White: How Do We See Other People?
By RITA PAPAZIAN
Michael White grew up listening to his father, a farmer and carpenter, tell stories steeped in his native Vermont woods.
His father enjoyed the art of oral storytelling, and today that influence echoes in written form in White's novels, including the recently published Soul Catcher, that continue to receive national acclaim.
White, a professor of English at Fairfield University for nearly a decade now, will talk tomorrow at the university's Barone Campus Center Oak Room at 7 p.m. The program is the second in a series of The Author's Forum, sponsored by the University College.
White sat in his office on campus on Thursday taking a slight respite from his book tour for Soul Catcher, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, while he balances responsibilities teaching, co-editing with Professor Kim Bridgeford the university's national journal of poetry and prose, and writing his next novel. He is also on the faculty of Stonecoast, the University of Maine's low-residency MFA program.
White drew inspiration for Soul Catcher from reading Russell Bank's Cloudsplitter, a fictionalized account of abolitionist John Brown, in which Bank mentions slave catchers going north to capture fugitive slaves. "As a novelist I am always fascinated by looking at things at a different angle," White said. "In this case, the angle of evil. How can a man justify to himself having a vocation, the profession of slavery, and the catching of slaves. How can a man do that? How can he justify this to himself?"
Also, Toni Morrison's "Beloved," about a runaway slave, gave him the idea of the female slave running away. He put the two together; a slave catcher and a runaway female slave. As a writer, he posed the question: How did it happened that a slave catcher brings back a runaway slave and during the long journey back he starts to have a change of heart and begins to see this stolen possession as a human being? They share romantic feelings toward each other which transcend society and which results in their seeing each other as a human being.
White wondered how such a man could justify his life to others but more importantly to himself. That man was Cain, the novel's main character, the slave catcher. Also, in planning out the story, White wondered what would happen if the slave catcher and slave formed a bond during the return journey back to the master.
As White journeys himself on his book tour up and down the Northeast at libraries, bookstores and book festivals, he observes that audiences "are cold at first because slavery seems to be something in the distant past. "I make it very clear that even though it's an historical society from the 1850s, a century and a half ago, its implications and its human elements are relevant to today's world and relevant to us as human beings.
" Cain has a reprehensible occupation. He chases down and hunts down slaves. Yet, when he finds Rosetta, one of the slaves he's after, he starts to see her as a human being. That starts to resonate -- when I read passages and when I talk about passages with people that we are still haunted today, plagued by racism in all its forms. People of different color, people of different ethnicity. We certainly see the results of that racism all over the world, not just in America.
"Cain was a southerner, and even though he never owned slaves himself, he believes in the south's peculiar institution, which is another name for slavery. He believes in it, yet when he comes face-to-face with another human being, who is a slave and of a different color, he begins to see her as a person."
White said, "The subject of slavery seems to be from the far reaches of our American past, but the issues of the novel raises a lot of relevance today: how do we see other people?; how do we overcome our stereotypes about other people?; how does a man and a woman strip away all those issues and see each other not only as human beings but also eventually as lovers?"
White's audiences are surprised that Soul Catcher, in addition to being an historical novel, a novel about slavery, is also a love story and how "when the urge of the heart strips bare all the other facades that we put up - that we are a southerner or that you are an African American - and you come right down to it; it's one human being and another." During Cain and Rosetta's long journey together on horseback, they begin to see each other as human beings.
Soul Catcher is White's fifth novel. Although he said a "ton of research" went into writing the book, he wrote the first draft in 10 months, the fastest he has ever written a novel. Once he understood Cain, he understood the dynamics of slavery and issues and he said to himself, "This is going to be an adventure going from place to place. It just went forward. Cain starts in Virginia and he and the other slave catchers that are with him go North almost to Canada in northern New York and then to Boston and back down.
"It's a several thousand mile exodus on horseback that they go on. Once I got into that flow, the momentum of the story just took me along and I had to hold on tight," White said.
In preparing himself for writing the book, White researched the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was part a larger law, the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act mandated that northerners get involved in slavery. "It enforced northerners to come to the assistance of slave catchers and slave agents to capture slaves," White said. They were legally required to do that and when they didn't, if they got in the way or tried to harbor fugitive slaves or to impede the arrest of fugitive slaves, they could, in turn, be arrested, put in jail, or fined a certain amount of money."
White's next novel will be The Beautiful Assassin, which is loosely based on the life of a female World War II Russian sniper who killed 309 Germans. She was the most famous soldier in Russia. She came to America, became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and toured the United States.
Addressing his preference for fiction over non-fiction, White said he likes the freedom that fiction writing provides. However, he makes sure his novels are factually based; whether they are historical or contemporary. He has written three of each.
White grew up in East Windsor, and on Monday he was scheduled to address the town's high school. He recalls that his father had a "fondness for taverns." After work, he would go into a tavern where he would love to tell stories. Off the top of his head he would tell a story. As a young boy, White would observe grown men around his father listening "with rapt attention" as his father told stories about the great northern woods in upper Vermont.
His father never wanted to write but he loved to read. He was a voracious reader. His tastes went toward cowboy novels, like Zane Grey. He would read a book day. White credits his interest in writing to his college professor at the University of Connecticut his sophomore year. Although the course was a short story reading course, the professor assigned the class to write a short story. White recalled the professor called him out into the hall, slouched against the wall and told White he thought his writing was "brilliant."
"Brilliant?" White pondered quietly to himself.
From that moment on, White said, "This is what I'm going to do."
His senior year in college, he bought a Royal typewriter, put it in his room and started writing. He got in the habit of writing every day.
"If you're going to be a writer, you have to write," he tells his students today. "Life is not going to get less busy when you graduate. It will become more busy."