The story, which held Golden fascinated for years, digs into the Jim Crow South, the Holocaust, the rarely told story of a wealthy African American family, Jewish gangsters, segregation and freedom all in one delicate story.
The powerful message is what you can expect when Golden is known for his work interviewing Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, as well as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Golden will be visiting Flushing Library on November 2 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. to discuss his new book. But for now, I spoke with him about the idea for the story, why he became an author and what advice he has for young writers.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I was always fascinated by the fact that African American colleges helped rescue German Jews from the Holocaust. This was going on during the Depression years and you couldn’t get access to the country without a job, so these African American colleges employed these Jewish professors.
I was also curious in seeing what happened to the children of the Jewish professors once they mixed with the African American kids in the deep South.
The male character, Julian, was based off of a gangster named Longy Zwillman that I heard stories of while growing up in the suburbs of Newark. At the same time, I had this other character in my head, this African American woman, who is the daughter of a wealthy mother. I was very interested in both these people because there wasn’t a lot written on them.
The way I do a book is that I think of a book that I’d like to read and if I can’t find it, I write it. This is what I wanted to read. My question, though, was how does this Jewish gangster meet this woman? I wanted this guy to meet this well-educated African American woman and I wanted them to have a relationship, so the question became how do they meet?
In my head, I had the fact about these African American colleges, so I knew. His father was a professor in Germany and his mother was American.
His parents met on a lecture tour in the United States, and he grew up in Germany but spoke perfect English because he learned it from his mother. He leaves home early, makes a lot of money as a bootlegger gangster and then his parents come to the college. When he goes to the school, he meets Kendall.
I knew they were going to have issues, and it was going to be tied to Florida, which was one of the most segregated states in the country.
So, I had a bunch of things floating in my head and I put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Writing a novel is like inviting a bunch of people you don’t know to your house for 18 months and they stay. And you go along with the story.
How does Paris play into their story?
Paris was a lot more hospitable at the time to interracial relationships than Florida or even New York. I could take their relationship through a time of segregation and a time without it. There’s also a backdrop to the Holocaust that involves Kendall, which allowed me to talk about a variety of things.
I went to Paris twice to research the book. The only problem that I had when I got there is why would Julian have gone there? I had to get him to Paris but I didn’t know how to do it. I knew why Kendall had wanted to go to Paris. I was standing at Place de la Concorde over toward the rue Saint-Florentin, when I saw the Hôtel de Talleyrand and there was a little sign that reminded me of the Marshall Plan and then I knew that’s why he made it to the city.
So do most of your books center on history and historical fiction?
I tend to to that because I’m also a historian. I think there’s a way to get at different parts of history that aren’t covered by historians. I’m almost looking to do something that hasn’t been looked at it in a way that I want to look at it. And if it has, then I just buy the book and read it. There’s no reason to go out and do the same kind of book that everyone else is doing.
And I’ve found that so few people know about this rescue of Jewish professors by these colleges, that it was a wonderful thing to explore. How did the kids react? How did the professors react? How did the white community surrounding these colleges react? I was curious about that.
How did you find these details? Did you find it while researching other topics?
Many years ago, I had read a book by a woman who had been one of these children. Her name was Gabrielle Edgcond. I became obsessed with finding her and this was before it was so easy to find people on the internet. I finally found her in Washington D.C. and I called her for two months. I eventually stopped but ended up in Washington for something else and I thought, why not just go to her apartment and ring her doorbell?
As I’m waiting, another woman comes out and says this woman had been in the hospice and she just passed away two days ago. So, I never got to meet her and was left to my own imaginings. It was a collision of the white-European culture and the African American in the Jim Crow South culture.
One of the citations in this book is from a master’s thesis written by a woman in Howard University about the African American press’ response to Hitler. I got a copy of that and it was the most remarkable story I’ve ever seen and it was beautifully written. Her name was Lunabelle Wedlock. I couldn’t and still can’t find any mention of her anywhere. It was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Don’t do if it makes you miserable. It’s hard work and it isn’t the path to fame and fortune. If it gives you a deep satisfaction, then continue to do it. It’s the age-old advice of find something that you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. In the long run, people are best at things that they feel deeply about.