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Q&A with Jonathan Grant, author of Brambleman
Q: Tell us a little about Brambleman.
A: It’s a novel about a homeless writer, Charlie Sherman, who is convinced by a mysterious stranger to finish a dead man’s book about a horrific crime that’s gone unpunished for decades. Charlie begins work on an epic manuscript about the mob-driven expulsion of more than 1,000 blacks from Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1912. During the course of his work, Charlie uncovers a terrible secret involving the theft of a Forsyth County farm that is now worth $20 million. When he finds the land’s rightful owner, Charlie becomes convinced he’s been chosen by a Higher Power to wreak justice and vengeance upon the wicked who stand to profit from evil. That’s when things go horribly wrong.
Q: Tell us about the book’s setting.
A: The story is set in present-day Atlanta and Forsyth County, which is famous as the birthplace of Hee-Haw’s Junior Samples. Forsyth existed as an intentionally all-white community next door to Atlanta for nearly a century following events of 1912. In 1987, the sleepy community gained notoriety when a small march led by civil rights firebrand Hosea Williams was broken up by rock- and bottle-throwing Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and their sympathizers. Bloody but unbowed, Williams returned the next week with 25,000 followers in one of largest civil rights marches in history. There was talk of reparations. Oprah came to Forsyth and taped her show. Protests and counter-protests yielded a landmark Supreme Court case on free speech. But most importantly, white people flocked to Forsyth. It became the fastest- growing county in the nation, the richest one in Georgia, and one of the twenty wealthiest in the U.S. Due to an influx of minorities since 2000, Forsyth County is now more ethnically diverse than several of its neighbors, but it’s haunted by its past. What’s amazing is that most people I talk to around Atlanta don’t know or remember this history.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: Well, there’s that innocence about the past. Plus the fact that I finished a dead man’s book had something to do with how I did it the way I did it. Also, there hasn’t been much written about Forsyth County’s violent past. The book I edited had only a paragraph about 1912 events in Forsyth County, although there were several pages on the massive civil rights marches there in 1987. There has been a brouhaha over the Atlanta media’s coverage of Forsyth’s past—or rather, lack of it. I think it’s a fascinating, albeit ugly, story. How did this sleepy rural enclave on the cusp of Atlanta become all white? And why did it boom once people found out its secret? I wanted to show the consequences of horrible crimes play out unto the third and fourth generations. Of course, it’s not hard. As William Faulkner noted, “The past isn’t dead and buried. It’s not even past.”
Q: Which character was your favorite to write?
A: Trouble, because he’s not from around here and knows no boundaries.
Q: What kind of research did you do while preparing your story?
A: I spent more than 3,000 hours editing a monumental history book: The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, so I had a solid background on Southern and Georgia history. When I was working on Brambleman, I wanted to recreate what happened back in 1912 as accurately as possible, so I read through local histories, newspaper accounts, microfilm of The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. County back in 1912. I also read through a dissertation on the Progressive Era in Georgia and visited the Georgia Archives. The results of all this you’ll see in Chapter Five, which is a straightforward account of one of the most extreme cases of racial violence and ethnic cleansing in American history. (This part of Georgia was once home to the Cherokees, so it was no stranger to forced removal of unwanted peoples.) I think I’ve written a good, cohesive account—one you won’t find anywhere else. I changed names and added a few details, but if you read Chapter Five of Brambleman, you’ll have a good idea of what happened back in the day.
Q: What kind of reception is Brambleman getting?
A: It’s a new book, so I’m just starting to get the word out. But the reviews that have come in have been excellent. Its average rating is 4.5 out of 5 stars on the main websites that track these things. It’s available everywhere, and Barnes and Noble stores in Georgia have it in stock. Right now, I’m working to set up signings, and I’ll be at the Decatur Book Festival again this year.
Q: What’s with the title?
A: I got it from one of the darker Mother Goose rhymes.
Q: Which books, if any, have most inspired your writing and life in general?
A: The writers who inspired me may not have greatly influenced my style (OK, maybe a little), but Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, and Hunter S. Thomson seemed to be talking directly to me when I was young and convinced me that I should be a writer. The novel that stands out in my mind is All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I used to be a state government spokesman and my job was similar to Jack Burden’s — except that I worked for five Willie Stark wannabees. My first novel (will it ever be published?) is a homage to this great work. However, the book that has influenced me the most is The Way It Was in the South, which I finished writing and editing after my father’s death. This was history up close in all its harsh detail, and once you have been burdened by a knowledge of history, it changes everything.
Q: How would you describe your writing style?
A: My books often have Southern settings (although the location for Chain Gang Elementary is never specified, and I believe it could be found anywhere.) I don’t think of myself as a Southern writer—although Brambleman is definitely a Southern story. However, I’ve lived in Georgia 40 years, and may even have a bit of a drawl (I think that comes from talking to all those sheriffs when I was a reporter). I’m originally from Missouri, so that probably makes me more of a border-state Yankee writer. I’ve been compared to John Irving, Richard Russo, and Tom Perrotta. Humor is a key component to my work. I can’t help it; when I was young, people laughed, and it only encouraged me.
Q: Are you currently working on any other projects?
A: I recently sent a manuscript to my editor: Party to a Crime is a novel about a crack-fueled carjacking trial, told by the jury foreman, who has problems of this own that boil over and merge with the case. It should be out by the end of the year.
Q: Do you have a website for the book?
A: Yes, and it contains a regularly updated news blog. You can check it out at www.brambleman.com. You can download a free sample to read while you’re there.