Michel Stone is the author of The Iguana Tree, a fictional account of one Mexican family’s harrowing journey across the Mexican-American border and their attempt to start a new life in a country hostile to their existence. The Iguana Tree, Stone’s debut novel, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and was selected for many universities’ and colleges’ common read programs.Read More
A former reporter for the Charlotte Observer, Pam Kelley has won honors from the National Press Club and the Society for Features Journalism. She contributed to a subprime mortgage exposé that was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Her recently released book, Money Rock, is the gripping story—by turns action-packed, uplifting, and tragic—of a striving, Charlotte-based African American family, swept up and transformed by the 1980s cocaine epidemic.
Here’s Pam’s take on research, long-form journalism, the New South, economic mobility, race, and the Queen City:
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You collected a trove of research, including interviews, archived Charlotte Observer articles, and other secondary sources, to make this book as accurate and detailed as possible. Tell us about your process. Were any pieces of the puzzle particularly challenging to track down? What resources did you rely on most heavily to compile your sources?
PAM KELLEY: I relied heavily on interviews, returning repeatedly to characters with new questions – lots of picky details – as I worked to recreate scenes.
When I asked the federal court system for Belton Platt’s trial transcript, they couldn’t find it. That would have been a major problem. Fortunately, his brother had saved a copy, which he handed over in a shopping bag.
I received several unexpected gifts like that, including color photos of Money Rock’s jewelry, which arrived in the mail from the U.S. Department of Justice months after I filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
His mom had saved great stuff, including reports he wrote as an adolescent working toward Boy Scout badges. One in particular was a window into his world. He played on a public housing basketball league organized by the Charlotte Housing Authority. In a report for a badge focused on community citizenship, he listed various community organizations, including basketball teams, which existed, in his mind, “to keep kids off the streets.” That description of a basketball team would never have occurred to a middle-class kid.
One big challenge for me was understanding the policies that created the segregation and inequity that shaped Belton’s life. I relied on several books, including Tom Hanchett’s excellent Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, came out in 2017, at the perfect time. It helped me put all the pieces together.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: In the Prologue, you write, “the question grew more complicated the more I researched, as I saw everything I’d missed the first time around,” referring to when you first covered Big Lou and Money Rock’s shootout for the Charlotte Observer in 1986. I’m curious - are there other topics you covered as a reporter that you now, due to the passage of time and introduction of new research, feel weren’t covered fully?
PAM KELLEY: Many of them. But that’s the nature of daily journalism. There’s a lot we can’t know when we’re writing. A newspaper story is a snapshot, a first draft of history often impossible to contextualize in the moment.
Today, there’s general agreement that media coverage of the cocaine and crack epidemic was often racist and hyped-up for maximum shock value. But at the time, reporters were relying on government agencies and law enforcement, which were pushing a drugs-are-destroying-our-country narrative to limits that now seem shocking and bizarre.
Here’s a perfect example: In September 1989, President George Bush devoted his first prime-time address to illegal drugs, holding aloft a clear plastic bag of crack that he said had been seized in Lafayette Park, near the White House. Reporters later found that officers hadn’t seized the crack. They’d lured a young dealer there and actually bought it from him. When the lie was exposed, NPR interviewed jailed crack dealers who pointed out that nobody sold in Lafayette Park, because they’d never get a customer.
Crack users lived mostly in poor black communities. But our government wanted us to believe it was everywhere.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You wrote for the Charlotte Observer for many years before penning Money Rock. In what ways did that work leave you prepared and/or unprepared to take on the long-form journalism of Money Rock?
PAM KELLEY: My training as a reporter served me well. I knew how to dig up documents and track down people, to corroborate stories and check facts. But writing a book-length narrative forced me to abandon writing devices I’d relied on at the newspaper, to slow the story pace and resist giving everything away in the first few paragraphs.
