On an unseasonably warm evening in November, Albert French agrees to chat with me in his Point Breeze backyard about writing, Pittsburgh, life and what’s next for him as we sit around a miniature bonfire that he fuels with leaves and empty cigarette boxes. The author of five books (and also, incidentally, the first cousin of another of Pittsburgh’s great writers, John Edgar Wideman), French’s books include the best-selling novel, Billy, about a ten-year-old African-American boy in Mississippi in the 1930’s who is condemned to death for the accidental killing of a white teenager. His work has been translated into French, German, Dutch and Italian; it has been the inspiration for a stage production, several screenplays, a full-scale orchestral work and even a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lately, we haven’t heard much from him, and one might suppose that he has settled down in his golden years. It doesn’t take much time, though, to figure out that French is still flickering with the same mischievous glee. The flames of the little bonfire hiss riotously inside a metal coffee tin set in the center of his plastic picnic table, threatening to overtake our conversation, and he smiles with approval.
Hot Metal Bridge: What are you most proud of?
Albert French: There are three things that I’m proud of-really, really proud of. They are—and not in order, but just three things—One, there was a prestigious book club in London called the Royal Book Club, and from time to time they reprint the classics, and because Billy was so successful and they were aware of my writing, they asked me to write the forward to To Kill a Mockingbird. -Harper Lee never allowed any forwards to her books, but they sent it to her; she liked it, so my forward to To Kill a Mockingbird was the first authorized forward to any of those printings of To Kill a Mockingbird. I was very proud of that. The second thing, my editor told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury used Billy as the foundation for one of his radio sermons. And the third thing was, there was a guy who lives outside of New York, he’s a music person and he read Patches of Fire, and he was impressed with it. So he wrote a seventeen-minute classical piece called The Monument. Its first performance was by the Memphis Symphony. Then it was performed and recorded by the Czech Philharmonic in Prague. Those things are very heartwarming, when people find your work and take it another step.
HMB: Your second-to-last book, I Can’t Wait on God, actually takes place here in Pittsburgh. Is it fictional or a memoir?
AF: It’s fictional. The best way to describe it is like a “Bonny and Clyde”-type book that takes place in the 1950s in Homewood, basically over a period of five days. I Can’t Wait on God was very interesting for me to write because it’s interwoven between real characters and fictional characters. Examples would be: Bill Lovett, Mr. Allen, Dickeybird. These are people I knew. To write about Homewood in that time period, our Homewood, that part of Homewood, and not mention those people would be an injustice. They were characters of such a strong fiber in that community, in the way they thought, the way they acted. Bill Lovett: I remember this experience. I guess I was about seven or so. One morning, getting ready to go to school, there was a scent of smoke. And then somebody went out and checked it out, and they came back in and said, “Bill Lovett’s house is on fire.” He lived about half a block, maybe a block away. All of his kids and his wife were killed in that fire. We had to walk by the house in order to go to school. As I’m speaking I can see the burnt, crispy wood on it. And Bill Lovett began to drink. But no matter how much he drank, he would always be polite. He was a friend of my grandfather’s. Always polite. Always a gentleman.
HMB: You actually spent some time working in the steel mills, is that correct?
AF: I spent one year there before I retired. I’d just gotten out of the service. How old was I, twenty-six, twenty-seven? I figured I’d retire in one year, and I got the hell out of that damn place. It wasn’t a bad experience. I just hated the damn place. Those people were crazy. They wanted you to stoke that damn furnace. I wasn’t made out for the bill. It was too-hard work.
HMB: But then that led you to becoming a freelance photographer?
AF: It was around that time that I started to take an interest in photography. The story behind that is that in Vietnam I bought this camera, and when I left Vietnam I was air vac-ed as one of the wounded and the camera was left behind. So then about six months later my seat bags show up and there was the camera. So it stayed in there for awhile. Then around Christmas, at the end of the year, I got out the camera to take pictures of my little sisters, and I developed an interest in photography. At that time magazines like Life and Look were good. That became what’s called now “photojournalism.” And being a little bold as I am, I decided I would go cover Martin Luther King’s funeral. I had no idea what I was doing, but I got some good shots, and that gave me a lot of experience and inspiration. So that’s how photography started. I never went to photography school. I just don’t like going to school. I didn’t do too good in school last time I was in school, when I was in high school.
