A page-turning murder mystery set in a Cape Verdean community during the Vietnam War and the war against The Black Panthers, by writer, scholar, and author Bill Fletcher, Jr.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Mark Steiner, great to have you all with us.
The Man Who Fell from the Sky. It’s 1970, a sniper’s bullet kills a contractor on Cape Cod. A young reporter whose name is David Gomes gets the story. The backdrop to the story includes the war against the Black Panther Party throughout New England, the underground for draftees resisting the war in Vietnam and the veterans returning home from that war. It engulfs the Cape Verdean community, which is the most populous African immigrant community in the country. And it involves a mystery that spans decades, three wars, and it’s defined by the depth of racism in New England, in America and around the world, and by the madness of people struggling to define their own racial identity.
Like all good mysteries, the end is not what you expect, but getting there is a page turning tale, its subtext wrapping together radical politics, race, love and war. And it will make you wrestle with a question of morality of revenge, yes, the morality of revenge and the quest for justice and the struggle against injustice, all of the characters drawing us deeply into their story The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Is the first mystery written by Bill Fletcher. We hope it won’t be his last.
Bill is better known as being an activist, scholar and fighter for racial justice, and books like They’re Bankrupting Us and Solidarity Divided. He’s also the former president of TransAfrica Forum and a proud member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. And now, the next Walter Mosley, Bill Fletcher Jr. And welcome, Bill Fletcher, good to have you with us back here at The Real News. Glad you could make it all the way up here from DC.
BILL FLETCHER: I’m glad to be back. Absolutely, thank you.
MARC STEINER: Good to see you. It’s better than doing it by phone or Skype. This is a much better way of doing this.
BILL FLETCHER: Oh, absolutely. I love it.
MARC STEINER: So the first question obviously has to be if you have a view, all these years as a labor union activist, organizer, scholar, written books talking about changing America, and you’re writing a mystery novel, so…
BILL FLETCHER: So the thing is, Marc, all of us have stories. And I have a story. In fact, I have a lot of stories. And I started thinking about stories when I was a kid. But about ten years ago, I decided to take a crack at writing a murder mystery. Not this. And I went to an agent that I’d been introduced to and she said she would read it. And about three weeks later, she got back to me and she said she didn’t like it. And she said, “When you go back to writing nonfiction, come and see me.”
MARC STEINER: How deflating at the moment, right.
BILL FLETCHER: It was it was horrible. It was an interesting experience as someone who does a lot of teaching about how you can crush somebody with the words. And had I not enjoyed writing it, I would have been absolutely crushed. So I put that aside, but then I had this idea, and it was an idea based on an incident that took place in World War Two that I had read about a long time ago. And the idea started to grow. And I started thinking about how to use that incident in some ways as a jumping off point to a bigger tale. And I said, I’ve got to do it. But what actually moved me off the dime was I was with my daughter and my wife, and I told them about this story.
MARC STEINER: By the way, congratulations on becoming a grandfather.
BILL FLETCHER: Thank you. I’m very happy. So I was with my daughter and my wife, and my daughter was sitting in this restaurant, my daughter is like looking down and then she says, “You know dad, you have a story there, and maybe more than one story.” You need to write this. And that was what I needed. And it took me about five years to come up with the story and about three to four months to write it.
MARC STEINER: Five years to come up with the story. Five years of mulling it and playing in your head and five years of writing little pieces?
BILL FLETCHER: No, it was all in my head. It was sort of like, think about it as you’re creating a film. And that’s what was going on in my head. I envisioned every scene. I was envisioning characters. And I probably could have started writing earlier had my daughter said earlier, “You got it right.”
MARC STEINER: Good for our children. It’s funny because I told you before you came in here today on the way down here to the studio, I was thinking about your novel, your mystery novel, and what was in my head was, I was going, what was that movie I just saw? What was the name of that damn movie? Wait, it’s Bill Fletcher’s novel. It is, because that is how you feel, you feel like you’re watching a movie.
BILL FLETCHER: That’s what I wanted. I wanted the reader to basically feel like they’re watching a film. And I didn’t set out to win any kind of Pulitzer or anything else. I set out to use fiction in the way that the people that I look at as iconic leaders, Dashiell Hammett, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, Walter Mosley, how they use fiction to move frequently very complex political issues, critiques of the system. And I wanted to do that. I particularly wanted to look at issues of race, justice and revenge. And so, I situated the story within the Cape Verdean American population, which is a population that a lot of people don’t even know exists. And so, that’s what I did. And I’ve been getting great responses.
MARC STEINER: So it’s interesting. This is a strange place to take this conversation in the time that we have together. But it I mean, this is a mystery, it’s a murder mystery.
BILL FLETCHER: Yes.
