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Kansas City, Missouri, has always been a city geographically divided by the Missouri River, andunderneath the surfaceby class and race. At its founding, Kansas City was part of the South; it was legal to keep slaves within the city and in surrounding areas. Though slavery was abolished in the United States long ago, the city's landscape still echoes that time. In The Huntsman, Whitney Terrell evokes the city's painful past and uneasy present, minutely inspecting this phenomenon of blacks and whites living apart in specific communities "against all plan or reason after the laws that kept them apart were abolished."
The ruling class consists of the wealthy, old-money families who have fond memories of a time before the civil rights movement. But these men and women also still hold the keys to power and prestige in the present-day city, throwing a lavish Founders' Ball each year to which only those who are white are invited. Even the city's black mayor accepts his token invitation but knows well enough to respectfully decline. This is the city where a rail-thin, African-American, ex-con parole-jumper by the name of Booker Short looks for a place to lay low. As he steps off of the train outside of the city and begins the long walk into town, he can never begin to predict the trouble that will find him.
In fact, trouble arrives one morning in the form of a dead girl found in the Missouri Rivernot in itself such a strange occurrence; often while fishing in the Missouri people catch much more than catfish. But this body is special because it is Clarissa Sayers, the judge's daughter. When Stan Granger pulls the body out of the swirling current, his thoughts immediately turn to Booker, who had been hired by Stan's own employer, Mercury Chapmana well-regarded manufacturer and life-long resident of Kansas City. Stan remembers the beginning of his and Booker's tenuous friendship, when Booker met Clarissa and began his ascent into the cloistered circle of wealth and power that forms the center of Kansas City social life. Neither her Stingray convertible, nor the tailored suits in which she dressed Booker, nor the invitations to parties that she accepted for the both of them could hide one stark facthe did not belong. But Booker had a secret, a debt that had been passed from one generation to the next, that existed before he was born. It is the thing that brought him from his grandfather's farm in Oklahoma, through a stint in jail, and over miles of railroad tracks to Mercury Chapman's front door. This secret is what will vindicate him, even after Clarissa is found dead and Booker himself is named as the prime suspect.
Much of the driving force behind The Huntsman is not what the reader knows about the characters, but rather what the characters know about each other, and what they try to hide about themselves. Everyone is an enigma, and everyone has information that another does not want him to hold. Booker is not the only example. Clarissa is keeping many things from Booker, most importantly why she and her father have a bond so fragile, but at the same time so apparently unbreakable, that he occupies nearly every one of her actions and words and threatens to drive her insane. Booker's employer, Mercury Chapman, has his own skeleton in the closet, a revelation that has tied Booker and his family to him for the rest of his life. Most startling of all is the secret that Judge Sayers is retaining, a secret so terrible that it will tear his life apart.
The Huntsman weaves an intricate tale of how the past can dictate the future, be it the way a city nearly 200 years old can still maintain that exclusion does not exist, despite the fact that people of different races do not intermingle, or the way a man's actions can echo in his head throughout his life, no matter what he does to quiet them. Booker Short is the crucial catalyst, a man whose refusal to accept the status quo will polarize an entire community and lead the fine citizens of Kansas City to return to their own secretstheir only hope for redemption.
Whitney Terrell was born and raised in Kansas City. He is a graduate of Princeton University and has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He lives in Kansas City, where he is a writer-in-residence for the School of Professional Studies at Rockhurst University. The Huntsman is his first novel.
Your writing style in The Huntsman has been compared to that of Faulkner and Melville. Do you consider those two authors major influences on your work? Who else would you count among your influences? As a teacher, what writers do you recommend to your students for inspiration, or to learn the craft of writing?
I think as an author you ought to feel terrified by such a comparisonas well as flattered. People often seem to reserve the term "Faulkneresque" for writers who use long sentences, or set scenes in the country, but to me he was much more of an urban author than people think. It sounds comic to call him that, I know. But in all of his work, you find a constantly evolving analysis of how societies, and towns, and cities get created, how their social orders are built and enforcedor corruptedover generations. It's a passion he picked up from Balzac, who was grounded in urban life, and I hope to look at Kansas City in the same way.
