Edward Ball is back.
He upset the apple cart in 1998 with his first book, the fascinating and courageous “Slaves in the Family,” which traced the history of race relations beginning with his ancestor Elias Ball’s arrival in the Carolina Colony exactly 300 years before the publication of the book.
Today, the National Book Award winner is a lecturer at Yale University, teaching nonfiction writing. His latest effort, “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” displays Ball’s particular ability to mine history and create a compelling narrative that includes larger-than-life characters and reveals something about our inheritance. The new title hit bookstore shelves Jan. 22.
Ball will be in town for a 6 p.m. talk on Thursday at the College of Charleston’s School of Sciences and Mathematics Auditorium, 202 Calhoun St. In anticipation of his lecture, sponsored by the college’s Friends of the Library, The Post and Courier asked him a few questions.
Q: You began your book-writing career with topics close to home, producing the award-winning “Slaves in the Family” and “The Sweet Hell Inside,” both dealing with Southern culture and history and your own ancestry. But then you branched out with “Peninsula of Lies” and “The Genetic Strand.” And now you’ve published “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” which is about the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who invented moving pictures, and his collaboration with railroad tycoon and politician Leland Stanford. How do you search for a subject and then decide on what to write about?
A: If you write nonfiction, as I’ve done, and can’t make it up, you become a story scout. With “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” I had a question. We watch anything with a moving image — TV, movies, desktops and our phones — and we can’t get enough of screens.
How did this begin, back in the 1800s? It turns out there was a photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, who put pictures in motion for the first time, and he also happens to have been a murderer. His messy life, and the equally large life of the monopoly capitalist Leland Stanford, who paid for the “first movies,” if you like, add up to a source tale for our everyday love to watch things on a screen.
Q: An irony your new book suggests is that Muybridge, who became a media sensation of the Gilded Age, helped usher in the media-saturated environment we all now must navigate. Are there lessons for us to learn — social, commercial, philosophical — from the story of “The Inventor and the Tycoon”?
A: I don’t think so. The book offers a big plot, not a moral tale. It’s the story of an artist and an entrepreneur, two very different people, one poor, one rich, but both of them obsessed with something, who came together in the disorderly society of frontier California, and by tinkering with cameras and horses, somehow invented what we call the movies, which were a way out of the Machine Age and into the 20th century.
Q: What’s it like for a native of the Southeast to live in Connecticut and teach at Yale?
A: You end up explaining the South to the North a lot of the time. And when in the South, I do the translation in reverse.
Q: You write a particularly compelling form of narrative nonfiction. Have you ever considered writing fiction, or something else?
A: Well, yes, I’ve thought about writing different sorts of books. I may be working on something like that now, but please don’t tell my agent.
Q: Finally, a political question: As a Southerner and intellectual in tune with his history and heritage who lives in the North, what is your view of North-South relations in the U.S.?
A: They could be better, but they are better now than they were in 1865. And 1965, for that matter.