>> Hi, I'm Tyler Yates, In Tell It Truth.
You can expect to find different perspectives of people from different perspectives of people all throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
My favorite part is how everybody resents the news crews and how everybody does not want them present during all their interviews during their meetings and all these things.
Everybody has kind of a hatred for them, but they keep finding ways into the... spread the news, basically Tell It True helps me understand Southern culture by taking a look into the past and showing how it has changed in the late sixties and early fifties, or late fifties, early sixties, and what kind of struggles they had to go through to become what we are now.
I'm Holly Jackson.
Join us as we bring you powerful stories from both new and established southern authors as we sit By the River.
♪ Major funding for By The River is provided by the ETV Endowment of South Carolina For more than 40 years, the ETV Endowment of South Carolina has been a partner of South Carolina ETV and South Carolina Public Radio.
Additional funding is provided by the USCB Center for the Arts Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USCB and the Pat Conroy Literary Center.
>> Well, welcome.
It's another beautiful day here in our waterfront studio in beautiful Beaufort, South Carolina.
As part of our love letter to southern writing we're bringing you powerful stories from both new and established southern authors.
And this season we are focused on unexpected southern stories and writers.
We're here today with author of Tell It True John Pruitt.
John, thank you so much for coming here.
<John> So good to be here.
<Holly> I always like to hear when we have an out-of-town guest, you know, what you think about the area being here in Beaufort, but this is no stranger.
This town is no stranger to you.
<John> We have a home on Fripp Island.
Atlanta, you know, full-time, but here on Fripp at least two or three weeks, every six weeks or so, trying to split our time.
Since I retired I can do that.
<Holly> And you know, whenever you say Fripp, we always have to bring up Pat Conroy.
Are you a fan?
And did you ever meet him?
That sort of thing.
<John> I did.
I am a fan of Pat Conroy.
Followed Pat for, you know, decades and actually got to know him.
Did some forums with Pat at literary conferences, Pat and Terry Kay, one of his author buddies.
And what a charming man and so gracious and so welcoming and so helpful to young writers.
And I'm so sorry Pat passed away because I know if he had been here, he would've been a real encouragement to me to complete my novel.
<Holly> I always like to know if somebody has met him, I like to hear a little something.
Cause I like to pick on up on something new from the writers, because you're right.
He was such a mentor to writers and always would give someone sort of feedback I was.
<John> So outgoing, is so friendly and so human.
So a real loss.
We miss him.
<John> But his work endures.
<Holly> All right.
Let's get to Tell It True.
So in doing my research on you, I found it fascinating.
So you were a TV newscaster for how many years?
<John> I was a television news journalist, reporter, later anchor for almost 50 years.
<Holly> Almost 50 years, <John> All in Atlanta.
So the story that I love, and I've gotta have you retell it, is how that first week on the job, I don't even know, were you even hired yet?
Was it more of like a shadowing experience?
<John> No, I was hired.
<Holly> You were hired, but you, you admittedly knew nothing.
They paid me a buck 25 an hour to be a flunky in the newsroom, basically.
<John> But it was the first week of July, 1964, which was a very historic week.
That was the week the Civil Rights Act of 64 was signed into law first day on the job, you know, and things are really rumbling in the South.
And I was sent to cover a segregationist rally, a stadium full of people, very upset that the federal government was going to require them to let African Americans eat in restaurants and stay in hotels right alongside them.
They couldn't quite understand it or take it.
And four young black protestors came into that rally and the crowd went absolutely berserk.
And some of the crowd began beating these young black men with metal folding chairs and slugging with fists.
I had never shot news film in my life, but the more veteran reporter that was with me, who I had been assigned to help carry equipment basically.
<Holly> Right, right.
>> Said, John, here's a camera.
Punch this button, go up there as close as you can and see what you can get.
So the first news film I ever shot miraculously turned out and made the NBC Nightly news that very evening.
And I realized this is a job I could love.
I was horrified by what I had seen.
