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A Measure of Whitt

Updated: Apr 15

Brendan Whitt on Pride, Country, and Cleveland

(spoiler warning: brief discussion of season two of Attack on Titan)


Opening my email and seeing the name "Brendan Whitt" is a rare treat. Seeing that he sent me a teaser for his new book, For Pride, For Country, is a goddamn delight.


Oberlin, 1863

Fredrick Douglas’ “Men of Color to Arms”

Cleveland rally

Ephram Morgan, a free, educated Black man

Wife Elizabeth, runaway slave

Hayes Turner, abolitionist

Union Army

Grimball’s Landing

Battle of Chattanooga

Secret Guerrilla unit


Just in case I wasn't already all in, he added:

How will we be able to discern the victors from the losers when country is at war with herself?



Whitt's new book encompasses a part of Ohio history that probably got left out of your 6th grade Ohio Studies unit. I grew up in rural Lorain county in the 70’s and 80’s. Back then, Ohio Studies focused on the Serpent Mounds, topography, maybe a quick mention of Harriet Tubman, songs about the Erie Canal, then right back to topography, Native Americans and, in my case, an unusual amount of time on Bob Evans. I grew up having had no idea that I was raised in the heart of northern abolitionist county. An impromptu poll of friends who also grew up “in the county” as we like to call it, received the same incomplete education.


Northeast Ohio is crisscrossed by tracks of the Underground Railroad and stitched together by colleges that fought for the right to educate blacks, whites, and women side by side long before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Suffrage movement or the Civil war. Take a Sunday drive today though Lorain, Cuyahoga, Erie and Huron counties and you'll see historical markers about the Burrell Homestead, Oberlin College, the Underground Railroad, and John Mercer Langston woven through the landscape, a sobering juxtaposition to the faded yard signs supporting blue lives, all lives, and a losing presidential election. In this area alone, the 103rd regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry sent almost half a million volunteers to fight in the Civil War, of which over 5,000 souls were Black Americans. You'll find yourself wondering why the hell no one has written this story, why no Hollywood blockbuster since 1989's Glory has delved deep into the story of college-educated Black Union soldiers. I can answer that question. We were waiting for Brendan Whitt, born, raised, and forged right here in Cleveland, to tell that story.


Here’s the thing about Whitt: if you mention his name in Cleveland, faces light up. Stories pour out of people about his kindness, generosity, talent. And I should know. 2016, my first ever real author event. Author Alley at Loganberry books in Shaker Heights. Terrified out of my mind, clutching three self-published titles to my chest, sweating buckets of imposter syndrome, feeling older than Methuselah in a room full of “real” authors and I get seated next to… you guessed it. Poet, screenwriter, author, and publisher Brendan Whitt. Half my age, his library of fiction and poetry scattered confidently around him, draped across his chair as relaxed as if he were in his own living room. Within 60 seconds it was obvious what makes people speak so highly of Whitt: he really is all those thing people say about him. But I would add one thing: Whitt has a touch of destiny about him. You see it when you talk to him and you feel it when you read his work. Some people burn brighter than others. You get the feeling he has so many ideas, plans, and goals he might explode. And I think that is exactly what will happen. Talent that burns that bright will catch and spread. It's inevitable. Anyway, after a long afternoon at Loganberry hustling our books, I, too joined the ranks of Clevelanders who would probably fight you if you said a bad word about Brendan Whitt.


There’s something about Whitt’s fiction that I return to again and again. I think what I gravitate to is the balance. Voice, subject matter, pacing, length, sentiment, beauty, grit, gravity, humor. It’s all balanced on a knife's edge. He pulls you in with a smile and a firm handshake, looks you dead in the eye with a beautiful difficult truth, spins you around and sends you on your way.


“The boys made their way through the urban terrain of an east side Cleveland neighborhood. Looking at an abandoned brick building with smashed out windows or empty windowsills paints the illusion of peering into a person’s eyes whose soul has been snatched from them. The cracked pavement is a trash receptacle covered in empty Swisher packs and the discarded plastic tips of Black & Milds. A light pole covered in dirty stuffed animals surrounded by empty liquor bottles paid homage to a young angel called home too soon. Imagery that painted Jay and Yassir’s daily commute to and from school.” -excerpt from A Lesson in Socio-Economics by Brendan Whitt


I revisit his hip-hop influenced book of poetry, When The Crows Come Home, from time to time as well. I usually have to steal it from my twenty-something son. I find myself studying that voice, trying to figure out his formula for creating such perfect snapshots in verse. I return to one page in particular, this one. Whitt’s juxtaposition of vulnerable, tender sentiments side-by-side with bittersweet grit stops me in my tracks every time.


Interviewer

What inspired you to write For Pride, For Country?


