Monday, August 8, 2011

Thomas W. Young

Thomas W. Young's latest novel is Silent Enemy. Young is a flight engineer with the Air National Guard, and he has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His previous book, The Mullah's Storm, became a Book of the Month Club Thriller of the Month and an Indie Next List Selection, and it is being translated into Dutch, Czech, German, Polish, and Japanese.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
As a war veteran and author of military thrillers, I write books that have their share of action and hardware. But action and hardware by themselves don't make a story. A good novel in any genre requires the author to build a world that immerses the reader among flesh-and-blood characters facing believable problems.

So to keep the creative juices flowing in that direction, I try to read a lot of character-driven novels, and I have recently been mesmerized by A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines.

Set in 1940s Louisiana, the novel tells the story of a black schoolteacher who tries to help a young man face an unjust execution with dignity. The narrator, teacher Grant Wiggins, wrestles not only with racism, but also with a crisis of faith and crippling self-doubt.

The condemned man, an uneducated laborer named Jefferson, was a bystander in a liquor store shooting that left the real assailants dead. In an effort to spare him the electric chair, his lawyer describes him as someone no more capable of premeditation than a hog. The analogy succeeds only in dehumanizing Jefferson, and he is sentenced to death.

Jefferson's godmother charges Grant with encouraging Jefferson to leave some final statement or gesture, to walk to his execution as a man and not an animal. Eventually, Grant gets Jefferson to understand the importance of how he faces his own death, what it means to his family and friends. The way he carries himself to the electric chair reflects the humanity of all his community.

When you open the novel's pages, you enter the world of Louisiana plantation life. You taste the juice of the sugar cane, you smell coffee brewing in the shacks, you feel the mud suck at your shoes. You also feel the insult as you're kept waiting in the kitchen when a white man has asked to see you. You note the glares when you use correct grammar, as if proper English is above your station. You resent the bonds of a world that will not let you live to your full potential.

I picked up A Lesson Before Dying after attending this year's Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At the conference, Ernest J. Gaines received the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Since my war novels would hardly be described as Southern literature, you might ask what I was doing in Chattanooga. Though I don't write about the South, I am very much a creature of it. And I try to infuse my fiction with the strong sense of place for which Southern literature is famous. My books build different worlds from those found in Southern writing--one of winter survival and combat in The Mullah's Storm, one of military flying and ocean navigation in Silent Enemy. However, no matter what world you're building, you use the same elements: let readers experience the emotions, smell the odors, taste the flavors, suffer the cold and heat.

The cane fields of the Deep South are a long way from the battlefields of Southwest Asia. But in both places, the people who inhabit them lead lives molded--or even ended--by the conditions around them. The fiction writer has to bring those conditions to the page and make readers feel what the characters feel, think what the characters think, hurt when the characters hurt.
Visit Thomas W. Young's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: The Mullah's Storm.

--Marshal Zeringue