by Ericka Taylor
Just over a month ago, Kia Corthron bestowed the Center for Fiction’s 2017 First Novel Prize to Julie Lekstrom Himes for Mikhail and Margarita. Presenting the award (and sitting on its judges’ panel) is an honor bestowed on the prior year’s winner, and Corthron took the 2016 prize for her blazing, brilliant 789-page tome, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter.
The novel spans decades, from 1941 to 2010, and centers on the lives of two sets of brothers. We’re first introduced to the Evans brothers, white residents of rural Alabama. Randall, academically gifted at 13, refers to 18-year-old Benjamin—B.J.—as his “little brother,” because the latter’s deafness has prevented him from being formally educated. The book’s next section focuses on the Campbells, black residents of small-town Maryland. Eliot is clearly precocious at six, and his 12-year-old brother, Dwight, has already begun demonstrating artistic talent.
While racial disparities are apparent during the boys’ earliest years, it is the burgeoning civil rights movement that truly begins shaping who they are and what they believe as they grow into men. Corthron uses this backdrop of a country struggling towards and against the ideals it claims to hold to explore not just race and racism, but the concepts or redemption, betrayal, and justice. During these turbulent years, the brothers’ lives intersect in a powerful climax that alters their relationships to each other and their communities forever.
Originally from Cumberland, Maryland, the long-time Harlem resident is also a well-established playwright and award-winning TV writer. In 2017, Chicago’s Eclipse Theatre Company selected her as the resident playwright for its 25th anniversary season, presenting the world premiere of Megastasis, bookended by productions of Force Continuum and Breath, Boom. Her playwriting awards include, among many others, the Otto Award for Political Theatre, the Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the United States Artists Jane Addams Fellowship, and the Simon Great Plains Playwright Award. In television, Corthron wrote episodes for Tom Fontana’s The Jury and David Simon‘s The Wire, the latter garnering Edgar and Writers Guild Outstanding Series awards. In addition to the Center for Fiction prize, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter was also selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, which referred to the novel as “simply sublime,” and for the Times’s Paperback Row section.
The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is a truly impressive debut that manages to move the reader from delight to horror and a whole array of reactions in between. Bloom is delighted to have been able to engage with Kia Corthron about the novel and the writing life.
Ericka Taylor: You’ve said before that your inspiration for The Magnet Carter was its climax and that you figured out the rest of the plot as you went along. You’ve also mentioned that you began writing the first draft chronologically. Given the nearly 70 years the book spans, how did you decide when it would begin?
Kia Corthron: I wanted to explore the events in the lives of the characters leading up to the climax, starting in their youth. I’m guessing I counted backwards from the general time period I imagined for the climax, realized that would place the protagonists as kids around 1941, and decided that this monumental moment in the nation would be an interesting place to start and to explore from the perspective of childhood.
That was the national event that marked the novel’s onset. The personal event was 13-year-old Randall Evans starting to teach his uneducated deaf 18-year-old brother B.J. sign language. I wasn’t conscious as I wrote it that this is how the book would begin. As a matter of fact, though most of the book has remained in the same order as my spat-out initial draft, the one major change is that I’d written the black (Campbell family) children’s section first, but ultimately decided to place the white (Evans family) children’s section at the beginning. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much sense it made to begin the novel with the oldest of the four brothers finally coming into his own by attaining language.
ET: We see how the brothers experience America through everything from Japanese internment camps, school desegregation, and lynchings to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and September 11th. How important was it that your characters have these external events to react to?
KC: I mentioned in the previous answer that I was drawn to a big event to anchor the book. But the rest—it’s just a matter of writing a story that spans almost seventy years: a lot happens! Unless that story had begun with the characters shipwrecked on some isolated island, they would naturally be affected by big events in the nation and in the world. I bet I spent at least as much time researching as writing.
I should say, I was not looking at major news items and then building the story around them. September 11th, which you mention, was skipped in my timeline, and only referred to in a sentence or two afterward. But once I settled on a time period, I researched to see what was going on in the news. For example, Christmas 1959 is a moment I focus on in the lives of the Campbell family. I looked up that time period, and realized the Clutter murders (In Cold Blood) had happened a month before, and that a similar family murder in Florida had just taken place, with people speculating the culprits may have been the same. (They weren’t.) So it made sense to me that this big national news would be part of the conversation. Also someone brings up the American advisors ambushed in Indochina, and a brief argument ensues as to whether this might lead to war. In the ’70s section Vietnam is alluded to, and with much concern, but because the characters don’t have any one close to them in combat, the war hovers menacingly but is not as immediate as their personal interrelationships. An issue that does affect some characters personally is abortion, which is tracked before and after legalization.
ET: By the novel’s end, not only have the personalities and relationships of both sets of brothers evolved, but in some senses, they’ve inverted. How much do you think their adulthood identities are shaped by their experiences (including the climax, which I’m trying not to spoil) and how much is a product of their inherent natures?
KC: A good friend of mine remarked that, with every new section—a passing of many years—each protagonist would appear completely different. In part that’s my writerly impulse to keep surprising my readers, and in part it’s just the reality that life happens and people change.
As I said, this is a story of how the cumulative experiences of a life lead up to a monumental event, so I was obviously looking at cause-and-effect initiated by outside forces. But I also believe the passionate, serious young man that Eliot becomes was always somewhere in his six-year-old displays of a few tears, a few tantrums, and mostly gleeful joy. B.J.’s potential was quickly unlocked by the gift of language, even as his brother’s was stymied by sudden family tragedy.
ET: It’s difficult to imagine The Magnet Carter as a standard-sized novel, but you’ve mentioned there was a (short) period of time when it might have become a novella. What shifted in your vision of the work that propelled the book to its epic length, and how did you feel when you began to realize just how long it might become?
