That Was Now; This Is Then

By David GatesSeptember 15, 2015

That Was Now; This Is Then

EVER SINCE I MET Tom Piazza, some time in the early 2000s, we’ve been discovering random and not-so-random things we have in common: a tendency to overspend on Persian rugs, a fondness for the same books and music, an ability to quote verbatim speeches from The Godfather and imitate Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” We’ve drunk together, played country songs together — usually at the same time — we’re both fiction writers (we’ve taught together), and we’ve both written extensively about music. What Tom can do that I can’t is play jazz piano and write for television (HBO’s Treme). What I can do that Tom can’t — yeah, I’d have to think about that. Competitive with Tom? Oh no, not a bit. He’s got three novels (My Cold WarCity of Refuge, and now A Free State) to my two, but I’ve got two story collections to his one (Blues and Trouble). Of course, he’s also got a collection of essays (Devil Sent the Rain), a book-length essay (Why New Orleans Matters), a music-appreciation book (Understanding Jazz), two more jazz books (Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Time and The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz), an anthology (Setting the Tempo: Fifty Years of Great Jazz Liner Notes), and possibly the best musician profile ever written: True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass. Impressive, sure.

Anyway, Tom’s new novel, A Free State, involves the white leader of a blackface minstrel troupe in the 1850s and the genius black banjo player, an escaped slave, who joins the troupe in a double switcheroo of racial impersonation. There’s also a vicious and all-too-competent slave catcher who’s a hellhound on the banjo player’s trail, and a character about whom I’ll say nothing, for fear of giving away a particularly bold novelistic move. No civilized person calls a book a “page-turner” — though e-book designers are surely working on eyeball-tracking technology that will render this horrible phrase a horrible reality — but A Free State certainly made me a page-turner — it didn’t even allow me a coffee break. This short, tense novel distills Tom’s perennial concerns — race and justice, music and creativity — and I wanted to talk with him about it. Instead of talking we decided to email so we’d sound halfway lucid.


DAVID GATES: Back when your novel A Free State was just getting underway, you told me how you came up with the idea, and how you got your editor interested in the project. I’d never heard such a story, and I think everyone out there in Radioland would like to hear it too. 

TOM PIAZZA: A few years ago I started playing clawhammer banjo — another thing you and I have in common. I started reading about the history of the banjo, and you can’t do that for long before it leads you right into both the history of slavery in the United States and the incredible phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy in the early and mid 19th century. At the same moment that the national debate about slavery was coming to a boil, you also had this national sensation — white men smearing burnt cork on their faces and playing banjo and fiddle and tambourine and bones, singing and playing songs meant to be taken as “authentic Negro” performance. It was the rock and roll of pre–Civil War America.

Somewhere in the reading I ran across one of the countless advertisements that slave “owners” would place, offering rewards for their escaped slaves. These ads always included detailed physical descriptions — identifying marks, clothing, height, characteristics of their speech, all that. But this ad I saw also described the runaway as being “very proficient on the banjar (banjo) and likely to have one with him.” And I thought, what a tragic situation — this man had the talent to be recognized as a musician, as well as the spirit and resourcefulness to get free, and suddenly the music he loves, the thing that is his source of self-definition, not to mention a source of earnings, is now a giant target on his back. His greatest strength is his greatest vulnerability. 

That image and that situation stuck with me, and I thought I might have to do something with it some day. But I had just spent three years writing for HBO’s Treme, and working on material for a completely different novel, and that image of the escapee and the price of his freedom just went underground in my mind, waiting.

Late that year I showed Cal Morgan (my editor at HarperCollins) some of the material for the other novel I’d been working on, and he wasn’t wild about it. It just wasn’t to his taste. So I talked to my agent, who said, “Well, do you have anything else?” I told her that I did have a germinal idea, but, it was really nothing, I said, just an image. She pressed me to tell her about it, and I started talking about the escaped slave, and within about 15 minutes the entire book was there, in principle and in outline. It had been taking shape without my realizing it. 

