D.G. Allen’s debut novel The Black Ledger is a powerful book that crosses multiple genres. On the surface, the book appears to be a crime thriller. Allen masterfully handles the crime elements through descriptive writing, realistic dialogue, foreshadowing and suspense hooks. Yet, he also goes a step further with themes of racism, adversity and love interwoven throughout the narrative. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing D.G. Allen. He talked about his incredible writing journey in interpreting his real life experiences and turning them into The Black Ledger. Read what he had to say below.
Congrats on The Black Ledger. What did you hope to achieve in telling this fact based story?
“That’s a great lead off question. Actually, it’s two parts. The very first part is that this is more than inspired by a true story. There is so much of The Black Ledger that is true and I wrote it verbatim. Without giving away a whole bunch of spoilers, there’s a part of this book that happened that hit me so personally that it changed my life forever because it had such an impact. Because that part of the book never left me, from a psychological standpoint, I needed to get it out. I needed to work it out. I needed to write it out. That was the first thing. I needed to bring some meaning to one of the events of the book which for me, had no meaning whatsoever. Then when I started to write this down, it started to dawn on me that I was a special person. Let me explain that. I don’t mean special in that I was better than everybody else. I mean special because I had the opportunity to go into a community, into a neighborhood, into people’s homes, that very few white people would get to do. To go into an African-American community for two years and get a chance to be immersed, not just in the culture, but to make unbelievable friends and to have people look out after you. To be invited to dinners and to get to see just the rawness of the neighborhood and to get to know who African-American people were because most white people don’t know. I realized as I was experiencing this that this was a story that really needed to be told, not so much from a black standpoint, but from a white standpoint. To say, you know what, you don’t have to be afraid to go down to a black community because these are great people. They’re just like everybody out there. There’s no difference. That’s what racism is all about. I’ve always believed that racism is about two things: money and ignorance. The thing is, if we take the money aspect out of it and if we can cure the ignorance, there would be no racism. So what I’m really trying to achieve with the later half of the book was to open up a window for everybody to say, you know what, you can do this. You can have black friends. You should have black friends. You should visit a black community. You have to open up a dialogue. As the book progressed in its writing, I thought to myself, if this could just open up a dialogue, it might really mean something. So those were the two basic reasons why I wrote the book.”
What was the most difficult aspect for you in telling this story?
“Probably the emotions involved because there are some very difficult parts of the book and one of them, I don’t think it’s a spoiler, is that there’s a rape scene in this book. To this day, I’m not just horrified by the event, but I was horrified by the hopelessness of the event. I didn’t see the rape, but I saw the after effects of a woman who I had gone to see every month for about a year and she had been raped by a bunch of guys because she came into the building too late. When I walked into this apartment and I saw this woman after what happened to her…you have to remember, I was 19 years old and I’m 57 now when I experienced this. Bringing those memories back up and some of the other things. In this book, we get to meet street gangs. It’s really easy to say, Ron Pickles in the book met a gang leader and he was okay. But in reality, Ron Pickles was scared to death. There was no bravery in Ron. Ron wanted to leave immediately (laughs). The most difficult thing in writing the book was that I had to churn those emotions and basically relive alot of those experiences. Without question, I think a really good writer writes from experience and I always hoped that I could convey some of those things that happened through my writing. Whether or not I did, we have to wait and see.”
Which was the greater challenge for you in writing The Black Ledger: constructing the plot or fleshing out the characters?
“The characters were the easiest part. The characters of The Black Ledger actually lived. They were the most amazing people. In a way, they wrote the book. All I had to do was put them down and imagine them in every situation whether it was Otis. That choppy, baritone voice…I dream about that at night. One of the most amazing characters ever because he just stood out. And Mr. Meadows, from a character standpoint, he was a very loving man. He took Ron under his wing like a father figure. Even the bad guys…these characters were great because the people of whom they were based were real. Constructing the plot took ten years (laughs). That was the real deal. The elements were all there, but the problem was, I had a beginning and I had a middle and I had an ending; yet, none of it actually came together in the first couple of drafts. It was very choppy. I felt that I had this great story, but none of it was really coming together. Then a few years ago the characters said to me, ‘okay, D.G. Allen, what you’re going to do is this…The character that helped me the most, was Ruppert. In real life, he was amazing. He was a paradox. Here he was this street gang leader and everybody pictures street gang leaders with guns and shooting. This guy looked like a black John Travolta. Originally Ruppert was no where in the last ten chapters and Ruppert came to me one night and said, ‘Mr. Pickel, I’m going to close this book out (laughs).’ That’s how it happened.”
Who was the most difficult character for you to write?