Melville produced some great and troubling works on America's racial obsessions, particularly the story "Benito Cereno," a line from which forms the epigraph to Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Mananother book I've spent a lot of time with. You look for those kinds of connections, webs of common ideas. And if you're white and writing about race relations (as I am), you must read, learn, and respect the black authors out there leading the way: James Alan McPherson, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, Stanley Crouch, Reginald McKnight, Colson Whitehead, just to name a few. As for students, I simply tell them to read everything, all the time. If you are engaged every day in the act of reading, of going to the library or the bookstore, and standing in the stacks and just looking at the spines, trying to guess where to go next, your instincts will eventually lead you the right way.
Critics have had difficulty classifying The Huntsman. Would you say that the novel is literary fiction, or a particularly well-written mystery, or both? When you set out to write the book, what type of work were you striving for?
Quite frankly, the mystery tag came as a complete surprise and really only showed up in a few early reviews. From day one I imagined this as what is now called a "literary novel"which, in the English classes of my youth, was the only kind of novel that existed. Many of the writers we read back then use what would now be called elements of "crime fiction." However, I wouldn't call To Kill a Mockingbird or Crime and Punishment mystery novels, though they both involve murder investigations. The same goes for Faulkner's Light in August, or Nabokov's Lolita, or Richard Wright's Native Son.
The Huntsman differs from a typical mystery because the murder exists only as a device. The point isn't to guess who did itmost readers will do that fairly quickly. What matters is the community's reaction to this violent act and how it serves to bring to the fore the buried prejudices of the city's residents. In the end, the crime feels far less important than, say, the relationship between Booker and his grandfather, or Mercury Chapman's memories of his WWII past. That said, the book does have a plot and it does moveat least that was my intention. And the reviewers and booksellers who have covered this book as a mystery have done so with great enthusiasm and I'm thankful for that. Once a reader cracks the cover, categories disappear.
Some might find your depiction of Kansas City not terribly flattering. As it is your hometown and the place where you currently reside, how do you feel about the obvious prejudice and exclusion that plague the city? Did the racial climate in Kansas City change at all while you were writing the book? If so, did it change your treatment of the subject matter?
I think that many of our major citiesand Kansas City is really just a template for this problemface a new form of segregation. The old battles over legalized segregation are over and won. The Jim Crow laws are a generation in the past. But many cities are still strongly divided according to race. Look at Cincinnati, Miami, or Boston. Look at L.A. in 1992. Racial division damages cities and everyone who lives in them. It hurts downtown areas, where people are forced to mix. It leads to the growth of racially segregated suburbs. It kills school districts. Fortunately, people are starting to acknowledge the problem, at least in this city. The television and radio stations will discuss it; the Kansas City Star just ran a long feature on urban planning that focused on issues of race, and local reviewers have generously covered this book. Most importantly, many individual citizens, the library groups, the reading clubs, the neighborhood and church organizations, have been working silently, with no fanfare, on issues like this for years. These people are the best hope.
Talk about the character of Booker Short, the main black voice in the book. As a white author, how did you come to imagine this character's life? Did you approach writing about him differently than you would a white character? Did you encounter any resistance from readersblack or whitewho think you're not qualified to write about the black experience?
The last question goes to the heart of what it means to be a writer. Writing is about empathyimagining yourself in another's place. I think we all agree that young writers should not be scolded for writing about old people, that female writers can write about men, or that twentieth-century authors can set stories in the 1860s. So why should we, as Americans, limit our imaginations according to race? We need more imagination in that area, not less. There are also practical concerns. In a city populated by races x, y, and z, wouldn't any writer have to write outside of his racial group to get the whole picture? That's why The Huntsman contains both black and white points of view. It would be offensive, at this point in the city's history, not to include bothand yet, such a division has been traditional, even in writers that I greatly admire. In Huck Finn, you never get Jim's thoughts. His point of view remains outside the realm of knowledge. The same thing applies to the white characters in, say, Richard Wright. My goal in The Huntsman was to let both sides speak and allow readers to judge on their own whom they believe.
To be honest, I worried more about being able to clearly imagine the specifics of where Booker grew up, his surroundings, the things he did every day, his chores, etc., than I worried about imagining "another race." I make the assumption that every character is of the human race. They experience love, bitterness, betrayal, friendship, much in the ways that I have experienced them, or in ways that I've seen others experience them. The causes may differ and the careful writer will be aware of thatas a black student in a rural white district, race plays a far greater role in Booker's daily life than it did in mine, and I worked hard to take that into account. But the betrayal that Booker feels when his best friend abandons him should be accessible to any reader from any background. And I think the best writing tries always to see past the skin of things to that universal place.