Obviously this minstrel music was never recorded, but I found myself wondering what it must have sounded like. Do you have any guesses? Might it have resembled the recordings we’ve got of black fiddle–banjo music from the first half of the 20th century — ensembles like the Sid Hemphill band, recorded by Alan Lomax (I believe in the 1940s), which, as I recall, has a drum in addition to fiddle, banjo, and guitar? Or, since these were white people playing the music, maybe it was more like white fiddle–banjo music? The sort of thing Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham played, or J. P. Nestor and Norman Edmonds. Or, since these were more or less urban white musicians, and obviously from an earlier time, might it have sounded less raw? What might these white minstrels have heard, and how would they have adapted it to the ears and sensibilities of their audiences, as well as to their own?

Well, as you imply, it’s impossible to know exactly. The closest we can get to hearing what those early minstrel ensembles might have sounded like is a recording by a professor named Robert Winans. He assembled a classic minstrel line, with the banjo, fiddle, tambourine, and bones, figured out an appropriate repertoire, and made the disc “The Early Minstrel Show.” Some of the lyrics are extremely offensive, but you can’t look at minstrelsy without being honest about the brutal racism involved.

More recently, a banjo player named Tim Twiss made it his business to record every tune in the main banjo instruction books printed in the 1850s and 1860s — just solo banjo music in the so-called “stroke” style used by the minstrel players, which was the precursor to clawhammer style. He put it all on a flash drive and calls it “Early Banjo Complete.” I think it gives the best answer to your question, which is that the early style was apparently a hash of different styles. Some of the tunes sound like a kind of protoragtime, syncopated and, to my ears, clearly African-American-derived. Other tracks are really Irish fiddle tunes transcribed for banjo — jigs and reels. Most of them show the influence of both streams. From the beginning, American music depended on that tension between African-derived elements and European-derived elements. 

Whatever it sounded like, obviously white performers, like your narrator, as well as white audiences found energy, joy, release — call it what you will — in this music. Their caricatured impersonations of shiftless, chicken-stealing (etc., etc.) blacks reek of contempt to us, yet there also seems to be a strong element of wish-fulfilling fantasy — as if the performers wanted to be (I’ll use a deliberately paradoxical word) as “free” as those blacks whom they were imagining as tricksters rather than sufferers. This sort of fantasy, of course, didn’t die out with minstrelsy. I’m thinking of Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” and of Lou Reed’s offensively ironic/ironically offensive song “I Wanna Be Black.” And of 80 kajillion other examples. Your novel takes place during what seems to be an important moment in the evolution of this central weirdness in American ideation. Could you talk some about that moment — what had come before, what was to come later, and what it might have been like living in it? Or have I just handed you a hot potato? 

A Free State is my best imagining of what it might have been like “living in it” at that time. But, you know, we are still living in it. I don’t think of this as a historical novel. That bizarre transaction you talk about in the question is still with us, right? You hear a white college kid calling his pal “homey,” or a soccer mom call her husband “dawg” — where’s the difference? 

The novel is about freedom and what people imagine it to be, what they are willing to pay for it, and how they like what they have after they get it. It’s never what you think it’s going to be — just like fame, or turning 21. Enslaved Africans did, in fact, find all kinds of ways of claiming freedom for themselves even within that monstrous system, and music is one of the most recognizable. “Free” white people, listening to that musical expression, often recognized it as a particular form of freedom (as you point out) and, I would think, experienced some degree of envy, along with whatever else they were experiencing. But the freedom in that musical expression was often mistaken for simple happiness. Such happiness is never simple, but there were, and are, strong psychological reasons in white minds for wanting it to be. It absolves those minds of guilt, for one thing. So does the relentless, viciously cynical depiction that we have today of black people as thugs and gangstas. You know: “Either they don’t mind their enslavement, or they are such brutes that they deserve it.”