This story actually began as a series in the Charlotte Observer. The book idea emerged after I started a great MFA program in nonfiction at Goucher College. One of my mentors suggested using Money Rock’s story to write about Charlotte’s black poverty. Suddenly, it was a bigger, more powerful narrative.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: The book’s epigraph includes three quotes:
“For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” -Matthew 13:12
“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships” -W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
“With cocaine, my success came speedy
Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox
Every dollar I get, another brother drops
Maybe that’s the plan, and I don’t understand” -Ice-T, New Jack Hustler
All three are deeply relevant to the tale of Money Rock, and when placed together in this order, the effect is staggering. How did this compilation of quotes come to you?
PAM KELLEY: I ran across each in different stages of writing, and all three addressed something I wanted the book to explore.
When I read the Du Bois quote, I thought of Belton growing up in public housing while being bused to Myers Park Elementary. He made his first white friend there, a kid whose family lived in a big house and employed black maids.
When I heard those lyrics from “New Jack Hustler,” I thought of his three sons who died violently while he was in prison.
That passage from Matthew appears with different wording and in different contexts in the other gospels, and so it has been interpreted in various ways, but it struck me as an apt description of America at our present moment.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: While writing Money Rock, were there ever moments when you questioned whether you were accurately representing the characters about which you wrote? If not, why not? If so, how did those doubts affect your writing process?
PAM KELLEY: I always worry about accurate portrayals. People are complicated, and if you focus on certain aspects and ignore others, you can create something that’s factual but false.
To portray Belton, my protagonist, I interviewed people who’d known him in all different stages of his life. When he was on the streets, many people loved him – and still do – because he was generous with his money. But his ex-wife and several mothers of his children described his failings as a husband and father. I’m indebted to them for helping me create a more nuanced, accurate portrait.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: The city of Charlotte has made strides toward progress since 1986; however, considerable (often insurmountable) obstacles continue to block the mobility of black and low-income Charlotte citizens. What do you think are the most effective steps the New South (or Charlotte more specifically) can take to move toward a more integrated, mobile, and equitable society?
PAM KELLEY: Many people in Charlotte thought they’d buried Jim Crow after the school system carried out a federal judge’s order to use busing to integrate schools in the 1970s. But the city never addressed deeper problems – housing segregation, decades of redlining and other policies that limited investments in black neighborhoods. White people had opportunities to build wealth over generations that were denied to African-Americans. So of course racial inequality has never gone away. And since we never addressed housing, once we ended busing, schools re-segregated.
A while back, on an NPR show, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, talked about the “urgent need for us to know how we got to where we are. Most people have no idea.” I agree. In America – and Charlotte – we need truth telling before we can move forward.
The city has been the recipient of some clear messages on this subject – notably its last-place economic mobility ranking out of 50 of America’s largest cities and the violent protests that followed Keith Lamont Scott’s shooting death two years ago.
The good news is that some terrific local organizations are teaching about the connection between history and present-day inequality – the Levine Museum of the New South, Race Matters or Juvenile Justice, the Community Building Initiative, to name a few.
I’m hoping my book plays a part in this vital conversation.
Charlotte also needs affordable housing, and lots of it, especially for people whose income falls below 50 percent of the city’s median. City leaders are taking good first steps, but the problem is huge. I’ve heard lots of talk about building “workforce housing” that’s affordable to teachers, police officers, nurses. We also need housing for the people who do your lawns, serve you burgers at the drive-through and bag your groceries. And we need to put it in middle-class neighborhoods – yours and mine.
I’ve begun to hear affordable housing described as reparations. When you consider all the housing destroyed during Charlotte’s urban renewal, that sounds reasonable to me. I’ve lived in this area most of my life, and I’ve seen this city accomplish amazing things. Do we have the civic will to fix this inequality? I don’t know. I hope so.
David Joy is the author of the Edgar nominated novel Where All Light Tends to Go, as well as the novels The Weight of This World and The Line That Held Us. He is also the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman's Journey, which was a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award and the Ragan Old North State Award. Joy is the recipient of an artist fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council. His latest short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Garden & Gun, and The Bitter Southerner. He lives, writes, fishes, and hunts in the North Carolina mountains.
