It's hard to resist an author who wears a shirt that says "Will Write For Chocolate." So, I presented Larry Karp with chocolate cigars from our local candy company, Cerreta's, and asked him to talk about his Ragtime trilogy.
Larry said his books worked themselves out as one mystery involving the history of ragtime. Although the books are part of a trilogy, they can be read on their own, or in order.
Karp said he wanted to start by letting us know he's non-musical. He has no musical talent, but he does have an intense love of music. He likes classical music, opera, early jazz, and ragtime. Early on, ragtime was popular in southern states and the south midwestern states. But, in 1899, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" made ragtime popular, and it stayed that way until World War I when jazz replaced it in popularity. In the 1940s, musicians in California revived ragtime. Then, in 1973, the movie, "The Sting," used Joplin's music, particularly "The Entertainer."
Joplin's goal was to transfer the rough music of the brothels and bars into a form of classical music. He was a serious composer. In the early 70s, Joshua Rifkin released a million-selling album of Joplin's ragtime music. George Roy Hill, director of "The Sting," heard that album, and used the music for the background of the film. Joplin's music was played as he wanted it played, not too fast, but just as it was written. Then, in 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a special lifetime achievement award.
Karp loved ragtime, so he began to read about it. He devoted himself to a six year research project. He discovered a book called They All Played Ragtime by Blesh. The author interviewed ragtime pioneers. The book was a popular, readable history of the people involved in the music, and the history of it. Karp was captivated by the characters and events surrounding ragtime. He learned all he could about the history of ragtime. That became the framework of his murder mystery.
The first book in Larry Karp's trilogy deals with the signing of the contract for "Maple Leaf Rag," the song that was so popular for two decades. A Sedalia, Missouri white publisher gave the black composer Scott Joplin royalties, something that was unheard of at the time. No one knows why he gave him a penny a copy as royalties. Since "Maple Leaf Rag" was the fist sheet music to sell one million copies, Joplin made out quite well at a time when $700 a year was a good income. The story deals with a young boy, Brun Campbell, who was a piano prodigy. He ran away from home to Sedalia because he wanted piano lessons from Scott Joplin. The black musician did teach the white boy, the boy whose nickname became the title of the first book in the trilogy, The Ragtime Kid.
Book two focused on a dispute between Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin in 1911. Joplin wanted to make ragtime respectable, and he moved to New York City. He wanted to write an opera, and he took it to Tin Pan Alley to the music publishing house where Irving Berlin worked. He left his opera at the publisher with the young lyricist, Berlin. The publishing house said they didn't handle that type of music. When Berlin came out with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, Joplin claimed he plagiarized the end of his opera. Nothing came of the claim, and there was no proof.
From 1911-1916, Joplin suffered from cerebral syphilis, a disease common to musicians at the time. His judgment became bad. He became manic-depressive. He only lived another half year. But, he wanted to provide for his wife and daughter. It was said he wrote a new manuscript called "If," but it was never found.
So, Larry Karp thought, what if there was a young pupil's of Joplin's in 1916, who was bookkeeper with the publisher who employed Berlin. What if the new manuscript was left with Irving Berlin? What if it led to murder?
Joplin and Berlin were both muisc writing machines. However, Irving Berlin wrote for commercial gain, while Scott Joplin had artistic goals. This second mystery became The King of Ragtime. Joplin, and then Berlin, both called themselves "The King of Ragtime." The mystery involves solving a murder, and who was really "The King of Ragtime."
Karp didn't know where he was going next, but a bookstore owner suggested he write a trilogy. He'd written about the birth and death of ragtime. Larry decided he could write about the resurrection of it, the ragtime revival.
The Ragtime Fool is the third book in the trilogy. Brun Campbell, "The Ragtime Kid," had married unwisely, a very religious woman who didn't approve of his music. He worked as a barber in California, and when the ragtime revival hit, he jumped on the bandwagon. He wanted to restore Joplin's, and his own, reputation. Karp thought Brun's wife must have thought him a fool, so that became the book title, The Ragtime Fool.