Right, right — “It isn’t even past,” as Uncle Willie said. On the other hand, you could argue that almost any novel is an historical novel — your own City of Refuge imagines a moment in history, no matter how small the gap in time between Hurricane Katrina and your writing the book. Or would you argue that no novel is an historical novel? How would you define that genre? Who practices it? Hilary Mantel? Gore Vidal? Mailer, in something like Ancient Evenings? Is it just a dismissive term? Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and Barnaby Rudge are set in the 18th century — historical novels or not? How about Great Expectations, which seems to be set decades before Dickens wrote it? Is that disqualified as an historical novel simply because it doesn’t deal with large public events, like the French Revolution or the Gordon riots? Are there novels you had somewhere in the back of your mind as you wrote A Free State? Not necessarily as templates or inspirations — nothing that direct or explicit — but just novels that might have been kicking around that made you think maybe you weren’t so crazy, and that this really was a novel and not some delusional project? I ask because I’m prone to such doubts when I’m writing and because I find it difficult to compare A Free State to anything else I’ve read. 

I think a historical novel is one in which the history itself is the point. The reader is supposedly invited, or guided, through a window into a distant, or not so distant, time, where they meet famous people and take a little vacation from present reality. Or if there are no famous people, at least they get to be in a clearly branded Somewhere Else for the duration of the book; in that way it is distancing and comforting. The material is behind glass, no matter how well imagined. It’s a form of tourism. And it’s comforting to the extent that you know it’s over. You know — “Wow — I just spent three days at the court of Marie Antoinette. What a bunch of knuckleheads!” Or “I just spent the most marvelous 400 pages with Theodore Roosevelt!”

There’s history, and then there’s the past. History is, by definition, over with; it’s a construct, but the conceit is that the author is trying to give his or her best shot at telling you how it was. That’s the payoff. But Faulkner is right — the past, by contrast, lives with us and disturbs us still because it is full of unfinished business. You know Thomas Mann’s short story “Disorder and Early Sorrow”? The main character is a history professor trying to keep his family’s life together during that post–World War I time when Germany’s economy had completely fallen apart and all the social models were breaking down. And in the middle of that, “history” is this comforting refuge for the professor. One of the all-time great stories. You could do a great classroom sequence reading that back-to-back with The Sound and the Fury.

Joan Didion has always set her fiction against some urgent sociopolitical context, but I wouldn’t call her novels “historical.” You could take a book like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, which is ostensibly about the Vietnam War, but it disturbs you because it is showing these perennial dark strains in the human spirit. I wouldn’t call it a historical novel. I wouldn’t call A Farewell to Arms a historical novel; the fighting comes to the foreground, recedes, comes forward, recedes … It’s about the nature of experience, not about the specifics of a given war. In a funny way I think a book like Ragtime, for all its modernist and postmodernist tropes, is more of a historical novel than either of those. You don’t want history to sit on the character elements so heavily that they get smothered.

But anyway, I don’t think A Free State is a historical novel. I see no distance between the dynamics of what goes on in my book and the dynamics of contemporary life. That being said, I did a lot of reading on certain topics — slavery and slave hunters, blackface minstrelsy, 19th-century Philadelphia — because I wanted to be faithful to the factual aspects of the place and moment I chose; I didn’t want to skew reality by mixing up what was possible and what was not possible at that time. Everything in A Free State is possible. But to me that’s not the payoff; it’s just, like, the table ante. In a historical novel it’s the payoff. 

I think what you’re saying is that the term “historical novel” is, or has become, code for pop junk. But of course I can think of any number of works, set in the historical past and with famous historical figures, which are legitimately disturbing, full of unfinished business, and which deal with recognizable human beings — Shakespeare’s history plays? I suspect you simply don’t want your book to be easily categorized and dismissed, and I don’t blame you. I guess for me it comes down to the question of whether or not a book is any good. 

A Free State is largely written in a 19th-century voice, but — unlike the conventional “historical novel” — it’s not an imitation of 19th-century fiction. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem especially radical (by 20th-century modernist standards) in its shifts of narrative viewpoint and technique — until we get near the end, where you make a headsnapping move, which we probably ought not to discuss in detail for fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t yet read the book. That move gave me a twofold jolt. On a purely technical level, it put me on notice that this really was a fully contemporary novel, which sought to subvert my generic expectations. And that subversion seemed to have thematic implications — this is material that allows no comfortable resting place. The very last sentence — again, I’m being deliberately evasive — seems to catapult the reader into the present, and (God help us) even into the future. It’s a last line, and it resonates as a last line should, but it’s perhaps the opposite of an ending. 