KC: I’ve joked about the novella possibility. What I meant was my original idea was to focus on one protagonist—Randall, though he didn’t yet have a name back then. But by the time I actually put pen to paper, I’d already decided there would be two sets of brothers, four main characters. This came from my wanting to examine the lives of both characters involved in the climax, and in going back to their upbringing I also became interested in their siblings. I should say I never planned on the novel becoming epic, but, in exploring four different life journeys over a period of sixty-nine years, epic was the result.
ET: One advantage of The Magnet Carter’s length is the amount of time we’re able to share with the main characters. You, of course, were engaged with these brothers for a much longer time and even found yourself falling in love with one. How much do you think the novel’s size influenced your empathy for the characters, and did that empathy ever wane?
KC: I think the size had everything to do with the amount of empathy I had for the brothers and, hopefully, the amount of empathy readers have had and will have. After investing so much time and emotional energy into these characters, by the time readers get to the climax, the event will have exponentially more impact.
The empathy never waned for me. The book fluctuates from first person to third—and, except in rare instances, the third is very close to first in its intimacy with the subject. Those who have read the book know about the complications—how the characters change for better and for worse—but in keeping with the perspective of each of the four protagonists, it was vital that I always saw things from his point of view, his defense of what was happening.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t also seeing things from the outside, events as they really were, and it doesn’t mean that characters in denial weren’t aware of some nagging sense of reality.
By the end of the book, readers will recognize that I’m a firm believer in redemption—that even in very old age and with advanced sickness, we still have the capacity to learn and grow.
ET: The novel was initially almost twice its final length. What were the most challenging aspects of revising the book, and are there any scenes or characters you wish you’d kept around?
KC: Not twice its length, but 20% more, which is to say I still discarded what would have amounted to two hundred published pages. A few chapters vanished, but when I went on my five-month odyssey of streamlining, it was a trim rather than a slash: e.g., turning a 200-word paragraph into 140. It cost me my blood and my sweat but not my tears because I was so happy with the new, more page-turning result. No regrets.
Had I made it more normal size—it wound up being about 287K words, and I am told average is about 100K—it certainly would have been more marketable. Readers (including the press, as I found out) are not exactly drawn to an 800-pager by an unknown author. But imagining it at normal length—that, I believe, would have come with regrets.
I was quite naïve about the book business as I was writing the early drafts, and thus surprised by the reactions when I first showed it to industry people: cut two-thirds; turn it into a trilogy. Regarding the second suggestion, I believed that, had I rewritten the manuscript as three books, neither of them would be a third as strong as the one book leading to that single climax; and with respect to the first idea, one literary professional presented me with some very practical advice for slashing a good half: eliminate two of the four brothers, or completely delete one (Dwight) and only keep the text around the other (B.J.) that directly relates to the climax. I could say a lot about why this latter notion was horrifying to me, but I’ll cite just one issue, regarding the near eradication of B.J.: I did not want to write the umpteenth story where the disabled character has no agency of his own, and is only there in support of the able-bodied protagonist(s). B.J. has a fully fleshed life.
Actually I’ll cite one more issue: by the time I began showing the manuscript to industry folks, I was invested in the book being a story of brothers. To have erased Dwight and reduced B.J. to a secondary character may have made an acceptable book—but it would have been a different book and, I believe, one that lacked what was most unique about the book that was ultimately published.
ET: Even though this is your first novel, you’re a highly-acclaimed playwright who certainly isn’t making her initial foray into writing. Are you someone who has written since childhood or did your identification as a writer come later in life?
KC: I grew up in Cumberland, a small city in the valley of the Appalachians, the western part of Maryland, fictionalized in my novel as Humble, Maryland. My only sibling then was my sister Kim, fifteen months my senior. (My sister Kara, the other writer in the family, didn’t appear till sixteen years later.) When Kim went to school and I was all alone, I began what my family referred to as “talking to herself,” but in reality I was speaking aloud the dialogue between characters. Sort of like doll playing, except I often used pencils, or leaves from our neighbor’s bushes. (The objects were people in my mind.) This was the origin of my playwriting.
My father worked in a paper mill, and he was always bringing home reams of paper, pens and pencils, and once in a great while the grand prize: a stapler. When not personifying leaves, I used to write stories, sometimes illustrating them with my crayons, and stapling them together to make a book—my earliest fiction. By second grade, my teacher told me I should be a writer.
ET: What surprises did you encounter in the switch from playwriting to novel writing? Were there any unexpected disappointments with your new genre?
The biggest surprise is perhaps the one you already mentioned—my accidentally falling in love with one of my characters. Not just that I loved the character; that’s happened before with my plays. But that I suddenly longed for this particular protagonist to be real and to materialize right by my side! Goofy. (I won’t say which one—so as not to influence future readers.) It wasn’t until after writing the novel that this occurred to me: a play is just a snapshot of a life—whether the span of the story is a day or fifty years, we are only experiencing about two select hours of the protagonist’s life. On the other hand with my book, especially given its epic nature, the readers and I are with these characters throughout their lives, youth through old age—a deeper relationship.
Playwrights are so used to confining everything (backstory, character interrelationships and inner life) to the dialogue and its subtext that we fear the narrative outside of the quote marks as overexplaining. But while writing the book, a process of teaching myself how to write a novel as I did it, I came to see that subtlety applies to the narrative as well—allowing readers (as with theatre audiences) just enough information and letting them figure out the rest, so that they are an active and awakened participant in the experience.
ET: Do you see another novel in your future? What are you working on now?
KC: Yes! Working on my second novel, which takes place in 19th century New York City. For now, I’ll leave it at that.
Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.