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Interview with J. Everett Prewitt, author of "Snake Walkers"
Reader Views is very excited to speak with author J. Everett Prewitt, winner of four first-place awards for his debut novel, Snake Walkers. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.
Juanita: J. Everett, please tell us the meaning of the title of your book, “The Serpent Walkers.”
J. Everett: The title is based on a mythical African tribe that teaches its children from birth how to pass through a nest of poisonous snakes without getting bitten.
Juanita: Give us some insight into the main character, Anthony Andrews.
J. Everett: Anthony comes from an upper-class black family more concerned with maintaining the status quo than seeking justice in the turbulent fifties and sixties. Through no fault of his own, he is book smart but naive in life. Because of his new job, Anthony is thrust into life-threatening situations where he meets people he learns to respect. They have a different perspective on dealing with racial injustice and life in general, and Anthony’s perspective eventually changes.
Juanita: Is Anthony based on someone you know?
J. Everett: I didn’t have friends like Anthony, but I belonged to an upper-class black social group when I was a teenager because of my mother’s status as an elementary school principal. I quit after a year. Some of them were as close as I got to someone like Anthony. There are some Anthonys in the world today, so it wasn’t hard to understand their thinking on issues like civil rights.
Juanita: How does Anthony come to terms with his childhood trauma while trying to solve the mysterious abandonment of a small town and the disappearance of fourteen white men?
J. Everett: Anthony’s honor. He confronts his demons directly. He exercises and runs, hoping that this will somehow alleviate his problem. Although he is initially a bit gun-shy, he continues to face the violence that unfolds because of his discoveries and ends up becoming a stronger person because of it.
Juanita: “Snake Walkers” is a refreshing new look at the racial conflicts of modern American history. How often did ‘white people’ disappear?
J. Everett: I’m not sure how common it was, but when I wrote the story, I started hearing numerous reports of black people in the South struggling. One person told me that his family had a farm that was attacked by the Klan. His grandfather simply said in the story “They came to the estate, but they didn’t leave the estate.” I guess there are a lot of stories like that. I hear more and more as I lecture across the country.
Juanita: I imagine you will continue to hear stories like this as your book reaches more and more readers. Who did you see as your audience and what else are they saying about “Snake Walkers”?
J. Everett: My audience is as diverse as the characters in the book. I have spoken to all white audiences, black book clubs, library groups and even been the keynote speaker at a real estate pitching banquet. So far, I have only received positive responses to the book. Some have wondered if there are people like Bobby Joe Byrd, a white man fighting for black rights. I ask them if they remember John Brown. I’ve been approached by both black and white audience members who say they could relate to something that happened in the book. I hope to eventually be able to reach out to young adults, especially young black people.
Juanita: Tell us about the research you did for Snake Walkers.
J. Everett: I’ve visited the towns I’ve written about (except Yvesville), talked to a number of people there and others who are from there, read newspaper articles, and searched the internet for a lot of my historical information. An Arkansas writer was very helpful in referring me to books about Arkansas. The most helpful person, however, was a little old white lady who was in the Wynn library researching her ancestry. She told me more about the area than all my other sources combined.
Juanita: How important is the need for a voice about this unrecognized aspect of history?
J. Everett: It’s very important. In portraying a minority culture or race, there must be a balance. I can find a thousand books about hangings, beatings, castrations, etc., but very few about families who have faced physical violence and won. Without balance, both those inside and outside a culture or race tend to see that group as victims and act accordingly.
Juanita: What is/are the underlying theme of “Snake Walkers”?
J. Everett: There are several. No one is “above the fray” when it comes to fighting injustice. Your strength comes from within. A strong, supportive family is essential when you face insurmountable odds. Persistence and an open mind are essential to navigating life’s treacherous mazes.
Juanita: You graduated from high school, went to Lincoln University, got drafted into the army, all during the turbulent 60s. What was your experience of coming of age in these historical times like and how did it influence your writing?
J. Everett: Ever since I was young, I felt compelled to fight against all the injustices I encountered. Although I was prepared, the fight was rarely physical. However, it was necessary to think that color does not make a person inferior or superior. During those tumultuous times, this belief was challenged, but later it was reinforced so many times that it was no longer a question. This is why my writing is based on telling stories of like-minded people that result in triumph and victory. That’s the life I lived at the time and that’s the life my family lived. My father, mother, uncles, aunts and cousins have been great mentors in this regard as they have repeatedly overcome barriers and become very successful people.
Juanita: What was your inspiration for writing “Snake Walkers?”
J. Everett: I remember hearing stories of southern black retaliation, rebellion, and confrontation from various elders in my youth, and those stories stuck with me. Mr. Johnson put it most succinctly when he observed that “not everyone won and not everyone lost.” I also recorded my father, uncle and aunt about their history growing up in Arkansas and often wondered why no one had ever written the stories I heard. I decided I would. There is an African proverb that says: “Until lions have their historians, hunting stories will always celebrate the hunter”.
Juanita: Snake Walkers is such a stunning, award-winning debut novel. Will you be writing another one soon, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?
J. Everett: My next book will be called Two Wolves. It will be a sequel to Snake Walkers. The setting will be Cleveland, Ohio in 1969 after the Glenville riots. Anthony, the protagonist in Snake Walkers is a reporter for a small newspaper, and Raymond Williams (the heir apparent as the family patriarch) has just returned home from the Vietnam War. There will be several subplots, but Raymond’s girlfriend, Myra, has gone missing, and even though he’s a college graduate, it’ll take all his street savvy to figure out what happened and face the consequences.
Juanita: Thank you for this informative interview J. Everett. Any final thoughts you’d like to share with your readers?
J. Everett: I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the response to the book. I began writing to fill the void of what I felt was inadequate representation of strong, resilient black families and the positive outcomes some experienced when they stood up to injustice. I imagine this resonated with a lot of people and I’m grateful. I am only sorry that my father, who passed away a few years ago at 95, could not share this experience with me.
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