigious institutions of higher learning, including
Hampton University, Ohio University, the University of Maryland and Virginia Commonwealth University.  In the fall of 2011, he was a visiting professor at Princeton University, teaching a course in writing about race.

Twice each week, millions of Miami Herald newspaper readers around the country seek out his rich and uncommonly resonant voice. In a word, he connects with them. Nowhere was this demonstrated more forcefully than in the response to his initial column on the
Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Pitts' column, "We'll Go Forward From This Moment," an angry and defiant open letter to the terrorists, circulated the globe via the Internet. It generated upwards of 30,000 emails, and has since been set to music, reprinted in poster form, read on television by Regis Philbin and quoted by Congressman Richard Gephardt as part of the Democratic Party's weekly radio address.

Born and raised in
Southern California, Pitts now lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with his wife and children.


Intimate Conversation with Leonard Pitts, Jr.


BPM:  When did you get your first inkling to write, and how did you advance the call for writing? People ask all the time: "Why did you decide to be a writer?"  It's a question I always struggle with, because I never decided to be a writer.  In other words, there was a never a decision process, per se.  I knew from the time I was five that this was what I was put here to do.  So the goal for the remaining years of my childhood and, indeed, my professional life, was simply about trying to become good at it and then trying to become better.  From the time I was young, I liked telling stories, I enjoyed getting reactions.  I think all of us are given certain gifts, certain aptitudes, certain things that fit us, that seem to come more easily to us than they do to other people.  For me, that was words.  In school, I sweated and worked my tail off for "C" I ever got in math.  But every "A" I got in English was as easy as pie.

BPM: Mr. Pitts, how did you get started as a writer? Well, I began to think of myself as a writer from the time I was five years old, which was a good thing, because it gave me a lot of time to be bad at it.  I started sending poems and stories to magazines when I was 12 years old, first became published when I was 14, and first got paid for being published when I was 18.  I spent the next 18 years working primarily as a music critic for a variety of magazines and radio programs.

I was editor of  SOUL, a black entertainment tabloid, did freelance work for such magazines as Spin, Record Review and Right On!, co-created and edited a radio entertainment news magazine called RadioScope and was a writer for Casey Kasem's radio countdown show, Casey's Top 40.

BPM:  Tell us about your passion for writing. Why do you write? What drives you? I write because it's my profession, I write because it's the only thing I've ever wanted to do.  I write because, if it wasn't my profession and nobody was paying me to do it, I know that I would still be doing it.  I write because this is what I love and it's who I am.  I think we tell stories to figure out who we are and what we are about and I am proud of being part of that continuum.  I am also driven by the need to see if I can better my best.  It's a never-ending game of "Can you top this?"

BPM:  Do you ever let the book stew – leave it for months and then come back to it? I've never left a book for months.  I've been forced to leave a book for weeks though, because sometimes, life intrudes.  But the best way to write a book is in one long push of consistent, daily effort.  A novel is, at bottom, an elaborate lie.  It's an unspoken bargain between writer and reader: I'm going to tell you this story of things that never happened - maybe never could happen – and in exchange for you suspending your disbelief, I'm obligated to make sure this tale I tell is entertaining, funny, gripping, suspenseful, emotionally involving, whatever.  But to sell the "lie" you're telling as a writer, you have to first believe it yourself.  And I've found that if you stay away from a novel for too long, it can damage your ability to believe in the "lie" - the situations and characters you're chronicling can start to seem cardboard, less real to you.  And if you don't believe in them, the reader definitely won't.

BPM:  Introduce us to your book, Grant Park and the main characters. Forty years ago, two young men had life-altering encounters with Martin Luther King.  Malcolm, a black kid, was a college dropout who scorned nonviolent protest, and embraced street violence as a way of bringing social change.  A chance meeting one night with King turned him around, forced him to see the limitations of street violence and convinced him to return to school.  He was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, about to share this news with King when James Earl Ray fired his fatal shot.  He has never gotten over what he saw.  Bob, a white kid, was attending a Bible college in
Mississippi where he fell powerfully in love with Janeka Lattimore, a young black civil rights activist.  They attended King's last march – the one in Memphis that ended in a riot.  Bob was beaten bloody by an angry young black man in the crowd and right after that, Janeka left him, saying she wanted to go to a black school now, saying she wanted to "be with her people."  "I thought I was your people, too," said Bob.  He has never gotten over losing her.

Forty years later, Malcolm is a celebrated columnist for a
Chicago newspaper, burned out by one too many cases of police violence against unarmed African-Americans and white people not caring about.  He writes an angry column - "I'm sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit," he says – and when the newspaper refuses to publish it, he hacks his editor's computer and publishes it anyway - one the front page of the paper, on Election Day of 2008.  Then unbeknownst to anyone, he is kidnapped by two would-be white supremacist terrorists who intend to blow him up in Grant Park, where President–elect Barack Obama is scheduled to speak.  Meantime, Bob is now an editor at a Chicago newspaper and before dawn on Election Day, he gets a phone call telling him one of his columnists has hacked his computer to publish an incendiary, offensive column.  Bob gets fired for it.  The former civil rights activist was already sick and tired of black people always complaining, never being satisfied.  Now he's lost his job over black people's whining, and he's furious, ready to strangle Malcolm – if he can only find him.  Then he gets an email.  Janeka is back in town and she wants to see him.

Grant Park is a novel about racial disillusionment, friendship, and what I have taken to calling the “stupidification” of
America.

BPM:  Are any scenes from the book borrowed from your world or your experiences? Oh, yes.  Much of the frustration Malcolm experiences in dealing with white readers who will not engage on the subject of racial injustice is something I have experienced firsthand.  And the one reader email that sends him over the edge is cobbled together from hundreds of similar emails I have received over the years.  I identify with Malcolm's angst, though not with his chosen solution.

BPM: What are your goals as a writer? Do you set out to educate? Entertain? Inspire? I think you write to entertain, first and foremost, to tell a story a reader will lose herself or himself in. You try to create characters that will seem real to the reader and then put those characters into situations of physical or emotional danger. Secondarily, you hope that in entertaining people, you can also manage to say something of value, make some observation that will touch them or inspire them or cause them to see old things in new ways.

BPM: What are some of the benefits of being an author that makes it all worthwhile? Writing a novel is a year, two years, or more of lonely work, staring at blank screens and not really knowing if what you're doing works or makes any kind of sense. So the best thing about being published is receiving feedback from readers. When somebody tells me they were hurt by something one of my characters did, or a situation a character found him or herself in made that reader cry, that is the highest validation and best compliment I can ever receive. It means the characters seemed real and the story works. Feedback is what makes that lonely year or two worthwhile.

BPM:  What’s the most important quality a writer should have in your opinion? Probably persistence.  You have to believe in and hone your talent as a writer and cling to it, sometimes against all odds and common sense.  You have to eat rejection for breakfast.

BPM: Ultimately, what do you want readers to gain from reading your book? I want them to gain enjoyment and entertainment obviously. I'd love for them to think about some of the issues the book raises.  If you or your readers would like to set up a Skype visit to discuss Grant Park or Freeman, go to my website and contact me there:  http://leonardpittsjr.com.  I'm available for blog tours as well.

BPM:  How may our readers follow you online? 
Books can be found at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/leonard-pitts-jr.

Keep up with Leonard Pitts Jr. at his website: 
http://www.leonardpittsjr.com

Read Miami Herald column at http://www.miamiherald.com/leonard_pitts

Like Leonard Pitts on FB: https://www.facebook.com/LeonardPittsJr

Follow on Twitter: Leonard Pitts Jr. can be found at @LeonardPittsJr1

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