Later this month, Joy will offer a reading and signing at Main Street Books following the release of his forthcoming novel, The Line That Held Us. Before he does, you'd be well-advised to treat yourself to a sneak peak inside this author's insightful mind.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You’ve said in a previous interview that you often attach a song to a character or story. Did you attach any songs to The Line That Held Us? If so, what were they and to which characters did you attach them?
DAVID JOY: Not in the same way as a novel like Where All Light Tends To Go. With Light, that novel was so much about voice, and when I finally heard Jacob’s voice there was a song that helped give cadence to that voice. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that with any of the other novels. What was nice about that was that the music winds up serving as a sort of gateway into the story. You play the song and it puts you in that place. That makes the work easier. With these last two novels, The Weight Of This World and The Line That Held Us, I didn’t experience anything like that, but there was still music, or at least I knew certain songs were playing when a scene arrived. With Weight, I knew that Drive-By Truckers “Putting People On The Moon” was playing on the stero when Wayne Bryson accidentally killed himself. With Line, I had something similar happen in that I knew Janis Joplin’s rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” was playing on WNCW when Dwayne Brewer was driving away from Calvin Hooper’s house with Angie in the trunk. I could hear it playing, hear him humming it, hear him singing the words, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I don’t know why it happens like that sometimes. It just does. I can hear the music the same as I can smell the room.
MSB: A popular question to ask writers is whether their fiction is driven more by plot, character, or setting. When writing about Appalachia, it seems that the three are uniquely inseparable, in that the population is less transient, resulting in a preservation and localization of culture and heritage that can dictate how a narrative unfolds. As much as you love western NC, does it ever feel confining to relegate all of your characters to its mountains?
DJ: I don’t ever feel confined by place. I think it’s the opposite. The mountains are everything. There’s not a single story I couldn’t tell here. I’ve said this a million times at this point, but I’ll say it again because it’s fitting and it’s the truth. One time they asked James Joyce why he wrote only about Dublin and he told them, “Because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” That’s what Eudora Welty meant by, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” It’s that Joycean idea that in the particular is contained the universal. The work of the novel is to illuminate some aspect of the human condition. You can set a story anywhere so long as you do that. Hell, you can make up a place so long as you do that. Ursula Le Guin did. That’s why her work was so powerful. It didn’t matter that Earthsea wasn’t a real place, she got to the humanity of the characters and so it resonated. For me, I set the stories in the landscape that I know because that’s how the stories come. I can see the characters in places I recognize, sometimes down to the tree.
MSB: You’ve singled out characters as being the primary drive for your fiction. However, you also describe yourself as “skeptical and unwilling to put your faith in others.” It’s a fascinating paradox, being at once hesitant to connect with people in real life and consumed by them in your writing life. Can you shed any light on this?
DJ: I think most of it is that I just find people tiring. It’s not so much that I dislike people as it is I’m just incredibly introverted, to the point that engaging with others for any length of time sucks all the energy out of me. That’s part of it. The other part is that I find myself very disinterested in the façade of most interaction, the how-was-your-day, did-you-watch-the-new-Glee chitter chatter that makes up about 99% of day-to-day conversations. Sometimes I sit places and just listen to people talk and it always strikes me how much they say without really saying anything at all. I just don’t have any interest in sitting through that. I’d rather go read a book or go sit in the woods. I’m a lot more comfortable alone. I think it’s rare that anyone gets to the heart of anything, that anyone takes the time to really say something meaningful. That’s the difference between life and art, I guess. On the page there’s no room for any of that wasted space. You get to the meat or the reader starves.
MSB: Your second book, The Weight of This World, explores the perpetual battles between fate and will, circumstances and character, past and present/future. It’s as though the former entities (fate, circumstances, and past) are pressure cookers that warp and distort the latter entities (will, character, and present/future). Will we see much of these tensions in The Line That Held Us? Why are you drawn to these kinds of battles?
