Story of escaped slave brings writer success
Allen Ballard could be a poster child for aspiring novelists.
After a pile of rejection slips and three unpublished novels, Ballard, a University at Albany history and Africana Studies professor, refused to quit the decade-long morning ritual of writing fiction in his campus office -- before teaching.
"I never took a course in novel writing, so it took me a long time to learn the form,'' Ballard said. "I roll with the punches and don't get discouraged too easily.''
A month shy of his 70th birthday, Ballard's determination has paid off with publication today of his first work of fiction, "Where I'm Bound'' (Simon & Schuster, $24). The historical novel set during the Civil War celebrates the true story of courage and fighting prowess of the heretofore unheralded Union army's Third U.S. Colored Cavalry.
"The important story of black soldiers in the Union army has finally found a writer of historical fiction equal to the occasion,'' James McPherson, noted Civil War scholar and author, wrote in a jacket blurb.
Ballard also will celebrate tonight in a New York State Writers Institute event at UAlbany. He will be joined by members of the choir from his congregation, Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Albany, who will sing Civil War-era spirituals interspersed throughout his reading from the novel, which takes its title from one.
Oh, who'll go with me to that land? Who'll go with me to that land? Who'll go with me to that land where I'm bound?
He wrapped a resonant baritone around a few bars of the song during a recent interview in his UAlbany office. "Hey, you never know, I might break into song that night if the spirit moves me,'' said Ballard, who's a member of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church choir.
He has reason to sing out these days.
He's published by a major house and received a better-than-average advance ($35,000) for a debut novel. In addition, Simon & Schuster printed 60,000 hardcover copies, an unusually large first printing for a first-time novelist, and they're sending Ballard on a nine-city book tour.
"We toasted Allen and we're all so excited for him. It's just that much sweeter at his age,'' said Mars Hill, who had his first novel, "The Moaner's Bench,'' published two years ago at age 75.
Hill and his wife, Alvania, recently threw a dinner party at their Albany home in Ballard's honor. Hill took a graduate course in history from Ballard a dozen years ago and the two men became friends, trading manuscripts and sharing stories of rejection over the years spent struggling to become published novelists.
"When he'd get down or discouraged, he was like a champion athlete who just scuffled that much harder to succeed,'' Hill said.
"I don't know about these new kids on the block. I don't need any more competition,'' joked John A. Williams, a founder of the Black Arts Movement, who published the first of his 12 novels in the 1960s. Williams has a second home in rural Otsego County, has known Ballard for many years and made suggestions to the neophyte novelist after reading his manuscript.
In his book's acknowledgements, Ballard thanks dozens of people for their comments on his writing, including fellow UAlbany academic colleagues, Civil War buffs, his pastor and congregation, former graduate students, the owner of the cleaners where he gets his shirts pressed, even unsuspecting lunch partners on campus.
"Writing is such a solitary thing that as soon as I finished a passage, I wanted to get some instant feedback,'' said Ballard, who had previously published two scholarly nonfiction books on black history and culture.
"I'd read parts of the novel to anyone who'd listen, and if I saw their heads nodding in agreement, I thought I'd gotten the rhythm right,'' he said.
The novel's dialogue mirrors the swaying, rhythmic pace of spirituals in a rough-hewn vernacular common to the slaves of that time and place who lacked formal education.
"As soon as I found that cadence, I could really get the story going,'' said Ballard, who sought the ear of elderly black parishioners from Mississippi at his church. He also listened to oral histories he taped with old-timers in South Carolina and pored over published books of slave narratives and Civil War diaries.
"Where I'm Bound'' focuses on Joe Duckett, an escaped slave of remarkable riding and survival skills, who fights his way through Confederate lines to join the Union army. Duckett quickly becomes a leader and folk hero of a rough-riding calvary regiment of black men who gallop around the Mississippi Delta, freeing slaves and battling the enemy with lethal ability. A counterpoint to the fast-paced, plot-driven story of wartime is Duckett's journey of the heart to return to the plantation he'd fled in order to free his wife and daughter.
Ballard, who had to research everything from the Southern landscape to period speech, is comfortable as a quick-study. He is a gregarious, affable personality and a laid-back style beneath a powerful 6-foot, 2-inch former college football player's build, kept trim by daily lunchtime lap swimming at the UAlbany pool. With a bald head, silvery mustache and a booming laugh that punctuates a flat Philly accent, he makes a strong impression around campus.
