The Emperor of Ocean Park
Blockbuster First Novel Surprises Modest Author Stephen Carter
By JULIA WELLS Gazette Senior Writer
He is a law professor first and a novelist second, but he is also a lot of other things, in no particular order: a loving husband and father, a deeply religious African-American, a constitutional scholar, a conservative among liberals, a writer, a writer, a writer.
Stephen L. Carter - whose blockbuster new novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, is the most talked-about literary event of the summer - has also been described as aloof.
But aloof is the wrong word. In truth there is a slightly guarded quality about him - it's in his eyes, and it comes and goes. First the guard is up. Then it comes down, and what tumbles out is pure intellect and animated conversation punctuated by unexpected bits of humor.
But by far the most unexpected thing about Stephen Carter is his disarming modesty.
"I was in Toronto recently at a literary breakfast - there were some real novelists there, as opposed to a law professor-turned novelist," he exclaims over breakfast at Linda Jean's in Oak Bluffs on Wednesday morning.
The interview begins with a story about a bicycle.
"What I know is that the first time I came here I didn't know how to ride a bicycle," Mr. Carter says. It turns out that his first summer on the Vineyard was when he was a young child - but he can't remember the year, he just remembers that the children in his family had been given bicycles that summer. "Those were the days when bicycles were big and they came and you had to assemble them," he says. "We assembled them at home and then we disassembled them to ship them to the Vineyard. They arrived with parts missing - a lot of parts missing." As a result, young Stephen Carter didn't learn to ride a bike on the Vineyard that summer.
Now, at age 47, Mr. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell professor of law at Yale University. The Emperor of Ocean Park is his first novel, a legal thriller about upper class African-Americans. The book is already the buzz of the summer. Publisher Alfred Knopf paid Mr. Carter an astonishing $4.2 million for the book, along with a second, still unwritten novel.
Widely praised by reviewers, The Emperor of Ocean Park already has rocketed to the number three spot on The New York Times best seller list.
No one is more astonished than Mr. Carter.
"It's all a little bewildering. I didn't sit down and say, ‘This will be a commercial success.' I sat there and said, ‘Will this ever get published? Will this ever get finished?' I just wanted to write a story that was a good read. This has been pretty overwhelming - that's why I need a vacation," he says.
Mr. Carter has been on tour with the book since late May, and he will go on tour again after he leaves the Vineyard next week. Even his vacation includes book events. Tonight at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs, the Bunch of Grapes will sponsor a book signing and reading. On Sunday evening he will sign books at the Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs.
"I've written several nonfiction books, but nobody has asked me to do an event on the Vineyard before," he says, a tiny glint of humor in his eye.
Narrated by Talcott Garland, a black law professor at a university much like Yale, The Emperor of Ocean Park is an elegantly written, meticulously crafted murder mystery and a story of a family. The setting for the book is the family summer home on Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Carter's treatment of the Vineyard is gentle and sensitive - he gets it right.
As an adult, Mr. Carter began coming to the Vineyard in 1987 and has vacationed nearly every summer since with his wife and two children. They always rent, always in Oak Bluffs, not always on Ocean Park, although they have rented there.
His solemn advice: "Never rent a house without a rocking chair; never rent a house without a porch; never rent a house without a view."
About the Vineyard, he says: "I really love the place, and I loved it as a child. Here is how I mark it off - in the late 1980s you could still go to the Flying Horses and ride the carousel twice in a row. I think it got too crowded in the 1990s; I know a lot of people say that it was because of Clinton, and I don't really have an opinion about that. But I know that it got too crowded."
In the book, Talcott Garland says:
"The Island is neither as tidy nor as friendly as it once was. And it is all so sudden, so sudden. Blink once and a dusty road where you used to play tag is paved and clogged with traffic. Blink twice and the vacant lot where you had your ball games has a gigantic house on it. Blink again and the vast, dreamy beaches of your youth have lost half or more of their sand to the sea. Blink a fourth time and the pharmacy where your mother used to buy Coriciden when you were sick is a boutique. . . . So I look around and try to tell myself that little, after all, has really changed. And if a few more candy wrappers than I remember from my youth seem to be blowing along the streets, I like to think it is only because the new people have not yet learned how to love an island - not because they do not care."
Mr. Carter says the passage reflects his own outlook. "That's my optimism, you see, because I am still optimistic about the Island. I think a lot of resorts go through these periods of extreme popularity, and I think possibly the Vineyard needs to go into a trough for awhile. People come here now because it is popular, and not because they love it. I do like to think that in the future the Vineyard will be a little - softer," he says.
