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A gripping first novel from Innocence Project’s Steven Wright
‘The Coyotes of Carthage’ draws on UW law professor’s experience.
When Duke University undergraduate Steven Wright told his parents that he intended to write fiction for a living, the reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic than a Duke crowd after a buzzer-beating basket.
They pointed out, as parents might, that there’s often no money in it.
“I come from a family of scientists,” Wright says. “The idea that I was going to go out and write books, or whatever, completely scared them.”
Ironically, that parental advice proved invaluable for Wright, a University of Wisconsin–Madison associate law professor, writing teacher and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
Wright’s first novel, “The Coyotes of Carthage,” published this spring, is richly informed by the author’s post-college real world experience, especially the five years he spent doing voting rights litigation for the United States Department of Justice.
The novel has received generally rapturous reviews, such as this one in USA Today, and was launched with blurbs from bestseller John Grisham — “I enjoyed it immensely” — and the critically acclaimed Lorrie Moore, who called “Coyotes” “a page-turner with a conscience, a burner of a read with something to say.”
I read the novel and chatted with Wright last week in advance of my interviewing him June 25 in a virtual event sponsored by Mystery to Me bookstore. (You can register for the event at the store’s website.)
The novel lives up to the hype. Wright’s protagonist is a 30-something African American political consultant named Andre Ross, who, after a botched campaign, is dispatched by his Washington, D.C. firm to middle-of-nowhere, South Carolina, with $250,000 cash and instructions to buy an election in a small county. Not to be disclosed is a mining company’s salivating interest in public land that will become available if the ballot initiative passes.
“It was written from a point of view from my work at DOJ,” Wright says, “when we’d go into these small towns. They are particularly vulnerable to outside, dark money.”
Wright landed at DOJ in 2007, having decided on law school — Washington University in St. Louis — after his undergraduate discussion with his parents. At DOJ he was immersed in the demographics of redistricting across the country, trying to prevent voting districts from being purposely drawn to disadvantage racial minorities. He was part of the team that reviewed Georgia and spent time with then state representative Stacey Abrams.
Wright had not given up on his writing dream. The Washington, D.C. campus of Johns Hopkins University was only a few blocks from Wright’s DOJ office.
“They had open houses,” he says. “That’s where I learned about the writing program.”
Wright got an MA from Hopkins, and in 2012 was accepted into the highly regarded MFA program at UW–Madison. “A really intensive experience, close mentoring, all the attention you could want,” Wright says of the experience.
Toward the end of the two-year program, he started the manuscript that became “Coyotes,” drawing on his DOJ experience.
“In order to have an authentic voice,” Wright says of writing fiction, “you have to be able to back it up with some experience.”
The book took four years to write, with Wright working on it in the evenings after his day job at UW, which grew from a one-year Wisconsin Innocence Project position (funded by a federal grant) to an examination of DNA cases across the state. Today, as noted, he serves as co-director for the state organization.
“I’ve been lucky to be part of a couple exonerations,” Wright says. “There’s really nothing like being part of that transformative experience when somebody walks out of a prison where they served 20 or 25 years.”
I asked Wright about the extraordinary events of the past few weeks, starting with the killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests that followed.
“Not only have I been a Black male all my life,” he says, “I’ve got cousins who have been through the criminal justice system. And I’m a lawyer. I’ve never been under the illusion that the police police all communities the same; that prosecutors litigate all cases the same; that judges don’t impose different sentences among different communities. Even in post-conviction and during incarceration, African Americans and brown people have a much, much different experience.
“I’m kind of holding my breath,” Wright continues. “But I think Mr. Floyd’s death as well as the protests have persuaded the majority of the American people that that is absolutely true.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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