DJ: I think I write about these things because that’s how life works. You make a decision or maybe you find yourself in a given circumstance and that leads to something else. You change the decision or you alter the scenario and things turn out differently. There’s a song I’ve been listening to as of late and there’s a line in it that I wish I’d written. It says, “Circumstances shot us down like September doves.” That’s the way the lives of so many of the people I’ve known and loved turned out. A single decision, a single place in time and that was the moment. Everything from then on tied back to that one place and time. With Weight, that novel was very much a story governed by trauma. You had three characters whose entire decision making processes were governed by past events, three very different events. With this new novel, I think you get some of that, but the bigger question at play in The Line That Held Us is what are you willing to do for the people you love most? This new novel is very much a sort of study into what it means to love someone selflessly.
MSB: You emphasize the importance of persistence to aspiring writers, referencing the pages and pages of writing you produced in your 20’s that essentially functioned as nothing more than prolonged throat clearing. Despite the time and effort you dedicate to your craft and the degree to which it has evolved since your early writing days, it sounds as though you still don’t feel as though you’ve achieved mastery. Do you think you ever will? How does one measure mastery of an endeavor as subjective as writing?
DJ: I’ll be quite frank, any artist that ever tells you they’ve mastered their craft probably wasn’t ever much of an artist to begin with. I’ve said this before, but I’m really looking forward to the books I write when I’m 50 or 60 years old. That’s not to say that I’m not proud of the novels I’ve written because I am, but I think the sign of a great artist is one who continued to get better. I love when the scope continues to expand. I think that’s what happened with most of the writers I love, and most of the writers I look forward to nowadays. I think about a novelist like Mark Powell. Those first few novels were great. Blood Kin, The Dark Corner, Prodigals, those novels were great, but what he’s doing now is just so much bigger. Same thing for a writer like Wiley Cash. A Land More Kind Than Home was a great book, but The Last Ballad was tremendous in comparison. That novel reeked of his tutelage under Ernest Gaines. It was important. That novel wasn’t just good, it was important. That’s the kind of thing I want my work to do. I want it to expand. So as far as mastering anything, not a chance. And I’m perfectly fine with that. There’s that wonderful interview with Faulkner that ran in The Paris Review back in the 50s where Faulkner said, “In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.” I think he was right.
MSB: You penned a phenomenal piece that the New York Times Magazine published in April, titled “Gun Culture Is My Culture. And I Fear for What It Has Become,” in which you deftly disentangled the complexities of gun control on a personal, communal, regional, and national level. Are there other elements of Appalachian culture that you’ve struggled to fully embrace, but still recognize as defensible or vital to existence?
DJ: I don’t know that anything I was writing about in that particular essay feels like an Appalachian issue to me, maybe more of a matter of a rural-urban divide, but regardless I think there are definitely things I struggle with here. Race, for example. I think when we talk about Appalachia, or when we talk about rural working class people in general, there’s an overwhelming assumption that we’re talking about white people. I think we need to work harder to get the voices and stories from other groups in this region heard. There are some great people who’ve busted their ass to do that, people like Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Nikky Finney and Ricardo Nazario y Colon, but we need more of that, and we need more stories that capture the complexities of this place. I think another thing I struggle with, especially here in Jackson County, is the influx of outsiders, the sort of gentrification that’s taking place all across Appalachia right now. I have a tremendous fear of what’s going to be lost, and how close we are to losing it. I think we’re within a generation, maybe twenty years, and a lot of this place and its culture will be gone.
MSB: People may be surprised to discover that you adopted a vegetarian diet for a period of your life. What prompted you to do so? Did the absence of hunting during that period alter your connection to the land?
DJ: I was lacto-ovo vegetarian for three or four years, and ultimately that was just a matter of health. For whatever reason, my body wasn’t processing meat very well and so I quit eating it. Eventually I started working some lighter meats back into my diet, fish and chicken, and then went back to eating some red meat. The biggest thing that changed over that period was that I just became a lot more aware of what I was putting into my body, what I was eating, where it came from. Those are things I’m still really tied to now, knowing where what I’m eating came from. That’s something that’s absent from a lot of people’s minds. They don’t have any idea where their food comes from. There’s no connection between their food and the land. I think that’s been detrimental to us as a culture, getting away from the land. As far as whether the absence of hunting during that period affected my connection to the land, not at all. I was still fishing. I was still spending a lot of time in the woods. I’m just more comfortable in the woods. I’ve always been just sort of landscape-centric, I guess. That’s the way it’s always been and I don’t see that ever changing.
