A Novel About Choice, not Race by Steve Piacente
Steve Piacente is here today to talk about his new book Bootlicker, the followup to his novel Bella. Always the consummate professional Steve has graced me with his words and insight. I hope you enjoy reading what he has to say.
I am a New York-born, Washington-educated former journalist who has written a novel that includes a lynching, scenes where no whites are present, and a deep dive into the mind of a character about to become South Carolina’s first black congressman since the Civil War.
Much of the story takes place in the South, where I was a reporter for 25 years, the last 15 as Washington correspondent for newspapers in Tampa and, later, Charleston, S.C.
Bootlicker is centered on the unholy alliance between the man poised to win the historic election, Ike Washington, and Lander “Mac” McCauley, a veteran U.S. senator with a violent, racist past.
In 1959, poor, black teenager Ike Washington stumbles on a Klan lynching led by young McCauley, then a local judge. Caught, he must choose: join the dead man or begin hustling black support the ambitious judge needs to advance.
In trade, Ike is handed a life of comfort and power. Decades later, on the eve of his fateful victory, guilt-wracked Ike winds up alone in the same forest where the lynching took place, a long rope in his fist.
I spent years with these fictional characters. I know their strengths and flaws, how they speak, what they desire. I know their dreams, their fears, what they had for breakfast and which joints hurt after they sit too long.
And yet, with all that, there are times when I feel slightly shaken by what I have written. It usually happens when I explain the book to a mostly black audience. During readings, I find it almost impossible, for instance, to read passages that include racial expletives that McCauley used routinely.
I’m not sure what to make of this, whether it’s normal or a sign that there’s more work to be done before we really feel comfortable with one another, regardless of beliefs and skin color.
Maybe that’s obvious. If challenged – if someone asks how dare I take on such subjects given my middle class New York upbringing – I will cite my years on the job, the places it took me, and the men and women I covered. I will also point out the story is less about race than about guilt, hope and redemption.
The source of Ike’s guilt is his path to power. He rose on McCauley’s bloody coattails, and in fact helped the one-time Klansman become a powerful U.S. senator. Though no one knows about the horrific 1959 crime, black voters throughout the state are uneasy about Ike’s connection to McCauley.
It is why, behind his back, they call him Bootlicker.
My hope is that the novel will provoke a conversation that transcends race, one that is built on another profound question: What would anyone have done if faced with the terrible choice that confronted Ike Washington?
About the author: Steve Piacente (@wordsprof) has been a professional writer since graduating from American University in 1976. In 2010, he self-published Bella, the story of a widow’s quest to uncover the truth about her husband’s death on an Afghan battlefield. The forthcoming Bootlicker (available Sept. 1) is the prequel. Steve started as a sportswriter at the Naples Daily News, switched to news at the Lakeland Ledger, and returned to D.C. in 1985 as Correspondent for the Tampa Tribune. In 1989, the native New Yorker moved to the same position for the Charleston (SC) Post & Courier. He is now deputy communications director at a federal agency in Washington, D.C., and teaches journalism classes at American University. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bella is available at http://amzn.to/catchingon