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Today we welcome debut novelist, Kekla Magoon to the Tollbooth. 

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Hi Kekla.  We're so happy to have you here.  I'm going to jump right in and ask you my first question.  . .

1. How did you come to write THE ROCK AND THE RIVER?


I tend to smile mysteriously in response to this question, because the answer has many layers. I’ll give you a few:


I’ve learned that I always need to be writing – busy or not, motivated or not, in sickness and in health, etc. – but my best work invariably comes as a result of some sudden, unanticipated spark of inspiration. With this novel, I remember the moment exactly. I was conducting (completely unrelated) research online and I happened upon a small fact about The Black Panther Party that was new to me. The characters of Sam and Stick came into my mind almost immediately. I started playing with them over a matter of weeks, letting them act out scenes without really knowing where it was going. It began as a side project, because I was working intently on another book at the time, but the urge to write a story with these characters quickly became much stronger, and I felt I had to see it through.


Answering why I had to see it through is where the layers come in:


Intellectually, I was attracted to writing about a topic that hadn’t been dealt with much in children’s literature. I believe that black youth aren’t always taught the full scope of their history, and as an author, I do feel a sense of responsibility to fill the void.


Emotionally, I’ve always been intrigued by/enamored with the civil rights movement, even since childhood. But like many young black people, I’ve been steeped in a familiar narrative of that time period that doesn’t leave a lot of room for asking difficult questions of one’s self – like, “where would I have stood, in that time and place, if the choice between non-violence and militancy was handed to me?” Reading about The Black Panthers as an adult has deepened my curiosity and transformed my understanding of black history, which impacts the way I see myself in relation to the world.


Simply, I can’t resist historical fiction. It was fun for me as a kid, and still is, because it enables me to gain empathy for a person facing radically different life experiences than I ever will. It’s not only entertaining, but educational and even transformative, and it’s thrilling to throw my two cents into that kind of dialogue.



2. Your book is about a thirteen-year-old boy named Sam whose father,

Roland Childs, is a Civil Rights activist and follower of the Reverend

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Sam's father rejects violence as a solution to racial

injustice and inequality, while at the same time, Sam's older brother,

Stick, is lured into the Black Panther Party because of his frustration at

the lack of progress made by nonviolent "passive resistance." 

Was the character of Roland Childs inspired by any particular person?

Roland Childs isn’t based on any specific individual. In developing his character, I imagined him as sort of a local Dr. King, even though he’s an attorney, not a minister. In reality, he could have been based on any number of individuals. Dr. King had a nationwide team of leaders working closely with him who inspired and organized people to participate in demonstrations, and who led community efforts in pursuit of civil rights. The local leaders remain the unsung heroes of the civil rights era. We tend to speak of what Dr. King did as if he acted alone, but one of the strengths of the movement was the collaboration that occurred, so I wanted to highlight that in a small way.



3. How much research did you do?


It’s a little hard to say, because different people seem to have different ideas about what constitutes research. I don’t feel that I did much deliberate research on the non-violent civil rights movement, aside from checking into some small timeline details. However, I majored in history in college, and have always been interested in the civil rights era, so I felt that I was carrying a lot of knowledge about the time period to begin with.


I did research The Black Panther Party, because before writing this book I didn’t know all that much about their activities and beliefs. I had a lot of the same stereotypical impressions of them that many Americans hold in their minds, so I had to work a little to shatter that. Though, I felt an immediate resonance with much of what I read about them. I looked at everything I could get my hands on, which included the writings and auto/biographies of Black Panther leaders, scholarly books, some photo essays and some online research. I watched a few obscure documentaries in which members and former members talked about their experiences. As compared to the non-violent movement, there’s very little information out there about The Black Panthers. It’s a piece of history that our culture seems to be making an effort to erase.


4. Did you start writing this book when you were a student at Vermont College?


Yes. I had “the spark” and started the brainstorming in my first semester. I drafted and revised the manuscript in my second and third semesters. I worked on other things during the final semester, but submitted The Rock and the River as my creative thesis.


5. A lot happens in this book. And you manage to show the complexities

of the people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and in the Black Panther Party. The protagonist's older brother, Stick joins the Black Panther Party, but he regrets the need for violence.   The protagonist's father, Roland Childs,  provides advice to people the protagonist does not expect him to help. Did it take a long time to find the way to portray characters in a political setting with more complexity?


I’m not sure that the politics made the characterizations more of a challenge in this book than any other. In any context, I try to create characters who will do unexpected things, even when that leads to some seeming contradictions. It always seems more believable that way, and in the case of this book, it also served the larger story. Sam struggles to understand the many ways in which the world is cast in shades of gray, rather than pure black and white. I used Father and Stick to promote that confusion in him.


