Rashad Harrison Our Man In The Dark

Tue, Nov 29, 2011

Books

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Recently Danville TV had the opportunity to interview Rashad Harrison, author of Our Man In The Dark.

Q: Tell us about Our Man in the Dark.

A: Our Man in the Dark is set in 1964. It’s about John Estem, a lonely accountant working for Martin Luther King’s SCLC. He embezzles $10,000 from the organization and attracts the attention of the FBI, who have been monitoring King and his associates for a few years up to that point. This is at the height of the Civil Rights movement. J. Edgar Hoover is out to ruin Martin Luther King, and a great opportunity arises in the form of John Estem. Initially, Estem is willing to go along with the FBI, but eventually his own agenda surfaces—one that is in direct conflict with the FBI’s.

Q: How did you come to choose John Estem as your protagonist? He seems like such a bad person. Are you worried that readers may be turned off by an unlikeable narrator?

A: I don’t see Estem as being a bad person…he’s definitely troubled, but that’s what intrigued me about the character. I wanted to explore why someone would commit what, on the surface, seems like such an obvious act of betrayal, but to do that effectively I had to employ empathy, not judgment.  The thing about Estem is that he feels isolated, pretty much marginalized and ignored…from the key players in the movement. He can sense that things are changing, but he doesn’t know what role he’ll play in this new world…and in an act of desperation, he leads himself down a very dark path.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Our Man in the Dark?

A: I came up with the idea a few years ago after reading a biography on Martin Luther King…I just happened to come across, somewhere in the footnotes, that there were actually informants within the SCLC that were working for the FBI. I knew that there were competing strategies and agendas, but I was completely surprised that there were people, that close to Martin Luther King, working with federal agents to undermine the movement. I became preoccupied with exploring “why” and “how,” and doing so in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. Our Man in the Dark was completed and placed with my publisher (Atria/Simon & Schuster) close to a year before the revelation that Ernest Withers was an FBI informant surfaced. Informants rarely confess why they do such things, so I had to use my imagination in creating Estem’s psychological portrait.

Q: How did you become comfortable with portraying a fictional Martin Luther King?

A: Jonathan Ames once told me, in so many words, to never shy away from material that makes you uncomfortable. Some of your best work may come from exploring that rocky terrain. It was a challenge using Martin Luther King as a fictional character, due to the fact that I was so protective of his legacy. My main desire was to explore his humanity. I wanted to show my fictional King as grappling with…a man becoming an icon—that transition. In the novel, we see King through Estem’s perspective, and Estem is also grappling with the transition that Martin Luther King is making from man to icon.

Q: Your novel has been described as “historical noir.” Not many books fit that description. LA Confidential comes to mind. What inspired you to use a dark approach and noir style?

A: Well, look at all of the tactics that Hoover used against King—wiretappings, intimidation, essentially psychological terrorism—it sounds like a dark thriller. Add the complications of human frailty and ambiguous morality, and now you’re entering into noir territory. Historically, noir was great for examining taboo topics—greed, lust, race. It allows you to explore some of the darker aspects of a character’s psychology…and when you look at the desperation that Estem exhibits…it’s quite obvious that he is a noir figure. When you consider that, primarily, at the heart of the genre is the underdog who is grappling with an institutional force only to confront disillusionment and alienation. But I think that echoes the black experience at that time. So I feel that it was a fitting use of theme and style to employ those noir techniques.

Q: This is a difficult time for the publishing industry. What are your expectations for Our Man in the Dark?

A: Well the problem is that there are so many things competing for the public’s attention—across all forms of media—that a lot of great work goes unnoticed. All I can do is to tout the virtues of Our Man in the Dark at every opportunity. This is America’s story told from the shadows. There are many distractions out there, so I want to make the most of the time that my readers and I have together. I want to engage as well as entertain…I want you to look at the world differently after reading my work…than you did before you read it (laughs) Obviously.

For more information about Rashad Harrison:
www.RashadHarrison.com
www.facebook.com/Rashadharrison
Twitter @rashadharrison

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