Pulitzer Prize winning author Heather Ann Thompson spoke at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday night as a part of the Sweetland Writing Center’s Writer to Writer series. As part of the series, the center brings in a renowned author monthly to speak about their work, their process and their advice to younger writers studying at the University of Michigan and in the surrounding area.
Thompson works as a historian at the University in the Departments of Afro-American and African studies and History as well as the Residential College. Additionally, Thompson is a critically-acclaimed author with more than 20 awards including a Bancroft Prize and Pulitzer Prize for her book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.” Since its release, Thompson has been on a neverending press tour for “Blood in the Water”, including an interview on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”
Shelly Manis who works at the Sweetland Writing Center and runs the Writer to Writer Series, conducted the interview with Thompson at Literati and organized for it to be broadcasted live on the student radio station WCBN.
Thompson first revealed that she never viewed writing as her calling, nor did it come naturally to her, which was rather discouraging as she began to work in her field of study.
“Writing is hard and it feels like your identity is always on display when you try to convey something on paper,” Thompson said.
Thompson explained that once she found “a passion for what I wanted to write about,” the process seemed to flow. She set out as a writer to kindle that same passion in her readers because the issues that she covers are so important to surround with conversation. She writes in an “accessible” manner so that anyone can learn from her research.
“I wanted my random relatives in Kansas to pick this up and go, ‘Oh, this is a page turner,’” Thompson remarked.
“Blood in the Water” chronicles a 1971 prison uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Prisoners had been trying to improve their conditions legally by petitioning the government, but they were met with extreme resistance. As a result, the inmates staged an uprising, taking the prison guards hostage and negotiating with the state.
Despite nearly ubiquitous news coverage and relatively civil negotiations, New York state troopers came in with force. The troopers tortured the inmates but would come to deny such proceedings. There were 39 fatalities.
“This book is about the uprising, but it was also about the coverup,” Thompson.
Thompson spent 13 years researching and writing “Blood in the Water”. New York sealed their archives regarding the Attica riot, so Thompson said she had to retrieve the information in a roundabout way.
“The thing about being a historian, it’s like being a detective,” Thompson said. “You have to think about where’s the secret. Who knows where the sources are? That’s the fun part. It’s amazing how creative you can be. Believe me, the stuff is there. You just have to look for it.”
Thompson looked at union records for prison guards and coroner’s reports for autopsies. She interviewed inmates, prison guards and state troopers alike in order to offer every perspective.
“Who’s really telling the truth of the narrative?” Thompson said. “That’s kind of the most vexing thing.”
Thompson said she views it as her responsibility as a historian to tell stories comprehensively to the best of her ability. She said this is compounded by her privilege as a white woman covering such volatile research regarding race and ethnicity. She assured the audience that she is “not pretending that it’s my story.”
“I see that as a privilege, but I also see it as an obligation to figure out what the hell happened and report back,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s work revolves around this idea of responsibility to find the truth. Her favorite kind of writing is not weighty, academic works, but rather breaking news opinion pieces regarding current affairs. Thompson called this her work as a public intellectual and describes it as trying “to correct the record in the moment.”
Thompson writes often on issues regarding police and prisons. Public Policy junior Bhavya Sukhavasi said she enjoyed the fact that Thompson delved into this aspect of her work at the event.
“It isn’t just about writing a professional book, but writing just day-to-day,” Sukhavasi said.
Thompson told the audience about an opportunity that she had to write an op-ed for The New York Times regarding a recent prison riot in South Carolina. She publicly condemned the story of the police — claiming they were not telling the whole truth.
Following the release of Thompson’s op-ed, inmates came forward with videos from inside the prison during the riots that confirmed the misdeeds of the police. Thompson said she enjoys being able to write important stories using her historical expertise in order to facilitate a dialogue about the issues at hand.
“There’s no choice,” Thompson said. “You weigh in now or you don’t. You write now or you don’t.”
It is with this courage that Thompson advised her students to write. She said she is happiest when it seems her students portray “a confidence to have some mastery of the sources rather than the sources master them.”
“They need to just have some confidence in their own voice,” Thompson said. “You kind of have to have a little bit of that bravery to step in front of it like that.”
Julie Babcock, a lecturer in Sweetland Center for Writing said as an educator, she reverberated Thompson’s sentiments regarding the necessity for students to present confidence in their writing.
“We want to hear your thoughts, and we want to see you engage in such conversations,” Babcock said.
In sharing her experience, Thompson said she finds one of her most important roles is instilling hope in her students suffering the frustrations of entering into writing.
“It’s so overwhelming when you’re in it,” Thompson said. “It’s important that students understand all the barriers you have also faced and how you overcame them to kind of brainstorm strategies for moving forward.”
Thompson is currently researching for her next book on the bombing of a building housing MOVE Black liberation activists in Philadelphia in the spring of 1985. This past year, she was awarded the Bearing Witness Writing Fellowship from the Ford Foundation’s Art of Justice Fund to allow her to conduct more research. Next year, she will be teaching at Cambridge University and she plans to release her next book in about three years.