Last week, my friend Denise Kiernan tagged me in a post on her blog, effectively signing me up for this author meme that’s going around. Denise and her husband Joe are both fabulous writers whose work – together and apart – deserves your eyes. Her newest book The Girls of Atomic City – about the women who unwittingly worked on the atomic bomb – drops Mar. 5 via Touchston/Simon & Schuster. Buy it.
Now, to the meme. The rule is, you fill it out, tag someone else to do the same, they fill it out and tag others, and so on. Here you go:
1) What is the title of your next book?
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
Long ago and far away, I was writing very brief histories (maybe 500-750 words a pop) of American folk songs for one of my day jobs. George W. Bush was president and people in the folk music world had been complaining that no protest song movement had emerged. I asked Ani DiFranco – my generation’s most celebrated songwriter who could possibly be considered a “protest singer” – why she thought that was, and she told me one reason might be because those songs are hard to write. All the words which describe what’s wrong, she told me, are not musical words. Patriarchy, consumerism, evangelism, partisanship…these are not words which lend themselves to being sung or rhymed with. She had a point.
After that interview, I decided to try to focus my folk-music-history project on tunes that had moved social change without even bringing up what was wrong. I found a well of old optimistic folk songs, and started tracing their histories. Most of them had been touched – at one point or another – by a woman named Zilphia Horton.
Zilphia is a memorable name. I had assumed she was an elder in her community. As folk music history goes, there’s usually a common singer or instrumentalist who taught everyone around them any number of songs. I figured Zilphia was that figure in her world. I was right, but there was more. As I dug, I found the songs that were tied to her were not just optimistic songs; they were some of the most important movement songs in American history – “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, “We Shall Not Be Moved”, “This Little Light of Mine”, “We Shall Overcome”, and on and on. I finally looked her up and found out almost nothing had been written about her. What had been written indicated she had influenced Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She’d worked with Eleanor Roosevelt and sung with Rosa Parks. Her work inspired former President of the CIO John L. Lewis to declare “A singing army is a winning army.” Etc.
I wished I could learn more about her. I wished someone would write a book about her life. I wished that for about three years until I remembered I’m a writer and got to work.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Narrative non-fiction, narrative history.
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Zilphia was a large woman – not fat, just tall and…husky. Finding a striking actress the size of Zilphia, who could also sing very well, might be difficult. Maybe Sara Ramirez? (“Dr. Torres” from Grey’s Anatomy.) Anne Hathaway could do it if she put a little meat on her bones. Hollywood could put her in a ‘big’ suit, perhaps. Regardless, John Hamm would be a great Myles Horton (Zilphia’s husband).
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s the story of a small town teacher who stood amid the segregated confusion of the McCarthy Era, and taught the revolution to sing.
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I want to go the traditional route with this, but have no representation yet. I tried for a minute to get some, then realized I was jumping the gun. I’m still researching and collecting and organizing information, so I’m not sweating it. I’m in it for the long haul.
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
There was almost nothing written about Zilphia when I started, so the past two years have been full of detective work – collecting oral histories from people pushing 100, piecing together facts from interviews other people conducted with folks who are now dead, visiting the Highlander center to learn how it works, tracking down anyone who knew her and might still be alive… I’ve opened archives for the first time since they were packed away, that sort of thing. I still have some work to do to that end before I can seriously start writing. I’ve taken a few stabs and have several solid pieces, but the best real answer I can give is “so far, two years.”
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
It straddles a line between The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Both employ community lore to tell a story from history which was immeasurably impactful but is more or less unknown outside of a certain community. Like Zilphia’s story, they’re both accounts of fascinating obscurities which impact all of our daily lives, and will for many years to come.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I grew up in the South and, after years of moving around, have wound up back here to plant my roots. Mainstream history tells us that Southern – and especially rural Southern – people have always been backwards, inbred, dumb, lazy, racist, etc. Zilphia’s story has opened me up to the realization there have always been strong forces in the South dedicated to justice and equality. These voices have been just as prominent as their opposition but, like any voice of reason, have had to work twice as hard for twice as long to be heard against the din of fear and reactionism. Polarization is more expedient than understanding; fear and propriety seem more urgent than empathy and common ground sometimes, etc. Zilphia’s work was focused on commonalities, truths I feel we’ve wandered away from. She used to tell her students “I don’t care if people do have one country or religion … there’s only one thing they have to have in common before they sing together, and that is that they believe in something.”
The more I learn about Zilphia, frankly, the more astonished I am that her story has yet to be told, the more I feel it must.
Besides, I ran a Kickstarter campaign at the very beginning of all this, just to see if anyone other than me thought Zilphia’s story might be interesting. That scored me $5,000 to gather enough research to devise a story plan. I’m accountable to those people. I’m inspired when I remind myself that my backers are still waiting on this project.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Oh, you know. It’s just a quiet little story punctuated here and there by Communist accusations, threats from the KKK, government moles, FBI files, danger, defiance, accordions, poison, and moonshine.
Now I’m tagging my friend and former editor Mark Baumgarten, who may or may not oblige. He’s a man of many mysteries. Thanks for reading!