It was a scene familiar to many Yale Law School students — law professor Stephen L. Carter in glasses and a gray tweed coat, reading out loud from a thick book.
This, however, was a Yale Bookstore-sponsored book signing, not a Law School class. And on Tuesday night Carter was reading excerpts not from a legal text, but from his first novel, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
The mystery novel is set in the elite worlds of upper-class African-American society and a fictitious Ivy League law school, with the story of the complex Garland family at its crux. Its narrator, Talcott Garland, who investigates the mysterious death of his father, is a law professor who Carter characterized as a “professional skeptic.” But Carter emphasized that Garland is not his alter ego.
“It’s something of a surprise for me to be here,” said Carter, whose novel, published in June, was a New York Times bestseller.
Carter said he first began thinking up the story of the Garland family in the 1980s.
“[The novel] began as an effort to tell the story of a remarkable family — whose members came to me over many years,” Carter said.
Carter said that he decided to set the novel on a fictitious college campus rather than a real one because it allowed more room for creativity and imagination.
Similarly, although the town of Elm Harbor in the novel bears some similarities to New Haven, it is not simply a thinly-disguised version of New Haven, Carter said.
Carter also stressed that he did not intend the novel to be an anthropological study of a particular segment of American society.
“I didn’t write it to explore a particular world,” Carter said. “I didn’t write it for the sake of social or political commentary. It’s a novel, you see.”
Carter, who has been teaching at Yale since 1982, is the author of seven other books, which he described as “controversial nonfiction.”
He said the change in atmosphere at book signings for fiction is a welcome one.
“One of the delights for me about writing fiction is that people who hated the book usually don’t come to the book signings,” Carter said.
Carter also credited his wife for helping him during the writing process.
“I think it’s fair to say that without my wife this book would not exist,” Carter said. “Imagine someone loving enough to read [the manuscript] five or six times and then ruthlessly tell the truth about it.”
After giving opening remarks about his work, Carter sat down to read the novel’s prologue aloud — something that audience member Lory Walker said she enjoyed.
“I think one nice thing about listening to a writer is that when I continue to read [the book] — I have his voice with me,” Walker said. “Professor Carter is exactly how I imagined him.”
Carter said the audience at the Yale Bookstore signing was similar to audiences at signings in other cities, but that he felt more nervous during his Yale appearance.
“I was more nervous because this is my home, the people who know me best,” Carter said.