In your novel, Booker Short suggests that Mercury Chapman should feel responsible for the hanging death of one of his soldiers during the war. Mercury claims that he did everything possible to prevent that death, short of resigning his commission and going to jail himself. Who is right? Who do you think readers tend to side with?
Hopefully, readers won't easily be able to declare someone "right." If Mercury is simply a monster, for instance, then the book loses its immediacy. White readers in particular can disassociate themselves from him by saying, "Oh, I'm not like that." But the fact that he is in many ways sympathetic, a character with conscience, makes his experience more significant. He doesn't hurt or purposefully injure the black community; he pays wages to black workers at his factory. He did try to help Reggie Hammonds. But does he treat Booker as he would the grandson of a white friend? How does he justify his continuing membership in the all-white Colonial Country Club? Or omitting the truth about Hammonds from his war stories? I hope he forces readers to think about how Booker's statement, "If you're part of something wrong, you're wrong," might apply to them.
As for Booker, responses vary widely. Some readers root for him. Some view him as undeserving of the claim he makes on Mercury. One African American reader said to me, "No young Kansas City boy would trust white people like Booker does." I have to hope that she isn't completely right (though Booker doesn't actually come from Kansas City). But I would also point out that Booker's role in the novel is precisely that: he defies the status quo. He refuses to be satisfied. Everyone else in the novel seems paralyzed by their past. But Booker has the drive and the curiosity to come to Kansas City, find the white man his grandfather so often talked about, and finally, after so many years, hash out what really happened. This to me is the novel's most crucial act.
That said, the book isn't supposed to be a moral guide or instruction manualmy goal was to set up the issues in a complex fashion and encourage people to argue over them, to realize there might be more than one point of view. I also have a request for readers who might use this guide: in the past year, I've spoken to both black and white book clubs, but almost no integrated ones. How integrated is your club? Why not make the effort to hold a joint discussion with a group of a different race?
At the end of the novel, Judge Sayers actually gives the impression that he can easily get away with murder. Often, in this country, it appears that the justice system is skewed to protect "upstanding citizens," rather than uphold the spirit of justice and a fair trial. Do you believe that in this country wealth and social standing can essentially create a person who is above the law?
Has this ever not been true?
The distortion of memory is one of the driving themes of The Huntsman. As the Washington Post commented, "Terrell doesn't pretend to have the definitive answer as to why a yawning gulf continues to divide black and white Kansas Citians, but he does suggest that it endures because the two groups are inclined to remember the past differently." Can you comment on the role that memory plays in The Huntsman, especially in terms of Mercury Chapman's and Isaac Bentham's obviously divergent memories of World War II?
Though they fought in the same company, and saw ostensibly the same events, Mercury and Isaac come away with two very different impressions of their war experiences in part because they never really honestly discuss themor come to an agreement over what happened. To me, this serves as a model for what has happened in many American cities where you have black and white communities living in close physical proximity and yet never really discussing their own communal history. Black families in my neighborhood notice white flight. They notice that whites don't want their children to go to school with too many black children. They notice racial profiling, all-white country clubs, and gated communities. But I think far too many white residents here in Kansas City haven't the slightest idea what black residents think about these issuesor them.
So the book is, in the end, about forcing this kind of conversation. Booker Short acts as the agent of change, bringing his grandfather's anger and bitterness (and in some cases, his misconceptions) back to Mercury, out of the past.
The Huntsman is a fairly difficult novel in terms of addressing the issue of racial and societal rifts in the United States; yet, it is well-regarded and successful. Were you surprised that it was embraced as much as it was?
This was my first book, so pretty much everything that happened came as a surprise. But I'm not surprised that a book addressing serious racial and societal rifts in American life can be successful. African American writers that I listed in Question 1 have been doing this for years, as have white writers like Russell Banks. These writers have had great success. In nearly every city I visited while doing readings for this book, people would pull me aside and say, "I just want you to know, we have the same problem here." This uneasy division and, in fact, curiosity about raceabout the otheris an everyday fact of American life. And yet all too often our novels become what Banks calls "gated communities" populated by only one racial group. I think readers want more than that.