Ask him about his writing, his books, his academic interests, and he is talkative, fluent, expressive. Ask him to tell his own story and he demurs.
"Dull," he says, reciting a hasty resume: He was born in Washington, D.C., later moved to Harlem ("It was a different kind of Harlem; I didn't grow up in poverty," he says), then his high school years were spent in Ithaca, N.Y., where his father taught at Cornell University. He went to Stanford and later Yale Law School, where he met his wife, Enola Aird. They have two children: Leah, 16, and Andrew, 14. He wears his adoration for his family on his sleeve. "We always thought of ourselves as a foursome, not a twosome," he says.
He wrote The Emperor of Ocean Park late at night over a period of many months. "I was writing it around other things," he says. "I didn't want to slack my family and I didn't want to slack my day job, which was my teaching."
The book has attracted much comment because of its unusual perspective, but Mr. Carter says the social commentary was not so deliberate. "The most important thing to me about the book is it's a story about family and relationships, parent, child, the nature of love, the nature of family. I didn't write it to send a message - those themes emerged as a kind of consequence of the characters and who they became," he says.
The book came together in pieces over a period of years. He had most of the characters early on, but not the story. Talcott was the exception.
Once he had Talcott, Mr. Carter made the decision - the story would be written in the first person and it would be a mystery. "Then I knew where I was going," he says, wryly quoting from Ernest Hemingway about first-person writing: "Hemingway said any fool could write a novel in the first person, but I think Hemingway must have meant you have to be a fool to write a first-person novel."
He admits he is a perfectionist. "It slows me," he says. But he also says he sees writing as serious work. "I think it was the poet Nikki Giovanni who said, ‘If you have to be in the mood to write poetry, then you'll never be a poet.' Writing to me is always fun, but it is also something that is very, very hard. It's a job and you have to have the discipline for it. People ask me, when did you know you were a real writer, and what I tell them is you know you're a real writer when you say, ‘I can't go out tonight because I have to write.' "
He also completed a nonfiction book while he was working on The Emperor of Ocean Park. His nonfiction work is both acclaimed and controversial, and includes an array of subjects from affirmative action to civility to integrity.
What does Mr. Carter, the law professor turned novelist, read?
"I always read fiction on the Vineyard," he smiles. "Now I am reading Raymond Chandler - what a waste of life to never have read Raymond Chandler!"
He says his book bag also contains Ian MacEwan's Amsterdam and historian Norman Cantor's In The Wake of the Plague.
What doesn't he read? His own reviews.
"I just don't read them, except for The New York Times. What is the point? My wife reads them. Wasn't it Martin Amis who said, ‘Don't read your reviews, measure them.' "
The film rights to the book have also been snapped up, but Mr. Carter says he will have little involvement in the movie. For one thing, he says it is too difficult to make the jump to deciding which actors should play the parts of the characters in the book. "My characters are real to me; they have faces; they have lives," he says. "Novelists who decide they know how to make a film - that's hubris. I hardly know how to write a novel. I enjoy film as a consumer."
Mr. Carter says the African-American community on the Vineyard is a strong attraction for him and his family. He notes that black professionals often work in places that are predominantly white, and a vacation community with other blacks has obvious appeal. "It's nice to be able to go to a place for a vacation where there are a lot of other blacks, and clearly Oak Bluffs is such a community. That's not a knock on white people, it is a love of black people," he says.
He has never been active in the summer social scene. "We go to the beach, watch sunsets, have picnics at Menemsha, sit on the porch, drink lemonade and read," he says.
He also talks about what he calls the integration of the Vineyard.
"There are plenty of shopping malls on the mainland where if you go and are black, you will be treated with suspicion. There is no place on Martha's Vineyard where a black is treated with suspicion. . . . This is an Island where it is possible to not worry about race. I really like it. There are residential patterns - certainly Oak Bluffs has more black people and Edgartown and Chilmark have more white people. But I see that as something that's a reflection of the reason black people like to come here in the first place. I have no idea if there are problems in the social setting because I don't go to parties. But my sense is that there is more division along class lines than along racial lines."
An hour and a half slips away, and the conversation goes on. He agrees to a short walk in Ocean Park. A final question is directed at the law professor and constitutional scholar on the day before the Fourth of July. What are his thoughts about America?
He recalls his daughter's nickname for him. "She describes me as a patrio-idealist. I think America right now is trying to find a comfortable way to balance the notion of individualism with the notion of obligation. In the 1950s Americans went overboard on obligation and in the 1990s they went overboard on individualism. . . . And maybe now the lesson of Sept. 11 will be to restore some of that balance," he says.
"I think we've got to believe in people . . . and we have to start to take care of each other."