As a columnist for the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr.’s writing always gets extreme, opinionated responses — from earning a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 to receiving death threats from white supremacists for one of his columns in 2007.
However, the columnist is also a novelist, and his latest book Freeman focuses on the post-Civil War era for slaves.
The plot follows Sam, a freed slave who travels across the country in hopes of finding his wife, Tilda, whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years, held captive by her former slave owner.
Now Pitts will make a stop in Tampa’s Inkwood Books on Monday, June 11, at 6 p.m. for a discussion and signing of Freeman.
In a CL interview, the writer discusses Freeman, his next novel, columns and death threats.
CL: What initially inspired you to want to write Freeman?
Leonard Pitts Jr.: Well, I first heard the story of all the things that former slaves went through to reconstitute their families. I learned that from a book I read probably about 30 years ago almost called Been in the Storm So Long by Leon F. Litwack. So that’s sort of always been in my head ever since and I’ve always thought that would make a great backdrop for fiction — this whole idea of how they chose to define freedom and what it meant to them and what were the things they thought were important to do. So it’s been with me for a long time, and the right story just coalesced after I started working on this book.
And what was the research process like once when you decided on the narrative for this novel?
Well, most of the research that I did once I started actually writing the book was research related to trying to create as detailed and convincing a picture of the summer of 1865 as I could. So it was more involved with being able to paint that picture — trying to figure out what a market looked like in 1865, or what the shape of the countryside would’ve been, or how long it took to build a chimney, or what the growing cycle of cotton is. I was doing that kind of research. In terms of the lives of the slaves, that’s stuff that I had read for years just for my own information. So that was stuff I already had in my head, the whole idea of what life was like for slaves in that era. So most of the research that I did was just concentrated on being able to paint the picture most effectively.
What was the most illuminating thing you learned about the post-Civil War era in the process of writing Freeman?
I think the thing that stays with me and that I’ve found myself talking about over and over is just the idea of the great lengths they went to reconstitute their families. I think it’s a great story of determination and commitment and a sort of tribute of what family meant to them and frankly, ought to mean to us. Any time that you’re walking hundreds of miles to find a family member, or you’re placing ads and writing letters five, 10, 15 years after the fact, that says a lot about the value that you place on family. So that has really impacted me.
Do any of the characters have your traits? There’s a moment where Sam says he likes to wield a large vocabulary over others that reminds me of one or two quotes you’ve had in interviews.
Yeah, I think there’s probably some of me in Sam. Sam is not me, but there’s some of me in Sam in the sense that he is a man who likes language and will sometimes use language as a shield. I think we probably have that much in common. But you know, I hope I’m not quite as stiff-necked and blind to what’s going on around me as Sam can sometimes be.
What is the process like of juggling your two lives as a writer as both a novelist and columnist?
It’s just getting up a little earlier in the morning. The process of writing a novel is a commitment to a set number of words a day and in my case, it’s 1,000 words a day. The deal that you make with yourself is that you do that before you allow yourself to do anything else. I did my 1,000 words a day and then on column-writing days, it actually directly went into writing the column. But it’s essentially just a matter of getting a little less sleep in order to make sure you meet those two deadlines.
You recently wrote a Miami Herald column called “The Internet is liberating the worst of us,” which discusses how the Internet allows for attacks including death threats. You were the subject of death threats for a column you had written, correct?
Yeah, I believe it was ’07, ’08.
Can you talk about what that experience was like?
It wasn’t a lot of fun. For a while, I think I became the favorite chew toy of a group of white supremacists who were unhappy with a paper column that I had written and they issued death threats again through the expedient of the Internet. They had sort of wanted to invade my privacy and they put my personal contact information out and put it online. Then this leads to a state of anonymous emails and phone calls from people. People tend to be a lot braver when they don’t have to give their names, and the Internet obviously makes that very much possible.
After so many years writing columns, how are you able to find new things to write about and do you have any subjects you might want to write on in the future?
I have no idea what the future is going to bring in terms of subject matter — I guess that’s why they call it the future, I couldn’t begin to tell you. But in terms of keeping it fresh, I think there’s a constant need in challenging yourself to avoid doing the stuff that you’ve done before. I tell writers workshops all the time and young writers that contentment is a four-letter word. The moment that you feel yourself content is the moment you begin to die a little bit as a writer.
So I think there’s something to be said in always nurturing a discontent and ability to sort of be unhappy with where you are or with what you’ve done. I always feel like when I sit down at the computer, what I’m doing is I need to prove that I deserve this job. It’s a great job if you can get it, it’s a wonderful job, so somebody’s going to take it from you eventually. Someday they’re going to realize what a wonderful job this is to have, and they’re going to say, “Well, we’re going to give it to somebody else.” So I think every day for me when I sit down at the computer is sort of an audition. Once again, I make sure that I get the part — that I deserve the job.
Do you have any future writing projects beyond currently touring for Freeman?
As soon as I’m off tour for Freeman, I’ll probably start work on the next novel and obviously there’s the ongoing column. Other than that, I don’t think that — not that that’s not enough, that’s not plenty — but other than that, I don’t have any other writing projects.
Do you have an idea about what the new novel’s going to be about yet?
Yeah, it’s about these two guys who we follow in two different time periods. We follow them in 1968 right around the assassination of Martin Luther King and again in 2008 right at the election of President Obama. I guess it’s a novel about friendship, it’s a novel about the loss of idealism, and it’s a novel about how incoherent about our politics have become.