Was there any one thing that compelled you to write the novel?
In 1957 something happened that changed the way I saw things; thirty years passed before I could write about the feelings it evoked in me. I was seventeen, working as a lifeguard during the summer, and had a deep tan (my hair was bleached almost white by the sun, and my eyes are pale blue; theres no mistaking my Caucasian genes). When the color line was removed from the Charlotte city buses, my parents told me that if one of them (a person of color) got on the bus and sat next to me, I should get off or at least move to another seat. One day a black woman sat down beside me and my parents words flashed through my mind. But I felt riveted to my seat, like it would have been so rude to move. So I sat there and eventually looked down to where our arms rested side by side. My skin was a lot darker than hers. That made a lasting impression on me.
How long did it take you to write your novel?
Eighteen years from conception to final draft; while I wrote, I was working full time as well, but I believe the novel would have taken me many years, regardless of the circumstances. It had to percolate, to find its center, and I had to be patient. I did not know, when I started writing the book, how it would end; I didnt know most of the characters, and only knew a few of the events.
Were you writing in isolation, or did you have support from other writers?
Tremendous support from writers in a small group Ive been in since I began the novel in 1987. Several books have been published by other members of the group, and in one of them (The Dream of the Stone, Christina Askounis, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993) the acknowledgments say, This book might have taken half as long to complete without the help of writers in Laurel Goldmans Thursday-morning group, who drew the best from me through draft after draft . Thats true for me as well.
Did you start with an idea, with a character, setting?
Character, first and last. The narrator, June Bentley Watts, aka Jubie, was in my head long before I began the book. Shes a year younger than I was in 1954, so readers might assume shes me at that age. Perhaps she was to begin with, but she quickly took on her own personality, and led me through the story, as long as I was willing to listen to her. The false notes occurred when I stopped paying attention to Jubie or tried to write my own story. When I lost her voice, the book lost its heart, and I got back on the right path only by paying attention to her.
Your protagonist is thirteen years old. Is your novel young-adult fiction?
My novel is literary fiction; however, I hope young adults will read it, because its set in a time long before their lives, and can give them a look into history through the eyes of someone their age. I didnt want the book marketed as young adult because I didnt want it limited by that.
Your book is set in 1954 and is rich with details of that time. Did you have to do a lot of research?
Yes. I like to find out about things, to dig for information; I can lose myself, blissfully, in the happy task of research. My husband gave me a 1954 road atlas he found on eBay, so I was able to map the trip the Watts family took through the south. In May 2004 I went to Washington, DC, to exhibits on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. The Carolina Room at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County provided me with online maps of Charlotte in 1954. I bought encyclopedia yearbooks and studied them, also stacks of popular magazines of the time, Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, etc. I am still stunned at how white they all are; when writing, I searched period publications for pictures of blacks living their lives and found instead stereotypical stories such as President Eisenhowers golf caddy, and ads for Aunt Jemima pancake mix.
Do you have advice for others who begin writing relatively late in life?
Listen to yourself; tell stories youve lived and craft them into fiction. To do that, you must believe that your experiences are valid and of interest to others. Negative thoughts about your talent as a writer will stop you in your tracks. I also suggest getting into a writing group.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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