YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel
Last Chance for Justice by Thorne
It is my honor to introduce T.K. Thorne as my guest blogger for September. Teresa retired as a captain of the Birmingham Police Department and currently serves as executive director of CAP, a business improvement district in downtown Birmingham. Both careers have provided fodder for her writing. Her fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have been published in various venues and garnered several awards.
Claire Datnow at T.K. Thorne’s Boo Launch at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Claire: It was my pleasure to attend the launch of your book, Last Chance for Justice, at the historic Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. What were your thoughts and emotions at holding this event in this historic place?
Teresa: I was really moved by the people who came to support me and those who came because they wanted to have and read this book and were willing to stand in a long line and wait for the three of us (myself and both the investigators of the last case) to sign the books! Each time I looked up, it seemed the line was equally as long as it had been, which was great, but it kept me concentrating so hard on the task that I didn't have time to think about the big picture. This was probably a good thing! I had planed to read a bit from the book and maybe have the three of us answer questions, but that became impossible and would have been unfair to the people waiting for signatures. Other than that, I was afraid I would forget to thank someone important (which I did anyway).
Claire: Did you anticipate such a large and enthusiastic crowd?
Teresa: When my first novel came out (Noah's Wife) I had no idea what to expect and was anticipating at best maybe half of the number of people who came. So, I wasn't that surprised at the crowd, because I, hopefully, have the same number of friends, and the subject matter is so tied to the heart and history of Birmingham. Also I knew friends and family of Ben Herren and Bill Fleming, (the investigators on the last case) would also come. There was such a wonderful energy in the room and people seemed to be enjoying each other and celebrating and that was a wonderful thing to experience and be part of. One old family friend flew in from Houston and surprised me and then surprised me again by purchasing a book for every county library in the state of Alabama!
Claire: I found Detective Herren’s and Detective Fleming's remarks at the book launch most enlightening. The Detectives denied that they were the heroes. They claimed that the true heroes of the case were the people that came forward to testify as witnesses. Do you agree with them?
Teresa: There are all kinds of heroes. All the investigators over the years put in a tremendous amount of effort and dedication toward bringing justice for those young girls. Risk is part of what they did every day, something they accepted with the job and so they didn't see themselves as heroes. I disagree. Every law enforcement officer, soldier and fire fighter is a hero in my book. But what Herren and Fleming meant was that the witnesses who stepped forward put themselves at risk, even though they didn't have to. They were civilians and they could have gone about their lives and never exposed themselves to the danger or emotional trauma involved with going to court in a case like this. Some testified against family members, risking, not only their safety but relationships. They were most definitely heroes.
Claire: What was the inspiration for writing Last Chance for Justice?
Teresa: Detective Ben Herren "disappeared" from the Birmingham Police Department in 1995 to work in a secret partnership with the FBI on the 1963 Sixteenth Street church bombing case, telling his fellow officers (including me) that he was working on an auto theft task force investigation. The FBI didn't want anyone finding out that the case had been reopened until they had a chance to review all the thousands of case and informant records from the 1960s and to interview the suspects.
I felt the first "pull" to tell this story in 2004 when I heard Detective Herren speak at an event called "The Gathering," where all the people who had been involved in this case over the years--as victims, witnesses, prosecutors or investigators--came together in celebration and commemoration. The scope and work involved in the case, not to mention the fascinating characters involved, intrigued me. Also, I knew the wounds between law enforcement and Birmingham’s African-American community were still open and raw; that many didn't believe the case had ever truly been pursued or believed it could have been solved long ago. Because of my background in law enforcement and the fact that I knew one of the primary investigators, I felt I could tell the law enforcement side of this story from a unique perspective. Several years later, I saw Herren again and offered to record interviews with him and Bill Fleming, his FBI partner to make sure their stories were preserved. We met weekly for a year-and-a-half and when they ran out of memories, they asked me to write a book!
Claire: You mentioned that as a writer that the right details can ‘make the whole environs pop into the reader’s reality.’ When I was writing my memoir, Behind The Garden of Apartheid: Growing Up White in Segregated South Africa, I dug deep into my memory for vivid details. Did you visit special places that helped you to do that?
Teresa: Writing this non-fiction book was different from writing fiction, even historical fiction, because I was telling the story from the perspective of the investigators, so details couldn't come from my imagination. I had to pump them for stuff from their memories about the people they encountered and the places they went, since I didn't have the luxury of doing those interviews or going there myself. When I got those details from them, I latched onto them--the "ten-pound" Bibles on the Klansmen's coffee table, the gun lying on a government witness's kitchen counter, Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry's ever-present straw hat, a dying witnesses' tiny hobby cars. These details, along with the inside stories, help the reader into the investigators' world.
Claire: Thank you so much for a fascinating interview. I wish you the best of luck with Last Chance for Justice.
Teresa: Thank you, Claire! It was my pleasure.
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