King of Rags follows the life of Scott Joplin and his fellow ragtime musicians as they frantically transform the seedy and segregated underbelly of comedians, conmen and prostitutes who called America’s most vibrant cities home. Inspired by Booker T. Washington and the Dahomeyan defeat in West Africa, Joplin was ignored by the masses for writing the music of Civil Rights fifty years before America was ready to listen.
Thank you, Mr. Eric Bronson
How does a philosopher get to write historical fiction?
When I was a philosophy student I was very impressed with Immanuel Kant's motto for the Enlightenment: "Sapere aude," or "Dare to know." That means we shouldn't always believe what someone else says is true. We need to discover truths for ourselves. I had read about Scott Joplin's ragtime music and his unpublished opera on education and race but it's not the same thing as watching live performances in Sedalia, Missouri and Texarkana, Texas. I read all about how funny Bert Williams was, but you appreciate him all the more when you read his personal joke book in the public archives in Harlem. All philosophy should begin with wonder, Aristotle says. And the same is true for writing and researching.
Obviously, Scott Joplin was… is a very known musician. How much freedom can you take to turn his autobiography into historical fiction?
Joplin's music is well known but his personal life is a mystery. That's true for many black artists and musicians at the turn of the twentieth century. Their lives are undocumented and unrecognized today, one of the many tragedies of racism. I wanted to tie Joplin's life into a larger story of black artists and leaders struggling to be heard. That brought in other real-life characters like Ida Wells who argued so passionately against America's lynching laws, George Walker who performed for the Queen of England, and Paul Dunbar who gave dignity to the broken slave.
And why did you choose to write “about” Scott Joplin?
In most of my writings I come back to characters who live in two worlds. They work and sweat and die in this world but they have a romantic, almost religious yearning for something better, higher, deeper. Ragtime musicians were dreaming of Carnegie Hall while playing in brothels. Joplin was unique. He was a musical genius who was valued by white classical musicians and conductors. But his more serious work was ignored. He wanted his music to be played slow, with longing for something more. Instead, "they" sped it up to make it sound so happy.
What does Eric Bronson – the editor says about the King of Rags?
Well, the editor in me wants a coherent story with that ties together neatly. The kid in me wants every story to have a happy ending. Unfortunately the philosopher in me wants to find the truth, no matter how painful. And the professor in me wants others to search for the truth themselves. Ragtime musicians did not live orderly, linear lives. Their dreams and desires stop and start abuptly like the music they write. I wanted King of Rags to reflect their disappearing dreams.
Your classes “on Modern Life focus on anxiety, creativity, and happiness.” In what form (if) are these concepts found in King of Rags? Is there any connection between your book and your classes?
I think there are certain universal themes we're all attracted to today. How can we find peace and harmony in such a fast, ever-changing world? How can we find beauty in the dirty, dull places of our everyday life? How much money and time are we willing to sacrifice to pursue our dreams? And how much of our dream do we sacrifice for money and approval? History tells us that we didn't just invent these questions in 2014. The stories of other people's courage, success, and failure can help us invent our own answers though.
About the author:
Eric Bronson teaches philosophy in the Humanities Department at York University in Toronto. He is the editor of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), Poker and Philosophy (Open Court, 2006), Baseball and Philosophy (Open Court, 2004), and co-editor of The Hobbit and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), and The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (Open Court, 2003).
In 2007 he served as the "Soul Trainer" for the CBC radio morning show, "Sounds Like Canada." His current project is a book called The Dice Shooters, based loosely on his experiences dealing craps in Las Vegas.