BookView Interview with Author Bill Slawter

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed Bill Slawter, a retired attorney and author of Sit-Ins, Drive-Ins and Uncle Sam. Bill practiced law in Asheville for forty years, including thirteen years as Asheville City Attorney. (Read the review here.)

Bill Slawter is a retired attorney who lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife Carolyn. They have two sons and four grandchildren. Bill grew up in Greensboro, NC during the years of which he writes. After receiving his AB degree in English at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1968, serving two years in the US Army, and earning his JD degree at UNC Law School in 1973, he practiced law in Asheville for forty years, including thirteen years as Asheville City Attorney.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

When I was in high school, I ran across Only In America by Harry Golden in the school library. I had no idea what it was about but it sounded like a good patriotic title and might be interesting to read. As a white kid in the segregated South, I had never been exposed to much information of any kind that depicted segregation as anything other than normal. Golden’s use of humor to fight discrimination was an eye-opener. His tongue-in-cheek solutions for ending Jim Crow practices were a strong voice that helped many white Southerners begin to see the absurdities of segregationist ways.

Who and what ultimately inspired you to write your memoir?

I think that many folks encounter such a variety of people and have so many memorable experiences in life that they from time to time think about turning those events into a novel. That’s what I decided to do but I wasn’t making much progress. My writing kept sounding more like a memoir than a novel. But then I kept thinking that memoirs are for important people to write—politicians and wealthy entrepreneurs, etc., so it had to be a novel. I finally gave up on my original plan and decided to make it a memoir in spite of my lack of fame and fortune. I was driven to write about the period of my youth and the unique individuals and experiences I encountered. I wanted to capture that era in print and memoir turned out to be the best means of doing so.

Is writer’s block a real phenomenon you experience when you’re writing from your own experiences?

When I was trying to write a novel, I did find it hard to come up with words I wanted and needed, even though I was relying on my own experiences and observations. When I shifted to memoir mode, that was seldom a problem. I trusted my memory and my research to tell what I wanted to say. Massaging the words into exactly how I wanted to say them sometimes caused me consternation but blockage was not a factor.

What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?

That’s a tough one! Not my wife or a child or grandchild but I could be pretty generous if there were a magic potion available to help me achieve that. But I guess time is the main thing that I do trade for that hopeful result, day-in and day-out.

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

I’m not much of a reader of fiction, other than a little bit of historical fiction. I prefer nonfiction, especially American history. I enjoy humor and I like to learn from my reading. In Only In America (see answer to question #1), Harry Golden combined those qualities and had a strong influence on me as well as my writing.

Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?

I guess I’d have to say that “My Chick Magnet” is my favorite chapter. It combines a good deal of history of the civil rights movement in Greensboro with the craziness of being a teenager old enough to drive but apparently not old enough to use very good judgment. I enjoyed the irony of working hard to buy a fancy car that I could call a “chick magnet” but then finding that a trunk full of real live chickens was the most success that the vehicle would ever generate.  

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

Trying to figure out what to do with what I have written—i.e., how to mold it into something that others might want to read. Endless edits and revisions. Countless re-writes. Learning how to eliminate some of my “babies”—chapters and portions of chapters that I hated to give up but had to sacrifice for the sake of continuity and staying on track.

After the writing’s finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?

By first asking myself if I am satisfied with what I have written. Then asking for feedback from others whose opinions I respect. Then incorporating their thoughts and suggestions into my writing, as I may find to be appropriate. Then re-writing, editing, and proofreading until I, myself am once again satisfied with what I have written. After that, I’m afraid to ask for further critique and go for broke.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

For white readers, I hope that they might come to the same realization with which I end the book, in answering the question “What if I were Black?” I know that, for myself, being white has given me an advantage in life that has long been denied for Black people. Whatever I may have accomplished, I owe a big chunk of any success to the color of my skin. Other whites can decide for themselves whether that’s the case for them.

For African-American readers, I hope that they might gain some insight into how white kids in the South grew up marinating in a pool of prejudice and that it took a little time for some of us to crawl out of that swamp. But at least most of us did finally make it out.

What makes this book important right now?

Because the current attitudes about race in our country are so reminiscent of that era. Jim Crow as we thought of him is long gone but, more than half a century later, his progeny are alive and well, still determined to deny equal rights to all.

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