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Ellen Feldman
The story of what happened in Scottsboro was, at the time, a sensational event. What inspired you to write about it now?
The word Scottsboro is iconic in American lore. Everyone knows it stands for a terrible racial injustice, but few know the details of the horror, how deeply it convulsed the nation, how widely it reverberated around the world, and how it incited and exacerbated other prejudices in the country. I wanted to remind readers of a heinous chapter in the nation’s recent past, in hope that remembering inoculates against repeating. I also wanted to tell a riveting story, at once heartbreaking and inspiring.
In the acknowledgements at the end of SCOTTSBORO you write, “Setting fictional characters loose among the ghosts of history is a dicey business.” How difficult was it to construct such a believable character as Alice Whittier and to slot her so seamlessly into the story?
I wrote Scottsboro as fiction because I am interested in exploring the major events of history, but in human terms. How do individuals behave in the crucible of great events, and how do they shape those events in turn? Alice Whittier is a composite of two women journalists who covered Scottsboro, but she is also very much my creation, perhaps even a fantasized much-improved version of myself. I have never risked my life for a cause, but Alice’s beliefs and convictions, passions and prejudices, and especially limitations are mine. Creating Alice was a means of finding my way into the story.
Ruby Bates is, of course, a real person and one of the “victims” in the trial. You give Ruby her voice in the book. How did she “speak” to you?
Finding Ruby’s voice was the most difficult aspect of writing Scottsboro. When I started, I was so sure I could not capture Ruby’s voice that I did not even try. The book was in the third person, and Ruby lived at a distance. But through draft after draft, she kept nagging at me to let her speak for herself. I read and reread native southern writers. I studied dictionaries of regional slang and dialect. Little by litter, Ruby’s voice became clearer and louder. That is the story of how I discovered Ruby’s voice in my head, but how it got there in the first place is one of the wonders and joys of being a novelist.
In terms of race relations the US has come a very long way since 1931 – the date of the Scottsboro incident. Indeed, you may have a black president soon. What are your views on this possibility?
I have been a supporter of Barack Obama since he first entered the primaries, and not merely because of his race. It was said of Franklin Roosevelt, our greatest modern president, that he had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. According to one journalist who has covered Obama, he has a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. Race aside, he is the best candidate for the job. But if race is factored into the equation, I believe his election will be a huge step toward healing and justice in a country built on the original sin of slavery. It will also send a message around the world that the United States is no longer a rogue cowboy state in thrall to its own exceptionalism, but a responsible law-abiding member of the international community.
Who are your literary inspirations?
My literary heroes are a motley lot. I am besotted with Trollope and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am a huge fan of Jane Gardham and earlier, currently out-of-fashion American writers like Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. Which of these writers actually inspires my work, however, I cannot say. I do not think of my books as historical fiction. Though they are set in earlier eras, they explore eternal themes and timeless human dramas. At a recent dinner party, a well-known novelist told me he had absolutely no interest in historical fiction, and from the way he said it, I knew that he equated any book that did not deal with the contemporary world in which he lived as the equivalent of a bodice-ripper. I did not argue with him. I merely asked him what he thought of War and Peace.
Ellen Feldman

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