Steve Watkins, professor of English at the University of Mary Washington, has had a long career in journalistic writing, and one of the crowning achievements of his work as a journalist is his book The Black O. The Black O details the landmark racial discrimination suit brought against Shoney's Inc. for the firing of many African-American workers, and goes into great depth describing the proceedings and individuals involved in the court case. It is a chilling portrayal of the racism embedded within the heart of one of America's largest corporate empires.
Many events in his life influenced Steve Watkins to become interested in journalism and ultimately write The Black O. Watkins gives particular credit to "the events of the Civil Rights Movement, and fundamental beliefs instilled by my parents that we all have a civic duty to actively involve ourselves in the marketplace of ideas, and that an informed citizenry is essential to a democratic society." During his years in high school, Watkins worked as the editor of an underground newspaper that was satirical and reformist in its focus, which influenced his later work as a journalist, including the writing of The Black O.
The process of compiling all the information included in The Black O proved to be a long and arduous task for Watkins. It began for him when "a mutual friend of mine put me in touch with Thomas Warren, the principal attorney for the plaintiffs in Haynes v. Shoney's and Warren subsequently invited me to have a front row seat to the case as it evolved. I read legal documents, interviewed him and other attorneys exhaustively, and, after the case settled, I began even more extensive interviewing and researching."
Watkins spent six months on the book itself, after publication of a long article about the groundbreaking case for "The Nation" magazine and landing a book contract. "I took a leave of absence from my teaching job at Mary Washington for a semester and spent most of that six months sitting in my laundry room all day wearing my pajamas, reading legal documents, interviewing people all over by phone, writing, revising, and re-revising. The most memorable parts of the writing experience were the conversations with the specific victims of Shoney's racial discrimination-and the repeated legal threats from Shoney's attorneys."
Landing a book contract proved to be an adventure in itself for Watkins, as he explained that "The Black O was originally under contract with a commercial press, which had it listed as the lead book in their catalog, paid me a sizable advance against royalties to write the book, and was already heavily promoting it before publication. Then, for reasons never explained, other than undefined ‘legal concerns', they declared the finished manuscript "unacceptable" and dropped it from their catalog." After this unforeseen difficulty, Watkins continued his quest to get his book published. "The University of Georgia Press subsequently bought the book and published it, with no legal problems or concerns. Oliver Stone's production company was interested in making the book into a film, and there were meetings and phone calls and pitches to studios, but ultimately nothing came of it." Though the film deal fell through, the book itself was very successful and won the Virginia College Stores Book Award, was a finalist for the Southern Regional Council's Lillian Smith Non-Fiction Book Award, and was positively reviewed in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, and academic journals.
Watkins views himself as belonging to a long line of journalists detailing and explaining society's ills to the populace. "Many role models were investigative reporter and muckrakers from the early 20th Century such as Ida Turnbull and Upton Sinclair who brought the details of how heads of industry and the federal government abused their power to the p[ublic]. I also enjoy the work of writers such as Tracy Kidder and Peter Mathiassen who go deep into the worlds they're covering to discover the truths there, and to reveal those truths through appropriate context, narrative, and details." He believes that mainstream press journalism today is "generally good, but should have been much more aggressive in examining administration claims about the dangers posed by Iraq in the build-up to the second Iraq War. However, as Thomas Jefferson famously said, "If given the choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to prefer the latter. I still believe what my parents taught me-that we all have a civic duty to actively involve ourselves in the marketplace of ideas."
To people interested in a career in journalism, Watkins gives the following advice; "subscribe to the New Yorker and Washington Post and Harpers. Read a book a week. Put your own ego in a lockbox and learn to listen to people rather than rushing to the myriad judgments we make all the time. Be skeptical, but resist cynicism. Above all, always carry a pencil. Pens can run out of ink and tape recorders' batteries have been known to dies at the worst possible time."
Steve Watkins does not currently have any plans for future nonfiction projects such as The Black O. Instead, he plans to focus on his other love-short stories. "I have a collection of short stories forthcoming next year (Fall 2006) from Southern Methodist University Press, titled Critterworld and Other Stories. All the stories have previously been published in literary journals, magazines, anthologies, and several have won national awards. They represent a significant portion of my work in short fiction over the past 20 years, and it's nice to see that stories I wrote that long ago still stand up well next to more recent works. I also have a couple of new short stories under consideration at magazines."