6. How did the story change from initial conception to finished manuscript?

What I mean is, were there any major plot changes or shifts that surprised you?


Well, the initial conception was just a spark, a moment of inspiration. Just getting from that to a finished manuscript seems slightly miraculous to me at times. But the story came easily in some ways. The arc did change some from my first inklings, especially with regard to subplots. The characters of Maxie and Bucky emerged at different points during the writing, but with almost the same intensity that Sam and Stick had first come to me. That was surprising.


The biggest shift/change that surprised me came not in drafting the novel, but in one of my revisions. It’s hard to articulate what changed, because it wasn’t exactly the plot. It was something in how I was approaching the material. How to explain….well, when I first figured out what the climactic event of the book had to be, it was difficult to let myself write it. But I did, and I was happy with it. I took some time off from the story, thinking it was done. I returned to it later because of a nagging feeling that I’d missed something vital. I don’t know why, but that time I was able to reach a different emotional place with it.


7. Did you always know how it would end?


No. In fact, I started off thinking that the end was going to be totally different. But what I thought would be the end wound up being the middle, and the story unfolded beyond that in ways I didn’t anticipate.


8. Did you learn anything from your research that surprised you?


To be honest, I was most surprised by how strongly I came to feel about the Panthers and their work. I consider myself to be fairly well-read and well-educated, and yet I had no real idea about this whole dimension of the civil rights movement. It continues to shock me that I lived for so long, hearing so much about this time period without having to grapple with understanding the complexities of militancy vs. non-violence.


I’ve observed that people grow uncomfortable when I talk about respecting the Panthers’ work and legacy. I don’t say it to suggest that we should all run out and embrace militancy. In the first place, the Panthers weren’t only militant – they were also community organizers who inspired people in the roughest neighborhoods to embrace education and to take care of one another. In the second place, I think we’ve grown so accustomed to revering Dr. King as hero, and looking back on the 1960’s as a singular turning point for race relations in the U.S., that we’ve become complacent about discussing what was really going on.


The research helped me put myself in the mindset of a young person at the time, and so much it pushed me toward anger. I loved the authenticity of my desire to rage against the unfairness, but in a time when the constraints of society were such that there really was no place to put such rage. I found myself thinking a lot about the non-violent movement, and it began to hold so much more meaning for me when I considered what people were really giving up by committing to non-violence. It made me think deeper about the values of a person like Dr. King, while simultaneously being intrigued by the depth of The Black Panther movement beyond its militancy.




Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of our interview with Kekla. 

Until then . . . .



( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 18th, 2009 12:33 pm (UTC)
Great interview! I'm looking forward to reading The Rock and The River.
Feb. 18th, 2009 12:47 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed the interview, sparble. Check back tomorrow for Part 2.

Thanks for reading!
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 18th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks, newport2newport. Yes, please do come back tomorrow!
Feb. 18th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
Absolutely fantastic interview, Sarah and Kekla. I can't wait to read the rest tomorrow.

What a wonderful, important and brave novel you've written, Kekla!

Kekla workshopped this novel in my first workshop at Vermont College, along with Sundee Frazier workshopping Brendan Buckley and Helen Hemphill workshopping Long Gone Daddy. It was a pretty incredible experience, to say the least.
Feb. 18th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Lucky you for that experience and me, for having the opportunity to interview Kekla!
Feb. 18th, 2009 06:42 pm (UTC)
Awesome, interview!
Sarah and Kekla, thanks for the in-depth interview into all the thought and care that went into making this well crafted novel.
Feb. 18th, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Awesome, interview!
Come back tomorrow, Bethany. We'll be talking about the program you and Kekla are doing in the schools. And I can't wait till your book, Between Us Baxters comes out. Later this month, right? We're going to want to talk to you about that!
Feb. 18th, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Sarah and Kekla, for a great interview. I can't wait to read the book --I was very much alive then, facing some of the same choices (though I'm white).
Feb. 18th, 2009 09:03 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Leda. I'm glad we all made it safely through that time to be here today.
Feb. 19th, 2009 03:27 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kekla and Sarah.
Fascinating interview into both the book's subject *and* the process of writing The Rock and The River. I'm looking forward to tomorrow's thoughts, and to reading the book soon!
Feb. 19th, 2009 12:05 pm (UTC)
We're so grateful Kekla stopped by the Tollbooth.
Feb. 19th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks, everyone!
Thanks for the feedback. This is so much fun. It's been great visiting the Tollbooth this week!

Feb. 19th, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks, everyone!
We're so glad you were here, Kekla.
It's been great fun.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )