Books by Stephen Carter
New England White /
The Emperor of Ocean Park /
The Culture of Disbelief /
God's Name in Vain
Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby
* * *
Kam Williams Interviews Stephen Carter
of The New England White
Stephen L. Carter is the
William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale
University, where he has taught since 1982. A prolific
writer, he has published seven critically acclaimed
non-fiction books which have helped shape the national
debate on issues ranging from the role of religion in
politics and culture to that of integrity and civility
in our daily lives.
Professor Carter was
born in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 1954, the second
of five children, and attended public school there as
well as in New York City and Ithaca, New York. He
received his bachelor's from Stanford University and his
law degree from Yale before clerking for Supreme Court
Justice Thurgood Marshall, briefly practicing law, and
then finally joining the faculty at Yale.
One of the nation's
leading public intellectuals, heís among the fifty
leaders for the new millennium as picked by Time
magazine. His writings have won praise from across the
political spectrum. Furthermore, he is a member of the
American Law Institute and a fellow at the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences. And he is also a trustee
of the Aspen Institute, where he moderates seminars for
executives on values-based leadership.
Among his half-dozen
honorary degrees are doctorates from Notre Dame,
Colgate, and the Virginia Theological Seminary. A
frequent guest on TV talk shows, Carter has periodically
appeared on Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,
and Face the Nation. Plus, heís a regular contributor as
a columnist to Christianity Today.
In 2002, he received a
record $4.2 million advance from Knopf for his first
The Emperor of Ocean Park
k, a murder
mystery set on Marthaís Vineyard. Here, he talks about
New England White,
another sophisticated suspense thriller set amidst the
Your dad was a professor at Cornell when I was an
undergrad there, and I was friends with your sister,
Leslie. She brought me over to the house, and I remember
meeting her parents, and playing chess against her
genius brother who would beat me with painful
regularity. Was that you?
If you lost, that must have been my brother Eric. He was
a very brilliant chess player.
Well, I was a pretty serious player myself,
having read several books and competed against some of
the best on campus, so I was surprised when I couldnít
even hang with this gifted kid.
Stephen Carter:He was a very, very highly-rated player pretty young, an
expert on the U.S. Chess Federation scale. He couldíve
done very well in chess, but he got bored and quit after
a few years to pursue some other things.
How are Leslie and your folks doing?
My mom died a number of years ago, in 1989.
Oh, Iím sorry to hear that. I remember her as such a
warm, intelligent and beautiful woman.
Stephen Carter:thanks. My father has since remarried and is in
Virginia. And Leslie is doing well. Sheís in Washington,
where she works as an occupational therapist.
Please give them my regards. Letís talk about
your novels. Do you consider yourself a member of the
black elite you write about?
Stephen Carter: Itís not the
way I grew up. That is to say, although it is true that,
when I was a little boy, we went to Marthaís Vineyard a
couple of times, it wasnít a regular feature of our
lives. I didnít write about this class somehow because I
was fascinated by my family history. No, itís really a
group of people I became fascinated with when I lived in
Washington, DC in the early 1980s, because I had never
really understood the existence of the ďolder families,Ē
although Iíve been told I really shouldnít call them
that, because all the families are old. But
nevertheless, if I can use ďolder familiesĒ one more
time, Iím talking about families who have had education
and money, and a variety of these things that the
culture counts as achievements, for a very long time.
The notion that there have been such families in the
African-American community for generations fascinated
me. And it was that fascination, rather than anything
about my own familyís history, that led me to think
about setting fiction there.
Kam Williams: Are you familiar with
Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham?
Of course. That book intrigued me years ago when I read
I remember it being an eye-opener for me,
because I grew up in a bourgie black neighborhood. We
were invited to join Jack and Jill, and we spent our
summers in Sag Harbor. Yet, I was raised without any
pretensions or conscious hint that we might be part of
Itís interesting that you mention Jack and Jill. That
wasnít something that ever came up in our family. We
werenít quite there, but on the other hand, my
grandmother was a lawyer in New York, my fatherís
mother, so professionals go back in the family a long
way. And that is not as unusual a story as it seems. One
does not have to be completely a product of the almost
assembly line aspects of that culture to have been
touched by it, and to, in certain ways, for lack of a
better word, ďappreciateĒ it. I think thereís a tendency
among us, among African-Americans, to mock the
pretensions of that culture. But they were trying to
build something for their kids. They were trying to
create, in the face of segregation, a world in which
achievement mattered, in which you worked to get ahead,
where solid values were the key to success. They didnít
build it completely right, in a sense, and it didnít
look like the way it would if you or I would have built
it, but they tried. And they tried at a time when a lot
of people would have stopped trying. I think that is to
Yeah, I grew up in the Fifties in a tight-knit
black enclave where everybody was achievement oriented
because it was full of role models, not only Jackie
Robinson and other pro athletes, but entertainers like
Count Basie, Coltrane, James Brown, the Ellingtons, Ella
Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday, plus plenty
of professionals, too, doctors, lawyers, bankers,
accountants, stock brokers, dentists, etcetera.
Thatís just fascinating. But thatís more like what Iíd
read about, than what Iíd lived in. For my next novel,
much of which will take place in Harlem in the Fifties,
Iíve had to do a lot of reading and a little bit of
interviewing, too, to educate myself and to get more of
a sense of that world.
Itís very weird for me sometimes to have
people challenge my blackness, and to suggest that Iím
somehow not authentically black because of the way I
speak, when I grew up in an all-black neighborhood where
everybody spoke the way I speak.
Stephen Carter:Itís a problem for young black people today to know so
little of our history and to think about our history the
way that white people do, that somehow our culture has
always come from the streets, and that education is
unusual. And they also tend to associate black wealth
with being an entertainer or a sports star. Entertainer
and athletes work very hard, I donít begrudge them their
money, but that is a very tiny corner of the history of
success and hard work and achievement in our
Are you familiar with Ellis Coseís book about
the black bourgeoisie called
The Rage of a Privileged Class?
Yes, I used to write a lot of book reviews in the
Eighties and Nineties. I donít remember all of them, but
I think I might have reviewed it. I actually canít
recall right now.
Well, Iím asking because I often think of that book
in conjunction with one of yours,
Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, which
was published just prior to that. How do you feel you
were positioned because of that book?
I donít really think about it that much. I know that
might sound like a peculiar thing to say, but I really
donít know. Itís funny, when I was out in the Midwest on
book tour for
The Emperor of Ocean Park
a few years
ago, a woman asked me, ďCan you tell us how you got from
Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby to
The Emperor of Ocean Park
?Ē It took
me a while to understand what she was really asking,
that she saw these books as fundamentally opposed to
each other in some sense. I think that what she was
getting at was that I had been out of the mainstream and
had now rejoined it. But I never thought about it that
way. I never thought of
Reflections as being outside of the mainstream.
I thought of it as a book that was trying to make a
point, maybe with more heat than was needed, but it was
still trying to make a book. Ellis Cose called it rage,
but what youíve seen in the semi-autobiographical,
non-fiction writings of many black professionals from
that period was really frustration, a sense that so many
things were lined up in ways that made it awkward to be
who we were.
His book resonated with me, since I experienced my
share of that rage. How do you explain that phenomenon?
Where do you place the blame for the widespread
discontent of so many relatively-privileged blacks?
Stephen Carter:Itís not a matter of ascribing fault. Itís a matter of
trying to think of the dynamics that produced a lot of
that writing by people who, by the worldís definition,
had succeeded, and had really succeeded extremely well.
Tell me a little about your new murder
New England White.
Are your main characters, Lemaster and Julia, based on
your parents? After all your dad was a university
president at one time, like Lemaster.
[Laughs heartily] No, until you just mentioned that, it
had never occurred to me. [Laughs some more]
So, I guess, in that case that their daughter,
Vanessa, wasnít inspired by your sister Leslie either.
Stephen Carter:No. Of course, fiction is inspired by life, but thereís
never been an instance in my work thus far where
somebodyís meant to be just like someone real. I donít
do the kind of fiction where I sit around and ask
myself, ďWell, who shall I next use?Ē
When I see words in the book like ďsinecureĒ
and ďabstemiousĒ which had me reaching for the
dictionary, and ďdandlingĒ and ďsoteriologyĒ which were
completely new to me, I have to wonder who your intended
Hereís the thing. I want to, of course, have as many
readers as I can get. So, Iím not aiming for a
demographic which knows all of the words I use. In fact,
many of these words were not a part of my own
vocabulary. ďSoteriology,Ē I didnít even know what it
was, until I had to learn the lingo of a divinity school
for part of this book. So, I discovered new words in the
course of my research. When Iím writing, I try to think
about the people Iím writing about how they talk and
think and see the world, more than how I or my readers
view it. Thatís what Iím trying to get at.
