Albert Camus

Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Interview and Giveaway King of Rags by Eric Bronson


King of Rags follows the life of Scott Joplin and his fellow ragtime musicians as they frantically transform the seedy and segregated underbelly of comedians, conmen and prostitutes who called America’s most vibrant cities home. Inspired by Booker T. Washington and the Dahomeyan defeat in West Africa, Joplin was ignored by the masses for writing the music of Civil Rights fifty years before America was ready to listen.


Thank you, Mr.  Eric Bronson

How does a philosopher get to write historical fiction?
When I was a philosophy student I was very impressed with Immanuel Kant's motto for the Enlightenment:  "Sapere aude," or "Dare to know."  That means we shouldn't always believe what someone else says is true.  We need to discover truths for ourselves.  I had read about Scott Joplin's ragtime music and his unpublished opera on education and race but it's not the same thing as watching live performances in Sedalia, Missouri and Texarkana, Texas.  I read all about how funny Bert Williams was, but you appreciate him all the more when you read his personal joke book in the public archives in Harlem.  All philosophy should begin with wonder, Aristotle says.  And the same is true for writing and researching.

Obviously, Scott Joplin was… is a very known musician. How much freedom can you take to turn his autobiography into historical fiction?
Joplin's music is well known but his personal life is a mystery.  That's true for many black artists and musicians at the turn of the twentieth century.  Their lives are undocumented and unrecognized today, one of the many tragedies of racism.  I wanted to tie Joplin's life into a larger story of black artists and leaders struggling to be heard.  That brought in other real-life characters like Ida Wells who argued so passionately against America's lynching laws, George Walker who performed for the Queen of England,  and Paul Dunbar who gave dignity to the broken slave.

And why did you choose to write “about” Scott Joplin?
In most of my writings I come back to characters who live in two worlds.  They work and sweat and die in this world but they have a romantic, almost religious yearning for something better, higher, deeper.  Ragtime musicians were dreaming of Carnegie Hall while playing in brothels.  Joplin was unique.  He was a musical genius who was valued by white classical musicians and conductors.  But his more serious work was ignored.  He wanted his music to be played slow, with longing for something more.  Instead, "they" sped it up to make it sound so happy. 

What does Eric Bronson – the editor says about the King of Rags?
Well, the editor in me wants a coherent story with that ties together neatly.  The kid in me wants every story to have a happy ending.   Unfortunately the philosopher in me wants to find the truth, no matter how painful.  And the professor in me wants others to search for the truth themselves.  Ragtime musicians did not live orderly, linear lives.  Their dreams and desires stop and start abuptly like the music they write.  I wanted King of Rags to reflect their disappearing dreams.

Your classes “on Modern Life focus on anxiety, creativity, and happiness.” In what form (if) are these concepts found in King of Rags? Is there any connection between your book and your classes?
I think there are certain universal themes we're all attracted to today.  How can we find peace and harmony in such a fast, ever-changing world?  How can we find beauty in the dirty, dull places of our everyday life?  How much money and time are we willing to sacrifice to pursue our dreams?  And how much of our dream do we sacrifice for money and approval?  History tells us that we didn't just invent these questions in 2014.  The stories of other people's courage, success, and failure can help us invent our own answers though.


Whenever he had a difficult decision to make, Scott set himself up on the small hill with high grass and wildflowers. In the starlight he was especially careful not to disturb the patient, purple flowers. A traveling white schoolteacher once read to his class the story of the heliotrope from Ovid’s

Metamorphoses. Derided by the world and scorned by her lover the Sun God, a poor nymph keeps her eyes ever fixed to the sun. Streaked with purple, she is covered in leaves and flowers, roots that claw their way around her helplessness, forever binding her to the earth.

“‘An excess of passion begets an excess of grief,’” the schoolteacher quoted. “Don’t reach so high. You’ll be much happier if you lower your sights.”

But there was something about the nymph’s undying faith that touched him inside. She refused to be stuck here in this world, and that refusal brought hope along with the pain. Scott thought he understood the nymph’s eternal conflict. His music wouldn’t right the wrong, but it might help ease the loss. Long after the sun abandoned her, Scott sat among the heliotrope and played for her his coronet.

The hill had a further advantage: it overlooked the new train station. He was there one December day, ten years earlier, when the first Texas & Pacific railway pulled in from Dallas, on its way to Fulton, Arkansas. Since then his father had taught him to play the violin, banjo and coronet, but none of them could take him beyond his colorless world. Maybe the trains couldn’t either, but the tracks held that promise, going outwards, ever away. His mother believed the coronet was the Devil’s instrument. Scott disagreed. Any instrument that brought relief to others was useful. It shouldn’t much matter who was dancing at the other end.

Under the wavering light of a half-moon, Scott played with all the sounds of the night: the high-pitched melody of cicada bugs over the running bass line of lumber cars and freight trains, garbage crates and short hauls sounding their syncopated iron rhythms: boom-chugga boom-boom: boomchugga boom-boom. The music of the night trains was the sound of waiting—waiting and waning and wasting away. The greatest secrets in life, Scott knew, lay not in the music or the people who played it, but in the short, silent spaces that sometimes fell unexpectedly off the beat. The Stop Man taught him that without hardly even saying a word.

About the author:
Eric Bronson teaches philosophy in the Humanities Department at York University in Toronto. He is the editor of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), Poker and Philosophy (Open Court, 2006), Baseball and Philosophy (Open Court, 2004), and co-editor of The Hobbit and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), and The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (Open Court, 2003). 

In 2007 he served as the "Soul Trainer" for the CBC radio morning show, "Sounds Like Canada." His current project is a book called The Dice Shooters, based loosely on his experiences dealing craps in Las Vegas.


Unknown said...

I don't know enough about Ragtime to "like" or not like it. My only exposure has been in old western films, piano concerts, and a few video games. Until I just now performed a brief set of searches, I did not know this genre of music could have a vocal component. So I'll leave you with a very stereotypical "like" - Scot Joplin's "The Entertainer". It's perky, and it's one of those songs that plays over and over in your head.

giorgiana said...

Interesante timpuri, dar cred ca era tare greu sa fii de culoare pana in anii 60,erau apreciati mai mult pentru muzica ritmata
pe care o creau si interpretau .

Unknown said...

Thank you for hosting today:)

Anonymous said...

O coperta inedita, cu ceva aparte, cu semnificatii multe si o descriere care te introduce direct in arta muzicii. Interviul e interesant si multumim mult pentru el! Inseamna mult pentru noi!

Eric said...

Thanks all, for your support and your interest! Check out the upper left-hand side of The Entertainer. It says "not fast." The original music cover was a picture of a sad dancer/comedian looking out thoughtfully into space.

Kai said...

I love rag music. I have only one of Scott Joplin's album.

Unknown said...

Nu stiu prea multe lucruri despre genul asta muzical.

Unknown said...

I love it!

Sherry Butcher said...

I do listen but Rag is not my fave. Love books like this to give more insight to the music.