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In Conversation With New York Times Best-selling Author Scott Farris
From:
Norm Goldman --  bookpleasures.com Norm Goldman -- bookpleasures.com
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Montreal, QC
Tuesday, June 15, 2021

 
Bookpleasures.com welcomesas our guest Scott Farris the  New YorkTimes best-selling author of four books on Americanpolitical history, including  Freedom on Trial: TheFirst Post-Civil War Battle Over Civil Rights and Voter Suppression,Almost President:

The Men Who Lost theRace But Changed the Nation (2011),  Kennedy andReagan: Why Their Legacies Endure (2013) and  Inga:Kennedy's Great Love, Hitler's Perfect Beauty and J. Edgar Hoover'sPrime Suspect (2016).


 He is a former journalistspecializing in political and governmental reporting and one-timebureau chief for United Press International who also taughtjournalism at the University of Wyoming.

 Good day Scott and thanksfor taking part in our interview.

 Norm: How longhave you been writing? And how long did it take you to get your firstmajor book contract? 


 Scott: Thank you for theinvitation to participate! While I began my professional life morethan 40 years ago as a journalist, most notably with United PressInternational, I did not begin writing books until I was almostfifty.

Mostly for fun (though Ialso had delusions of being a college professor in mid-life) I hadgone back to school to get a master’s degree in history andconcluded that if I could write a thesis, I could write a book.

I also had run forCongress in 1998 (and lost) but the experience gave me the idea formy first book, which is the role losers play in our political system.

By chance, I made theacquaintance of Egil “Bud” Krogh, whose name will be recognizedby political history buffs as one of the Watergate conspirators.

Bud was tormented by hisrole in that affair and wrote a book called Integrity toexplore why, as a generally honest man, he had been willing to breakthe law in that instance.

Thinking about the bookgerminating in my own mind, I asked Bud how you go about gettingpublished. He replied that it helps if your stepdaughter is a leadingliterary agent. He introduced me to said literary agent, Laura Dail,who liked my proposal and took me on as a client – two kindnessesfor which I will be forever grateful.

Laura helped me shape myproposal and shopped it around and it was initially rejected, thoughI received positive feedback from a number of intrigued publishersand some good advice from one editor who said my initial concept wastoo esoteric.

She said people like toread about people, so I restructured the proposal and made the bookcalled Almost President a series of biographical sketchesabout losing presidential candidates and their impact on history.Lyons Press liked it and bought it.

So the whole process frommy introduction to Laura to publication took four years. Gettingnon-fiction, at least, published is not a quick process, only aworthwhile one. 

Norm: When did theidea for Freedom on Trial: The First Post-Civil War BattleOver Civil Rights and Voter Suppression first emerge?

Scott: Genealogicalcuriosity. I had long heard family legends that my great-grandfatherhad rather suddenly left South Carolina after the Civil War andrelocated to a remote part of Arkansas because he had killed a Blackman.

One day, I was readingEric Foner’s magisterial book Reconstruction: America’sUnfinished Revolution in which he noted that several thousandWhite men had fled South Carolina in that period to avoid arrest andconviction for being part of the Ku Klux Klan.

I decided to discover ifthis had been my great-grandfather’s motive and learned that he hadbeen indicted, not for murder, but for participating in the brutalbeatings of two Black men in order to prevent the men from voting. AsI learned the context for these horrific assaults I saw a book ofcontemporary relevance form.

Norm: Can youshare a little of your book with us? 

Scott:  My book tellsthe story of the successful post-Civil War crackdown on the Ku KluxKlan by the Grant administration.

This was the high point ofReconstruction and was a tremendous achievement that instead became amissed opportunity that might have dramatically altered the racialhistory of the United States.

I tell the stories ofseveral fascinating early civil rights pioneers, Black and White, andhow the Ku Klux Klan evolved from a social club to a massiveparamilitary organization devoted to preventing African Americans andtheir White allies from voting with the goal of restoring southernsociety to something akin to what existed before the war: bondage byanother name.

To combat the Klan,Congress gave the president the power to suspend the writ of habeascorpus and Grant sent in federal troops, including the 7th Cavalry,to make mass arrests of suspected Ku Klux.

