Exhibit Cases Eleven through Fifteen
One day as we were strolling through the Village on one of his many trips to New York, I said to Chester, "I've got a great title for a story I'm working on." He asked what it was and I said, "Navy Black and Blue." He thought about it for a minute or so, then said, "Why not just 'Navy Black'?" I used his title.
Himes was a prolific correspondent, and our friendship lasted, with highs and lows, about fifteen years.
After he published volume two of his autobiography, My Life of Absurdity in 1976, in which he accused me of the theft of some of his money and of his rights to an essay of his I included in Beyond the Angry Black ("The Dilemma of the Negro Novelist"), our relationship ended. I thought to sue Himes and his publisher for libel, but mutual friends suggested otherwise; they believed I should take into account Himes's illness, which I did, and thus the letter I wrote, directed to his editor, was never sent.
Williams was elected a fellow with the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and was presented with a certificate in Boston, April 1969.
AMISTAD 1 (1970)
Charles F. Harris of Random House was my co-editor. We believed this "magazine" could have a long and happy life. I went to Spain with my wife, Lori, to do the interview with Chester Himes. Harris and I chased C.L.R. James down and found him sick in bed at Northwestern University. In addition to James, we had Ishmael Reed, Addison Gayle, Jr., Calvin Hernton, Vincent Harding, and Langston Hughes, among others in the collection. Harris and I got off to a very good start and could have gone far with Amistad. Unfortunately, this kind of partnership, or co-editorship, only works in some cases; this was not one of them.
AMISTAD 2 (1971)
I met with Ellen Wright in Paris to get some work of Richard Wright's for this volume. She let us use the original version of his "Blueprint for Negro Literature." The excerpt from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye unfortunately appeared shortly after the novel was published, but we did manage to publish the first fiction of Gayle Jones.
With John O. Killens, Basil Davidson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Amiri Baraka, among others represented, this made for a strong collection, and a tough follow-up to Volume 1.
But conflicts began to emerge. I would sometimes accept a piece only to discover that Harris's secretary had rejected it without letting me know. We had already begun #3. Bill Cosby had agreed to an interview, and I went to Lake Tahoe to do it. But Harris and I were now having serious problems in scheduling meetings and selecting materials. Finally, I had to choose between spending a lot of time with him and Amistad or going back full-time to my own work. I decided on the latter. I quit. I was as surprised as Harris when Random House summarily let him go.
Over the years, I offered to buy out Harris (where the money was coming from I did not know), but he refused, and he wouldn't buy me out (probably because he didn't have the money to do anything with the book, either). Sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, I said to hell with it; I told him to take the magazine and do something with it.
CAPTAIN BLACKMAN (1972)
Captain Blackman was difficult to get into, but once in, I had a lot of fun with it. I don't recall how long it took me to do this book, but I was doing some research when Lori and I lived in Europe in 1965 and 1966.
I also made a trip to the war documentation museum in Paris, where I asked for a room so I could tape-record the material, since talking was faster than writing. Sacre Bleu! They'd never heard of such a thing, but they obliged me. This was, I think, 1969 and I was staying at the Hotel Raphael across the alleyway from where they were holding the Vietnam peace talks every Thursday. I had a camera with a long lens. This Thursday the big cars drove up and all the diplomats got out. I had had to prove I was a guest in the hotel in order to get to my room, which was on the same level as the roof of the building where the talks were being held. I thought I would take some pictures. But, as I approached the window with this long lens affixed, I noticed cops with machine guns on the roof. How could they tell that what I had was a lens and not a gun? I backed away from the window in a hurry.
I enjoyed researching this novel. I learned a lot that confirmed ideas that had been vague and half-formed. In terms of accomplishing what I set out to do, I consider this my best novel-based-on-fact to date.
This was simply a collection of articles, most of which had been published previously. Perhaps the most interesting element was the inclusion of headnotes. These detailed how the pieces were commissioned and why, in my estimation, some were rejected. One editor, upset about my description of him, wrote a letter that was a veiled threat. Soon after, he became editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review. He failed to assign my next novel and had the one after that reviewed so late that it was worthless as a sales or publicity factor. For as long as he held the position, my work got the back of his hand. I've not done as many magazine articles since this collection was published, but quite enough, together with newspaper columns, to fill another book.
MINORITIES IN THE CITY (1976)
There was some confusion about what this was to be, but it became, finally, one in a series of pamphlets, which, combined, made a book bearing the same title. The editor was George Groman, a former colleague at LaGuardia Community College, where I taught for five years.
MOTHERSILL AND THE FOXES (1975)
I conceived this as a humorous book with quite serious overtones. It was a novel that wasn't much liked by anyone else but me. I consider the theme to be the innate vulnerability of men to women. One part of the book was based on a famous New York murder case in which two female Newsweek staffers were killed. Another incident, a "cloacal encounter," refers back to the first reporting of a congenitally absent vagina in 1758, and the literary case of Madame Recamier, referred to by Dumas as an "Involuntary Virgin."
THE JUNIOR BACHELOR SOCIETY (1976)
The Junior Bachelor Society was one of those books you have to get out of your system. A tribute perhaps to a better past, or to old friendships, or just a rush of recollection of a time not quite so close to the end of things. The spooky thing about this novel was that just as it was about to come out I got a call from a boyhood buddy in Syracuse. There was going to be a reunion of all the guys and their families that summer. Spooky because there was just such a reunion in the novel.
In 1981 this became an NBC-TV mini-series called "The Sophisticated Gents." I was, for the most part, pleased with it.
!CLICK SONG (1982)
This, I believe, is my best novel to date. I did everything I wished to do in this book in terms of manipulating time, creating structure, making historical journeys and corrections, and removing the concept of publishing from quiet, dark offices to glitz and bottom-line business. I also believe the statement I wanted to make about black American artists and their lives came through loud and clear. Most of the reviews were good, but it did not get a paperback sale until 1987 when Thunder's Mouth Press reissued it.
LAST FLIGHT FROM AMBO BER (1983)
Last Flight from Ambo Ber is what I call "a telling play," because it covers more time than Aristotle says it should, has more characters, and has more to do with race and politics than with fate.
THE BERHAMA ACCOUNT (1985)
Like Mothersill and the Foxes, this novel was supposed to be funny, funnier than Mothersill. Curiously, editors said this wasn't a "John Williams novel." I think this meant that I was supposed to produce heavy stuff all the time. In desperation, I used a pen name, Gian Viggiani (the protagonist is Italian). But, then everyone was saying, "Aw, this is a first novel, and who the hell is Viggiani anyway." This is a political novel about public relations hustlers on a Caribbean island - a situation I am not unfamiliar with. Finally, a small publisher did the book, which was not widely reviewed. I don't think the production of the book helped us; it is very badly done. I still think that The Berhama Account is a funny book waiting for something good to happen to it