The idea for the novel came as a complete surprise to me. I was working on a book (Presenting Mildred D. Taylor) about Newbery medalist Mildred D. Taylor, and in an autobiographical essay of hers, she mentioned the impact the murder of Emmett Till had on her when she was a child. At the time, I had never heard of Emmett Till, so I had no idea what she was talking about. I knew I had to at least find out who he was in case it turned out to be something that influenced her own writing, something I should include in my book about Taylor.
I was stunned by what I found: the article in Jet magazine that contained an article about the murder case and a photo of the battered corpse of Emmett Till in his casket. The more I read, the more shocked, for many reasons, I was. I was shocked I had never heard of a case that was as widely covered in 1955 as this one was. I was shocked at the terrible nature of the crime. I was shocked that this case is virtually forgotten in the teaching of U.S. history. The murder of Emmett Till and the sham trial of his murderers was the trigger to the Civil Rights movement. Emmett was killed in August 1955; the trial concluded at the end of September 1955. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The cause-and-effect relationship of these events was clear to me, as it is to most African American historians.
Anyway, I wanted American teenagers to know this story and its important place in American history, and I decided historical fiction would be a great way for them to learn about it. But I knew a novel couldn’t be just about the murder case; it had to be about something else, something that ultimately is affected by Emmett’s murder but is a story essentially separate from the murder. I didn’t know what that would be, so I buried the idea in my subconscious and started the historical research. I did lots and lots of reading about the Civil Rights movement, about Jim Crow Mississippi, and about the murder (especially from two books, Death in the Delta and Emmett Till: Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement).
I went to Mississippi on the very same day in August that Emmett Till had arrived, and stayed there for several days, visiting the sites he had been in, the store where he insulted Carolyn Bryant, driving Old Money Road up to the Tallahatchie River. I spent hours in the Greenwood Public Library reading and photocopying microfilm from The Greenwood Commonwealth and The Morning Star, two local papers that covered the case. I talked with people. I took photos. I read books in local libraries about Mississippi life and history. I took notes and made tape recordings to document how people in Leflore and Tallahatchie Counties acted, what things looked and smelled like, how Mississippi speech sounded. I stayed up late at night rereading my notes and research and freewriting in my journal about what I was learning and how it might fit into a novel.
When I came back, I started writing. It was slow at first because I had no idea where the novel was going. I probably wrote fifteen different “Chapter Ones” and all of them ended up in the trash. I had all the information on the Emmett Till case that I needed, but I didn’t have a story. That’s when my own past came forward and bit me. When I was a teenager, even when I was 14 like Emmett, I was a smart-aleck, a wisecracker who thought I was much smarter than I actually was. It was around that time that I started resenting my dad—for no good reason at all, except for mindless adolescence. He wasn’t perfect, and of course neither was I, but he was a wonderful father who made huge sacrifices for me, my brothers, and my sister. As a stupid teenager, though, I didn’t see any of his good qualities and instead magnified his human faults. I was an idiot, an ungrateful, stupid teenager, but at the time my own stupidity was invisible to me. I have always regretted those opportunities I missed as a teenager to develop a close, honest, and loving relationship with my own father.
At the time I started work on this book, I had a teenage son of my own, Jonathan. I love Jonathan, I have loved him from the moment he was born. When he was little, he and I had a wonderfully close relationship, but when he turned into a teenager, that genetic father-son rift started, and I could feel him beginning to pull away from me. It was awful poetic justice: my own son doing to me what I had done to my father. I desperately wanted to break that stupid cycle but didn’t know how. Fortunately, Jonathan did. When he was in eighth grade, he asked me to teach him how to lift weights (I’m an old, very old jock, but in my day was a good athlete and devoted weightlifter). I took him to the university weight room and showed him how to work out, and we worked out together. That led to a regular routine for us, and Jonathan and I spent two nights a week lifting weights together for the next six years. And the best part was that we didn’t just lift weights, we also talked about life, girls, school, college, our family, everything that mattered and lots of things that didn’t matter. That shared time I spent with my only son is now some of the most precious time I have had on this earth.
So, when I thought about what really mattered to me—and what should matter most to every father and son—I realized that the relationship between a father and son is sometimes the most neglected relationship in our society. I knew that I had enough personal pleasure and pain in that department to write a novel about it, and so, Hiram Hillburn doesn’t get along with his father. Hiram’s father doesn’t get along with Hiram’s grandfather—the generational rift between father and son is clear, and Hiram will have the chance to recognize it and do something about it. The whirlwind of the Emmett Till murder and trial forces Hiram to see things that had previously been invisible to him: racism and the generational tensions between fathers and sons in his own family. So, Mississippi Trial, 1955 gave me the chance to write a book that mattered to me on many levels. The facts of the Emmett Till murder matter to me very much. Ending racism and discrimination matters to me very much. My own relationship with my son–and with my father–matter to me very much. This book gave me a place where all these issues could intersect.
Fortunately, after I grew up, I had a good relationship with my dad. I admired him for what he had done–and put up with–when I was a teenager, and I made sure he knew. I made sure to talk to him and Mom every week, and to say “I love you” before I said goodbye. Sadly, Dad died while I was working on this book, and he never had the chance to read what I’ve written, to see, in print, my attempt to make up for my own knuckleheaded adolescence. He and I did have several chances to talk about the Emmett Till case and the Civil Rights movement in general, and we didn’t always agree on everything about it, but Dad did approve of my work, and I know he was proud of what I was doing. I know now, as a father myself, that I could have never done anything of worth in my life without the consistent teaching, love, and support I have received from Dad and Mom. That’s why I dedicated the book to them.
Finally, and this is probably more than you’ve wanted to hear, once I knew what the book was really going to be about, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Historical fiction has restrictions that contemporary fiction does not. I had to stop my writing constantly to go back and double check the historical notes and facts, to make sure the historical elements in my novel were accurate and that I didn’t unfairly blend fact with fiction. It was also hard to write because the details of Emmett Till’s murder are so awful, so horrible that they weighed on me all the time. I know how important this case was, and I hope the book does it justice, but I was also glad when I was finished with it because it was so painful to work on.
OK, this is really finally it. I couldn’t have wound up with a better publisher. Phyllis Fogelman has a long and noble history in publishing quality books about African American issues, and it was a dream come true, an honor, a privilege, to work with her on Mississippi Trial, 1955. Everything about the process has been dream-like–the revisions, the terrific cover, the editing–it’s all been first-class. I couldn’t have been more blessed.