Is this what you wanted to happen to the reader? Is this what happened to you as you were writing it?

“No resting place” is correct, and I guess I see that, ultimately, as the price of freedom, period. The material shouldn’t allow a comfortable resting place because that is the thematic and technical understructure of the book. Freedom — whether it involves shifting identity, geographical mobility, creative activity — entails constant escape from the given. I think that’s one of the reasons we both find Bob Dylan’s career so vitalizing; he constantly slips the yoke of the given and of people’s expectations. You pay a price, though. 

But I’m still thinking about what you said about historical novels. To the extent that they are “legitimately disturbing” and “full of unfinished business,” I would resist calling them “historical” novels. They are imagined works, and as soon as a given character is really imagined so that he or she becomes a living, complex organism on the page, that character is a fictional creation, no longer a historical figure. And to the extent that you are trying to serve the historical model, present the supposed historical model rather than transforming the model into something of your own, the work will be weak as fiction. This is how I see it anyway. 

You bring up Shakespeare’s “historical” plays … I wouldn’t call them “histories,” no matter what Shakespeare or anybody else calls them. Not the great ones anyway. Because the point is not really to serve a literal history or bring you face to face with some putatively real historical figure. Nobody reads or watches King Lear to find out about the historical model for that character of King Lear. And the proof that these are not historical plays, in the sense that I was discussing “historical novels,” is that the best have been so perennially adaptable into so many contexts other that the supposed historical one. You know — King Lear as a newspaper tycoon, or whatever. As we all know, they are constantly being recast in different historical periods and cultural contexts. If they were really about the history they’d never be recast in that way. 

You tricky bastard, bringing up King Lear — whom I’d call a semilegendary figure. Let’s see you wriggle out of a discussion of the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V without reference to history. And I mean capital-H History. Seems to me the other Uncle Willie had historical-political stuff on his mind, in addition to the “Godfather”-like father–son story, and all the other “timeless” personal/human/whatever goings-on. I don’t mean to get you into a ring with Mr. Tolstoy (or Mr. Shakespeare), but can’t a sufficiently big novel take on both? Or would you rather talk about The Godfather and its obvious source in Henry IV? I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse. I do grant your point about the many decontextualized versions of Shakespeare, which I imagine (based on nothing but my own wishes) he would have liked.

So now you have “slander’d me with bastardy.” (King John, act 1; scene 1.) In the words of Queen Elinor, “Out, insolent, thy bastard shall be king.”

Okay, look, to paraphrase Desdemona, “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” Obviously, I’m not saying that bringing in historical figures or recognizable events tied to a given time makes a novel cheesy, or that fictional narrative should float free of historical context. How could I possibly say that, given the setting and action of A Free State, not to mention City of Refuge and My Cold War? But that’s different from what I’m talking about. I say that if a novel — or a film or a play; or a painting, for that matter — is serious, the interesting dimension doesn’t lie in delivering some faithful account of the factual historical record, or the character of Eleanor Roosevelt, or Stonewall Jackson. Or Henry V or Julius Caesar. Anyone who goes to see Julius Caesar to learn history is … misinformed. Obviously, Shakespeare makes use — his use — of events and characters, and he alters them as he wishes. You can’t learn the history of the Spanish Civil War by looking at Guernica, although the painting is obviously tied to that bombing, and you don’t need to know about the events that inspired the painting to feel its impact. Tolstoy, since you bring him up, might be as close as you could get to somebody who really did both, but you don’t read War and Peace because you want to learn about the Franco-Russian conflict, although you will certainly learn about those events from reading it. You read it because you dig Tolstoy’s vision of events and characters. Same with Dickens, sir. The measure of good novels’ success is not how close they bring us to some imagined golden mean of historical faithfulness. I can’t imagine that you’d disagree. But I think that is what so-called “historical novels” look to deliver. You know — “Creek of Blood! A novel of Antietam,” or “Panzer! A novel of 1943.” Or “Dead Queens Don’t Wear Plaid — A novel of Mary, Queen of Scots.”

