In 1988 the small magazine Albert French had been publishing folded, and he suddenly found himself with a lot of time on his hands. Over the next three years, he says, he left his apartment only to buy cigarettes and food. "I woke up 46 years old and jobless. My life was completely destroyed. I slept a lot. Jumped every time the phone rang."
To escape his depression French started writing, and by 1993 he was getting out more often--promoting his first novel, Billy, in cities as diverse as New York, Amsterdam, and Oxford, Mississippi. The book, which went into six printings, did unusually well for a first novel, but then French had a history of leaping into projects with little or no experience and turning them into great successes. After returning from Vietnam, where he served in the marines, he took an Instamatic camera to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, initiating a 15-year career in photography--first as a medical photographer and then as a photojournalist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
Once he began writing, French completed a manuscript of his Vietnam memoirs in eight weeks. His cousin, the writer John Edgar Wideman, read it and gave the manuscript to his agent, who shopped it around to publishers. When the rejection slips came back they were encouraging, but French decided to try something different. "I wanted to hurry up and send in a book that would show that I could do fiction."
He made a list of possible story ideas, his favorite of which came from a television talk show he saw about children on death row. "I thought they made mention of an 11-year-old boy in Mississippi who was executed back in the 20s," he says. "What lingered with me was, how would a child like that conceive his own death? It was a challenge." In six weeks he produced the manuscript for Billy, which was eventually published by Viking.
Set in Banes County, Mississippi, in 1937, Billy tells the story of a ten-year-old black boy, Billy Lee Turner, executed by the state after he accidentally kills a young white girl in a scuffle. Narrated in a dense southern vernacular, the novel has a rhythm that mimics the hypnotizing call and response of an old spiritual. Though French never spent more than a few months below the Mason-Dixon line, he says he developed his ear for southern dialect growing up in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, where many of his relatives settled after migrating north. "I feel very comfortable with that language," he says. "It's more difficult for me to talk like this than it is to write like that."
In his new novel Holly--almost one third longer than Billy and written in only 12 weeks--French goes back to the rural south to tell the story of a young white woman who falls for a black veteran in Supply, North Carolina, in 1945. Both books examine the consequences of stepping over racial boundaries in the segregated south, but Holly is written almost entirely from the perspective of its 20-year-old heroine, sheltered, restless, and boy-crazy Holly Hill. French, a 51-year-old black man, says he never thought that writing from a young white woman's point of view would be an obstacle. "I don't think about things too much," he says. "I just go ahead and do them. If you think too much you start getting headaches."
French says he never expected to be so successful so fast. "I still haven't planned anything in my life," he explains. At a recent book signing he was approached by a student who asked if he wrote about his observations. "That's what writing was to her," he says. "Her observations. People think they have some special right to have observations, so therefore that must make them singular. The characters are what count, not your observations of them."
Albert French will read from Holly Tuesday at 7:30 PM at Barbara's Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells. It's free. Call 642-5044 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kelly Casey.