'Driving The King' A Story Long In The Works
ARUN RATH, HOST:
A new book by Ravi Howard is called "Driving The King." It's a fictionalized account of the adventures of Nat King Cole and his bodyguard driver, a guy named Nat Weary, a guy who's plucked from Jim Crow Alabama into glitzy Los Angeles in the 1950s. How Ravi Howard got that idea, well, that story goes back a long way, back before his first novel, before he won an Emmy for his work on "Inside The NFL," before grad school, before college, way back when he was just a 10-year-old kid. Here's Ravi himself to tell the story.
RAVI HOWARD: I was growing up in Montgomery. And like most kids there, I had heard the stories of the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. And that history was just always present. I was also made familiar with the story of Nat Cole almost by accident on a black history month tour that I took around the city when I was about 10 years old.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L.O.V.E.")
NAT KING COLE: (Singing) L is for the way you look at me.
HOWARD: I can remember it just being kind of a cold, rainy February Saturday. I remember going and almost thinking, well, I'm familiar with all of the things that I'm going to see because I live here. But I do remember kind of pulling up to this house on St. John's Street, kind of white clapboard house, clapboard siding with green shutters and being told, well, this is the house where Nat King Cole was born. This is the house where he grew up. And it was in an area that I would, you know, pass going to the barbershop or walk by going to the park. So I had all this personal connection to this neighborhood where he kind of grew up. So I kind of started to think about, well, where did I come from? What was going on in Montgomery? And all of those little stories that I'd heard growing up, those little experiences I wanted to build into my life as a writer.
When I was a student at Howard, I was studying journalism, researching, trying to find stories. Eventually, though, I went to graduate school and started writing creatively. So those, you know, aspects of writing - be it the research or just imagining - kind of came together. You know, those were the tools I applied to those things that I'd heard growing up. After college, I worked for a travel magazine for a while. I was doing freelance work for a while just trying to get myself - I guess work up the courage to go into fiction. But NFL Films was something that I started to do immediately after graduate school.
I worked at NFL Films for four years. And what I really loved about that experience was we were telling stories that many networks were telling. Anyone had access to the facts of who won or what the box score might've been for a particular game. So it became important to then say, well, how are we going to stylistically tell this in a way that's going to be compelling? Those four years after graduate school were really kind of transformative because I was writing fiction at night, and I was doing sports work during the day. So I think I saw how versatile I think I had to be as a writer.
Things kind of started to take off with the fiction, and so we ended up moving to Alabama, which is where my first book took place. The first book, "Like Trees Walking," was based on the true story of a lynching of a young man named Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama. My extended family is from Mobile. So that was also a story that I grew up hearing because it happened in 1981. And so when I became a writer, I just kept kind of going back to what that history was; not just the facts of it, but how people might have felt within that moment.
After, you know, completing that and feeling good about the process, I started to mime my childhood a little bit more to see what stories kind of resonated or kind of came back to the surface that I really wanted to live in for a little while longer to tell the story. And I think maybe I was prompted to think about the Nat Cole story more because the block that he lived on is no longer there. It was demolished when the college was expanding. And a group of people got together and helped to get his house saved or preserved. And it has been moved a couple of blocks away. And it kind of made the news again. So I'm looking at pictures of this house that I remember from this tour. It's on a different block. It's facing a different direction. And I had a professor in college who said, when you move an old house or an old building, you are creating a fiction.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NAT KING COLE SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, "The Nat King Cole Show."
HOWARD: There's just so much on Nat Cole - books, documentaries, so much music. So I kind of had this idea. I had this voice. I had this visual of him from his television show, but I kind of needed these spaces; spaces outside of the airway, television airwaves, spaces outside of the radio, outside of records. It was really grounding for me to take someone with such a big national and international following and kind of boil his story down initially to this one space where he lived. And I needed a starting point. I had a lot of ideas or bullet points or historical moments, but I needed to kind of have a starting point visually for the storytelling process. And that house kind of became it for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")
COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable. That's what you are.
RATH: Ravi Howard's novel is called "Driving The King." It's out now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFORGETTABLE")
COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.