HAILEY — Paul Firstenberg didn’t expect chapters of his book to become front page news.
But they did as white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., last week
Firstenberg, 83, published his first novel, “Murder in the Land of Cotton,” a few days following the violence. He’s been working on the book for the past three years.
It is the story of the murder of the first black candidate for mayor in a southern city. The assassins escape undetected, and as news of the murder spreads, black citizens become enraged and begin rioting.
“At its heart, the novel is an examination of the challenges to the deeply held culture of a southern city in the nineteen sixties and the courage of the citizens who bring about change,” Firstenberg wrote in the book’s online Amazon summary.
There is a chapter in the book where people want to tear down a statue of Confederate soldiers.
“I wrote the chapter long before,” he said. “When I wrote it I had no idea it would become front page news. I never thought we’d have the explosion that we had with Charlottesville.”
In writing the novel, Firstenberg drew on his experiences as chancellor of Tulane University in New Orleans, La. Firstenberg currently lives between Hailey and New York City. Firstenberg said he experienced culture shock when he moved to New Orleans from New York.
When he met people for the first time in New Orleans they were sociable and warm. Often when he attended dinner parties in New York, Firstenberg said, people were only interested in his resume.
“New York is not as warm and open,” he said.
“Murder in the Land of Cotton” is loosely based on New Orleans and is set during the 1990s when he lived and worked there.
“I choose that time for two reasons,” he said. “I wanted to get beyond the civil rights laws and see how that shapes and impacted the city. It was also where my memory of the city was still pretty fresh. I took the culture and ethos of the city of New Orleans without saying it’s New Orleans.”
Firstenberg previously authored four nonfiction books about philanthropy and nonprofits. His expertise was based on his years as an executive of nonprofit organizations and as an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Management and the Baruch College of Public Affairs. He received his law degree from Harvard University.
“I did not encounter any racist issues nor did my family,” he said. “The city was very welcoming to us and we have many wonderful friends there. To me, it was fascinating. I could see from my window the remnants of its racist legacy and I could see it in some of the people I met. I could see how people interacted. I had an unique window into this culture.”
Firstenberg said he was friends with one of the judges who was in the architect of desegregating New Orleans’ schools. He also witnessed the importance of debutante balls.
“I was excused as the chancellor of the university to meet any of those requirements,” he said. “Unless you had the right pedigree, you weren’t in the right social circles. Social status defined a lot of who New Orleans was.”
In his book, he illustrates the importance of challenging the people who control a city and how standing up to racism can be dangerous, but necessary. The book also features several strong female characters, Firstenberg said, which also draws on southern women he met. In the book, a judge, his wife and newly arrived businessman shape the city’s response after the murder of the first black candidate for mayor.
“In the novel the black mayor is threatening establishment and gets killed,” he said. “In the book, leadership makes a difference. Good people have to be willing to work at combating racism all the time. They have to be willing to stick their necks out in places that make a difference to the community.”
Novelist is just the latest chapter in Firstenberg’s life.
He once worked for a year as a real estate consultant for the Russian Ministry and was chief operating officer for Sesame Street for a decade.
He came up with the idea to build Sesame Place, a theme park between New York and Philadelphia. Today, it’s almost 40 years old.
Firstenberg still remembers when he first pitched the idea to Jim Henson, the creator of the Sesame Street characters. He said Henson was quiet and then all of a sudden Ernie appeared from below the desk and the puppet and its creator started having a conversation. The two of them liked Firstenberg’s idea.
With his first novel barely off the presses, Firstenberg is now working on his next fiction book. It is about a war between Iran and Israel.
“I’m into fiction now,” Firstenberg said. “I’m looking at all these serious books I’ve written and this is more fun.”