There were so many thathundreds never went to court, but those who did go to trial werecharged with committing the then-novel crime of violating anothercitizen’s civil rights. 

The most important andhigh-profile trials were held in South Carolina where the Ku Kluxwere represented by two former U.S. attorneys general and the jurieswere predominantly African-Americans who, along with many witnesses,displayed extraordinary courage in fulfilling their civil duty.

The prosecutions weremasterminded by the then-current U.S. attorney general who was,remarkably, a former Confederate and enslaver named Amos T. Akermanwho had become extraordinarily committed to civil rights for AfricanAmericans.

The trials produced aremarkable debate over the meanings of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth andFifteenth Amendments to the Constitution while also exposing to ashocked and appalled nation (for this was front page news nationwide)the absolutely ghastly crimes committed by the Ku Klux. 

In addition tohighlighting some truly extraordinary figures, the book also tellsthe depressing story of how the U.S. Supreme Court, which could haveenshrined civil rights nearly a century earlier than it eventuallydid, betrayed the promise of the trials with decisions that ought tobe as reviled in popular memory as Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson.

Still, displaying thepower of the law when it is vigorously enforced, even in relativelysmall doses, the trials broke the black of the KKK, which disappearedfrom our national life for a half-century until it was resurrected ina newly incarnated version following the release of the odious filmBirth of a Nation.

I do end the book on amore upbeat note by discussing how descendants of some of thoseinvolved in the trials and others in the local community have workedin recent years toward racial reconciliation and preserving thetruth  of these events.

This is why I weave in thestory of my great-grandfather, whose story also helps explain themotives of those who participated in the Ku Klux.

As I state in the book, Ido not believe in inherited guilt but I do believe our ancestorsbequeath us certain obligations, and so the book is a small attemptat making amends for my ancestor’s role in perpetuating racialinjustice.

I do note that I alsohighlight another ancestor, a cousin of my great-grandfather’s, whocaptained an otherwise all-Black militia to battle the Klan. Allfamilies have a mix of good and bad.

Norm: What did you knowgoing in about your subject matter?

Scott: My first book,Almost President, partially covered the Reconstruction era,but writing the book, as writing every book is, was a tremendouslearning experience for me.

There are some superbhistories out there, but they represent a very small fraction of thenumber of volumes you can find regarding the Civil War, for example.

Reconstruction has beenone of the least-studied periods of American history. I recall goingto the National Museum of African American History and Culture inWashington and being gobsmacked that the entire set of displays onthe Reconstruction period would fit in my modestly-sized living roomat home.

I think this is becauseit is such painful period that is genuinely viewed as a failure. Iwill say that I think my book is part of a very recent upsurge ininterest in Reconstruction, as demonstrated by the Henry Louis Gatesdocumentary on PBS last year.

More people arediscovering what I learned, which is that Reconstruction was  atime of great promise that is worth studying so we might avoidsquandering future opportunities for creating a more just andpeaceful society.

Norm: What was thetime-line between the time you decided to write your book andpublication? What were the major events along the way?

Scott: I had been thinkingabout writing Freedom on Trial for several years before fullycommitting to it in 2016, immediately following (or even a littlebefore) the publication of my previous book about Inga Arvad, theglamorous suspected Nazi spy who was the great love of John F.Kennedy’s life. (I have sold the movie option for that book, whichwould make a fabulous streaming series, if I say so myself.) So,similar to Almost President, Freedom on Trial was a four-yearadventure.

The great challenge for mewith every book is that I do not have the means to be a full-tinewriter. I have a fairly demanding full-time day job as a governmentaffairs specialist for one of the world’s leading renewable energycompanies.

So, I had to find time toresearch and write, including travel to South Carolina. That trip, Ithink, was key event in the book coming together. I love archivalresearch, but you can also glean much information and get a sense ofnarrative tone by actually standing in the place where eventshappened.

Norm: Can youshare some stories about people you met while researching thisbook?  What are some of the references that you used whileresearching this book?