MSB: If forced to choose between only hunting or fishing for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?
DJ: I think fishing is probably the one thing I’m best at. Put me near water, any water, and I’ll catch fish. Period. That said, and this is a bit surprising, but I think if I could only choose one for the rest of my life I’d probably hunt. There’re a couple reasons for that, one being that I’m just not near as good at hunting. I think I’m a decent woodsman and I can read sign better than most people, but I’m not anywhere near where I’d like to be. Some of the hunters I really admire are just ghosts in the woods. They put themselves in the right place and they disappear. I’m not there yet. I still make a lot of mistakes. There were things I did in the woods just last month during turkey season that I’ll do my damnedest not to repeat next year. That learning curve and how much more time I need to get to where I want to be, that makes the sport more appealing to me. The other thing about it is that hunting just seems more philosophically rewarding. There’s so much that goes on there, with the mind, with the woods, and that’s not to say that those same things don’t happen on the water, but it just feels bigger maybe. More significant. I think over the course of my life, the most important ideas, the most meaningful insights have come while I was holding rod or rifle.
MSB: It’s no secret that you’re not keen on book tours, far preferring the life you’ve so intentionally built for yourself in the quiet mountain communities of NC to the fast-paced, people-filled chaos of a tour. How do you keep yourself sane during these periods?
DJ: The first book tour I ever went on, it was something like 19 cities in 21 days, and I remember coming home and I remember standing in the doorway of the bathroom at my parents' house and my mother was asking me something and I was just looking at her and my brain was empty. I could see her mouth moving but she might as well have been speaking in tongues. I finally just had to tell her that I couldn’t understand what she was saying, what she was asking. I was that tired. I got in my truck and I drove home and I remember just as the mountains came into view I pulled over on the side of the road and I just cried. As silly as that may sound, I was that worn out. I was that emotionally wrought. This goes back to that idea of introversion and just the simple fact that people drain my energy. I probably say more words over the course of a two week book tour than I say in the other eleven months of the year combined, and that’s not an exaggeration. I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hahn when I’m on the road, and I try to stay focused on the end game, but to answer your question, I don’t know that I do stay sane during these periods. I think it’s more likely I lose my mind and have to come home and get off in the woods to find it.
The title on Davidson resident Tom Cotter's business card reads: "Certified Car Geek." For the past 30 years, Cotter has worked on nearly every end of the car business: mechanic, car sales, automotive public relations and marketing executive, auto racing authority, historian, racer, collector, restorer, journalist, and author. He has authored 10 automotive books, including most of the popular In the Barn series for Motorbooks. He has written for the New York Times and Road & Track magazine, as well as hosted the Hagerty-sponsored YouTube series Barn Find Hunter. When he sat down at his keyboard to respond to MSB's interview questions, you can be sure that he had grease under his fingernails.Read More
Country singer, songwriter, and author Radney Foster made his country debut as half of the duo Foster & Lloyd, racking in nine hit singles before launching a solo career in 1992. He has since written songs for the likes of Keith Urban and Hootie and the Blowfish, and he has collaborated with Americana legends like EmmyLou Harris and Sara Evans. After a brutal case of laryngitis and pneumonia stalled his ability to write songs in late 2015, Foster decided to try his hand at a different kind of storytelling: short fiction. In anticipation of his visit to Main Street Books, Foster responded to a few questions from Main Street Books.Read More
Davidson College graduate John Hart is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, The King of Lies, Down River, The Last Child, Iron House, and Redemption Road. His new book, The Hush, released earlier this week, just in time for John's visit to the store on March 8th. Read on to learn how John feels about death of the author (metaphorically speaking, of course), blood oaths, and writing child characters into adult books.Read More
Celebrated Southern writer Wiley Cash took a break from the day-to-day mayhem of teaching in the Mountainview MFA program, raising two daughters, and penning award-winning novels to answer a few nosy questions from Main Street Books.Read More