The reluctant hero

Albert French survived being shot in the neck in Vietnam. He survived racism in America. Now he's having to live with sudden success as a novelist. He talks to Angela Lambert
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The Independent Culture
Albert French talks as though it were yesterday. "I can see it now, as I'm telling you," he says. "We were in this rice paddy," he sketches a map across the undulating sofa cushions, "and the Vietcong were in the hills. I was shot in the throat at about eight in the morning. The sergeant got me down behind a rice paddy dyke and took my finger and placed it inside my neck and told me to keep pressing down because if I didn't I would die. I stayed there until darkness, blood all over my shirt, in pain but not unbearable. Then it started raining and the raindrops were falling inside my neck, hard, and that really hurt. It was an ugly thing to happen. It put my luck to the test."

Now his luck is being tested again, this time as a writer. He is about to face the moment of truth: can he follow up last year's publishing phenomenon Billy, with another success, or was that first book a fluke? Billy was set in the racist Deep South of the Thirties; his second book, Holly, published in Britain this week, is set in the still racist Deep South of the Forties. Albert French himself comes from Pittsburgh in the north, but although he has plenty of stories to tell about racism, the experience that irradiates both books comes from his time in Vietnam.

He joined up as a marine at the age of 20; and after two years' training was posted to Vietnam in 1965. Six months later, the bullet ripped open his throat. He lived, just, and was invalided back home. Does he feel bitter about Vietnam? "I wonder what life would have been like. Who I would have been without that, I can't even imagine. It's not an experience that ever leaves you. It can't. If I took that part out of me, I don't know what would be left. And yet, on cold nights in Vietnam we huddled together - we were all Americans - and I'm proud that I've had the opportunity, even in dark foxholes, to see America at its best."

Back home in the mid-Sixties, Albert French tried college - twice - but couldn't seem to settle down. He took up photography instead, and stuck with it for 13 years. At one time he became a morgue photographer until that sickened him too. In 1981, he launched a magazine for career women, but it folded after seven years. He fell into depression; lived alone; smoked too much. "I was in poor spirits, poor self-esteem, in what seemed like a hopeless situation."

A programme on television, caught by chance, channel-hopping - just the last few minutes at the end of a documentary - riveted his attention. It was about an 11-year-old boy hanged for murder in Mississippi, in 1937. Albert French had found a story that cried out to be told. He wrote it in six weeks, called it Billy and, to his astonishment, spent 1990 watching the book become a best-seller and himself become rich and famous. Last year he featured in a Time magazine cover-story on America's black role- models. He takes the magazine out of his briefcase and shows me. There he stands, in colour, boldly outlined against Pittsburgh's steel mills. He is proud of this, and yet remarks, "I never wanted to be a writer and I feel a little odd - out of place. I don't know what my place is, but I'm not what I perceive as a writer. I don't read, I'm not knowledgeable of the art, I can't spell and I have no idea where the commas go. But it's my life now, and there's a lot of things I enjoy about it, most of which have nothing to do with writing. That's very painful for me. It's almost like hanging up your soul for anyone to see."

Holly, his second book, published here this week, is about a 20-year- old white girl who falls in love with a black GI when he returns, wounded and damaged, from the Second World War. It ends badly. This is North Carolina, pre-civil rights, pre-Martin Luther King, pre-racial equality legislation. Given the colour of their skins, it could not have ended any other way. Does French feel that racism for black writers, like the Holocaust for Jewish writers, is the great unavoidable subject?

"There's a place to go, for Jews, where the Holocaust was. You can go and stand in Auschwitz and feel the place and the weight of what happened there. I know, I've done it. In the States, racism still exists and there's no place to go to get away from it. The racism is not centre-stage, it's the backdrop. Everything I write about exists within that context. If Holly and her lover Elias had both been black or both white there'd be no story: or nothing more than a typical and beautiful love story: two kids on the edges of their lives who find a new life in finding one another. But when you put the racism into it, you have a love denied. One black, one white, turns love to tragedy. That's what racism does. Racism makes little normal pieces of life become tragedies."

He writes as he talks, in staccato cadences free of artifice yet full of raw immediacy. It may not be conventional literary speech, but it burns off the page and thrums in the ear.

"The South is more of a feeling than a geographical area. Racism exists in Pittsburgh, in New York, wherever - the legacy of slavery is a shadow that lingers over our country. A lot of people are still in the darkness of that shadow. Those racist feelings haven't gone away, specially not in small towns, rural areas. Bigotry is still expressed openly - and this is 1995."

But, I say, what about the OJ Simpson trial? Isn't America bending over backwards to be fair, to deliver a verdict that has nothing to do with colour or race?

"What's on trial there, and may be found guilty, is not OJ, but justice itself. OJ is irrelevant. People in America, especially blacks, don't trust justice. Look at the Rodney King trial in 1990: there was a time when justice had the chance to encompass all its people - it was denied, and along came the riots.

"In the past, lynch mobs picnicked with their families on the day of the hanging. Court TV is like that. It has made justice a joke. Add money, fame and colour, and it's front page news. That, too, is racism."

n 'Holly' by Albert French is published by Minerva pounds 5.99

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