Yesterday I received the sad news that Dr. James Turner, the founding director of Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center, has died.
I had the good fortune to be Professor Turner’s student when I was at Cornell in the 1980s. He was a warm, wise, and engaging teacher who changed the way I thought about the world, and our classroom discussions would, a quarter century later, help inform the writing of Lovecraft Country.
Over the years, I’ve met other former students of Dr. Turner—like Victor LaValle, the author of The Ballad of Black Tom—and they all had the same impression I did. Everyone has a list of of teachers and mentors who made a real difference in their life, and if you were lucky enough to know James Turner, he was on that list. My sadness at his passing is tempered by the knowledge that this is a man who truly made good use of his time on earth.
Godspeed, Professor Turner. Thanks for the lessons.
Professor James W. Loewen, the author of Sundown Towns, has died at the age of 79.
I was introduced to Loewen’s work through his 1995 bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. But it was Sundown Towns, Loewen’s history of whites-only communities in America, that had the biggest personal impact on me, serving as both an inspiration and an important research source for Lovecraft Country. A new edition of Sundown Towns was released in 2018, and if you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend checking it out.
You can read more about Professor Loewen’s life and work in his New York Timesobituary.
To celebrate Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s 100th birthday, Roddenberry Entertainment invited a hundred former and current cast members, other celebrities, and “notable fans” to record themselves quoting Gene Roddenberry. While I definitely qualify as a fan, I would not have thought of myself as “notable”—but there I am, somehow, in the same lineup as Gloria Gaynor, Tim Russ, Whoopi freaking Goldberg, Julie Benz, Ronny Cox, and Paul Sorvino.
The full gallery of party guests is here. You can watch me recite my quote here. (The quote was chosen for me by Roddenberry’s people, but assuming Lovecraft Country is the reason I ended up on the guest list, I can see why they picked it.)
Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the invasion and burning of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma by an army of white citizens who had been frustrated in their attempt to lynch a black man the night before. By the time state troops arrived to quell the violence, hundreds of people were dead or wounded, and 35 square blocks of the formerly prosperous black neighborhood had been destroyed by arson.
I also want to recommend, yet again, James W. Loewen’s book Sundown Towns, which makes the important point that the Tulsa Massacre was just one incident among many:
In town after town in the United States, especially between 1890 and the 1930s, whites forced out their African American neighbors violently, as they had the Chinese in the West. Decatur, in northeastern Indiana, went sundown in 1902… Adams County, of which Decatur is the county seat, wound up without a single black household; a century later, it still had only five. Decatur exemplifies a widespread phenomenon: little riots, most of which have never been written about, even by local historians… Towns with successful riots wound up all-white, of course, or almost so, and therefore had an ideological interest in suppressing any memory of a black population in the first place, let alone of an unseemly riot that drove them out.
Whites also tried to “cleanse” at least fifteen larger cities of their more substantial nonwhite populations: Denver (of Chinese) in 1880; Seattle (of Chinese) in 1886; Akron in 1900; Evansville, Indiana, and Joplin, Missouri, in 1903; Springfield, Ohio, in 1904, 1906, and again in 1908; Springfield, Missouri, in 1906; Springfield, Illinois, in 1908; Youngstown, Ohio, and East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917; Omaha and Knoxville in 1919; Tulsa in 1921; Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1923; and Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1929… Some of these larger riots have received some attention, including books and historical markers. Since they were unsuccessful—in that they failed to drive out all African Americans—they have left fuller records of the process… But most of the little riots have gone entirely overlooked, and as a result, the pattern of widespread “ethnic cleansings,” of which these failed larger attempts represent the tip of the iceberg, is not generally understood.
Collectively, these incidents of violence helped shape America’s demographic landscape, where even today, there are large portions of the country where you don’t expect to see anyone who isn’t white. If you grew up not knowing the history, this can seem totally natural. But it isn’t.
On this week’s special finale episode, Blake Collier and I close out the 88 Names podcast with a freewheeling conversation about virtual reality, what we learned from our guests on the ‘cast, and the very strange pandemic year we’ve all just lived through. Although this is the end of the road for this particular project, Blake and I will be teaming up again in a couple of weeks for an appearance on the No Proscenium podcast, hosted by Noah Nelson.
