October 15, 2015

When Fiction Cuts Close to the Bone: an interview with Lee Thompson, author of "The Lesser People"

THE LESSER PEOPLE: On a snowy Detroit night Elijah Irons, now an old man, tells a black nurse a haunting story from the darkest summer of his childhood in Forksville, Mississippi. He shares his experience with the rising racial tensions in their community and the discord within their own home since Eli, like his father Hank, think of Negroes as ordinary people, while the rest of their community think of them as The Lesser People. 

He shares how his father arrests Uncle Tommy for stealing Army rifles and selling them to the KKK, and why he walks free since Eli’s grandpa is the mayor. He talks about Isaiah—a blind black boy, and servant of a local preacher—who Eli finds murdered on a river bank, and how that boy had sung the blues until people robbed him of his innocence and his future. 

After the police investigate and brush Isaiah’s murder aside, blaming a transient for the crime, Eli’s father decides to make a stand against his father and the town. But things go severely wrong. Other than Preacher, everyone wants Eli’s family to get out of town. Elijah's father refuses to go anywhere. The consequences of his decision, coupled with the desperate move his sons make, produce a mountain of heartache, grief and sorrow for his family, but they also produce unlikely heroes. 

The Lesser People is a poignant, brutal, and touching story about how our decisions, and those of others, haunt us. It explores family and social conditioning, and how we exorcise our demons--often too late--in our struggle to become more human. 

Lee Thompson is the bestselling author of the Suspense novels A BEAUTIFUL MADNESS (August 2014), IT’S ONLY DEATH (January 2015), and WITH FURY IN HAND (May 2015). The dominating threads weaved throughout his work are love, loss, and learning how to live again. A firm believer in the enduring power of the human spirit, Lee believes that stories, no matter their format, set us on the path of transformation. He is represented by the extraordinary Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary.

Gef: What drew you to writing The Lesser People? Anything from familial or local history that spurred you?

Lee: Thanks for the interview, Gef!

There were a number of factors that led me to write The Lesser People.

Joe Lansdale’s The Bottoms. He’s a hero and I love his Hap & Leonard books, his standalone novels like A Fine Dark Line, but I was disappointed with The Bottoms. I felt it too goody-goody, too predictable, and the dialect seemed forced into cartoonish territory. I wanted to write something similar but without pulling any punches or sugar coating things.

Then there was my uncle. When I was younger he went to prison for stealing rifles from the Army and selling them to the KKK. He was always a black sheep and then as he got older, he became a better person, although his reputation haunted him.

I mentioned the other thing in the interview in Shock Totem #6. I had a moment of reflection when I was sitting in a bar and watching a boxing match. It was a white boxer and black boxer and I wanted the white guy to win. I didn’t know either boxer, so started thinking about insidious family racial conditioning (or maybe it’s also just simple human nature, we want people like us to win and the other kinds of people to take the knockout punch. I still don’t know. There are so many factors that shape us when we’re young and I don’t believe we have much control over them when we’re little kids. Hopefully we’re wise enough to question the adult figures in our lives once we get older).

We have to figure things out for ourselves, who we are, how we relate to other people, and learn how to make our own decisions instead of doing what those who raised us told us to do.

Gef: I remember you mentioning somewhere that the last quarter of this novel was tearing you up as you wrote it. Is this the closest you've come to an emotionally draining experience while writing?

Lee: The book I wrote after this (Broken Boy Soldiers) has been the most emotionally draining. In a lot of my novels and novellas children/teenagers go through horrendous situations. Adults usually control the circumstances until the kids learn to deal with such predatory beasts. The Lesser People was so tough because I knew right away how the climax would unfold and the whole time I was writing it, I grew closer and closer to writing that scene. And it was tough. It haunts the main character his whole life and it haunts the nurse he’s telling the story to in the novel, for good reason. I like to think there is a natural progression to the story, as tragic as it is. In real-life things escalate in different ways, and at different speeds. The same with books, but the stakes here are much larger than 99.9 percent of people would ever have to deal with.

Gef: How intensive did the research get for you on this one?

Lee: Not very intensive. I care more about the characters’ mental lives and physical actions than researching. Although there was some and I used it sparsely. Most of it had to do with how whites viewed blacks for centuries. It’s still hard to wrap my head around some stuff, but I’ve learned what you’re born into is your biggest obstacle in life.

Gef: When it comes to research, do you usually tackle that before or after you've got the crux of your story figured out?

Lee: I usually wait for any research until after I have the novel brainstormed. I add small bits afterwards, where they’ll be the least intrusive.

Gef: How do you feel this novel speaks to your progression as a writer?

Lee: I don’t believe there is a way to measure our growth once we’ve mastered basic mechanics of characterization, pacing, structure, dialogue, tone, setting, and scenes. We have to sacrifice one aspect to strengthen another. We learn to decide which things are most important for the story and run with that. Constantly improving is an illusion. The gains are so small, and so dependent on other things, that you would need a microscope to notice them and then a miracle to understand them.

Gef: I'm of the opinion that there's no such thing as the good ol' days? What's your take on that?

Lee: I’m with you. There are just days. Some good, some bad. Certain time periods have their own charms and crimes, but that’s about it.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Lee: I have a few releases coming out over the next six months. The Lesser People on October 8th. DarkFuse is publishing my Crime novel After the Fog Clears in January. And Shock Totem is publishing Shine Your Light on Me. I have a couple of other novels to sell and one I’m working on now, as well.

People can find me at my website: http://leethompsonfiction.com. When they subscribe to my newsletter there they’ll also get a free copy of my novel Earthly Things, which is a pretty damn good Supernatural Thriller.

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