Legal scholar has faith in his new thriller

Stephen L. Carter is used to answering questions about his work. As a law professor at Yale, and a thoughtful observer of the role of religion in America, he is confident discussing the subjects that underlie his nonfiction books – law, faith, race, culture.

But with the publication of his first novel, Professor Carter is getting queries of a decidedly different nature.

Instead of challenging his facts, readers want to know why the narrator, Talcott Garland, didn't leave his unfaithful wife. "Why wouldn't he just dump her?" Carter says they ask him. "She treats him so badly, why isn't he long gone?"

His duty to readers sticks with the professor as he talks about the story that came to him almost fully developed in the late 1990s. He doesn't know what inspired the tale, or why it came to him, only that it was an opportunity to fulfill a desire to write fiction he's had since he was young.

"The Emperor of Ocean Park" covers much more than infidelity in its 650 pages – it's a thriller featuring the legal system, corruption, and family and race relations (see review, page 15). It takes on a variety of issues – social, political, moral – that suggest Carter might have had an agenda when writing it. But he says that's not the case.

"I didn't set out to write social commentary or politics. I didn't set out to make an argument," he explains in an interview. "What happened, instead, was that as the story developed, and in particular as the character of the narrator became clearer to me ... various political points and arguments began to suggest themselves. But they suggested themselves out of Talcott's character, not out of mine."

He does agree with some views expressed in the book, but he's not saying which ones "because I'm not interested in what the reader thinks of me; I'm interested in what the reader thinks of Talcott Garland."

Despite what Carter says about not having an agenda, some aspects of the book were, in fact, intentional. He knew that his characters would grapple with faith, for example.

"What's really quite striking is that when you look at fiction today – even literary fiction, where we're accustomed to having the author offer us fully rounded characters – somehow faith is very rarely part of the complexity of a character unless it's a plot element. So although the American people overwhelmingly say they believe in God, the main role of God in fiction is to have His name taken in vain," Carter says.

Talcott is religious – not openly with other characters, but the reader is aware that he prays and seeks counsel from clergy about his wife's cheating.

"I wanted the faith lives to be complex," says Carter. He cites one of Talcott's colleagues, "whose politics are somewhere between libertarian and hardline conservative, and yet who is openly gay, and also attends a very conservative church. I think that people are complicated, but we tend in fiction to meet stereotypes and cardboard stick figures instead."

The way Carter sees it, novelists have an obligation to deliver to readers a world that is internally consistent and coherent. That's why it matters to him that people think it is implausible that Talcott would stay with his wife. Not that the author didn't have a plan for that relationship, too.

"I was trying to illustrate a more ancient ideal of love, an ideal you actually find in a lot of the older Christian sources and a lot of the Jewish sources, the idea of love as duty and obligation."

He wanted to see what that kind of love would look like in a modern marriage, to show the idea that "love is what we do, not what we feel. And that we don't do it because of what we get out of it, that the virtue comes in unrequited love."

These are not the issues that typically arise in a thriller – a genre Carter gradually realized he could use to tell the story of his characters. But, as he points out, thrillers also don't usually have main characters who are all black and well-to-do – something he says has surprised some people.

"I would hope that over time, we'll return to writing more fiction about black people from all sorts of walks of life," he says.

Middle-class blacks are increasingly missing in fiction, he says, noting recent exceptions like Dorothy West's "The Wedding." "Maybe there'll be more if publishers look at this and they say, 'Gee, stories about black middle-class characters can sell some copies.' One piece of data that you would not know from reading literature is that among black children who live with both parents, the median child is middle class, and that is fact. And reading contemporary literature you wouldn't know that was true."

Carter is working on his second novel, which will include some of the same characters from "Emperor," but is not a sequel. He plans to keep writing fiction as long as characters keep coming to him and he has a publisher willing to back him. "I like telling stories," he says, "I always have."

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