In this interview with the Detroit Free Press, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. discusses his first novel, “Before I Forget.”
By Cassandra Spratling
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — For 16 years, columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has come into America’s homes, sharing what he thinks about just about everything. Politics. Parenting. People. Race. His work is recognized across the world, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his nationally syndicated Miami Herald column, which is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service and runs in 250 newspapers.
But column-writing wasn’t his aim when he graduated from the University of Southern California in 1977. Writing novels was what he wanted to do. Pitts, 52, accomplished that goal last year with the release of “Before I Forget” (Bolden, $16).
The Detroit Public Library has chosen Pitts’ first novel to kick off its “Detroit Reads! One Book, One Community Program,” an initiative to get the entire city reading and talking about books. And people will have a lot to talk about after reading this multi-generational story of relationships lost and found between fathers and sons in urban America.
Pitts writes from his home in Bowie, Md. The Detroit Free Press talked with him last week.
Q: What led you to write a novel?
A: I’ve been writing novels for as long as I can remember. The question should be, how did you finally manage to publish a novel? I sort of got sidetracked into being a music critic. And then when I got tired of being a music critic, I went from there to being a columnist. I’m sort of just now getting to do what I set out to do 33 or 34 years ago.
Q: How did you feel when you saw the book for the first time?
A: There was nobody home but me and my grandson, Eric (then 13). And I told him to take a picture of me opening the book. It was a great moment. I feel like I’ve crossed some finish line with myself in terms of finally getting to where I wanted to be.
Q: Why did you choose to make the father-son relationship a central part of your novel?
A: I think fatherhood is sort of a great un-discussed issue in the African-American community, frankly, and in the nation at large. I don’t think we do men the honor of believing that their contributions to the family are important beyond perhaps the monetary contribution. I wanted to take a look at three generations of this and how the failure to be successful as a father transcends down through the lives of these three men and threatens the outcome for the youngest. If his father can’t get his act together, what will happen to DeVante? To me that’s the question of the book and the question of our communities.
Q: One of the other subjects the novel deals with is early-onset Alzheimer’s. How’d you come to write about that?
A: That was purely a plot point. I was looking for an illness that sort of sets the clock running. It gives a deadline. If there’s unfinished business we don’t worry about it until suddenly you get a death sentence and those things take on more urgency and importance.
The other thing about early-onset, specifically, is that it scares the heck out of me. As a writer, you’re always trying to find something that pushes your own emotional buttons and for me that’s it. Of all the ways to die, that’s got to be one of the scariest. It takes your quality of life before it kills you.
Q: Music is a constant backdrop in the story, both R&B and hip-hop.
A: That was very conscious. There were two things I was trying to do. One, the book deals with a generational rift. There’re a lot of things Trey’s generation doesn’t know because his dad’s generation, which is my generation, didn’t teach them. We weren’t there physically and emotionally to do that job.
Q: What do you want readers to come away with?
A: The first thing you want is for readers to be entertained. But I also hope it encourages people to think about the role of father in their lives and the lives of people they know. And the idea of handling the business of our relationships while it’s still possible to handle it, rather than waiting until a crisis point.
(c) 2010, Detroit Free Press.