by Sena Jeter Naslund
Q&A with Sena Jeter Naslund
from a publisher’s press release
Q: How did your commitment develop for writing the novel Four Spirits?
A: I grew up in Birmingham during the civil rights movement. I promised myself that if I ever did become a writer, I would try to re-create that time. I didn’t want either the courage or the pain of the 1960s to be forgotten. But I found the subject daunting for a long time; I needed to develop my technical prowess as a writer and also to acquire a broader understanding than just my own experience of the political realities of social transformation. I wanted to write a novel with both scope and depth, a cathartic novel, a novel that would cause people to talk to each other about their own histories and developing awareness of racial prejudice.
Q: To what extent are your experiences reflected in the novel?
A: I was a student in Phillips High School when the Revered Fred Shuttlesworth was beaten in front of the school for trying to enroll his children in white schools. The church bombing, where four young black girls were killed, filled me with sorrow and shame and also served as a call for deeper involvement, as it did for many people, nationwide, who abhorred violence and believed in racial equality but had not been very active in the movement. The title of my novel refers to that tragedy. The last half of Four Spirits depicts a night school for black high school dropouts. I drew on my own similar teaching experience and that of my friend Carol Countryman, who was in a wheelchair, to write about Stella and her friend Cat.
Q: What about Stella’s odyssey through the city of Birmingham the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated?
A: Yes, I actually did have reason to travel all over Birmingham that day, and I did see instances of glee and relief that JFK, who was a rising champion for racial equality and justice, had been killed. Like Stella, I felt deeply shocked and very isolated, alienated, in a city that was in many other ways my beloved home—the only home I had known. But of course I’m not Stella, and I gave her a complex emotional life rather different than my own. For example, Stella’s parents and brothers are killed in a car accident when she is 5. That did not happen in my own life.
Q: What do you mean when you refer to Stella’s “complex emotional life”?
A: Like my character Una, in Ahab’s Wife, Stella is searching—she has spiritual questions. She also seeks to establish her own identity and to create a home for herself with an appropriate partner. Like Una, she discovers that she has a degree of bravery and a sense of moral obligation. But Stella is a more wounded and confused character than Una. She confronts death at an earlier age; her sense of sexual behavior is more conflicted, and she is more politically active than Una.
Q: Did you, as a white woman, hesitate to write from the black perspective?
A: Of course I hesitated; but I also hesitate to write from the male perspective, from that of a person of different age, or different economic status. But that’s part of why we humans, and artists, are gifted with imagination. Tolstoy wrote with insight about Anna Karenina, a woman; Stephen Crane wrote convincingly about the Civil War in The Red Badge of Courage, though he was not a participant. We need to be able to imagine the truth beyond our own literal experience. Surely it’s not too difficult to generalize about hope or fear—we’ve all had a taste of a huge range of emotions and thoughts. I believe the imagination can be a great moral force. If we try to imagine what it’s like to be a different sort of person, then our capacity for kindness, understanding, and justice increases. Once I heard the British novelist Angus Wilson answer the question from a journalist, “Why do you want to create characters; why not be bold enough just to tell the truth about yourself?” Wilson answered, “To create a character other than yourself is an act of generosity.”
Q: Four Spirits is actually a kind of mosaic, made up of many different perspectives.
A: Yes, one of the technical challenges of writing the book was to develop the flexibility to move from one character to another. I had to leave each section having satisfied some of the reader’s curiosity about the character but leaving other questions about what the character would do still up in the air. I had to give myself fully to each character, not just to Stella. All of their stories needed to be unified thematically but remain unique. Racial equality is a social issue, but participants in social issues also have private lives. In depicting the characters, I wanted to focus on the intersection of public and private life. Not just Stella, but other characters, are partly defined by their religious faith or their skepticism. Several characters are challenged to find courage and commitment in themselves. Sexual feelings and mores are important considerations for several characters. The role of education in shaping the individual impacts the lives of most of the characters. Violence and nonviolence are considered from several angles—from war, to domestic violence, to racist violence. Those are some of the pieces of the mosaic, but like any mosaic the picture as a whole needs to make sense and have coherence.
Q: Friendship seems to be another important consideration in Four Spirits—as it was in Ahab’s Wife.
A: Yes, at the night school, both the white and black women teachers are working together as equals for the first time. It takes some adjusting, but they do discover each other as individual human beings. They develop affection and loyalty to each other. Gloria Callahan and Stella Silver have a lot in common: They both love classical music and are both somewhat reluctant to become politically involved. Cat forms an alliance with the angry and overworked Christine Taylor, a single mother of three children. By the way, Gloria also forms a link to the world of Ahab’s Wife; she’s a descendant of Susan, the runaway slave who helped Una in childbirth.
Q: What people ultimately care about in a novel are the characters, not just topics.
A: I couldn’t agree more. I know readers will choose different constellations of characters to invest in, but from my perspective, I cared about them all.
Q: Even Ryder Jones, the Klansman?
A: I worked very hard to try to make him something other than a simple monster. I hope readers will come away from him understanding a little more about the societal pressures that may have been part of the molding of a violent person. I abhor his attitudes and actions; yet I can grant that he, too, might look for pleasure in a day spent fishing; that he might worry about his economic position, or how his friends regard him.
Q: The odds were so stacked against the black people of the South. Unjust laws and prejudicial attitudes were entrenched, the police were sometimes corrupt, there was no equal opportunity in education or employment. How do you account for the success of the movement? What resources did the black community have?
A: The strength of the movement, as I hope I suggest in Four Spirits, was rooted in the black church and the way black leaders were willing to put themselves and their followers at risk, repeatedly, due to their religious faith. They also believed in the rights of an American citizen, that “all men were created equal” politically, despite obvious contradictions by reality of such ideals. Of course the movement was supported by some white Southern liberals and liberals from the North. The Revered Martin Luther King Jr., influenced by Gandhi as well as by Christian faith, provided a model for speaking and action that rested on love, not hate and anger. In terms of the current world situation, I wish such a voice as King’s could be heard.
Q: Ahab’s Wife ends with Una’s achieving a sense of oneness with the universe. How would you describe the ending of Four Spirits?
A: I feel that, again, the human spirit transcends pain and tragedy; that, despite death and injustice, courage and love are sustaining and triumphant. The South and the nation are much changed and are still changing because of—as Martin Luther King expressed it—the “redemptive blood” of four young girls.