>> But the fact that what I had seen had been put on film and then shown to the rest of the country, made a tremendous impact on me.
And it was a perfect example of what the media television in particular was doing to advance the cause of civil rights simply by well telling it true, basically.
That's so unusual that would happen.
So literally first week of your career, did you ever take that as kind of like a sign that this was a calling?
Do you think it was just happenstance?
<John> Hard to say.
I've thought back on it as a real sign that, yeah, I was so lucky to get into the business because back in the day when I was in school, broadcast journalism was not a major that anyone offered.
In fact, television news was not really a profession most young people considered.
I had tried to find newspaper work because I thought I could write, couldn't do it, and got recommended to a TV station.
And as I say, they hired me for a ridiculous sum of money to be a flunky in the newsroom.
But that happenstance was so fortunate.
So yes, let's say it was a sign because I went on to establish myself as a reporter photographer because in those days the reporter was the photographer and vice versa, one guy.
And then later on to becoming an anchorman.
My first love though is, is reporting that, being on the scene, being out and covering stories and interviewing the newsmakers.
I loved my profession.
I stuck with it for 50 years.
I grew up in Atlanta, so it was like, you know, a love affair with my city, and I was able to cover, I'm a history, history major, so I was in effect covering history every day.
In little small increments.
So yeah, if it was a sign, it was a good sign.
<Holly> Very good.
I'm with you on that.
And being out in the field and meeting those people.
That's where, that's where it happens.
I mean, that's the good stuff right there.
And you know it's story after story after story every day, and you move on to the next one.
But there are those that stick with you.
And whether it's because of the way a family, a family member, maybe found out something right in front of you or just the bond that you get through covering the story for so long, you just, you never forget it.
It's always kind of part of your life.
<John> It is part of your life.
>> So how did that influence this book at all?
<John> Well, as I was approaching retirement some 12 years ago, I was often asked, what's the most important story you covered?
What's the biggest story you covered?
And there were so many.
<Holly> You can't just say one.
<John> You can't say one.
But I always came back to the Civil Rights Movement.
Not one single story, but just the episodic movement that was changing the South, changing society.
Really a historic revolution in our time.
And I was there to cover so much of it.
And so I, I was able to interview Dr. King, for example.
I go back that far.
Andrew Young, John Lewis, and also the other side of the coin, the Lester Maddoxes and the JB Stoners, those who were, you know, more racist in their approach and all of that complex societal turmoil that was going on, that was the story that I always came back to the Civil Rights Movement.
It was a crucible for a young reporter.
I've never forgotten it, and I've always wanted to write about it.
And so that's really why I wrote Tell It True.
<Holly> At what point after retirement did the book begin?
>> Actually, it began before retirement.
Well before - <Holly> What was part of the plan?
>> Part of the plan.
And, let's face it, I was busy.
I had children, I had grandchildren.
I didn't have the discipline to really stick with it.
I had about a hundred pages.
I put it aside for years at a time.
And when I finally retired in 2011, I realized I had no more excuses.
I had to get this done.
So I'm saying it took me about three years to finish the product and, you know, get it published, but it was really more of a lifetime work.
And I'm wondering if I have another novel in me because I put so much into this one.
<Holly> I bet it was.
Yeah, and in TV news, you know, it's, you've got that four o'clock, five o'clock, six o'clock deadline every day, and so you know that you have to do this thing, but whenever, it's yourself kind of How did that go?
<John> Well when you retire, deadlines don't quite mean what they used to.
<Holly> I know, but... <John> You can put things off.
<Holly> I'm impressed that you got it out.
You did it.
<John> I did it.
But I was committed to doing it because I've, Holly I've always wanted to write a novel, even for my earliest days in, in college when I did a, a good deal of creative writing, But then I get into a profession, a business, as you well know, where you're writing every day.
<John> But you're writing under pressure and you're writing news copy that has to be basic, understandable to a wide range of intellects and people who are listening to it, and they can't go back and reread it, So it has to be clear, understandable, and you do a lot of that, and you develop an ability to write a lot and convey a lot in very few words.
