After appearing on NBC’s Today Show, Stephen Carter, author of “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” joined the MSNBC.com chat room to discuss his book, chosen by bestselling author John Grisham to be the very first Today Show Book Club selection. Professor Carter took questions over the phone from a book tour stop in Philadelphia. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Mr. Carter
Stephen Carter: Thank you.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Let’s pick up where the Today Show left off…
Question from Anna Quinlan: Did the last member of the book club ask his question of Mr. Carter? If so, what was the answer?
Stephen Carter: Yes. First of all, I want to say how much fun I had talking to the members of the book club. Second, he did ask his question. He asked whether it was my intention in the book to give a message about race. He noticed that a number of the characters thought about or talked about race a lot, and so he wondered. I told him that I wasn’t trying to send any particular message but there were certainly places where I wanted to be provocative and to help people look at things a little differently than they might otherwise have.
Question from sal gbaja: Just a comment..i loved this book mainly because it talked about a side of black america that is never shown anymore (not since the Cosbys at any rate)...i am from nigeria where there are many moneyed black (african)educated people, but africa is only talked about in the context of its abject poverty and corrupt leadership. Great book...Kimmer is the most disappointing character..i really wanted something bad to happen to her but inspite of her treachery, nothing did. loved crazy Mariah, and in particular the relationship bw Misha and Mariah... Great book...please write another!!!
Stephen Carter: I have a couple of responses, but first, lLet me caution people not to ask questions that have to do in any way with the second half of the book, just for the sake of being fair to people who haven’t read it.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Don’t spoil the ending!!
Stephen Carter: As to that question, I’m quite aware that very little in literature or in the media ever focuses on middle class and upper middle class Black Americans. If the success of this book means that publishers or film makers will be more interested in this class, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want the book’s focus on that group to mean we should stop thinking about those who are being left behind.
Question from Leigh Gleason: Please, please, please tell me what you mean by “analog morality”.
Stephen Carter: The question isn’t what I mean, the question is what Kimmer means. I think the term analog morality refers to people who see moral questions in black and white. You’re either right or wrong so that digital morality would refer to people who see more shades of gray.
MSNBC-Will Femia: While we’re defining terms, what does “Dare you” mean?
Stephen Carter: I cannot say what Bentley Garland meant by the terms dare you because he hasn’t told me.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Was having a term with no meaning like “dare you” part of the device of presenting the subjectivity of Talcott?
Stephen Carter: When a novelist writes in the first person it’s important to give the reader a consistent view of the world. And each of us as we look at the world, see things or hear things or even do things that don’t make much sense. When the narrator is human and complex, we have to recognize that there will be a degree of subjectivity and ambiguity.
Question from Jane: The Emperor of Ocean Park presents a very interesting perspective for those of ‘the paler nation’. I was wondering whether the book first presented itself to Professor Carter as an exploration of this rarely-represented point of view, or if the ‘thriller’ plot involving the father and his sordid connections was part of his initial thinking about the book.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Or none of the above?
Stephen Carter: I did not write the book in order to shine a light on any particular group. I wrote the book because these extraordinary characters occurred to me and I wanted to tell their stories.
Question from Leslie: Did you write this book in order? Or did you write the ending, etc. before you began?
MSNBC-Will Femia: You’re saying you started with Characters? When did the plot come in?
Question from Jane: How important was the ‘thriller plot’ in your general scheme of the book?
Stephen Carter: I started the characters wanting to find a vehicle to tell their story. I tried out a lot of different plots and a lot of different formats before I hit on the idea of using a mystery or thriller. But my main interest was using the story as a device to talk about the family.
As to the order in which I wrote it, I wrote different pieces at different times. Certainly I always knew how the book was going to end.
Question from Sarah: I found that although the character of Talcott was always being bombarded with bad news and people were always doubting him and undermining him, I always sympathized with him. How did you strike this balance between making him seem crazy but likeable at the same time?
Stephen Carter: I don’t know. I’m glad he came out that way. Talcott is plainly an imperfect character but I do think he should have the readers’ sympathy for his perseverance and for his willingness to risk.
MSNBC-Will Femia: On the subject of Talcott, why didn’t you make him a little more heroic? I felt my own self esteem deflating every time I read. Were you at least tempted to make him a little more “Hollywood?”
Stephen Carter: I myself am tired of reading books where the hero is powerful and heroic and perfect. There are a lot of imperfect people out there who land in difficult situations and sometimes they have to overcome their flaws in order to get through.
I should add that Talcott as a character in a sense developed himself. Ideas about him and what he was like occurred to me as the story developed.