Scott: I was fortunatethat there was a tremendous amount of source material. As Imentioned, national and local newspapers covered these trialsextensively. This included the Yorkville Enquirer, thenewspaper of York County, South Carolina, which is where mygreat-grandfather lived and which was the epicenter of Ku Kluxactivity at the time. 

Congress held hearingsthroughout the South on the Ku Klux Klan and the transcripts, whichinclude testimony by both suspected Ku Klux and their victims, fillthirteen volumes.

Best of all, Akerman,because he wanted to rouse the nation to action, commissioned a raretranscript of the trials held in Columbia, South Carolina, for thefederal court winter term in 1871-72, so much of the book hasverbatim testimony that is often as riveting as any courtroom dramafrom film or stage.

When I traveled to SouthCarolina and Georgia, I admit I was curious how I would be received,but I was overwhelmed by the kind assistance of so many.

This was not a pleasantepisode of local history, but I discovered several local York Countyhistorians had already done tremendous work, and historians andarchivists at the Historical Center of York County, the York CountyLibrary, the University of South Carolina and Winthrop University allbent over backwards to be of help.

Individually, I wasfascinated to speak with writer and filmmaker Dr. Spenser Simril Jr.and Tuskogee University professor Dr. Lisa Bratton. Each hail fromfamilies that had the enslaved and the enslavers and each has workedto bring together White and Black descendants within their respectivefamilies to create one family. 

Another inspirationalvoice was Pastor Sam McGregor of the Allison Creek PresbyterianChurch, whose congregation can take credit for the raising of thefirst state historical marker in South Carolina that acknowledges theexistence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The marker tells the storyof a particularly remarkable person featured in the book, Elias Hill,an autodidact former slave and a quadriplegic who was a brilliantpreacher, teacher and political leader so persecuted by the Klan thathe led a large group of emigrants to Liberia in 1871.

There, he was justbeginning a campaign to protest the poor treatment of nativeLiberians by African-American immigrants when he died of malaria.American history is overstuffed with remarkable stories that havenever been widely told.

Norm: What purpose doyou believe your book serves and what matters to you about thestory?  

Scott: First, it simplytells a fascinating story about a largely unknown period and event inAmerican history. Second, voter suppression, civil insurrection andcivil rights aren’t issues of the distant past, they remain the hottopics in today’s headlines. If my book helps to deepen ourunderstanding of how we got to where we are, perhaps we will have abetter sense of how to continue moving forward and not take backwardssteps.

Norm: What were yourgoals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel youachieved them? 

Scott: In addition totelling this story well and illuminating the present through thepast, I hope my book inspires others to take a candid look at theirown family history.

We all love to brag onancestors who fought valiantly in war or performed some great deed,but every ancestor was not a hero and several of mine weren’t evenlaw-abiding.

But I have their DNA, too,and they also connect me to the past of this nation. I think it isimportant, for good or bad, to appreciate those historicalconnections. It makes us better citizens and perhaps even betterpeople, because truth is important. If we aren’t anchored by truth,then we are unmoored and that is not a good thing for us personallyor nationally.

Norm: What was themost difficult part of writing this book?  

Scott: Striking the righttone and balance in the narrative. Issues as touchy as race are fullof landmines, especially when the author is an older White man, but Iwant people of all persuasions and opinions to read my books andhopefully be informed if not even a little bit changed by them.

You seldom change minds byargument, but you can do so with stories. Stories, not dialectics,are how humans process information. I seek understanding.

Clearly, there are goodguys and bad guys in my book, but I ask the same question Bud Kroghasked of himself: why do otherwise good people do bad things?

In this particularinstance, I needed to know, because I have the DNA of some of thosewho are the bad guys in my book. It keeps you both humble and alertto realize each of us, under the right circumstances, are capable ofvery bad behavior.

Norm: What wouldyou say is the best reason to recommend someone to read Freedomon Trial: The First Post-Civil War Battle Over Civil Rights and VoterSuppression?

Scott: It’s afascinating story incredibly relevant to today’s news and – I saythis with no modesty whatsoever – I am a very good writer who tellsthis story very well. 

Admittedly, this is a bookthat can be hard to read because it recounts some very gruesomeincidents and the end result is dispiriting.

