The horrors of U.S. slavery will never be forgotten, but can reviving them in modern times truly right past wrongs?
In Dwayne Alexander Smith’s debut novel Forty Acres: A Thriller, up-and-coming lawyer Martin Grey faces more than sudden fame when he lands a high-profile case against legal superstar Damon Darrell. Martin is willingly lured into Damon’s exclusive circle of successful African-American men who then invite him on a weekend getaway. However, this seemingly innocent trip turns into a dangerous moral journey when Martin finds himself on a secret plantation staffed entirely by white slaves, where he is now master.
Between the Covers: How did the idea of the reversed plantation develop? Did it evolve over time or hit you all at once?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: Forty Acres started out as a time travel story, believe it or not. An African-American astronaut has an accident in space, which causes his ship to crash back to earth. Somehow he has gone back in time and finds himself in the Antebellum South. Unable to speak because of an injury, he is captured by slavers and put to work on a plantation. I loved this idea but I couldn’t sell my people on it as a screenplay. I really wanted to write a story about American slavery, so I kept toying with the idea. After several other versions of the story, it struck me that a story about blacks keeping white slaves would be very powerful, if I could make it believable. I worked hard to figure out how such a conspiracy would be pulled off if it were real.
BTC: This book is exceptional not only for the controversial concept behind the Forty Acres plantation but for its page-turning suspense as well. What about the thriller genre made you choose it to tell this unique story?
DAS: I don’t think there’s any other way to tell this story. The core concept, because it’s centered around a conspiracy, just lends itself to the thriller genre. I’ve seen a few reviews where the reader wished that the story wasn’t couched in a thriller. I guess they would prefer a more straightforward approach. They feel the themes tackled in the story should be taken more seriously. I get it but I feel that the plot is too fantastic to be delivered straight. Working it into a thriller gives the reader more license to suspend disbelief and just go with it.
BTC: There are various representations of African-American masculinity portrayed in this book. How did you go about developing such diverse personalities and their differing views on race and history?
DAS: My approach to character is very calculated. I start out with very basic questions. What are his dreams? What is he afraid of? How would he react if a gun was pointed at him? I have a whole list of question. Another thing I do is create a detailed past. I figure out all the major events in a character’s life from birth to starting point of the story. Where did he grow up? How many brothers and sisters? How did he do in school? What major injuries did he suffer as a kid? These details never make it into the story but they inform the character’s behavior. A black man who grew up in a Bronx ghetto is going to have a different attitude toward the world than a black man who grew up in an upper middle class household.
BTC: How challenging was it for you to reveal humanity at its worst and best through your characters? Did any parts of the creation process keep you up at night?
DAS: There are some pretty disturbing scenes in Forty Acres that were not easy to write. I was constantly tempted to soften those moments but I had to keep reminding myself that everything that occurs in my story is a reflection of what actually took place on plantations during the slavery era in the United States. Ultimately, I felt it was important that these scenes be impactful to establish the past horrors that motivate my story’s antagonists and also to establish very high stakes for my protagonist. Martin puts everything on the line at the end of the story, the reason for his sacrifice has to be believable.
BTC: What research went into recreating the horrific realities of American slavery in modern times?
DAS: I tried to make Forty Acres as real as possible. I tried to figure out how a conspiracy like Forty Acres would be perpetrated if it were real. A lot of research went into where to locate the compound. There are not many places in the United States where you can hide a secret slave compound. There’s also the problem of hiding the slaves. You can’t have them picking cotton, so I had to come up with an alternative that still reflected what went on hundreds of years ago. I think that the type of slave labor I decided to use is not only historically accurate but also enlightening to the reader. I don’t want to say what it is, to avoid spoilers, but I’ve found that a lot of people are unaware that slaves were used for this sort of labor in the United States.
BTC: Since Forty Acres: A Thriller is receiving great praise from readers and critics alike, can we anticipate more books?
DAS: Yes. I’m working on another thriller called White Widow that involves a very unique serial killer. I also have a plot ready to go for a sequel to Forty Acres, if the book takes off.
BTC: If you were stranded on an island with an immortal DVD player, what one film would you want? What single book?
DAS: That is a tough question. Approaching it practically, I’d want a movie that is very re-watchable, not just a great movie. I can watch musicals over and over. My favorite musical is West Side Story, so I’d have to go with that. Same approach to what book I would choose. My choice might be surprising, but I never get tired of reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I can crack that book open on any page and find a laugh. Just the type of book you would need if stranded on an island.