Question from Jane: Was Misha’s wife intentionally an unsympathetic character...or it that just my misreading?
Stephen Carter: Readers have to judge the characters for themselves. I myself rather liked Misha’s wife. She was in a difficult situation, she was a person with flaws and yet she seemed to me to be a person of a certain strength. We have to remember that we see her imperfections through Misha’s eyes and Misha is not an objective witness.
Question from Catherine Kellerman: I wanted to remark on a fantastic book written by Mr. Carter entitled “Civility.” This is the most inspirational book I have read in many years. It should be promoted as required reading for every high school student, in fact every member of the human race would benefit from this wise writing. I cannot join the chat at 2:00 but I would be honored if you would pass this on to Mr. Carter along with my email address. Thank you. This book should be remarketed for today’s society!!!!!
Stephen Carter: I am very honored by those comments. I should add that many of my views on the importance of civility were inspired by the great Thurgood Marshall, one of my mentors, who believed the same thing.
Question from Olie: I think the names in the novel are maybe the most unrealistic aspects of the book? Where did u derive the names from?
Stephen Carter: I’m not sure what aspect of the names seems unrealistic. Many readers have commented to me how much they like the names. Many of them cited friends with the same or similar names. One black woman who has been vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard for four generations said all the names were just like the names of her friends and family. Having said that, let me add that I myself had a lot of fun with the names.
Question from Bobbi Gutman: Given this is your first novel, how much of it was drawn from your experiences at Yale Law? This question is prompted by the recent issues at Harvard between Dr. Cornel West and the president of that University. Keep writing! I loved your book.
Stephen Carter: Thanks for the kind words. Every campus has its politics but this novel is not based on Yale and the politics of the campus are greatly exaggerated in the novel for the sake of a good read. I hope that there is no college or university where the politics are quite as bad as they are in the novel.
Question from Salpicon: Prof. Carter, I’m a lawyer and Misha is like a lot of folks I know. Do you think that some of that Misha-ism is a product of going to law school and being a lawyer?
Stephen Carter: I continue to be delighted at the number of readers who tell me that they know people who are just like the people in the book. I guess we all do. People have told me that they know doctors or schoolteachers or lots of other people who are just like Misha. The characters seem to be realistic enough that people can make comparisons with real life and that fact astonishes me and flatters me.
This is the other one I meant to ask with the “Civility” question...
Question from Tiffany: I see themes from your book The Culture of Disbelief in The Emperor of Ocean Park. Are they intentional?
Stephen Carter: Of course, a lot of other issues I’ve written about are reflected in some of the scenes in the novel. I didn’t set out to do that and I want to make clear that I do not consider the novel a “message” book. I just wanted it to be entertaining.
Question from Olie abidoye-Clark: I am 22 years old, a black male, middle class and a few weeks from beginning law school. I read the book because of the obvious similarities I share with the author. I want to know what he believes is the most important and crucial social commentary or analysis he addresses in his book and why? What was/is the reaction at Yale Law school and that of his colleagues? What are the similarities and differences between him and Talcott Garland?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Lotta questions there, take what you like.
Stephen Carter: On the issue of similarities between myself and the narrator. We’re both black. We’re both law professors. We’re both married to beautiful and brilliant black women. But I think there the similarities end. Our outlooks on life are very, very different.
As to the reaction at Yale, I will have a better sense in about five weeks because right after Labor Day I resume teaching a full schedule at the law school.
Question from pnc: Have the responses regarding the book differed down racial lines?
I, of course, can only speak about people who I’ve met, people who have come to book signings and other events. I find at those events very large numbers of people, white and black and other colors, who tell me how much they love the book and in particular how much they loved the characters. I have no doubt there are people out there who did not like the book and I suspect that they come in all colors too.
Question from emperess: Do you yourself play a lot of chess and are you working on a new novel?
Stephen Carter: I’ve been playing chess for about 40 years. I don’t have much time anymore to play in tournaments but I play a lot on the internet. Yes, I am working on a second novel. I would not call it a sequel although many of the same characters appear. If I finish the novel in the next couple of months, it should be out in the Fall of 2003.
Question from Babs: It was very entertaining, but a bit long. Why so long?
Stephen Carter: I’m reminded of what Arthur C. Clarke wrote about the mysterious black obelisk in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Some people thought the obelisk changed sizes, Clarke said, but it was always the same size, exactly as large as it had to be.
Question from binski4: Why so many references to the “darker nation”? Sounds like talbott has a major chip on his shoulder
Stephen Carter: There is no question but that Talcott does indeed have a chip on his shoulder about race. He’s very prickly. He always worries that others are overlooking him or insulting him. But the term “darker nation” he identifies as coming from his father, and I suspect that his father’s idea would have been to find a term to capture the old-fashioned kind of black social conservatism that was also separatist and nationalistic.
