Featured Author: Ben Montgomery

Ben Montgomery’s new book, A Shot in the Moonlight: How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South, is the true story of freed slave George Dinning. In 1899, Dinning became the first Black man in America to win damages after a wrongful murder conviction. He was helped by a Confederate war hero turned lawyer, Bennett H. Young. Montgomery was searching for a story that would contribute to crucial conversations about race in America when he discovered Dinning’s case.

“I started digging through newspaper archives and stumbled across clips about this sensational set of events and I realized that the historic material was available to help flesh out a lot of the details,” Montgomery said. “It’s a story, I hope, that is timely and brings people to the table for this continuing conversation.”

Montgomery is a journalist, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of four books. His work tells compelling stories that fell through the cracks. Montgomery has a gift for writing nonfiction that reads like fiction. He keeps readers turning the pages to find out what happened next.

Virtual Book Launch

Take part in a conversation with Montgomery on Thu, Jan 28, 7-8pm during a virtual book launch for A Shot in the Moonlight. Dinning’s great-grandson Anthony Denning Sr. will join Montgomery to talk about his family’s story. Then we’ll have a Q&A with the audience. Register for the Zoom link.

Other Books by Montgomery

His book Grandma Gatewood’s Walk was a popular community read for Topeka in 2019 and one of our most popular Book Group in a Bag kits of 2020. This book tells the story of Emma Gatewood, the first woman to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail solo at 67 years old. Check out our 2019 Featured Author blog on Montgomery for more about Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. His other books are The Leper Spy and The Man Who Walked Backward.

Read on to learn more about Montgomery’s writing process and reading habits in a fresh interview with the author.

View complete list

Interview with Ben Montgomery

Your newest book A Shot in the Moonlight, will be released later this month. Give us the elevator pitch. What is it about, in a nutshell, and why will readers be interested?

When a mob of gun-hung white men tried to lynch George Dinning one night in 1897, he grabbed his shotgun and killed the young scion of a wealthy Kentucky family. He trusted the law and turned himself in, only to be convicted and sentenced to prison. And when he got out, he went looking for justice.

How did you discover Denning’s story? What made you decide to turn it into a book?

I was looking for a story that was foundational to our conversation today about white supremacy, the lingering Civil War, and race in America. I started digging through newspaper archives and stumbled across clips about this sensational set of events and I realized that the historic material was available to help flesh out a lot of the details. It’s a story, I hope, that is timely and brings people to the table for this continuing conversation.

Give us a little peek at your writing process. Do you write a certain amount of time a day, or work when you’re inspired? Do you like a certain desk, view, or beverage? Background noise, or quiet?

I do all the reporting before I write a single word, and I need to feel the fear of an approaching deadline to really get going, and then I just write like mad. For this book, I checked into the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville in hopes of being inspired by the ghosts of the folks who used to hang out there. It worked for me. I spent about a week there and got the book going strong. I cleaned it up a lot back home and put on the finishing touches.

I listen to music to get inspired, but I struggle to write anything if the music – or the lyrics, I should say – are too good. Like, I cannot write to a Jason Isbell song. So I listen to a lot of music- or sound-heavy stuff, like Band of Horses or Bon Iver or the young French artist Pomme.

Are there any writing books or resources that you would especially recommend?

I take most of my advice from Roy Peter Clark, who has been called America’s writing coach. His book How to Write Short is especially useful.

What were your favorite books of 2020? What did you enjoy about them?

I rarely get a chance to read for pleasure because I have to read so much for research. This year, I re-read Charles McNair’s Land O’ Goshen when the pandemic first shut everything down. It’s a weird and wild post-apocalyptic tale that finds a young boy fighting a guerrilla war against a dogmatic Christian army that has invaded his small Alabama town. And it contains one of the best love scenes in literature!

Do you have any 2021 reading goals?

I have resolved to read more work by Spanish-speaking writers. I have a close Mexican friend, Jaime, who has made a slew of recommendations and I have begun to collect those books. I’m starting with Juan Rulfo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

2020 was a challenging year in so many ways. Did it impact the way you read or write, or lead you to new subjects? Did you read any books or articles that helped you? Any self-care tips to share for fellow readers and writers?

I’ve had trouble writing anything at all this year. I have a book project due and I’ve had to push the deadline back twice now. It’s hard to write when it feels like the world is crumbling. I have no self-care tips other than to always give and receive as much love as possible, and have an empathetic literary agent.

Miranda is your Readers Librarian. She loves to talk books, and to connect readers with their next great reads. Her favorite reads are poetry, literary fiction, and speculative science fiction, and she's passionate about promoting literature written by Kansas authors. She works with library programs that support and engage writers in our community, so ask her for more information about the Local Writers Workshop and Great Writers Right Here author fair. Miranda also facilitates TALK book discussions, co-leads the BookBites book discussion group, and serves as a member of the library's Top City Reads Together team.