The Huntsman was your first novel. Do you have a second in the wings? Do you plan to revisit Kansas City in that work?
I intend to write a series of interlocking books set in Kansas City. In fact, if I can get away with writing about Kansas City for my entire lifeif readers will keep reading the stuff and publishers will keep publishing itI'll be a happy man. I want this to be my territory, my universe. I would like for different characters to reappear; I'd like to write about families over different generations. The next book, which I've already started, will be about corruption surrounding the building of the Interstate Highway here. Land rights are to Kansas City what water rights are to L.A. in Chinatown. The Interstate changed this city permanentlyand not necessarily in good ways. I also think the '50s and '60s were a particularly wide-open time in the city's history.
- The title of Whitney Terrell's novel is The Huntsman. Much of the book takes place at a hunting lodge, and many of the characters in the novel are hunters, both literally and figuratively. To whom do you think Terrell was referring when titling the work?
- The river seemed an uncomfortable reminder of a gothic past when life had not been so clean. In such a way do the residents of Kansas City cast the dirty and unpleasant aspects of their city into the past and strive to preserve a "clean" image of its present. Yet life in Kansas City is not clean, with the dead being dredged from the river's waters, barges rolling past housing projects, and the homeless living on the shoreline. How do you think the residents of this city reconcile the expansive wealth of a minority of the city's residents with the obvious destitution of the majority?
- On opening day at the hunting club, Clarissa Sayers is shocked to find that Mercury Chapman's new handyman, Booker Short, is not invited to eat with the members because he is black. In your opinion, is her attitude toward the prejudice of the hunters sincerea product of her time at Vassar perhaps or is it just a
reaction against the way she was brought up, a natural rebellion against her father and the society in which he moves?
- There is never any mention of Clarissa's feelings toward Booker in the novel, though we do know that Booker cares for Clarissa on some level. He appears to alternate between a kind of repulsion for her apparently charmed upbringing and an unquestionable need to be a part of the society she has always known. Does Booker love Clarissa for who she is, or is he drawn to what she can do for him as a privileged white woman? Conversely, does Clarissa truly want to be with Booker, or does she merely recognize him as a means to torment her father?
- What is the nature of Clarissa's relationship with her father? How does your view of it change from the start to the end of the novel?
- Booker's relationship with his grandfather is always strained and fearful. In fact, Booker claims to have hated him. Yet, he also had a certain respect for Isaac Bentham and his ability to overcome his race to become a war hero in a time when racial prejudice was absolutely acceptable. When Booker realizes that his grandfather exaggerated some of his war exploits and, in fact, may have allowed a friend to go to jail in his place, Booker is appalled, but still defends him. What is it about his relationship with his grandfather that, at the end of the novel, pulls Booker backback to the past and to the house where he grew up?
- Mercury Chapman is described by Remy Westbrook as "a civil rights leader before they even had the word." Isaac Bentham explains to Booker that Mercury Chapman "cured me of a dangerous idea that a white man could be my friend." Explain the apparent contrast between these two statements. What are Mercury's feelings toward the prejudices of the city? Is he a part of the problem or the solution?
- Compare and contrast the friendship between Clyde Wilkenson and Mercury Chapman with that between Booker Short and Batson Putz. Take into consideration their upbringing, lifestyle, and general outlook. Are Booker and Mercury more similar than they initially appear?
- Marcy Keegan has a small but pivotal role in the novel. She acts not only as a love interest, but also as an outsider, someone who is not as influenced by the rigid class and race barriers present in Kansas City. Would the ending of the novel have been affected if her character had not been involved? How so?
- When Stan discovers Clarissa Sayers's body, he realizes that he is "already committed to telling that man a lie," referring to the sheriff. Though he immediately suspects Booker, he also feels an urgent need to protect him. What is Stan's allegiance to Booker? At any point in the novel do you feel that Stan would abandon Booker for his own gain? If so, what keeps him loyal to Booker?
- Each character in the work has a past that they wish to redeem. Mercury Chapman is the most obvious example. When he sacrifices himself so that Booker can escape Judge Sayers, is Mercury memorializing Reggie Hammonds, the innocent he did not try to save? Similarly, when Booker is hiding under the name Reggie Hammonds, is he attempting to play into Mercury's guilt? Finally, do you think that in his death Mercury found the forgiveness that he sought? What other characters seek redemption?