But based on many readerreviews and the opinion of several scholars for whom I have thehighest opinion, all stated this book greatly enhanced theirknowledge of some very important issues and deeply enriched theirunderstanding of American history.

Norm: How canreaders find out more about you and Freedom on Trial: TheFirst Post-Civil War Battle Over Civil Rights and Voter Suppression?

Scott: I confess to beingno fan of social media, much to my agent’s and publisher’schagrin, so I have not kept up my web page nor am I active on Twitteror Facebook.

I do have pages onGoodreads, Amazon and the Barnes and Noble website, so there isinformation in those places, although, obviously, Freedom on Trialshould be available through any bookstore (or library) of yourchoice. If not, insist they order it – especially the libraries.

Norm: Should we bescared about American democracy?

Scott: Our national mottoof e pluribus unum – “out of many, one” – is our greatestaspiration and our greatest challenge.

One theme of my firstbook, Almost President, is that our democracy is more fragilethan most imagine, which is why I applaud those previous losingcandidates who graciously accepted their painful defeats in serviceto unifying America.

That obviously did nothappen in 2020 with Mr. Trump – and in fairness to my Republicanfriends I acknowledge Mrs. Clinton was not particularly gracious in2016.

On the other hand, one keytheme of Freedom on Trial is how much individual Americanslove our country. I was truly awestruck at how, despite thepersecution and tribulations they have experienced, Black Americansremain so patriotic and committed to our nation’s continuedimprovement.

How can those of us whohave experienced far fewer travails feel anything less?  I havetwo children just entering adulthood.

When I think of thecurrent state of affairs, I feel considerable distress, but when Ilook at them and their peers, I see a generation that offers a greatdeal of hope. They more than my generation has embraced the idea ofstrength in diversity in the same way a cloth is strong by how themany threads are interwoven. 

Norm: What are youupcoming projects?  

Scott: Very much in thespirit of the previous question, I am writing a book on how the 1952presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevensonexplains and defined the state of modern politics.

It was the first election,really, since the Cold War began and also the first election that hadto take stock of how much World War II had changed America.

Old notions aboutconservatism or liberalism changed dramatically, as did Americansociety. The cliché of the 1950s is that it was the time ofconformity but it was instead a time of great intellectual andcultural ferment, and it was the reaction to that ferment, notgovernmental policies, that began to define what it meant to be aliberal or a conservative.

Of particular interest ishow the erudite Stevenson led to Republicans becoming overtlyanti-intellectual, while Democrats then seemed to abandon genuineeconomic reform.

1952 was a particularlypivotal year in many ways, ending 20 years of a Democrat occupyingthe White House, and setting in motion a host of important politicalcareers, including those of Nixon, Kennedy, Goldwater – evenReagan, for that was the year he married Nancy.

It was also the year whenRalph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published, when Clevelanddisc jockey Alan Freed organized the first a rock and roll concertand when there were more sightings of UFOs than any other. It hasbeen a fun book to research and I hope to finish writing it forpublication in 2024.

Norm: As this interviewcomes to an end, if you could invite three authors (dead or alive) toyour dinner table, who would they be and what would you discuss?

Scott: As my above answersattest, many writers are not particularly fascinating themselves;their job is to write about those who are fascinating.

I have had the privilegeof meeting some of the most eminent historians alive, but we aretalking about a dinner party, not a graduate seminar, and dinnerparties should be fun and lively.

So, I would want to invitewriters known for being witty and/or provocative conversationalists.So an interesting mix would be Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Wilde and JamesBaldwin, three of the most quotable writers in history.

Lincoln, of course, neverwrote a book, but is among the finest prose stylists in the Englishlanguage.

With such guests,  ahost of marvelous stories and memorable bon mots would be expected,not to mention engrossing debate over an extraordinary range ofissues and each sought to understand the other’s time period. Thetopics covered would range far and wide, but mostly, I imagine therewould be a lot of laughter, which would be most convivial after thepandemic.

Norm: Thanks again andgood luck with Freedom on Trial: The First Post-Civil WarBattle Over Civil Rights and Voter Suppression?

Scott: Thank you, Norm! Ithas been a great pleasure!


 Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

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