“Wow…I didn’t expect that question. Let me think for a minute. I would have to say…probably…Mom. Because the thing is, Mom wasn’t terrible. She wasn’t the worst mother in the world. The thing about Mom, she had her good moments, like when Ron was a child and she takes him to the store because they were going to find the device to communicate with space aliens. She truly wanted the best for Ron when he was growing up, but the problem with Mom was that she did have this difficult life. She grew up poor. She was married twice. She was an alcoholic so when she got older, she pretty much had given up on life. She worked during the week and was drunk on weekends. The hard part was thinking do I really tell it the way it happened or should I sugarcoat it because it was based upon my mother. In the end, I decided that I needed to be honest about it. She was probably the hardest character to write because there were really no redeeming features about her. I tried looking for some, but I really couldn’t find any.”
What do you feel are some of the important themes of The Black Ledger?
“One of the hardest things about The Black Ledger was that it was a multi-theme book. It’s a thriller. It’s a love story. It’s a mystery. One of the hardest things to do when you have a continuing theme book…I was afraid that I was going to lose the theme. When I started to put the outline together for the book that you read, it dawned on me that the theme was racism. You can’t look at The Black Ledger in any way, shape or form and not see the theme of racism. Not just white versus black. There’s white versus black, black versus white, Nazi versus Jewish. What The Black Ledger became by the end of the book was a giant compilation of racism and social issues combined into one, how women treat men, how men treat women, what your status is. As I was working on this story, I let my mind recall and develop all these things. I guess this way of thinking about these themes, these incidents, helped me to find The Black Ledger in the long run.”
Racism is a core theme in The Black Ledger. You do a marvelous job in approaching a weighty subject with compassion and sensitivity. How much concern did you have when you were writing your book that this particular narrative wasn’t your story to tell?
“Quite a bit. I would sit down and write a scene and have to ask myself, can I really write that scene? I knew that was the way that things happened, but I was worried whether I had the right to write it. That was difficult with alot of the book. You’re caught between this rock and this hard place. You want to write the truth. You want to be as entertaining as possible, but you don’t want to go overboard and so it becomes stereotypes like the movie Shaft from the 1970s. You want it to be honest and you want to give the characters as much respect as possible. I struggle so much with it. Literary agents turned me down because of the racial overtones. They’re not undertones. They’re overtones. It’s a racially charged book. I know that. But what I decided early on was that Ron Pickles would never utter the n word in the book. You’re going to see this story through a young white guy’s eyes who has a certain amount of innocence. As the book progresses, Ron matures and sees the seedy side of life. And I’m not talking about the black community. I’m talking about the crooked insurance industry. By the end of the book, you would have been on a journey; it’s going to feel like you were floating down a river and you were looking at the view on each side and it got scarier and scarier and scarier. Yet, you were more determined that you were going to get to the end of this river. So early on, I wondered whether I had the right to tell this story. I decided that I wasn’t going to sugarcoat things. I was going to tell this story as honestly as I could.”
Why should people read The Black Ledger?
“Because I want them to, that’s why (laughs). Seriously…The thing is this: I think intellectual honesty is severely missing in the world today, especially with politics and the way we treat each other. You can see it in the interactions between people. The dumbing down of America is insane right now. The Black Ledger, even though it’s fiction, it’s based on raw emotion. It’s based on what it is like to be in uncomfortable situation. Why should people read this book is to immerse yourself in a situation that you don’t know. What was it like thirty-seven years ago to live in the projects. What was it like to be white and to be poor and to go into a poor black neighborhood and how your life actually mirrors the lives of the people who you’re trying to sell insurance to. There’s no difference. You’re in the same economic situation. If you want to understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, read The Black Ledger.”
Are there any other current projects that you’re able to share with us?
“There are quite a few. There is a possible trilogy for The Black Ledger. There are a couple of crime stories that Ron Pickles and maybe Ruppert are involved. But my next book is going to be a collaboration and the working title is ‘Don’t be a half donut girl’ and it’s based on a story that goes back to the 1970’s. My sister went out on a date with a guy she really liked. They went out on a Friday night and they decided to go out again on a Sunday. They stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts. He didn’t ask her what she wanted and he came back with a small coffee and one donut and he split the donut. Then he gave her half the donut. She looked at him, put the donut on the hood of the car, and said ‘I’m not a half donut girl.’ She called my mother to pick her up. The concept of the book is going to be stories about how girls should have more respect for themselves. It’s going to be a girl empowerment book. It’s hilarious. Plus, I’m working on a screenplay for The Black Ledger with one of the producers for Jersey Boys which recently ended its run in New York. He helped me alot with doing some of the formatting for The Black Ledger. We signed an agreement in February. He’s doing a television show right now and after that’s over, we’re going to see if we can come up with a concept for the screenplay. His idea is like a thirteen episode HBO show. He really likes the idea of breaking The Black Ledger up. There are so many exciting things going on.”