Brendan Whitt

I never get to see fun, cool, and violent depictions of the Civil War from the Black perspective. I yearn for a world where Black writers can have fun writing without being didactic or trying to “heal” the world’s view of us. I don’t want to write the typical woe-is-me Black sob stories. White writers always get to write for entertainment, but as a Black writer I feel forced in a box where everything I write has to uplift my people. I want to entertain, too.


Interviewer

Let's hear the pitch.


Brendan Whitt

A Black soldier in the Union Army is recruited to a Black Ops unit. The further he gets the more he questions the merits of the war.


Interviewer

What kind of research did you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?


Brendan Whitt

I read a lot. I even had to look up how a doctor could tell a woman was pregnant in the 1860’s. Authenticity is everything with Speculative Historical Fiction. I change minor details but nothing too big. I also had interviews with John Grabowski and Eric Rivet of the Western Reserve Historical Society. I got to hold actual rifles and pistols. I handled a replica uniform I even learned the seven-step process to load a rifle. Research took a several months because of scheduling.


Interviewer

Wait. Back up. How did a doctor in the 1860's diagnose a pregnancy?


Brendan Whitt

So, this was a difficult thing to research. I assumed there was some surefire way to know. But knowing women’s rights and history, I shouldn’t have been so naïve. There was something about medieval times and a rusty pin and urine, crazy stuff. But I found out about this indicator called Chadwick’s Sign discovered in France in the 1830’s but wasn’t widely known until the 1880’s, I believe. It’s described as a bluish-purple swelling of the lady part that’s noticeable at about 6 to 8 weeks. Another layer to this is the fact that many male doctors were uncomfortable performing this type of exam, so Elizabeth’s (one of the main characters in For Pride, For Country) doctor is a tad forward thinking for his time, I’d like to think.


Interviewer

Can you share the first line of For Pride, For Country?


Brendan Whitt

"Ephrem straightened his tie as he studied over his own reflection." As of right now.


Interviewer

How long have you been writing?


Brendan Whitt

Since I was 13 but seriously since I was 17-18. I won a competition at 13 and always used writing as an outlet for dream movies or video games. Then journalism became my focus through high school and undergrad. I got into fiction and screenwriting at 20ish. I haven’t looked back since. Over half of my life has been spent writing.


Interviewer

Let's talk about your publishing house, OPAL.


Brendan Whitt

OPAL is my company that I produce and print my books under as well as any creative project I attach myself to. My late grandmother, who we called “Memo,” told me a year before she died in 2007 to give my all to whatever passion I found. I started OPAL because as a young Black author, I don’t feel comfortable giving the publishing industry my work. They won’t know how to respect it. So, I decided to start my own company. I love how rappers when I grew up on like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Kanye West to this day became powerful and influential Black men by betting on themselves. I don’t see that same type of representation in publishing. They’re always the button up Blacks. Let a Jordan and sweatshirt writer grace the NY Times. I knew if I wanted to bring that type of flavor to my own work, it had to come from a publishing house that bred that. One day I’ll be able to sign writers and pay them, but for now I’m focused on me. That creates a bunch of hurdles, but jumping them now is building me up to avoid them in 10 years.


Interviewer

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?


Brendan Whitt

It made me more deliberate. I learned a lot about promotion and marketing a book. Reaching out to reviewers. I’ve never done a lot of that but with this title, I plan to really promote the shit out my new project and myself because at 29 going on 30, I have an extensive body of work. I want my big deal published in Deadline or THR one day and publishing my own work has definitely given me a leg up on that goal.


Interviewer

TV, movies, and visual storytelling seem to be big influences in your writing. Are there any shows or movies that have really inspired you?


Brendan Whitt

A show that really inspired this current book is Attack on Titan. It’s an anime about these giant humanoid creatures that eat humans, but once you get deeper into the story, you quickly find out that this is a war between two sides with checkered pasts. That thread stuck with me because I think about the “reckoning” that’s kind of starting here in America over race and what not, and I think about our own country’s past. It’s checkered and spotty but we have to push forward for something. America has always been a work in progress much like the world in Attack on Titan.


Interviewer

I love Attack on Titan. It's some of the tightest storytelling ever. What's your favorite scene?


Brendan Whitt

The episode when Commander Erwin gets snatched off of his horse by his arm while still commanding troops is one of the most awe-inspiring moments in television history for me. Like I said, I love a good gory war scene. Questions concerning politics coupled with a valiant character are the main ingredients for this title.


Interviewer

What is your relationship to the finished product when you are working? Is it a thing you are building in real time or do you feel the thing is already in there and you are just clearing away the dirt?


Brendan Whitt

I think it builds over time. This story started off as just one Black soldier’s journey but it starts to pull in other characters I never planned. They just show up. And you have to work them in. They have a lot to say. Even if we see them once, that one character can unlock so much that the reader or viewer didn’t know. So yeah, be open to change things.


Interviewer

What is your work routine?


