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The Story Behind The Silence of Our Friends

Mark Long tells a fascinating sub-chapter of the Civil Rights Movement in The Silence of Our Friends, based on a true experience his own father went through. In this interview he discusses the truth behind the story, how far we've come since then...and how much we haven't.

The book ends with the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, and it’s a quote from him that lends itself to the book’s title. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news that he was shot?
I remember marching in Houston the first Sunday after King’s assassination. There were a handful of memorial marches in southern cities that spread the following five Sundays to include all the major cities in the U.S. It was an oppressively hot day. My family marched with the Thomas family. I recall how profoundly sad the adults around me were. We sang only one march song, We Shall Overcome, slowly, like a funeral dirge.
 
What made you want to tell this story now?
My father was diagnosed with cancer, and we both felt an urgency to tell the story. For ourselves and posterity. He died just as we completed the book.
 
You were very young when this story was happening. What do you remember most about that time?
1967 and ’68 were extremely tumultuous and violent years. We open with the infamous execution of a Viet Cong sapper on camera by a South Vietnamese Colonel as a reminder of the violence of the period. King was killed in ’68. Bobby Kennedy was killed in ’68. The Tet Offensive, Prague Spring, the Summer of Love all happened in 1968.

Adults all around us were preoccupied with the war and the civil rights struggle. Which left us, kind of at the same time, gloriously unmonitored and free to be kids, unlike the hyper-parented children today. It was a unique time of upheaval and self-discovery.
 
Which scene in the book was the hardest to revisit for you? What made it difficult?
Nearly every scene in the book is from memory. Including scenes I transposed onto the Thomas family. Some are uplifting, like hearing a sermon delivered in Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, where the congregation is spontaneously affirming with “Yes, Lord” and “Make it plain.”
 
Some are very painful. Like witnessing the death of a husband and father from a car crash in a late-night visit to the emergency room. And then watching the surviving wife and mother having to call her children and tell them their father was dead. It chills me still.
 
The story is largely true, but some changes have been made. What are some of those changes, and can you elaborate on why you made them?
Stories like ours require emotional as well as historical authenticity. Sometimes those things are at odds and when they were, we opted for the emotional impact. So, for example, we collapsed time and characters for the courtroom climax. Larry was not the defense attorney and the trial was held two years after the riot. But putting Larry up against our story’s nemesis allowed us to have the two sides argue and debate in an elevated context without, at the same time, coming off preaching or speech making.
 
Have you been able to uncover what happened to Larry Thomas?
It is my one regret in the production of this book that I have not been able to find Larry or his children.
 
One thing that resonates, for me, throughout this book is how all of this is so recent. Really very little time has passed, when you think about it. Did writing this cause you to reflect on how things have changed—and perhaps how they haven’t—since that time?
Yes. Very much so on how much things haven’t changed. Not in race relations, but in the race genre. Particularly how Hollywood has treated the genre.
 
I encourage your readers to search for and read James McBride’s forcefully articulate essay “On Being a Maid.” McBride is Spike Lee’s production and writing partner and in his essay he laments just how far we haven’t come by reminding us that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year nominated two gifted African-American actresses for Oscars for playing maids in The Help. This is 73 years after the first African-American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, won the award for the same role—as a maid, and a slave maid at that.
 
A large element of The Silence of Our Friends is in response to what I see as dumbing down of the race genre. The fat redneck cop is so cliché a racist antagonist in Hollywood, he might as well be a Nazi. There’s nothing to be learned or truly felt when emotional responses come that cheap. We strove for nuance and the gray areas rather than black and white.
 
How did you end up working with Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell?
Jim was my editor on Shrapnel and we became friends in the process. It was Jim who encouraged me to write Silence and it was Jim who convinced Nate to join our project. As a cowriter, Jim took what was a collection of my anecdotes and turned them into a real story with an arc and purpose. And of course Nate is true auteur. I felt that his art and lettering showed increased confidence after he won the Eisner. He was a risk-taker before, but there are breathtaking moments inSilence that are all his and transcend even the brilliant Swallow Me Whole.
 
Do you plan to do more graphic novels?
Yes! I have another book in production titled RUBICON that is a kind of Seven Samurai set in Afghanistan with Navy SEALs as the samurai, and the Taliban the bandits. It’s another collaboration, this time with Chris McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie, and Dan Capel, a Navy SEAL and founding member of SEAL Team VI.