MARC STEINER: A young man who is Cape Verdean who is a reporter is trying to figure out what happened in the death of this contractor on Cape Cod. And this gets complex and unravels in there. So let’s talk about the Cape Verdeans and why you chose to set it in this community and who this community is, of Africans who were whalers and fishermen who ended up on the shores of United States right not as slaves, not enslaved.
BILL FLETCHER: That’s right, exactly. They are the first post-1492 African population to come here voluntarily.
MARC STEINER: That’s a really interesting way to put that.
It’s really important, because that summarizes so much. What did they come as? They came as subjects of the Portuguese Empire. They came voluntarily as whalers and fishermen in the beginning. And then, because the Cape Verde archipelago is subject to droughts, periodic droughts, there are these migrations off of the islands and people started coming following family members. They were Portuguese speaking or Criollo speaking, they were mainly Catholics. And what you said before is critical. They did not come as slaves. So you have this African population that arrives on the shores of New England.
MARC STEINER: Many of them racially mixed.
BILL FLETCHER: Oh, absolutely. All spectrums of the rainbow, from very light skin to jet black. And they come to New England and they encounter this other African population who were either the descendants of slaves or descendants of indentured servants. And then other African populations that come up from the Caribbean who were descendants of slaves. And so, there’s this whole identity issue about, well what are they? I’ll give an example of something that really struck me, Marc. Back around 1984, in the Jackson campaign, Jesse Jackson was first running for president, I was one of the labor coordinators in New England. And I found out, I was told that there was this Black longshore local in New Bedford.
MARC STEINER: Bedford, Mass.
BILL FLETCHER: Bedford Massachusetts. I said wow, so I tried to see whether we could get them back Jackson. I don’t remember whether they did. But later, I started writing a book with my cousin on the contribution of Black workers in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s and 40s. And so, I figured, well let me go talk to the veterans of that period, from the 30s and 40s, even though it was an AFL union. So the business manager of the union sets up a meeting for me with these veterans. And so, I go into the meeting, and these very dignified Cape Verdean workers come in, almost all of them in suits. They’re all retired by this point. So we sit down, and I start asking them questions about their experiences on the docks. So at a certain point, Marc, I said, “Did you have any problem with the white guys?” They look at each other. “No.” I said, “You had no problem with the white guys?” “No.”
And I’m completely perplexed. And then, one of them says, “There was some trauma trouble with the Greenwood boys, but that was it.” But they never explained what that was. About a year later, I met an iconic figure in the New Bedford community named Jack Custodio, a Cape Verdean leftist, older. And I told him the story and he broke out laughing. And he said, “Bill, The Greenwood boys, they were the Portuguese. They didn’t want to tell you, they did not want to admit they themselves were not Portuguese, they themselves were not white. They were trying to do everything that they could to avoid that question.” That stuck in my head and it very much influenced this book.
MARC STEINER: Yeah, and that to me seems, besides the mystery, which I don’t know how much we can talk about the mystery without giving it away, which we don’t want to do. But part of the story has to do with the complexity of race in our society. White relationships with Black people, Black folks’ relationships with white people, Cape Verdeans struggle with their own identity. Am I Portuguese, am I African, don’t call me Black, I am Black, and all those pieces that fit together. Some openly vile racist behavior and subtle racist behavior and people trying not to even think about race, and interactions between Black and white people that are just normal, everyday interactions we all have that aren’t about race and racism, but two people together for whatever reason they’re together. You really kind of are able to make this subtext, this tapestry of complexity and just throw it in there.
BILL FLETCHER: There’s a scene that I can acknowledge here, because it doesn’t give away the rest of the story, that takes place … As you may remember, there’s a family gathering on Labor Day weekend. And I created that scene to bring out a number of these contradictions and what happens, in brief for your viewers, is that there’s an argument between two relatives that one of them is–
MARC STEINER: They’re all Cape Verdeans.
BILL FLETCHER: They’re all Cape Verdeans, but of them is very pro-national liberation struggle in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau that’s going on right then. There’s a war going on to free Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands from the Portuguese. And this one particular relative is really, very pro that. But then, there’s another relative on the other side of the family who continues to insist that he’s Portuguese. And it comes almost to blows. And I created that because that is what happened. That tore apart different families, this whole issue of what are you. There were people that I met when I was a kid going to Cape Cod and they were Black, they had different names that I was used to growing up in New York and they identified as Portuguese.
And as I was saying to you before the show, even as a kid, I followed geography, right. I knew something about where Portugal was, and I knew they didn’t look like anything out of Europe. And so, what was that about? And when I was trying to talk with my parents about it, I got very partial responses and answers. But what you see is this challenge, this struggle that’s going on in a population to redefine themselves. And they ultimately redefine themselves through a combination of the national liberation struggle going on in Guinea-Bissau and in Cape Verde and the Black Freedom Movement in the United States. And these two movements helped to transform the consciousness of this people.
