I was very fortunate to have a conversation with author Eric McKinley about his debut novel, Blessed Sons this week. Blessed Sons follows an ensemble of characters through the complicated scenario leading up to and following the shooting death of a star high school athlete. The characters seem simple enough: the boy and his family, the shopkeeper, and the lawyer who is assigned to the case. But the emotional relationships that McKinley creates for each character are fascinating and nuanced – and the characters are forced to examine some of the most difficult things that life holds – race, class, violence, death, and the consequences that go along with each. When I sat down with McKinley, I tried to ask him some meaningful questions. Often I was reduced to just gushing about my favorite parts of the book, but here are the highlights of the interview:
Mrs.O: In this book, the protagonist is a lawyer named Jon, you happen to be a lawyer, how often do people ask you about the lawyer component of this book?
McKinley: Sure, even people that don’t know I am a lawyer ask me about the detail of the trial and want to know if I have personal experience with the plot line. But I don’t want people to get bogged down in making comparisons. I don’t want people to think this is the only thing I write about – or that I will write about in the future.
Mrs. O: You do convey a great bit of detail - like how the lawyers talk to the judge and how the whole legal process goes, even down to the details of the rooms they are meeting in and how they differ from one another.
McKinley: Yes, but being a lawyer is not a monolithic experience. Some judges are casual; some lawyers are too, stylistically. Some are more talented than others. Not everyone will be the same.
Mrs. O: At the reading you did today, you spoke of intentionally making the city of Philadelphia a character in the novel. You did so beautifully. Even though I live here, I felt that I was really getting an insider’s view of the city – and was transported to each locale with you, in the same way that I am in books that take place in far-away locales.
McKinley: First of all, thank you for the kind words. Yes, I was very intentional in making the city part of the ensemble. Places like Bob and Barbara’s and Cookum’s are real places, although Cookum’s has closed down now. I wanted to include the detail of the city because this story might be different in a different city.
Mrs. O: You acknowledge that this story has an eerily similar context to the Trayvon Martin case, do you think that would have been a different scenario, had that tragedy happened in Philadelphia?
McKinley: I think it might. Philly is different. We have an African American Mayor and an African American Police Chief, and obviously a large population of African American residents, so I think the reaction would have been different. George Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested until some of his bizarre post-shooting behavior happened. And his bail was set rather low. I don’t know that that would have happened here because our public leadership contains so many people of color.
Mrs. O: What about Music? You use music in a very theatrical way in this novel – I could so easily see it translated into a screenplay – but did you intend for Music to be another character?
McKinley: Music is not meant to be a character in the same way that Philadelphia is an intentional character, but I did imagine the scene and what kind of music would be playing, because that is part of the experience of being in Philadelphia. Most places would have a jukebox or a band, so I did think as I was writing about what would have been playing.
Mrs. O: Yes! I was so happy to see a mention of one of my favorite artists – Mos Def – in a description of Jon. I immediately thought – oh now I can get an idea of this person – he is probably my age, and is thinking about music in a way that is not necessarily following trends.
McKinley: He is not a trendy guy. And the song choices were very intentional. Part of my desire for this novel to be an ensemble piece was to include things like music in that way. Food is another component that was meant to augment the story.
Mrs. O: I find myself very drawn to the psychology of Jon – he is so apathetic in so many ways – and particularly to the women in his life – in his relationships with his wife and his mother, he is so stuck.
McKinley: I think of him not so much as a protagonist but as an anti-hero. So much of what he is doing is just trying to survive. He is not a white knight swooping in to save anything. In some ways he is just a guy trying to keep his job, trying to keep his marriage together. But he does have a baseline competitive streak and at a certain point he gets interested in winning; in winning his cases, in trying to ‘win’ his marriage. He is trying to do the right thing. But, he has a definitive threshold for how much he is willing to give a shit. At a certain point the effort becomes too much of a struggle and turns into a blockage. He loves his people, but there is a limit to his emotional reserve. He loves, but not unconditionally and not without limits. Jon’s relationship with his mother is the best illustration of this.
Mrs. O: Tell me about the great bartender character – Cook – he seems to be such as great father-figure character. Was he intended to be?
McKinley: That is an interesting question and a characterization that I had not thought of before. He certainly represents a refuge for Jon. Cy (the best friend) and Cook (the bartender) both fulfill that role of providing a safe place for him to go amidst the madness. Look, there is a lot of judgment coming at him from all angles. Judgment of whether he is living up to his potential or not. Men don’t get that kind of judgment from other men. The idea is, “Okay, fine, my boy is going to cheat on his wife, or he drinks too much, but he is still my boy.”
Mrs. O: But the relationships with women are more judgmental?
McKinley: Yes, for Jon, the women in his life don’t need to do anything. They have been accepted by him. They are already at the standard needed for his engagement. And of course this is vast generalizing, but women have a more project-based attitude toward men. They want men to be more, to be what they think is better. The men are fine – saying: “That’s it, this is my guy, whatever happens.” Conversely, men become apathetic or compartmentalize because they have already made the decision to commit to the relationship and they are in it for whatever it is.
For instance, there is a scene in the book where Jon is looking around his marital house and he is seeing that the décor is fundamentally his wife’s. He accepts it and is comfortable within it, but it would be different if it was just him. It is clearly her house. But he is okay with that. He knows he will stay and try to make it work. She is going to have to be the one that leaves him – even though it is obvious that they have evolved away from one another. He would stay forever. Just like he would never leave his job until he reaches a true breaking point.
Mrs. O: I guess women have more rules than men do about their close relationships – a code of conduct maybe? But I feel like there is such a strong male tone to the book. Even the narrator has a male tone and an urban tone.
McKinley: Interesting, I meant for the narrator to be omniscient, but you might be right. Men – and again I am generalizing – don’t have the same rules toward their close relationships. They can have conflict without analysis – they just accept whatever happens – with or without explanation or resolution. They just keep going.
This is true with Jon’s marriage – he’s in it. He is at a point where he doesn’t feel like he has a choice, so then he honors his commitment. He is not intentionally trying to push Cheryl away. He doesn’t want to be an island but he doesn’t want to be domesticated either.
Mrs. O: I want to be sure I’m not providing any major spoilers, but there is a moment when Jon finally breaks down. Can you tell me more about what is going on to finally bring out this emotion from a character that has been so stoic up to this point.
McKinley: He is not a guy that feels like his life belongs to him. It’s not his house, it’s his wife’s. It’s not his marriage, it’s on her terms. It’s not his job; his colleagues take much more ownership of the firm. It’s not even really his case, it’s Saul’s and Jerrel’s. So when something that he really owns and loves is finally touched by this situation, he reacts. Because he has so little stake in the rest of his life, this becomes an even greater violation.
And I think it important to note that there is a lot of pressure coming from his community. They know him and they know the implications of him defending this person. He had been able to remain detached, but then all of a sudden, it’s all there in his face. He’s there in the maelstrom of crap.
Mrs. O: Right, that is a great part of the story – this all hits very close to home for him on so many levels.
McKinley: His role provides even greater scrutiny because he is from the same community where the pivotal action occurs. He has considerable talent and good intentions, but he is in a difficult situation.
Mrs.O: The book really has such interesting topics for discussion. Race, gender, class, mobility are all strong themes. I see why you have offered to attend book group discussions because there is so much fodder for discussion!
Still with us? I know that was a long interview, but I have to thank Eric McKinley for indulging my many questions. You can find the book through the author’s website http://ericmckinleyfiction.wordpress.com/, the publisher’s website: http://wragsink.com/#/ericmckinley/, and on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Blessed-Sons-Eric-McKinley/dp/0983045445