A novel is totally different from that.
When you go into fiction, it's liberating because you can use those big adjectives that you couldn't use in broadcast news, but it was also good training because yeah, you had the deadlines, and once you establish a deadline, as I did with this, you meet the deadline.
There's no question that you will meet the deadline.
<Holly> You're gonna do it.
So you said the word liberating, but I do want to go more on that and how it's so different from, you know, having to, having to share the exact truth and the facts, and then in your case, making up your own governor's race in your book.
1964, a governor's race didn't happen in Georgia in 64.
<Holly> ...was that fun?
Was it kind of weird?
Did it feel wrong?
Tell me kind of the emotions you went through during that whole part.
<John> You're a journalist, <Holly> Right.
<John> And I'm a journalist, and so yes, if you're creating facts altering history, it is a little bizarre.
But I got over it quickly, because the reason I did it was because I needed to create an alternate universe.
The story in Tell It True is based on fact, the facts back up the narrative.
But I needed the freedom to be able to create my own world, my own characters with their motivations, and put them into the mix and see what happened.
And if you're doing absolutely nonfiction, it's very hard because you're locked onto dates and names and events.
So I needed to get beyond that.
And so in that sense, fiction is so liberating.
But I do feel historical fiction, if done well, if done authentically, which I believe my book is in terms of the time you're trying to communicate the people, their motivations, it can be illuminating for those who want to know about history.
It can be entertaining, involving, it can perhaps make them want to go back and learn more about the actual events that sparked the novel that they're reading.
So yeah, historical fiction is a tried and proven way to make history more accessible.
I think my book will do that.
I think it will tell people what it was like in the sixties in Georgia, in terms of civil rights, the attitudes, the conflict, and the drive to change society against significant and sometimes violent opposition.
<Holly> Tell me about who you read now and how they influence you as a writer.
<John> Well, when I was much younger, I read a lot of Thomas Wolfe.
<John> And his flowery prose.
I loved it.
And Pat Conroy actually adopted some of that, but Pat was a Thomas Wolfe fan.
If you read Pat Conroy, you'll see that, that flowing dramatic prose.
So they were influential to me.
There's not a lot of that in my book.
I do have descriptive passages, but they were influential in terms of creating a real love of reading and a love of literature.
Now, so much of my reading is non-fiction.
I do read a lot of history non-fiction, David McCullough and others.
So I have a real mix of things that are on my bookshelf that I'm reading.
Amor Towles, I just read, read A Lincoln Highway, which was great.
What a great storyteller he is.
So it's a very eclectic group of writers that I've always loved.
As we, as we talk now, you're just a few months off of this book coming out.
Have some of the people in Atlanta figured out that you've written about them?
And how did that conversation go down whenever it was revealed?
<John> One of the, I think the joys of reading this book, if you know something about Georgia and Georgia history, is trying to determine who the characters really are.
And people think they know, but they may not know, because I didn't really model.
<Holly> Do you keep the history alive whenever you're, you know, talking to them out in public.
<John> I do.
<John> What I normally say is my characters are composites of actual people.
So none of them is an actual person.
There's some that are very close, but yes, I've had people say, oh, well, you know, Sheriff McSwain is so-and-so, or Roscoe Pike.
Oh, we know who Roscoe Pike.
No, you don't.
It's a composite, A composite of all the characters I've covered.
<Holly> What has it been like reconnecting with your audience again, in a totally different way?
<John> It's been wonderful.
When you anchor the news, as I did for almost 50 years in the same town, you develop a bond with the audience.
They know you or feel like they know you, you're in their homes every night, and it's a very strong thing, and even though I retired, it continues, and people continue to recognize you on the street and they hear your voice and it triggers something in their mind.
And so to be able to go back into the public realm to do, you know, the book tour and talk to large groups and engage with people and sign books, have just been so rewarding to me because so many people who have come out have been longtime viewers of my newscast, and they bought the book, which is even better.
<Holly> That's nice.
You saw a lot of changes in TV news.