MARC STEINER: So you also have these characters here. It’s interesting, one of the things that struck me in all this, most of the characters, the main characters that we get into, there’s a number of them, are veterans of World War II, of Korea and Vietnam, which it’s interesting that you chose to do that. Even the investigative reporter, Gomes, is a vet.
BILL FLETCHER: Yeah. He had served on the DMZ in Korea. Veterans are very important to me. I learned history through studying wars, and like many kids, glamorized war. And then came Vietnam. And I could have been drafted if I was a year older, but I did not, and I wasn’t planning on going. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I wasn’t planning on going.
MARC STEINER: I remember very well. I was drafted in 67, so I remember very well.
BILL FLETCHER: Right. It faced us. But I started to, after the war ended, I started talking to veterans, Vietnam veterans, and reading more about their experiences, and particularly how veterans generally are treated when they come back from wars, even the so-called Greatest Generation, the veterans of World War II. And the conditions that they returned to. It always struck me, the stories that veterans will tell and won’t tell. I had an uncle who was in World War II, actually two great uncles. One of them was in a Black military unit in Italy, and the other we’re not sure what he was in, but he was in France. And a couple of times I talked to them about World War II, and he mentioned the Battle of St-Lo. And any time you mentioned St-Lo, he would lower his head and he’d say, “I never saw anything like it.” And he wouldn’t talk anymore about it.
I read about the battle of St-Lo and then I understood. And so, part of me always wants to appreciate the courage of veterans and the challenges that they face coming back. In the story, there’s this security guard in this building in New Haven, and I constructed him as someone who had a lot of dignity but had been consistently disrespected. And this is someone who put their life on the line in the Korean War, comes back, and is treated like garbage. And I wanted to introduce that.
MARC STEINER: So one of the things that’s not easy to do often, especially somebody who’s not a fiction writer, is to find characters that you can develop, even on a minor level, that you can be empathetic with, that are real. Even the people that I didn’t like in your novel were real. I mean, I knew all these people.
BILL FLETCHER: Exactly, that sums it up. That’s how I had to do it. One of the most evil of the characters in the book was a composite of certain people that I have known. And I did not create him as a caricature, but he is a composite. The security person that I mentioned was also someone that I knew. And one of the things that’s critical in writing this, writing fiction, is not to fall into caricatures.
MARC STEINER: Right, which is easy to do.
BILL FLETCHER: Very easy to do. And it’s also, you’re always running a risk that I’ve learned, about how much detail you go into. There’s a detail that you can see in your head, in your third eye, that sometimes doesn’t translate onto the paper. And sometimes you have to force it there, but you also have to guard against putting too much in there. And there’s different philosophical views on this. My publisher was someone that was very much into “get in, get out,” as opposed to, take someone like the late Stieg Larsson, who wrote The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, who I love. A lot of detail, a lot of background. And there’s these different philosophies.
MARC STEINER: And you have kind of a bit of both.
BILL FLETCHER: Yes, absolutely right. I’m much more influenced by Stieg Larsson, but I’m learning from my publisher. And he basically–it’s funny. I really learned a lot from him. His name is Tim Sheard, head of Hard Ball Press, learned an immense amount about writing fiction. Because when you write nonfiction, it’s just totally different, and editing is completely different, Mac. There was a whole subplot in the first draft, and Tim said, “You’ve got to either get rid of that, or you’ve got to provide more detail, but the manuscript is too long. So basically, you’ve got to cut this.” And the thing about cutting fiction is that it’s sort of like surgery, because you have to remove all reference to something. It means you have to go back very carefully.
MARC STEINER: Because you can’t leave something earlier in a book that disappears.
BILL FLETCHER: Because I’ve seen people who didn’t have a good editor, and it’s like all of a sudden, we’re like, where did that come from, or where did it disappear to?
MARC STEINER: So this really is an aside, but I was thinking about how I’m glad that, given the world really this moment, where America is really confused about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, where we all fit, at least the FBI in your book did not come off as guys in shining armor, not here to protect us all. I appreciate you doing that.
BILL FLETCHER: No, absolutely. It’s not going to happen, not with me. I mean, I think I can say for the viewers that one of the things I tried to do was to make things a bit confusing. Not confusing in the sense of, “Wow, like what’s going on,” But confusing in the sense that it’s not always apparent who is creating the most trouble for the main character. And one of the things I wanted to introduce was to, in a funny way, popularize the role that the FBI played at that time in history in being incredibly repressive and disruptive.
MARC STEINER: They were.
BILL FLETCHER: Exactly. So in this case, rather than concentrating on finding this killer, they are more interested in trying to link the main character with different political organizations.
