Thursday, March 26, 2015

Q&A with Deborah Mathis

Deborah Mathis is the author of the new book Unlucky Number: The Murder of Lottery Winner Abraham Shakespeare, written with Gregory Todd Smith. Her other books are Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel At Home, What God Can Do: How Faith Changes Lives for the Better, and Sole Sisters: The Joys and Pains of Single Black Women. Her journalism career includes working as a syndicated columnist and serving as White House correspondent for Gannett News Service.

Q: How did you end up writing this book about Abraham Shakespeare, and how did you and Gregory Todd Smith, who was involved in the story, work together on the project?

A: I was introduced to Greg by someone who knew his story and that he was eager to reduce it to writing. He and I became fast friends and developed a mutual trust, which, of course, is essential to any collaborative effort. 

My first debrief with him was five hours long, uninterrupted, in which he told me the story from start to finish. I was in contact with him throughout the research and writing process, double-checking facts, names, addresses, etc.

Q: You write, “ Like many other winners, the man at the center of this story neglected to surround himself with wise, experienced counsel but rather relied on old friends and his own well-meaning but often misguided instincts to help him manage his multimillion-dollar winnings.” What does Shakespeare’s story say about the lottery system?

A: The lottery system is flawed in many ways, not the least being its convenience as a funding source for essential programs in many states (like public education). 

But the fallout from sudden, dramatic wealth is not something most people are prepared for and it takes a team of honest, experienced professionals to help one manage it. Most state lotteries recommend that and some provide a straight line to resources, but I don't get the impression that they really push it.

I'm not saying it should be mandatory -- that would carry its own hazards -- but the states should do more to educate players and winners. And those that require winners to go public (like Florida, where Abraham won) should stop that now. It just paints a bulls-eye for the scammers and beggars.

Q: How did you conduct the research for this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I had access to all of the secret audio recordings Greg made with Dee Dee Moore and others. There was also a treasury of court documents and considerable local and national media coverage to draw from. And, of course, I had complete access to Greg. 

What I found most surprising was the extent and entanglement of Dee Dee Moore's deceitful web.

Q: This is a true crime book, and a departure from your previous books. You’ve also worked as a journalist for many years. Do you have a preference in terms of the type of writing you like to do?

A: In many ways this was easier than the non-fiction books I've done before, which were more or less treatises on issues of race, single womanhood, and spirituality. 

I say that because the facts were ready-made, whereas with the other works, I had to create a narrative, to think about what I want to discuss and how I want to write about it. 

The challenge with Unlucky Number came in trying to keep all of the names, dates and occurrences straight, both for me and for the reader. There were so many to keep track of. Fortunately, I had the late, great writer Willie Morris' advice to guide me: "Tell a story in chronological order." 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm taking a break for now, but am churning on an idea for a novel. It would be my first work of fiction. Got to get my nerve and stamina up for that!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Deborah Mathis, please click here.

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