About a dozen years or so ago, when his son Sam was at sleep-away camp, Mitch Margo decided that instead of writing typical dad letters — “Everything’s fine at home; hope you’re having fun” — he would write Sam a serial story about a 12-year-old basketball player who tries out for a certain squad, doesn’t make it and then decides to form his own team.
While meant to be fiction, the serial wasn’t all that removed from fact. Many years earlier, when Mitch was 12, his dad suggested something similar after the coach of a traveling basketball team wouldn’t let Mitch try out.
“I went home crying. I was heartbroken,” said Mitch, 62, who to this day has no idea why the coach wouldn’t let him try out.
“My father, who knew absolutely nothing about sports, said, ‘Start your own team.’ So I went to the other side of town and got Doug and Wesley and Victor, black kids who were not on the traveling team because we had segregation of sorts in Great Neck (N.Y.) at that time, and we started our own team. I coached.”
Of course back then Mitch had no idea that his dad’s bold idea, or the letters he wrote to Sam that summer, would figure prominently into his debut novel, “Black Hearts, White Minds” (Mission Possible Press, $17.99), which was released last week.
“Sam saved the letters and I still have them and they were terrible,” said Mitch, an attorney who lives in Ladue and belongs to Central Reform Congregation. “But a lot of that was autobiographical. I’ve come to find there’s a lot of me in this book having gone back and read it again.”
Before we go any further, let me explain a few things. I’ve known Mitch for more than 40 years; we met as undergraduates at Washington University. A few years after graduating, we got married. Six years later, we got divorced. We’ve been divorced for 30 years.
About a year and a half ago, Mitch asked me to read his novel, which had a different title at the time. If I liked it, would I write a blurb for the book jacket?
So sure, I read it. And I liked it. A lot.
Here’s the blurb, which I think should give you a good idea of what the novel is about:
“While a work of fiction, ‘Black Hearts, White Minds,’ transports readers to a time and place in American history, 1964 small-town Alabama, when the Civil Rights movement was just gaining traction, and segregationists, including the Klu Klux Klan, would stop at nothing to trounce the efforts of blacks and whites fighting for justice. Margo has crafted a narrative that is equal parts engrossing, heartbreaking and hopeful, populated with richly drawn, compelling characters, and an overarching essence that captures the enduring nature of the human spirit, no matter the obstacles.”
At the center of the story is Carl Gordon, a New York attorney looking for a fresh start in Stockville, Ala. for himself and his 12-year-old son John after his wife’s death from ALS. Mitch freely admits that there’s a lot of Carl in him and I can vouch for the fact that there’s also a lot of Mitch in John. But Mitch grew up in an upper middle-class, mostly white suburb, on the north shore of Long Island. Why, I wondered, did he set his novel during the Civil Rights era in the Deep South? Doesn’t everyone say you should write what you know?
“Honestly, I wanted to know more about that time and place,” explained Mitch, who has a master’s in journalism in addition to a law degree. “In 1964, I was 9 years old and all of these things were going on in our country and I really didn’t know much about them.”
He said he spent hundreds of hours researching real-life events that occurred in and around the South in 1964 and visited cities in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. Mostly, he was looking for two things: information, which he often found in museums and libraries, and visuals.
“I was looking for places that time forgot,” Mitch said. “And I found areas of Birmingham and Montgomery that look like they looked like back in 1964. I took photographs, made notes and then tried to recreate those areas and feelings on paper.”
While “Black Hearts, White Minds” deftly knits together multiple gripping storylines, what propels so much of the story and captivated this reader are the novel’s main characters. Most are fierce, smart and impetuous, all at the same time, and really, really human. In that regard, Mitch wrote what he knew, relying on the playbook of his own life for inspiration.
“I’ve had a number of mentors and friends who are African-American, more than your typical white guy, I think, so I drew liberally from those friendships and relationships,” he said. Among them were his basketball coach at summer camp (John Edgar Wideman, an award-winning author and Rhodes Scholar), his adviser as an undergraduate at Wash U. (Ron Jackson, an assistant dean) and his co-editor at the university’s student newspaper (the late Greg Freeman, columnist at the Post-Dispatch). Another African-American friend and adviser, Charles Harris, spent hours telling Mitch stories about growing up in segregated Virginia, which he says he “used and abused unmercifully” in writing “Black Hearts.”
Balancing a fulltime job as an attorney and dedicating time on an almost daily basis to writing a novel seems daunting to me. Mitch says he began the process after Sam went off to college so he had more free time, but it wasn’t long after that when his wife Karen was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease.
“I think it was cathartic in a way to have control of this project whereas in other parts of my life, I didn’t,” said Mitch. “Also, it’s not a coincidence that Carl is going to Alabama with his son and not his wife, who he has just killed by a mercy killing. She had an incurable illness. I would never do anything like that but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this issue appears in the book.”
Mitch says it took him five years before he was ready to show the novel to anyone. When he did, he found a New York agent in fairly short order who agreed to get it to various publishing houses. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well.
“He did nothing with it for a year and a half,” said Mitch. “I couldn’t pin him down or reach him. Finally, I got him to answer the question, ‘How many publishing houses have the book?’ The answer was zero. So that was a waste of time.”
Finding another agent wasn’t as easy. Eventually, at a St. Louis Publishers Association event, he met Jo Lena Johnson, publisher of Mission Possible Press, a St. Louis-based publishing house. He approached her, and she agreed to read a few chapters. Soon she wanted the rest.
“I absolutely felt it was a story that needed to be told. I felt his voice deserved to be heard and I wanted to help him do that,” Jo Lena said. “We have so much division in the world today based on race, class, gender, etc. If only real life could turn out as well as the ending of the novel turned out our world would be a much better place.”
Mitch is currently working on another “Carl Gordon thriller” as well as a novel set in 2008 about a real estate developer and his wife living way above their means. One day their lives completely break apart.
“So far it’s mostly about the wife,” said Mitch.
That’s when I reminded him, it’s always about the wife, current, ex or otherwise.