MARC STEINER: Like captains of the revolutionary groups.
BILL FLETCHER: Right. And that is what in fact was happening.
MARC STEINER: So one of the difficult things to do in a book like yours and books like this is taking the political world that we find ourselves in, in the early 70s, late 60s United States, and weaving that through a story without it becoming the story. But without it, it just becomes another mystery novel that has that has no political-social context. But you did it. I must say, I’m not just saying this. If I didn’t like the book, we wouldn’t be talking about it.
BILL FLETCHER: Thank you, it’s very hard. It was very hard. And I’m really glad you raised that, because I just finished reading a manuscript from someone else that is very good in a lot of ways, but his central story gets completely lost in all of the background that he created.
MARC STEINER: Right, which is easy to do.
BILL FLETCHER: It is really easy to do. But the other thing is just as easy, of not putting things in. So for example, every so often introducing a particular song or highlighting the fact that everybody liked Dodge Daytonas from 1967, 1968, or the death of Jimi Hendrix. So there was different things that I tried to insert in there to give the reader a flare of flavor of what was going on. Now, some people have said to me that they wanted more.
MARC STEINER: The danger with more is you lose the mystery novel and it becomes a polemic. That’s the danger of too much.
BILL FLETCHER: Or just a history book. Right, exactly.
MARC STEINER: So the mystery itself. I knew it was a good mystery, as I was telling Valerie as I was reading it the other day, and really getting into it, because A, it held my attention, but B, I wasn’t sure how it was going to end. And if you can’t guess the ending, then you’ve found a writer who knows how to write a mystery.
BILL FLETCHER: Thank you very much. Thank you very much. It’s interesting you raise that, because I had this discussion with a relative who liked the book, but he wanted much more of a whodunit. And I said, “I’m more interested in motivation.”
MARC STEINER: I want to get into this. Exactly. So let’s talk about this motivation. One of the things is that the murders take place in this book and you’re trying to figure out who did the murder. And there’s one person you think could be the person, and that story is all wrapped up in how you identify in race and how families identify in race and who this person was. And vile racists fall into this as well, they become part of the story. And it gets very confusing who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy sometimes, also which I liked. But one of the things about the characters you developed and how you did this I’m really curious is your own struggles here around the question of justice, injustice, how revenge takes part in this. And it’s not morally ambivalent, but it wrestles with deep moral questions here without giving us an answer.
BILL FLETCHER: You’re right.
MARC STEINER: So when is revenge right? When is it right to go after somebody who committed this horrendous racial crime?
BILL FLETCHER: That’s what I was trying to grapple with.
MARC STEINER: How long do they have to pay? Should we kill them, should we not kill them?
BILL FLETCHER: Well one of the things that I was really getting at in this is the issue of the acknowledgment of wrong, and that in this country … I mean, everyone’s been talking about George H.W. Bush in light of his death and his legacy. One part of his legacy that I will not forget is that he said, “I’m not going to apologize for anything the United States does, even when it’s wrong.” And I thought, that is the quote that we should use when we transform the United States. We should remind everybody that this was the thinking that led us from one disaster, one atrocity, into another. And so, I was looking at this question of can someone commit a major crime and then go on with the rest of their life and be exemplary but owe nothing? And how do you judge that? And that’s really what I wanted to get at with this.
MARC STEINER: That’s the central moral question of the book, wrapped around a murder mystery, a deep murder mystery. Plus, you also have some beautiful touches of love relationships, and the complexities of those were in here too. It’s not easy in three hundred odd pages to get all this complexity of human relationships, man and woman and all the rest, coming together in this way, but you chose to do that as well.
BILL FLETCHER: I did, because one of the things I wanted to do is … The main character is in his 20s, sort of late 20s, but I wanted the reader to appreciate the challenges that a young man in his 20s in 1970 is going to be facing, the ambiguities and ambivalences. This is a guy who is in love but he doesn’t know, at the end of the day, should I go forward, is this going to constrain me?
MARC STEINER: Sounds familiar.
BILL FLETCHER: Exactly. I think there’s quite a number that face that. And so, I wanted that to be real. I felt like this is a real dilemma.
MARC STEINER: Well, you painted a complex picture, racially, economically, these are working class people, Italian cop, Black Cape Verdean writer, love affairs, several wars, trained killers. Who did it? We don’t know, we’re going to find out. But to find out, you’ve got to read The Man Who Fell from the Sky. And you really did a great job in this book. Read it.
BILL FLETCHER: Thank you very much.
MARC STEINER: First time mystery from a great writer. And I recommended it, The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Great to have you back on The Real News, good to see you, my friend.
BILL FLETCHER: Real pleasure, thanks so much.