Brendan Whitt

I usually read what I wrote last. Then I check my notes to see if I missed something. Then I just get to it. Writing for me is my second nature. I rarely need to warm up. Once the idea is there, I’ll jot down plot points and try to hit them. Screenwriting forced me to write that way but my brain was always wired like that.

Interviewer

Do you believe in writer’s block?


Brendan Whitt

Hell yeah!


Interviewer

Does writing energize or exhaust you?


Brendan Whitt

Both. Often at the same time.


Interviewer

How has your role as a reader informed your role as a writer?


Brendan Whitt

I know what bores me. So if it bores me I won’t write it. Titles over 300 pages are too long. I get bored because books take a long time to get started. Hollywood rule of thumb, most execs give you 10 pages before your script is in the recycle bin. So you have one chapter or max 15 pages to get me. We see the first person die in my book early on. It sets the tone to never get comfortable. More death is coming.


Interviewer

Do you find that your work has a theme? Is there something about this theme that has particularly drawn you in?


Brendan Whitt

I think my focus has shifted. My first two novellas focused on kids as main characters. This is the first one that focuses on an adult protagonist. I do love to play around with history though.


Interviewer

What about your early life influenced your work or your journey toward becoming a writer?


Brendan Whitt

I really love TV and history. Like a lot. I knew that somebody had to write this stuff. If there is a historical moment that can be adapted, I’ll be there. I love war docs and film. As a Black writer I want to write what interests me and not feel like my art HAS to give a history lesson all of the time. White creators get to just create, I want the same liberty and freedom. There aren’t a bunch of war films written by Blacks. They exist but not in great numbers. I think Spielberg hoarded all of them.


Interviewer

What is your connection to Cleveland?


Brendan Whitt

I was born in East Cleveland then grew up in the Hough neighborhood. I actually spent my entire life in that neighborhood. Childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I live in LA now, but Cleveland is home forever. It’s where my mama at.


Interviewer

How does your environment shape your work?


Brendan Whitt

It’s inspired everything that I write. I like to “window dress” as my old prof. likes to say. I take situations relevant to me and my life then I dress them up. Thinking about camp in 4th grade inspired Camp ’67. In my screenwriting, I draw upon my personal life even more. A lot of stories come from what I’ve witnessed and heard growing up around Hough. I’d say go read my short stories for sure. Brendanwhitt.com got it ALL.


Interviewer

What are the challenges specific to living and working in Cleveland or the Midwest? The benefits?


Brendan Whitt

So, I moved to LA in 2019. Cleveland as a market is small. I know that I want my WGA card and that won’t happen in Cleveland. The negative is I’m in a bigger pond with bigger fish. Cleveland’s community is smaller and more intimate. I miss all of my writer friends for sure. One day I’ll have a think tank in the city for creatives. But I got other stuff to do first.


Interviewer

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?


Brendan Whitt

Moving to LA. Besides London or New York, what other pilgrimage is there to make?


Interviewer

Do you have any plans to publish more poetry?


Brendan Whitt

I do actually. I’m workin’ on rewriting If I Wrote… with new pieces and reworked old material. It feels like a reissue of an actual album. My poetry is definitely going to be rawer and grittier. The hood of Cleveland is on TILT right now. And even though I’m not physically there anymore my heart is always there. So, the violence and the inaccessibility to sufficient funds is forcing people into difficult positions and decisions. So, in short, yes. More simple hip-hop poetics from Young Langston are coming. Edited by Jason Harris when I can catch him hah!


Interviewer

What does literary success look like for you?


Brendan Whitt

OPAL doing everything I envision it doing.


Interviewer

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?


Brendan Whitt

This is the only one (For Pride, For Country) that will have a sequel.


Interviewer

What is a common trap for aspiring writers?


Brendan Whitt

They try to be perfect first time out. The average writer doesn’t see real profit until their tenth title. You have at least ten tries to get it right. This is my sixth.


Interviewer

What is the title of a book that has really stayed with you?


Brendan Whitt

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, I read it in grad school and the title has never left me. Great story, too.


Interviewer

What is your favorite childhood book?


Brendan Whitt

If Gennedy Tarovsky ever publishes his Samurai Jack show bible it will be that. I will admit a lot of my narrative or story writing technique comes from studying television. I’m not ashamed to admit it.


Interviewer

What is the title of the book you wish everyone would read?


Brendan Whitt

My entire catalog. Short stories, too. Read all of it. I have plenty.



Brendan Whitt is an author, screenwriter, poet, independent filmmaker, and the founder of OPAL. You can follow him on Instagram @sneakersmcgee, Facebook (Brendan the Writer) and on Twitter @BrendanWhitt for the latest updates on the release of his new book, For Pride, For Country.




Dana McSwain is a bestselling author and principal at Webb House Publishing. @writersofcleveland is a project dedicated to amplifying the voices of Cleveland writers. 2021 All rights reserved.