The latest book is set in 1951. On April 17, 1951, there was a ceremony to honor Scott Joplin in Sedalia, Missouri. It was to be held at a black high school. There would be an audience of blacks and whites, and a plaque would be hung in Joplin's honor. There was a black high school because Sedalia wasn't integrated until 1968. Karp's Sedelia researcher told him the Ku Klux Klan was active in Missouri at the time. They held ceremonies and cross burnings in Liberty Park in Sedalia. She said everyone knew who they were, even with their sheets on, because their dogs followed them.
So, Karp had his idea for the story. What if the Ku Klux Klan wanted to blow up the high school?
Brun was going to play a role in this story. Karp needed to get him to town, and he needed another young man like Brun. So he invented a young piano player in New Jersey, and he and Brun met in Sedalia. A lot happened related to ragtime in the book.
Karp added another item of interest. He invented a journal that Joplin reportedly kept. That journal would be of interest to different people, Brun, an author, and the Ku Klux Klan. Larry needed that journal to end in the right hands, and he needed to stop the KKK from blowing up the high school. This book is more a thriller than a whodunnit.
While writing this book, Karp read a review of a Ray Bradbury book, Death is a Lonely Business. It was set in Venice, California. Vencie was originally set up in the 1890s to resemble Venice, Italy, with real canals. There was also an amusement pier with a roller coaster. Bradbury's book was an homage to 1940s Venice. But, he featured a barber who had many of the same characteristics of Brun Campbell, had pictures of him with Scott Joplin, and all of that barber's stories turned out to be fake.
Once Karp read the book, he was angry. Brun Campbell did exist, and he did study with Joplin. There's even a group of musicians in St. Louis called Brun's Boys who like and play Brun's music. Karp was so angry that we wanted his young science fiction writer in his book to be named Ray. But, he finally realized he couldn't do that. His son suggested he name the science fiction author, Cal, the same name as the barber in Bradbury's book, so he could have his little joke, but not name the character for Ray Bradbury.
Larry Karp said he does a great deal of research, and he likes to get the details right, but he knew nothing about dynamite, and he needed to use it to plan to blow up the high school in The Ragtime Fool. He read about dynamite, but just couldn't put it all together. He was visiting a friend in Canada, and they went to lunch with another man, a contractor at a restaurant built with a large beam supported by large poles. So, he asked the contractor how he would go about blowing up that building, since it was supported as the high school might have been. Ralph told him how to blow it up, and Larry wrote it all down in a notebook.
It wasn't until he and his wife were almost to Customs that he realized he had notes saying, "How to blow up Hubbard High School," with instructions. It was right about the time older people had been caught at the borders, smuggling drugs. Karp thought about tearing the pieces out of the notebook, and swallowing them, but there were cameras right there. So, he told his wife, who was driving, to smile sweetly. Everything went fine, but he decided, in the future, mail it home.
Karp was asked, if you could ask Scott Joplin one question, what would it be. Karp said he did wonder where his manuscripts went, but it's thought that, once Joplin's wife died, and then his executor, that the executor's daughter disposed of them. Every ragtime historian dreams of walking in somewhere, and finding a trove. What would Karp ask Joplin? If he's satisfied now with his legacy. Joplin told his wife, "People won't appreciate my music until I'm gone 25 years."
When asked what he's working on now, Dr. Karp said he's going back to his roots. He's writing a medical thriller about in vitro fertilization. He worked on the early process, and there was quite a scandal involving one doctor. He thinks this will make a good mystery.
And, Larry Karp might be back for Authors @ The Teague if his medical thriller is published.
Larry Karp's website is www.larrykarp.com
The Ragtime Fool by Larry Karp. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2010. ISBN 9781590586990 (hardcover), 303p.