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2007 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist Interview With Arnold Rampersad
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Photo © Brigitte Carnochan
Arnold Rampersad
Ralph Ellison: A Biography
Alfred A. Knopf

Interview conducted by Jennifer Gonnerman.

JG: What was the hardest part of your book to write – and why was it so challenging?

AR: The hardest part of the book was when I realized that I had to reveal certain unpleasant facts about Ellison’s life or compromise my standards as a biographer—which was never really an option for me. I knew that some readers would inevitably mistake my approach for hostility, but I was also confident that many more would remember Ellison’s artistic achievement and see these facts as indicative of the complexity of one major American writer’s life.

JG: What’s the greatest personal debt you incurred while writing this book?

AR: In addition to the debt I owe my family, I owe much to John Callahan, a professor of English at Lewis and Clark College who was Mrs. Ellison’s main advisor on literary matters. Much of the Ralph Ellison material at the Library of Congress was closed to almost all scholars, and a biographer was yet to be chosen by Mrs. Ellison when he encouraged me to think about taking on the task.

JG: How long did you work on this book for – and how much do you think you ended up earning per hour?

AR: I worked about eight years on the book, but three of them were spent as a dean and of course I was also teaching classes the rest of the time. As for the money, it’s a labor of love subsidized by my university, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and, for a year, the American Council of Learned Societies.

JG: What are three of your favorite non-fiction books of all time?

AR:Three that come to mind readily are W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk; C.L.R. James’s Beyond the Boundary; and R.W.B. Lewis’s biography Edith Wharton. (Perhaps it has something to do with all those initials?)

Of all that transpired after your book was published, what was your favorite moment?

AR:After the book was in bound galleys and began to circulate, I received two wonderfully generous telephone calls—one from Cornel West, and the other from Toni Morrison. Both of them wanted me to know how extraordinary they found the book and how much it meant to them personally as a biography of a particularly complex and difficult subject. Although they were not strangers to me, I knew they would not have made those calls unless they absolutely meant what they said.

At your lowest moment, how many times a day did you check your Amazon rating? (Be honest!)

AR:I’ve never checked my Amazon rating. I really don’t know how to do so, although my wife has offered to pass on the number to me. I really wouldn’t want to know where I stand. That’s not why I wrote the book—and I don’t like bad news.

What’s the single best piece of advice you received while working on this book?

AR: For a while I tried to make it a two-volume biography, despite the terms of my contract, and at one point I actually sent my editor at Knopf what I called volume one—“Ralph Ellison: The Invisible Years, 1913-1952.” I had published a two-volume life of Langston Hughes some years ago, and rather liked the idea of working again on such a large canvas. At Knopf, Jonathan Segal took the time to read “The Invisible Years” and then advised me—that is, ordered me—to get real. This proved to be very good advice indeed.

What impact, if any, do you think your National Book Award nomination will have on your future work?

AR: I am not sure that the nomination will have any significant impact on my future work, but I should say that the number of congratulatory messages that I’ve received and continue to receive has surprised me. Of course, the volume and variety of notices about the book itself have been remarkable. It’s not at all what I expected. The ordeal of writing the book left me quite pessimistic about its likely reception.

Jennifer Gonnerman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine. She was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Photo © Nina Subin



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