<John> Oh yeah along your time.
First of all, tell me, what were y'all recording on that first week?
Wasn't the camera huge?
<John> Oh, film, <Holly> Yeah.
<John> Black and white silent film.
<Holly> Oh my gosh.
You don't remember that?
<Holly> No, I don't.
But I love hearing, you know, news people say, oh, we were shooting on, you know, DVCPRO or whatever.
<John> 16 millimeters.
It's like, you know, yeah.
<Holly> You judge how much somebody knows by what they first shot on.
<John> Well, there's a lot of, there's a lot of that context in the book, the difficulties that television reporters had and simply covering the news, all the equipment they had to carry.
I mean, now you can, you can cover a story with an iPhone.
<Holly> With an iPhone.
<John> I mean, you can shoot it.
You can do the track.
You can send it out to the world.
<Holly> It's amazing.
<John> But back in the day, in the sixties, you had to have a bulky camera that you kept on your shoulder, an amplifier, a battery pack for a light, a light meter, a tripod.
If you were doing the lengthy interview, you had to haul all that equipment around basically in a station wagon, but if you had to go mobile, you had to take it out and get as much of it on your shoulders as you could and move around.
And you're also doing it in areas where they don't really want to see you back in the civil rights period.
You went to a rural county where there was civil rights unrest.
The sheriff didn't really want to see you there, and most of the people didn't wanna see you there.
So there was danger involved in that.
And then there's the element of getting the film back in the station, getting it processed, getting it edited.
There's no FTP site.
<John> No, nothing was live.
Nothing was instantaneous.
Everything had probably at least a two hour delay factor.
So there's a lot of that in the book.
I wasn't sure how many people would, would really want to read about that, but it's, it's surprising.
I hear a lot of people say, I really enjoyed that.
<Holly> I think people are fascinated by that.
That's the way it used to be.
And it's easier today in so many respects, but back in the day we never thought.
<Holly> But also harder, you know, you didn't have all the social media that you had to post to and beat somebody to.
We could, we could talk a whole nother half hour on that part.
<John> Actually going live, brings with it as everything is these days, brings with it its own set of problems.
At least back in the days of film, you had some time to reflect on things, to write the story because you were still waiting for the film to come out.
So it wasn't as immediate, but maybe more thoughtful than today.
When everything is, you know, as it's happening.
Tell me about your first readers.
Whenever you write, who are your go-to people that, the first eyes on your copy and they gave you feedback?
<John> Good question, of course, my wife Andrea, who had to live with a guy who was sitting, you know, 10 feet away in a different world.
<John> Writing a story.
So she, read it as I was going along.
But I was so fortunate to have a group of established writers who I knew and who were more than willing to help me.
Terry Kay, the esteemed novelist from Georgia, who's passed away sadly.
But Terry was the one who really goated me to write and did review the novel as I was writing it, and had some very good comments and suggestions.
Sadly, he passed away before the book was published.
Steve Ony, my friend from LA who's a Georgia graduate and is just a wonderful writer, was probably my biggest cheerleader.
But he also had great suggestions.
For example, he said, John, you need to give your characters quirkiness.
You need to, you know, make them unusual.
Which was great.
I did that.
In fact, one of my characters is the Associated Press reporter, Mindy Williams, who quotes poetry at the most inopportune times, but that's her quirk.
<Holly> All right.
<John> So that came - <Holly> I like that.
<John> Phillip Lee Williams, a very distinguished writer also was, was one who encouraged me and had good suggestions.
So I think, you know, I was a rookie novelist and I was in need of someone to tell me I was on the right track, that this might be something that I would want to pursue and continue and complete.
Those are three of those who really were so helpful to me, and there were others.
<Holly> Was there that producer voice in your head saying, you need to, you need to trim it down, you need to trim it down, and you need to fight that... <John> Yes, I had 120,000 words initially, and now it's 105,000.
<John> 15,000 words went out the window.
And that was largely a result of people encouraging me to tighten it up.
<Holly> Tighten It up.
