Malcolm interviews B.J. Hollars.
UAP: You’re fairly well-known throughout Alabama’s creative writing community. What encouraged you to write Thirteen Loops, a departure from your previous works?
Hollars: As my time in Alabama began to wind down, I knew I wanted to leave my temporary home having written an important story about it. While much of my previous work was contained to fiction, when I heard about the tragic and brutal murder of Michael Donald, I knew I needed to dedicate a significant portion of my life to telling his story. In some ways, Thirteen Loops was my attempt to give something back to a state that had given so much to me. Some might argue that my book doesn’t paint Alabama in a particularly favorable light, but in truth, many freedom-fighters emerged in the state’s darkest moments, and I wanted to give them their due.
UAP: How does writing fiction differ from writing non-fiction? Which of these did you find to be most challenging about writing Thirteen Loops?
Hollars: Fiction and nonfiction are difficult for very different reasons. For me, fiction is hard because all the stories seem to have already been told. When I was a child, I saw a preview for a movie called The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars and it became clear to me—even then—that it was all but impossible to come up with a fresh idea. We were sending appliances into outer space for crying out loud; all the possibilities seemed to be running thin.
The upside to fiction, of course, is that you aren’t confined to the truth. My fiction requires far less research and allows me to pay more attention to the crafting of sentences and the intricacies of plot and character.
Now, nonfiction is hard because it is bound to fact. While I’m interested in the blurring line between genres, I wrote Thirteen Loops as a purist. That is, I didn’t want to embellish anything. There’s a moment in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where Capote notes a dog barking somewhere during the murder scene. But since Truman Capote wasn’t actually on sight to hear the barking dog, I always wondered, Was this a creative liberty? How can Capote be certain there was even a dog? Perhaps it’s convenient that Capote provides no footnotes for his book, making it impossible for readers to see from where he derived his facts. I’m not one to criticize Capote, but when it came to Thirteen Loops, I didn’t want to put in any barking dogs unless that bark could be confirmed.
UAP: Thirteen Loops, an extremely detailed and educative read, surely required an immense amount of research. What are some of the more interesting stories and artifacts you ran across while conducting research for the book?
Hollars: The research was consuming. While I was in the throes of research, I found myself incapable of holding my attention else. And when I look back now, I can’t tell you what classes I taught during those terms; I can’t even pinpoint a single activity that took place. Some nights I’d find myself reading redacted FBI files in bed, and in the following day’s pre-dawn hours, I’d be hunched over an old newspaper with my highlighter. For about eight months, I walked about in a dream state, my mind always focused on trying to tell Michael Donald’s story properly.
Of course, I came across many incredible artifacts as a result of this all-consuming research. I came across boxes of Klan propaganda (including Klan Christmas cards), as well as a copy of the Kloran (the Klan handbook), and a collection of photographs depicting modern Klan families. These photos, perhaps, were the most disturbing artifacts of all. It was just so strange seeing color photos of men, women, and young children wearing shockingly racist apparel while burning crosses in fields. These photos appeared to have been taken sometime in the early 1990s—proof that hate continues to be alive and well in this country.
UAP: As an Indiana native, how has the South, more specifically Tuscaloosa, Alabama, affected your writings and this book?
Hollars: I often tell people that I am far from the ideal writer for this book. I have been called many names, and “No good Northern carpetbagger” is certainly one of them. As a white guy from the North, I don’t believe I have my finger on the pulse of racial issues in the South, but it’s my great hope that my outsider status might add a new lens through which to view these types of stories.
To answer your question more directly, Tuscaloosa has had a tremendous effect on my writing. Not only are the first two chapters of the book dedicated solely to Tuscaloosa and its own troubles with racial violence, but my forthcoming book—which recounts the desegregation of The University of Alabama and the behind-the-scenes civil rights movement that followed—is set entirely in Tuscaloosa. For the past few years I had the pleasure of riding my bicycle past Foster Auditorium, but it wasn’t until the dedication of the Hood-Malone Plaza and the Autherine Lucy clock tower that I actually gained some sense of what took place there; how Gov. George Wallace stood in front of the doorway in an effort to halt desegregation. I began wondering, Who were those students he blocked? What made them enroll in the first place? It’s been my life’s joy to try to answer those questions, and I look forward to releasing the book with The University of Alabama Press next year.
UAP: What do you think is the lasting legacy of these events on their respective cities, Alabama’s race relations?
Hollars: It’s far too easy to oversimplify the South. Many non-Southerners have a tendency to chalk up the South with the usual stereotypes, but by doing so they overlook all the individual stories of heroism buried beneath the tragedies.
As my book recounts, it is quite true that nineteen-year-old African-American Michael Donald was murdered in the most brutal manner imaginable, but it is also true that as a result of his murder, the Southern Poverty Law Center put the United Klans of America on trial, essentially bankrupting the organization. While many seem to remember the violence of Michael’s murder, far fewer remember the wide-reaching ramifications of his death. When it comes to all civil rights violations in Alabama, we need to look beyond the assailants and their crimes, and consider the results of the crimes. Was justice served? And if not, what are we willing to do about it?
UAP: In addition to its larger themes, in Thirteen Loops you probe the emergence and demise of the KKK. Are there any plans to further explore this topic? If not, what’s next?
Hollars: If I had the necessary contacts and resources, I’d be quite interested in writing a biography on Robert Shelton, the former grand wizard for the United Klans of America. However, Mr. Shelton passed away in 2003, and many of the Klansmen who knew him remain quite tight-lipped on their former boss.
Since I no longer live in the South, I don’t have any current plans to focus on the United Klans of America—the splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan that most interests me. Instead, and as I noted above, I’m more interested in celebrating the heroes of the civil right movement, and that’s why I’m excited to share the stories of The University of Alabama’s desegregation, as well as Tuscaloosa’s little-known (though quite riveting) civil right movement. There are so many more men and women in need of honoring, and I hope I can bring their names into the American consciousness. It’s the least we can do for their efforts.
Malcolm Cammeron graduated from The University of Alabama in May. He currently works at Navistar.