I will have a new novel coming out some time in the first quarter of 2023. Big deal. I have books coming out regularly. However, this is a departure from my “real spies, real lives” backlist. The writing and publication of it has become a story itself.
All because I wanted to get the theme of the novel’s story right.
It’s a story about the gulf between rich and poor, between privilege and lack thereof, between haves and have nots, and, yes, about racism over generations.
When I sat down to write a 50,000-word rough draft of a novel for National Novel Writing Month 2012, I never intended to write about the racism I’d observed growing up in rural Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s.
My writing brain had other plans.
But, let’s go back to the beginning and how this story had its start.
For several years, I participated in a weekly flash fiction exercise called Friday Fictioneers. Every Wednesday, we’d get a photograph as a prompt and the task to write a 100-word story. When I first started, I had to edit and edit to get the story down to 100 words. Soon, it became easy to write a full story in 100 words.
One particular week, the photo was of a wall with peeling, old-fashioned wallpaper, and I don’t know why Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” came to me. But it did, and I wondered instead of a pompous jerk walled up, what if someone had walled up a baby.
Yes, I’m warped. I’m a writer.
When I finished the story, I posted it on the Friday Fictioneers’ site with all the other participants’ stories, where readers could comment. After I posted, “Amontillado,” almost every comment said I had to tell the whole story of who put the baby in the wall and why. A few months later when NaNoWriMo came around, I wrote that story.
When a Word Becomes an Issue
As it unfolded, it soon became a story that moved between 1944 and “present day,” and at the same time, especially in the 1944 parts, it became a story about racism and backward attitudes in a small, Virginia town named Ewington.
Ewington, Virginia, doesn’t exist. It’s somewhat of an amalgam of Culpeper and Warrenton, Virginia, where I grew up, and Staunton, Virginia, where I live now. None of the people in the story are real, but they have characteristics I’ve seen in people in all those places. They speak words I heard as a child—and as an adult.
One of those words later became an issue.
Because I wanted to show racists in this story for the bigoted lowlifes they are, I had them use one of the most despicable words in the English language, the N-word. In many cases, these characters used terms and phrases I’d heard as a child, spoken by people who were “pillars” of the community. In that way, the characters in this book are sadly accurate.
However, a white beta reader counted the number of times the N-word appeared. Twenty-nine times in a 93,000-word manuscript. In each case, the word was used pejoratively by a racist character, never casually on my part, and reflected the mindset of the character.
I subsequently engaged sensitivity readers. One never mentioned the word’s usage; the other indicated it had no place in any book anywhere. At that point, I honestly didn’t know what to do, and I put the manuscript aside for two years.
For that same amount of time, my editor kept after me to publish it, but the dilemma was this: I knew this was a good book, a good story, a meaningful one because the racists get the comeuppance they deserve, but it also had the potential to upset people.
I also understand that as an author with white privilege, my use of this word is beyond problematic, even if I’m trying to get the issue right.
One of the unfortunate aspects of growing up in a racist family meant I had plenty of synonyms for the N-word. So, I did some editing, and I’ll be honest. I intended to replace every single usage, but I couldn’t. There were situations where having a racist not use that word watered down an entire scene. What I didn’t want was for a racist character to appear to be “okay.” We know that committed racists have no qualms about using that word; it comes easily from their lips because of their ignorance.
Let me reiterate. I wanted to show racists for what they are, including the language they use. I did pare the usages down by fifty percent, from twenty-nine to fourteen.
I apologize for every single usage.
Even though I’m trying to get it right.
The book is titled from a line in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” — “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend.”
Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season.
Read the story when it comes out, and if I offend you, feel free to mention it in a review, but understand that I didn’t want to water down racist behavior or make it seem in any way normal. And, yes, I realize this sounds as if I’m trying to justify using racist language–even if I’m trying to get this right.
I long ago separated myself from the racist people I grew up around, including parts of my family, but I want everyone to know what kind of people they were, who they still are, and that they remain all around us—unless we show them for what they are. That’s all.
Look for the ebook, paperback, and hard cover editions of Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season in February or March 2023.