The imagination has to get free of whatever limits it in the writing, including preconceptions about historical figures’ personality or motives. Just as Henry, in A Free State, has to get free of all these external definitions, whether they’re applied to him by slave “owners,” or abolitionists, or audiences …

Okay, agreed. I’ve only been goading you to see if you’d make the distinctions you’re making. As I might have known you would. I don’t really have a dog in this fight, since I’d never read — much less write — something like “Creek of Blood.” Though I wish I’d thought up the title.

I trust it’s not giving too much away to say that much of the tension in the novel comes from the pursuit of a runaway slave by a brutal, dogged, and apparently all-too-competent slave catcher. I worried throughout about what was going to happen — by the way, I consider getting the reader worried a positive accomplishment — and I wondered if you knew all along how it would come out. If you didn’t, at what point did you know? (Or “decide,” if that’s how you experience the working-out of a story.) If you did know all along, or from early on, how did you keep yourself interested enough in the uncertainty to make it convincing?

I did not know all along what would happen, and I can’t recall exactly when I did know. Pretty close to when it happened. But even when you know in principle, you still may not know the exact way it will play out. As you say, you have to keep yourself interested. In my view, events have to come out of the characters; the characters can’t be forced to conform to an advance template of events. And everyone, or almost everyone, in the book has such mixed motives; things are always kind of up in the air until they happen. So you just have to listen carefully every step of the way to hear what’s really going on, as opposed to what you think should go on. Just like life, right?

About what I suspected — it certainly felt discovered rather than contrived, like Flannery O’Connor’s surprise at the Bible salesman’s stealing Hulga’s artificial leg as she was writing “Good Country People.” (Should I have said “spoiler alert”?) Though I guess I’m susceptible to having my chain jerked by a cleverly contrived contrivance. I’ll ask a similar question about the one horrifically brutal scene in the novel — I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about. Did this just happen as you were writing the scene? Seems to me this moment resonates in the book well after it’s happened — I never quite got over it — which I assume is what you wanted. Yet as I recall, you hit such a note only once. In a novel set in the days of slavery, though not principally set on a plantation, how much brutality is enough, too much, not enough?

It depends on what you’re trying to achieve, I guess. That brutal scene you mention followed from the character of Tull, the slave hunter, as I understood him, and what I knew of the times and circumstances … Once it happens, you know what Tull is capable of, and that’s really all you need. I think there’s a natural tendency to overdo it when you’re trying to render something as hideous as the enslavement of human beings. It’s never enough, because the pain and injustice are bottomless. If you try to compete with the reality by piling on more and more incident and detail, horror upon horror, you’ll end up diminishing the picture rather than strengthening it. Better to underplay and let the reader fill in some blanks. Part of the real horror of that time and that system was how normal that stuff came to feel to the perpetrators of the crime, on the surface at least. They considered themselves respectable gentry, men of business, an aristocracy. Tull doesn’t do his work out of hatred for the enslaved people. I think he dislikes the slave-owning class more than he dislikes the slaves themselves. But he considers himself a professional. What he can’t stand is any form of resistance or implied disrespect, or what he would interpret as disrespect. A little switch can get thrown and he is capable of anything. But he thinks of himself as completely reasonable, and in fact better than everybody around him, when it comes right down to it. He’s a real psychopath.

Hmm. A professional who can’t stand resistance or disrespect? A little switch gets thrown and he’s capable of anything? I’ve been following the news out of Ferguson, Charleston, and wherever else. Shall I say the obvious?

Well, I think you just did. As I said, I don’t think of this as a historical novel. And it’s worth remembering that Tull and his kind were operating technically within the law as it stood at the time. Most of the world-class thugs of the past and present have used the cover of law, whether secular or religious, to claim sanction for what they do. But this is a novel, not a political tract. Finally, it comes down to individuals and what they make of their circumstances, for good or for ill. Usually, since these are human beings, for both.


David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, and two story collections, The Wonders of the Invisible World and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. He teaches at the University of Montana and in the Bennington Writing Seminars.

LARB Contributor

David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, and two story collections, The Wonders of the Invisible World and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. He teaches at the University of Montana and in the Bennington Writing Seminars.


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