The seed for the novel was planted two decades ago in an essay he wrote about driving through Virginia and South Carolina and seeing no public acknowledgment of the contributions of black soldiers in the Civil War. That notion began to percolate again six years ago when Ballard started reading the war's history in a serious way in order to lead a graduate seminar on the subject.
Year after year, while discussing the material, he'd say to his class: "This is so fascinating. Somebody ought to write a novel on those black Civil War soldiers. Maybe I will someday.''
Four years ago, Ballard figured the time had come to put up or shut up.
He laid aside the three rejected novels, filled his office bookshelves with Civil War reference works, immersed himself in the technical side through participation in a local Civil War round table and tried to build upon what he had learned in his fiction-writing apprenticeship.
Ballard was interrupted during the interview by a call from an eighth-grade teacher in Worcester, Mass., who was reading Ballard's novel to her class even as it was just arriving in bookstores.
"She told me her students are loving the book. I'm so touched,'' said Ballard, who invited the teacher and her class to visit him at UAlbany.
"I wanted to write a novel that would honor the contribution that black soldiers made in winning the Civil War because I feel they've been overlooked,'' Ballard said. "I wanted to create a positive image for today's black youth, but to do it in a way that has a bedrock of reality and truth.''
Ballard sees education and religion as an antidote to a youth culture that seems to glorify drugs, guns and violence. He dedicated "Where I'm Bound'' to the principal of his elementary school and the pastor at his Episcopal church in Philadelphia.
"That was my foundation,'' he said.
A divided past
Ballard grew up in a family as divided as north and south. His father grew up in South Carolina and migrated to Philly, where he became one of that city's earliest black police inspectors. His mother's family had roots reaching back several generations in Philadelphia and were among its black elite society.
His parents divorced when Ballard was young and he was raised with the help of a great-uncle and great-aunt who took in Ballard, his younger brother and mother. His great-uncle, a pharmacist, was a Republican ward boss and controlled a numbers-running network. Ballard attended all-black city schools when they were still segregated.
On weekends, he'd shuttle from his mother's elite, intellectual Episcopal household to the home of his father, whose raucous, extended South Carolina family of ex-football-player uncles and spiritual-singing, staunchly Baptist aunts and grandmothers gathered for food and song on Sundays.
"My grandmother used to sing 'Where I'm Bound' and the musicality and Southern flavor of the book comes from my father's side,'' Ballard said.
He was an academic recruit to Kenyon College in Ohio and was among the first black students at the liberal-arts school in 1948. He played football and lacrosse, was class president, majored in political science and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Yet Ballard felt like he never quite fit in with his classmates, who included the novelist E.L. Doctorow.
"There was prejudice socially,'' said Ballard, who was not allowed to join the all-white fraternities even though his teammates on the football team were in frats.
He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship after graduation. He studied French politics and culture in Paris and at the University of Bordeaux. He returned to the States and was drafted into the Army after the Korean War armistice. His posting for the next two years was NATO headquarters in Paris, running a program of troop education.
"Terrible duty,'' Ballard said with a laugh. It was almost enough to spur him to make a career of the Army, but academia beckoned.
He was accepted at Harvard University for graduate school and entered the Russian Studies program. He'd taken a year of Russian at Kenyon and was fascinated by the mystery and intrigue attached to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
He earned both a master's degree and doctorate at Harvard, focusing on the Soviet government, and lived and studied in Moscow during early exchanges in 1956 and 1959. Ballard's emphasis was on Russian agricultural history and he lived on a farm with a young couple named Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev. "He was very argumentative,'' Ballard recalled of Gorbachev.
After several years of teaching Soviet politics at City College of New York, Ballard came to UAlbany in 1986. He is divorced and lives in Clifton Park. His son, John, who played football at the University of Maine, teaches English in Japan. A stepdaughter with whom he has little contact is a lawyer.
A joke about success
Ballard and Hill joke about literary success coming to septuagenarians and how, at their age, swelled feet are more likely than swelled heads.
"I've been around the world a little,'' Ballard said. "And I've come to understand that it's luck and God's grace that gets you somewhere. Talent is a very small part of it.''
WHAT: Allen Ballard reading from his novel, "Where I'm Bound.'' Accompanied by a selections of spirituals sung by the choir of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Albany.