My old friend and mentor Professor Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Foreign Affairs and The War Between the Tates, has died at the age of 94.
I met Alison in my junior year at Cornell, when I took her creative writing class. I’d just started writing Fool on the Hill, the novel that would serve as my senior thesis in Honors English. Alison liked my work and encouraged me to send the finished manuscript to her agent, Melanie Jackson. Melanie liked the book too, and sold Fool on the Hill to Atlantic Monthly Press just six months after I graduated. Without Alison’s generosity, the arc of my writing career would have been very different—if it had happened at all.
It had been many years since I’d seen Alison in person, but we emailed from time to time, most recently in September when we exchanged happy birthdays (we were born just five days—and several decades—apart). I’m very glad I took the opportunity to say thank you to her one more time.
Like many of you, I spent last week watching election returns and reading silly hot takes about What It All Means. (My favorite, so far, is Jonathan Chait’s assertion in New York Magazine that “America, by and large, never wanted Trump to be president,” which is an exceedingly odd statement given that 70 million people just voted to reelect him.) Silliness aside, it looks like Trump really is on his way out and the republic isn’t going to fall just yet. So that’s a relief.
In other news:
* Lovecraft Country is on the New York Times bestseller list for the tenth week. Now that the HBO series has finished its first season, I imagine this won’t last much longer, but it’s been a great run.
* The Italian edition of Lovecraft Country, translated by Luca Briasco, was published on October 27, and the Polish edition, translated by Marcin Mortka, was published on November 2. This brings the total number of translations to nine, with eight more—from China, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Romania, Serbia, South Korea, and Turkey—forthcoming.
* Meanwhile in Germany, FISCHER Tor’s German-language edition of 88 Names, translated by Alexandra Jordan, is available now in ebook format and will be published in print on November 25.
* I have two more online events this week: On Wednesday, November 11, at 3 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be a guest on the Vox Vomitus podcast, chatting with host and fellow author Jennifer Anne Gordon. And on Thursday, November 12, I’ll be appearing via Zoom at Magic City Books of Tulsa at 5 PM Pacific/7 PM Central.
It was only a couple of days ago that I gently corrected an interviewer who’d referred to Lovecraft Country as a bestseller. Although sales of the novel had increased significantly since the premiere of the HBO series, so far as I knew it had only achieved bestseller status in some very specific Amazon subgenre categories.
But yesterday afternoon, the New York Times, continuing its tradition of giving me early birthday presents, made it official: On September 6, Lovecraft Country will debut at #5 on the trade paperback fiction bestseller list.
To say that I am thrilled about this would be an understatement. Before I go back to bouncing off the walls with glee, I wanted to say a quick thanks to the many folks who helped bring this book into the world, starting with my cadre of editors at HarperCollins: Tim Duggan, who bought Lovecraft Country but left Harper to work at Random House before I delivered the manuscript; Barry Harbaugh and Maya Ziv, who did the actual editing; and my current editor, Jennifer Brehl, who saw me through publication after Maya went to work at Penguin. I’m grateful as well to Jonathan Burnham, my Friend in High Places; my awesome production editor and fellow language nerd, Lydia Weaver; and my publicists, Rachel Elinsky and Heather Drucker.
My biggest thank you goes to my agent Melanie Jackson, who’s been looking out for me since 1987, when she sold Fool on the Hill to Atlantic Monthly Press just six months after I graduated Cornell University. This is her success too, and I’m very glad we’ve both lasted long enough to enjoy it.
I’m a half century old today. I was going to add a joke about how I was a teenager only yesterday, but it’s not true. When I look at the above photo—that’s me at 15, in my bedroom in Queens with my old IBM Selectric typewriter—it feels like a long time ago. It sounds weird to say I’m 50 but I can’t say I didn’t earn it.
One way you know you’re getting older is you start noticing more and more what a different world the current generation is coming of age in. I feel like I have an advantage over my parents in that I expected this to happen. My dad, born in 1922, was amazed and a little dismayed by how much American society had transformed during his lifetime, and for my mother—born in Brazil, raised in Argentina, emigrated to the U.S. at age 23—life was one long culture shock. I grew up knowing the future would be different in ways I couldn’t predict, so I’ve found the changes more fascinating than anything else. And I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.