Still hearing that after all these years, huh.
So, you finished it.
I know it's hard to think about what's next because you're still in that (gasps) moment, but do you think there's, - Are you gonna keep writing?
<John> You know, I, I, I feel like I left so much of it on the floor when I finished this novel.
And it was such a great feeling to really hold it in my hands and say, Gosh, I did this and it's permanent.
It's gonna be on somebody's shelf for a long, long time.
<John> But then I say, well, is there another one in me?
And I think there may be.
So yes, I've got thoughts in mind for another novel.
<Holly> You think you'll stick to the historical fiction?
I think I will, and it may be even, involve some of the characters in, in the first Tell It True.
We'll, just have to see.
I'll have to sit down and start writing and see what happens.
<John> But it's such an exciting process and it's very fulfilling when you can finally have someone say, yeah, we'll publish this book for you.
<Holly> And tell me about the book tour part.
How have you enjoyed that?
I know we talked about reconnecting with, you know, your audience and everything <John> I loved it, and I think most, I think most authors love to talk about their book.
And at this stage, four months from publication, I've been telling them about the book, and I'm looking forward as I continue the tour, to talk to more and more people who actually read the book so we can actually talk about the characters, and their motivations and what happened.
And so I'm looking forward to it, and I'll still be doing more speaking.
Anyone who wants to invite me, <Holly> You'll come, <John> I'll probably say yes.
<Holly> Last question.
Do you still watch the news?
<John> Yes, I do watch the news.
Not as much as I used to.
My wife, Andrea, of course, over the decades, got into a habit of watching the five and the six o'clock news and the 11 o'clock news.
So she's normally got the TV on.
And the news is on, so I'll be in and out and I will watch it, but I don't make it appointment television.
I probably watch more national, international news than local news, unless it's a big local story.
I always like to hear that part, whether you're one that reads it or watches it, or a little bit of both, and how your habits has changed since you were on TV.
<John> There are changes.
>> And sometimes,l I look at it and I'm not happy with what I see.
>>>But at the bottom, I know these are professionals and they're good and they're smart, and they're giving it everything they've got.
And I certainly understand that, and I think by and large, they do a fine job.
It's, it's a tough job.
<Holly> And it must be nice to finally eat supper with your family.
And share Christmas.
<John> Sometimes I cook it.
<Holly> Very nice.
John Pruitt, thanks so much for joining us.
This has been a delightful conversation.
<John> Thank you.
<Holly> I've really enjoyed having you, <John> Thank you so much.
<Holly> ...learning more about you and about the book.
Thank you all for joining us here on By the River.
We always love having you around.
Please join us now for our Poet's Corner, and we'll see you next time on By the River.
<John> He was grateful for some time away from the city.
Leaving the traffic and suburban sprawl was always a reminder that Atlanta was just a small part of a much larger and far different world.
The two-lane road he now traveled was typical of so much of the state.
The view was mostly pastureland and pine forest meandering cattle, ragged billboards, and the occasional small stream hidden by overhanging branches of hardwoods that had claimed their places along the moist and fertile creek banks.
Kudzu was constantly on the march, spending its...kudzu was constantly on the march, sending its rapidly growing tendrils in all directions, covering open ground, abandoned farmhouses, rusting farm equipment in every unfortunate tree that happened to be in its ravenous path.
As he crossed the line into Pickett County, Gill was reminded of the county's dark racial history.
A couple of shacks along the highway had flagpoles with faded rebel flags hanging limply.
It was discouraging to think that attitudes were much the same in rural counties all over Georgia.
Generations have come and gone, he thought, but attitudes have remained pretty much constant.
Gill wondered when or if change would ever come.
♪ music ♪ ♪ ♪ Major funding for By The River is provided by the ETV Endowment of South Carolina for more than 40 years.
The ETV Endowment of South Carolina has been a partner of South Carolina ETV, and South Carolina Public Radio.
Additional funding is provided by the USCB Center for the Arts, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USCB and the Pat Conroy Literary Center.