David R. Stokes grew up in the downriver suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. And though he moved away from the area many years ago, he remains a devoted fan of the Detroit Tigers, Vernors “pop,” Sanders Hot Fudge, and Michigan Coney Hot Dogs.
A minister for more than 30 years, along the way he added radio broadcaster, columnist, and author to his resume, while living and serving in Texas, Illinois, New York, and for the past 13 years—beautiful Northern Virginia. David has been married to his wife, Karen, for 35 years and they have been blessed with three daughters—all now grown and married and with wonderful children of their own. There are, in fact, seven grandchildren, a fact verified by hundreds—maybe thousands—of pictures, as well as an ever-growing collection of toys joyously cluttering their home.
For future projects, David is now proud to be represented by John Talbot of the Talbot Fortune Literary Agency.
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When and how did you learn about the J. Frank Norris story?
J. Frank Norris was well known in our family—my grandparents and mother (as a young girl) attended the church he preached at in Detroit, Michigan in the 1940s. I grew up hearing all sorts of stories about this colorful character.
At what point, and why, did you decide you were going to write a book about Norris?
The idea to write about J. Frank Norris and his murder trial lodged in my head many years ago—back in the early 1990s. Along the way I picked up items here and there and filed them away. Then occasionally I'd pull the file out—first a swollen folder, then a small box, then several more—and review the ever-accumulating material. Sometimes though, the boxes would go undisturbed for months at a time.
Over time, the files bulged and one day I noticed that I had gathered a substantial amount of poorly organized stuff. My wife “encouraged” me to clean the mess up and do something with the material I had collected. Eventually indexing more than 6,000 pages of newspaper articles, court records, and notes from other published works, this story began to take shape in my mind—then on paper.
In 2007, I finally decided to commit serious time and energy to this project.
What did your research process entail?
I made several trips to Fort Worth, Texas, likely wearing out my welcome at its wonderful public library's Central Branch on West Third Street; located just a block away from where the central element of this story took place. As part of my research, I read countless Fort Worth newspapers from back then—particularly the periods of 1924–1927, as well as those from 1911–1914. I stretched the limits of those sometimes high-maintenance microfilm reading contraptions and I am pretty sure I was more than a little bit of a nuisance to attendants on duty in the library's downstairs periodical section.
Every visit would end the same way—with my pockets empty of quarters. I would then gather up the fruit of that particular session, usually more than a hundred of pages of photocopies, and make my way back to my hotel to sort through, organize, and thoroughly review my harvest for the day.
Walking the city's downtown streets, I tried to imagine what it must have been like when the electric interurban competed with Model T's for control of its thoroughfares. I tried to envision a long-ago time when the oil boom was peaking and everything still felt at least a little like the old, wild west.
I have relied on newspaper and periodical reports, published trial transcripts, court records, archived material, and other published works to construct and color the story. Many of the details in this book come from J. Frank Norris's own words.
Who do you think will be the audience for your book?
First, I think most people love a good story and this is a very good story. It may, in fact, be the most famous story most Americans have never heard.
And it has been hiding in plain sight for decades waiting to be told.
But of course, thinking more narrowly, I think there are several subjects in the book that are endlessly fascinating—for example, the Ku Klux Klan and its relationship with conservative politics in the 1920s, the Jazz Age itself (Roaring Twenties), and the true crime elements of the story.
Therefore, the audience for this book includes those who read true crime books, works on history, as well as those who love courtroom drama, the venerable staple of books, television programs, movies, and plays.
Name some authors and books that have inspired or guided you.
Erik Larson is the first to come to mind. His books, titles such as Devil in White City, Isaac’s Storm, Thunderstruck, and his new book, In the Garden of Beasts, are the gold standard, in my opinion for the narrative non-fiction or “true narrative” genre of writing. Larson has talked about the research process as “hunting detail”—a description that resonates with me.
Howard Blum is also gifted (American Lightning) as a narrative nonfiction writer, as is, of course, historian David McCullough. Both of these men write in a way that inspires me.
Recently I read Thomas Powers’ new book, The Killing of Crazy Horse, and I would certainly include him as a new edition to my favorite authors.
When it comes to fiction, I love the fiction works of Daniel Silva and am impressed with the work of a new author, Brad Taylor.
Among the best compliments to receive, I think, would be for someone to say something like: “I loved your book. I don’t usually read non-fiction, but yours read like a novel, yet it is a true story.” The idea being not to just appeal to readers of history, but the person who may usually choose a novel, but find my book captivating.