WRITERS ONLINE MAGAZINE
Volume 14, Number 2
Allen Ballard, An Interview with Allan Ballard
By Jack Rightmyer
When you think of all that Allen Ballard has been through, it’s not surprising that in his late sixties he would challenge himself to begin a career as a fiction writer.
“I’ve always wanted to write fiction,” said Ballard in a recent phone interview from his home in Clifton Park. “When I was in graduate school back in the 1950’s I wanted to be a fiction writer and combine a work of fiction with an exciting historical time period.”
Ballard’s life has encompassed an exciting historical time period. He grew up in the 1930’s in a tough section of Philadelphia and was one of the first two students to integrate Kenyon College in the early 1950’s where he graduated magna cum laude and was president of the student body.
His academic resume is impressive with one year of study at the University of Bordeaux in France, a doctorate in Government from Harvard University in 1961, and a career teaching at some of our country’s finest academic institutions, Boston University, Dartmouth College and Cornell University.
“In some ways I feel like I’ve never quite settled down,” said Ballard, “and turning to fiction writing goes right along with that. I’ve always loved reading fiction, especially the great Russian novels. Fiction is a great way to understand historical time periods on a personal level.”
In his writing he’s trying to chronicle the African-American experience through different time periods. His first book of fiction “Where I’m Bound” (2000) was one of the first novels to address the Civil War from the perspective of Black soldiers. His newest book “Carried by Six,” Seaforth Press, $17.95, 294 pages, is an urban thriller about drugs and violence in a contemporary Philadelphia neighborhood.
On Tuesday Ballard will read from his new book at 7 p.m. in Assembly Hall located in the Campus Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. The talk is free, and it kicks off the spring series of events for the New York State Writers Institute.
His new book is a raw representation of the violence found in many of today’s urban neighborhoods. The story follows Obie Bullock, the leader of an anti-violence group, and his struggles with the neighborhood’s drug dealer Son Teagle. “I wanted to create characters a reader would care about and then put these characters in a dangerous situation.”
According to Ballard, he grew up in a neighborhood with some tough characters, but he was lucky to have friends and family members who loved him and believed in his abilities. “I remember this one rough guy who taught me how to box,” said Ballard. “He was drinking one day out in the street and when I came home from college he stopped me and said how proud he was that I was going to college.”
That experience, along with a few others, taught Ballard that all characters have redeeming qualities. “Son Teagle is a very bad man,” he said, “but I try to show the background where he came from so the reader can get an understanding about why he became so horrible.”
This is also something Ballard has experienced as a teacher. “All young people need hope,” he said. “When young people get hopeless that’s when bad things happen.”
Ballard is both encouraged and discouraged about the plight of African-Americans today. “I’m certainly encouraged by the election of President Obama and the number of opportunities available to black people today, but at the same time I’m discouraged about the vast numbers of poor blacks who have been left behind. The contrast has never been greater.”
Dr. Ballard is also concerned about the rap and hip hop music culture which, according to him, is very misogynistic and seems to glamorize profanity and violence.
“I’m around young people every day,” said Ballard, “and many of them talk about why they like this music, but I don’t see anything good about it.”
Music has always been a major influence in his life. “I grew up in a family that loved to sing.,” he said. “I’ve also taught my classes by playing music to represent historical time periods.”
He has even compiled a CD of himself playing a guitar and singing old songs made popular by Mahalia Jackson and Reverend James Cleveland. “I’ve also written my auto-biography that SUNY Press will be publishing next year,” said Ballard. He’s been working on that book for over ten years.
“Writing that auto-biography was difficult,” he said. “I didn’t want to write about one event and then go on to another event. I wanted to delve into what I was thinking and feeling at the time, and that was hard to do. There was some real emotional turmoil I went through during many of those years.”
It should be an exciting autobiography to read describing his growing up, his integration of Kenyon College, his army experience, and his study of Russian literature where he travelled to Moscow in 1959-60. He even spent a month living on a farm with his host family who turned out to be the future premier Mikhail Gorbachev and his young wife Raisa.
“We’d play music, drink wine and argue about politics,” said Ballard. “It was a wonderful time.”
He believes that we all live through significant historical time periods. “I don’t necessarily buy into that ‘Greatest Generation’ theory,” said Ballard. “Time periods force all of us to take a stand sooner or later.”
He has now lived in Albany for over twenty years and has taught for all those years as a professor of African-American history at the State University of New York at Albany. “I’ve always loved this area,” said Ballard. “When I was in college I worked as a cook at Silver Bay and lived up in Lake George all summer. I still get up there every summer, and there’s nothing so relaxing as spending some time in nature.”
He has enjoyed his long career in academia, and he credits his work ethic as the most important reason he became a writer of fiction. “Writing fiction is much more difficult than academic writing,” said Ballard. “It didn’t come easily to me. I taught myself how to write fiction by reading extensively the biographies of Tolstoy, Flaubert and Virginia Wolff.”
He has tried to make his fiction seem believable and realistic. “I’m lucky to work with an editor, Renni Brown, who refuses to even let one sentence go by that doesn’t work. She’s a stern task master, but she makes my writing so much better.”
For more information about the talk contact the New York State Writers Institute at 442-5620.