By Janet Metzger
Author Matthew Guinn spoke with INtown about his new novel, The Scribe, and his upcoming appearance at the Decatur Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. Guinn will join novelist Charles Belfoure (The Paris Architect) on a panel called “Lurking Under the Surface of the City,” on Sept. 5 at 4:15 at the Decatur Presbyterian Church Stage. Then he’ll return Oct. 23 to A Capella Books.
In The Scribe, Thomas Canby, a disgraced former detective, is called back to Atlanta on the eve of the 1881 International Cotton Exposition to partner with city’s first African American police officer, Cyrus Underwood. The case they’re assigned is chilling: two wealthy black entrepreneurs have been discovered with their throats cut, a single letter of the alphabet carved into each one’s flesh. The city’s cadre of prominent businessmen known as “the Ring” pressure Canby to resolve the case before the Exposition, even if resolution comes at the expense of justice.
You have called The Scribe a “bloody story of the Old South giving way to the New.” Why did you choose the 1881 International Cotton Exposition as the setting for your story?
Some historians have said that the I.C.E. was very nearly the birth of the New South, and I was intrigued by that. Because if “new” isn’t the quintessence of Atlanta, I don’t know what is. There’s always been this civic drive in Atlanta to be the biggest in the South, the fastest, the richest, the best, even back then. But there’s always been a dark side to that—an edge of acquisitiveness that’s not far from outright greed, and a love of “progress” that focuses a lot more on economic than social growth. There’s also the nostalgic side of revisiting, imaginatively, a city I loved growing up in, even if in a period long before my time. It pained me, for instance, that I couldn’t put the Old Vinings Inn in the novel, because it wasn’t there in 1881.
Were there black officers on the Atlanta police force in 1881?
Not until the late 1940s, which makes Cyrus Underwood purely fictional. I hope his presence and position will be plausible to readers as a temporary measure for the Atlanta police to take because of what one of them calls “the peculiar nature of the crimes.”
As a white man, how did you approach writing the African American character Cyrus Underwood?
Empathy is why I write historical fiction. I’ve been lucky to come across historical events or people that cry out to be written about—either to attempt to right an injustice or to try to keep it from being forgotten. I also think empathy is why we read. We want to know other people and to have a connection through imagination that would be impossible in the physical, “real” world. It’s a way of putting our imagination to work not just to entertain ourselves, but also to glean a little bit of enlightenment and compassion.
As a native Atlantan and now resident of Mississippi, how do you see us healing our racial past?
Atlanta, with a few very noteworthy exceptions, has always been ahead of the curve on racial issues. But Mississippi has come a remarkable distance since I first moved here in 1992. I think the Confederate Battle Flag will be gone from the state flag very soon—because of empathy. A lot of fans of the Confederacy are now seeing—really seeing—what that flag looks like through black Mississippians’ eyes. I once asked an African American student from Natchez if she had been in any of those grand antebellum homes. She said, “Never. Because they’re haunted houses to me.”
What lessons from The Scribe might we learn?
In The Scribe I intended to hit hard on the old Confederate mythology that celebrates the big house and the hoop dress. I love the South and will never leave it, but it’s time to put that old states’-rights argument to bed for the fallacy that it is. My detective character Thomas Canby speaks for me when he says the Civil War was a fight between two powers—over power. And that no one ever fought more nobly for an ignoble cause than the Confederates. These issues are still with us because people are raised on ideas of what our culture is, and how it gives us our identity. Anyone who thinks history is irrelevant to the present—just the dull stuff of textbooks and museums—need only look to the recent church shootings in South Carolina for illumination. The past matters.