Question from Yvette Disnew: Also I have never heard anyone refer to the races as darker nation and paler nation. Did you make that up?
Stephen Carter: Yes, I invented the terms for the needs of the story because it seemed to me that Talcott’s father would not let anyone else tell him how to refer to the race. But I must admit that the terms have kind of grown on me.
Question from Myrna: It’s clear that there were unresolved issues in the relationship between Talcott and “the Judge.” Did the Judge choose Talcott as the one to find “the arrangements” as a way to control him even from the grave?
Stephen Carter: That seems to me plausible.
Question from SA: I’m halfway through the book, was it really necessary to have to many “important” characters?
Stephen Carter: If you think there are too many characters now, it’s a good thing you didn’t see the earlier versions. I promise by the time you get to the end, the characters and the relationships among them will all be clear.
Question from Margaret A. Beecham: I am still reading “The Emperor. . .” and am enjoying it immensely. I find the references to the “legal world,” both the academic and the political realms, most informative and interesting, and believe that they provide the reader with a unique insight into that domain, which Mr. Carter so adeptly has gleaned from his experience. Once I heard about the subject matter and some of the settings and circumstances in his book, I had to ask Mr. Carter if he based any of it on the life of the late Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham. I was privileged to get to know a portion of the private side and some of the public greatness of the eloquent, highly respected former member of the Federal bench, by being friends with his adult children. I actually spent some time with him and his family on Martha’s Vineyard, so the coincidences of the characters and settings in the book certainly piqued my curiosity about any similarities to the life of the great Jurist, who could have been US Attorney General or a Supreme Court Justice, had destiny allowed. . . .
MSNBC-Will Femia: Phew, long one.
Stephen Carter: Leon Higginbotham is a great hero of mine but I cannot pretend that he was the inspiration for the character in the book. The idea of Judge Garland occurred to me first about twenty years ago when I was living in Washington and getting to know people along the “gold coast.” I was fascinated by their families and their histories and thought there might be a novel in it even though back then I lacked the competence to write one.
Question from Traci Van Prooyen - high school (social science) teacher: Had started reading “Emperor...” last week and just finished it!!! It was wonderful!!! Can’t wait to read your other non-fiction works!!! QUESTION - I noticed that you other books tie politics and religion together. I listened/viewed your interview on the “Today” show - is there a personal interest in religion/Christianity as well as a desire in teaching (law)? Too bad Katie didn’t read the last few pages of the book before asking you the question about the “reality” of the characters. Don’t know if I would like to see the movie - the characters seem too complex to put in a single-dimensional format but GOOD LUCK!!!
Stephen Carter: Thank you for the kind words. I am a committed Christian and I have long had an interest in theology as well as in religion generally. As to the movie, I agree that there is always a risk in Hollywood of over-simplification but the people who have bought the film rights seem to me good people and we should give them the benefit of the doubt. I think they’ll do a good job.
Question from leslie: When will the movie be out. Can’t wait.
Stephen Carter: I know there is a screenplay that’s been completed and I know that the producers are interested in moving it along but plainly there is a long way to go.
Question from Olie: What was the overall theme in the book? Searching for the past in order to move on?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Or was that whole past/present thing a smokescreen by the Judge to cover the past and not meant to be a serious philosophy?
Stephen Carter: Let me try to make clear that I did not write the book to convey a particular theme or message. My main interest was to talk about this remarkable, although imaginary, family and to give readers a good read. As to Judge Garland, I think he was probably sincere in his philosophy even if his own life made it impossible to follow it completely.
Question from binski4: Who & what was your target audience? The vocabulary used is, I believe, a bit beyond the general public.
Stephen Carter: My hope in writing it was simply that somebody would read it. I didn’t write with any particular audience in mind. And I am happy with all the readers I can get.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for joining us Mr. Carter. Can you give us some closing comments before we have to let you go?
Stephen Carter: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you to the Today Show and I’m grateful to everyone who has been reading and enjoying the book.
MSNBC-Will Femia: oops, one more...
Question from emperess: Did you know John Grisham before he selected your book for TODAY?
Stephen Carter: No, I never met him till about 15 minutes before we went on the air but I found him absolutely to be a prince. I really enjoyed him.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for taking this time with us Mr. Carter
Question from Alice Mantey: How can our book club apply to be on the Today Show?
MSNBC-Will Femia: To get your book club on the show, apply here. Or you can get there from the Today Show Book Club site.