HMB: Do you feel like that prepared you for being a writer or that it fed into that?
AF: I’m hesitating because I don’t know. The Post-Gazette did not hire me to write, they hired me as a photographer, but I think that job helped me in looking at a story. What makes a story. What aspect of a story lingers to mean something. And although that was all journalism, it’s still the foundation for any good story. During one of the Super Bowl years, Charlie Feeney, he was a baseball writer, went out to do a little feature. Just people on the street because the Steelers were playing the Super Bowl. And we ran across this one guy. He was probably a derelict. And Charlie asked him how come he’s not watching the game. Then, when Charlie was done with just those few questions and went to walk away, the guy said, “Thanks for talking to me.” And I think that probably let you see more into that human being, how lonely he must have been to thank somebody for talking to him. Out of all the hundreds of stories I’ve been on, I think that’s the only one that ever thanked someone so sincerely for just talking to them. There was a book in that man.
HMB: You and your cousin John Wideman are both acclaimed writers coming from the same family, and then there are all of the many other artists and writers that have come out of Pittsburgh. What do you think it is about this city that makes it such a fertile ground for creativity?
AF: Beats the hell out of me. I don’t know. My cousin John and I took totally different routes. John was always studious and a good sportsman. He graduated from high school and went to the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship. But that was John. I graduated from high school, luckily, and ended up in the fucking Marine Corps. And that was me. That was my life. It’s no great surprise that John became a writer. It’s a big fucking surprise that I became a writer. I remember my uncle would take us to the library, and I would get out the books with pictures in them, and John would get out the other kinds of books to read. One of the journalists in London once said something that I felt very good about, though. I believe it was the lead for his story about me. He said: “Pittsburgh is known for its writers: August Wilson, John Wideman and now Albert French.” And the guy didn’t even know that John was my cousin. August was a tremendous character; I used to see him in Shadyside back in the sixties. He always had a tablet, writing. But I don’t think that there’s anything that joins us together. John writes about Homewood a lot, and our experiences are different with that, too. Most of the time John lived in Shadyside, but he had a good grasp on what was going on. As far as the Pittsburgh scene in general, it has really progressed in the past few years, and it continues to progress in the arts. A lot of people, young artists, have moved from Brooklyn, New York, other places. This is becoming a mecca for arts. In years to come, not in my time, but in the future, it will be a much nicer place for artists to be.
HMB: Now I’ve heard that there is a screenplay in the works for your novel Billy. How has that process been going, and how have you felt about that adaptation, another case of your work transforming to fit a in a different venue?
AF: I lose track, but this has been about the seventh or eighth option on Billy. A lot of them were promising, but this one here I think is very, very promising. It’s optioned now by Martin Davidson, and he has done extremely well with the screenplay. You’re always worried about seeing it mishandled. Seeing your words twisted, not getting out the meaning, but Martin did extremely well. There was one screenplay written for Patches of Fire, and I read it and I didn’t know who in the hell they were talking about. I couldn’t tell it was so messed up. If anyone knows how to do Billy, Martin’ll have a good idea. And he’s very enthusiastic about the project. I just sent him back the final draft, and as we talk right now it’s in the mail and will be at his place about twelve noon. I would say that it’s about ninety eight percent of what it should be. There’s a couple of loose ends here and there. I’m satisfied with it, though, because what it needs it won’t take long to get.
HMB: Do you think you’ll ever do any more writing?
AF: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever write again. It takes a lot of energy. And then there’s this new world, this computer world. All the books I ever wrote before were typed on a typewriter. Now everyone’s switched to computers, and I’m not into all that technology crap. I don’t know whether I’ll write again. I got a new typewriter, though, so I could work on the screenplay.
HMB: Is it electric or manual?
AF: It’s electric, but as fast as I go I could use a manual. It’s just the same.