Whoís your favorite murder mystery writer?
Mine is Gore Vidal who wrote several excellent thrillers
in the Fifties under the pseudonym Edgar Box.
Thatís interesting. Iíve read a lot of Gore Vidal over
the years, but I have not read his mysteries.
Has any writer served as your source of
The question of inspiration is one Iíve always tried to
be very cagey about, partly because itís difficult to
say who oneís inspirations are. But the other reason is
that thereís always the risk of slighting someone. You
wouldnít believe the angry notes I got, saying ďHow
could you leave out so-and-soĒ after Iíd once listed in
an article some of the people whoíd inspired me. Iím
serious. So, I prefer not to talk about that.
Well, can you at least tell me which mystery
writers you enjoy reading?
I donít read as much fiction as I used to. And I almost
never read fiction that is related even tangentially to
what I may write. But there was once a period in my life
when I read a lot of the classic, Agatha Christie-type
mysteries and the potboilers from the Thirties and
Then why donít you write in a more compact
style, instead of producing such densely-developed,
multi-layered crime capers.
Stephen Carter:They didnít necessarily teach me how I write mysteries.
They just piqued my interest in mysteries, which goes
back a long way. Itís not so much that Iím trying to
write in the style of mystery writers whose style I
admire, itís more that those are some writers whose
mysteries Iíve enjoyed, and they help explain my
interest in writing mysteries.
Why are yours over 500 pages long, which
appears to be a trademark of your novels?
Stephen Carter:I hope theyíre not too long, but I like reading long
books. If Iím really enjoying a book, I generally hate
to see it end. I also care about character and scene.
Further, I like to give background, and had to, in a
sense, I believe, for the reader to establish the bona
fides of the class of people Iím talking about.
Otherwise, many people wouldnít believe it exists, as if
itís a kind of interesting and cute fantasy, almost.
Yes, your devotion to character development
prevents readers from easily dismissing the
African-American upper class as some popular bourgie
black archetypes, ala George Jefferson.
Naturally, as a writer, Iím glad to achieve that. I
donít principally write novels to spread ideas. But if
people still find them provocative, worth wondering and
thinking about, and arguing and reflecting about, so
much the better.
Thereís a passage on page 33 of your book
which reminded me of Invisible Man, which I
thought of because a friend of mine just published a
biography of Ralph Ellison.
I read his biography of
Langston Hughes, which I enjoyed immensely. The Ellison
book is on my summer reading list, and Iím looking
forward to it.
New England White
you describe how black males are barely noticed on Ivy
League campuses and how black females are invisible
that is a little homage to Ralph Ellison. There are
hidden in the book in different places a series of
homages to various writers, black and white. Little
lines here and there... Turns of a phrase woven into the
text. Itís interesting that you picked up on that one.
In another instance, a character is inspired by a
character from another novel, though Iím not going to
say who that is.
What do you want your readers to come away
with after reading the book?
Here, Iím going to sound like a hack, I suppose. The
most important thing for me is that they enjoy it and
feel entertained. I cannot emphasize that enough. First
and foremost, I really think of it as entertainment. I
want people to relax, get away from their problems, and
have a good time. And most importantly, when theyíre
done, feel that it was worth their while, and maybe feel
a little bit sad that itís over. Beyond that, itís fine
with me if the reader is provoked by some of the ideas
expressed in the book. But thatís not my main reason for
Thanks for the time Stephen and good luck with it.
Will you be coming through Princeton on your book tour?
No, but Iíll be in Philadelphia, thatís the closest Iíll
get. Over the years, there have been a number of times
when Iíve been invited to speak a Princeton, but Iíve
never actually gotten down there. Well, this has been a
Kam Williams: Absolutely, I loved it, and I hope I can make
it to Philly.
posted 28 July 2007
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