Kevin Baker

     ... writer, editor and a walking encyclopedia on New York City. He was the chief historical researcher on The American Century written by (Sir) Harold Evans. His fiction includes the "City of Fire Trilogy" which ends with Strivers Row. Mr. Baker writes a monthly column for American Heritage magazine and, among others, has written for The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Frankfurter Rundschau and Harper's Magazine. Naturally he lives in New York City with his wife, Ellen Abrams (also a writer), and Stella, their cat.

Preview of Kevin Baker
Conversation 1 RealAudio1:00

New York City and America have reflected each other since the earliest days of both, says historian and novelist Kevin Baker, from slave rebellions to “9/11” and beyond.  It’s the place, Mr. Baker says, where Americans have fought out who is going to be fully American -- will immigrants be included? Black people? Gays? Women? It’s also where the United States of America’s national government started -- George Washington took the oath of office as its first President at the corner of Wall Street and Broad. Small wonder then that New York City is also, Mr. Baker says, the most turbulent, bloody little patch of America, ever.

His wealth of stories go back to the 1700s when slaves rebelled and Indians fought intruding Europeans. During America’s Revolution, droves of people died in horrible British prison ships in the East River and a third of New York City was burned down. The worst riot in American history -- the Draft Riots during the Civil War -- reflected an oddly symbiotic relationship between the South and New Yorkers, who overwhelmingly supported Lincoln’s opponent, Mr. Baker says.

Mr. Baker artfully rendered his encyclopedic knowledge of his home town into his trilogy “Circle of Fire” which ends with Strivers Row. As in the other two volumes, Mr. Baker weaves historical realities together with characters intended to reflect actual individuals. The setting is the real 1943 as America edges toward its Civil Rights era, and the context is the real African-American community, led by A. Phillip Randolph and others, effectively asserting its rights.  And that’s what captured his imagination, Mr. Baker says.  He wanted to explore the roots of what grows into America’s catharsis -- its Civil Rights Movement.

Don’t be deceived by conventional wisdom about the 1940s, he says. It stops short when it portrays America as some kind of wonderful. However much truth there may be in stories of a greatest generation humming away on the homefront, working together to win a war, 1940s America was also very turbulent. People were restless, moving around the country and had money in their pockets for the first time. Various peoples and races were coming together in places where they’d never been together before. Men were going to war.  Women were going to factories (even though nobody provided day care, in part beause the Catholic Church didn’t want it, Mr. Baker recalls).

But most of the conflicts that erupted were in black and white, he says.  In Strivers Row, it’s the Malcolm X-like character (and a splendid array of other characters) through whose eyes the personal and historical merge.

Throughout its history, New York always had a dual identity as big city/little city, Mr. Baker says. Yes, it is the center of art, finance, culture and industry in America, a vertical and cosmopolitan city unlike any in the world. Simultaneously, New York is also tucked-away neighborhoods where people may not leave the same block for years, where you get to know your neighbors -- you have little choice -- and the public square is very much alive.  While Kevin Baker understands that his beloved hometown may not be for everyone, one thing’s sure. There is no end to New York City’s fascination. Or to its stories.

[This Program was recorded February 21, 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Kevin Baker describes the odd and longstanding symbiotic relationship between New York City and the American South since well before the Civil War for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. New York City, Mr. Baker contends, is America’s bloodiest patch of ground, ever.


Conversation 2

Considering New York City as a paradigm for the USA, Mr. Baker gives vivid examples of its big city/little city nature, singularly cosmopolitan and profoundly local.  Applauding the vibrancy of its public square, the conversation turns to New York’s complexity and especially to Harlem during its years as the Black Capital of America, a magnet for the nation and world.


Conversation 3

Conventional wisdom was wrong about America in the 1940s, Mr. Baker shows, describing great turbulence in virtually every arena, particularly the profound and pervasive effects of segregation across the nation. He puts that in the context of Strivers Row, the last of his trilogy about the “City of Fire”, revivifying the catharsis over race that was sparked in Harlem in the summer of 1943.


Conversation 4

The different strands on the eve of the modern Civil Rights Movement were what captivated him, Mr. Baker continues, and describes his characters who resemble Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Adam Clayton Powell and many others, known and unknown. After considering the costs and lure of racial “passing”, the conversation turns to America’s painful role in the eugenics movement and then to The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.


Conversation 5

Summarizing Elijah Muhammad’s odyssey, Mr. Baker considers what he calls Americans’ particular ability to impose their own reality on the country in both good and frightening ways, particularly when it comes to religions. Even though Americans are in denial about how violent the country is, Mr. Baker says, he describes a variety of ethnic and religious experiences he believes have improved us, fully appreciating Frederick Douglass’ insight that power cedes nothing without a demand.


Conversation 6

Informing the “now” is his goal, Mr. Baker says, and makes a strong case that we are unable to assess the present and future without knowing our past. The draft during the Vietnam era forced a more vibrant democracy, he points out, calling Americans again to be involved in creating a better present and future for all.



Fiction that enriches fact is one of life’s great pleasures. We thank Kevin Baker for mastering the craft of historical fiction, reaching beyond the ordinary while celebrating it, facing squarely the realities of America’s struggle for equal justice for all … giving us a chance to do better.


Related Links:

The City of Fire trilogy – Dreamland, Paradise Alley and Strivers Row are published in hard back, trade paper, audio and e-books by HarperCollins

Though we don't talk with a lot of fiction writers, here are several with whom we've had pleasant and frequently revealing conversations:  Bernard Cornwell, Stephen J. Cannell, Samuel Delany, Nelson DeMille, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Finder, Aminatta Forna, James Frey (while still a "memoirist), Tony Hillerman, Lady P.D. James, Ha Jin, Edward P. Jones, Frances Mayes, Donald McCaig, Sara Paretsky, Daniel Silva, Richard Slotkin (much better known as an historian), Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding and Linda Bloodworth Thomason.

Quick buttons

© 2007 The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may not be used for any commercial purpose without the express, written consent of Paula Gordon.  Non-commercial use is permitted and encouraged provided that credit is given to The Paula Gordon Show, appropriate urls cited, links are provided where possible and meaning is not altered by editing.