I was teaching a group of writing students in my living room, and the subject for the evening was following the heart. I used baseball as the metaphor. When the mind sets up chatter, I said, the heart cant remember its name, let alone watch the ball.
At the time, Id sold several hundred articles, short stories, columns, and reviews, and as a wife and mother of four, I had become more subservient to the Texaco bill and the electric company than any elusive chamber of the heart.
But that night, I swept my class out the door and, still revved from the emotion of my own lecture, I went to the computer and fingered the keys. Out fell a scene from Sweeping Up Glass... I had no idea where [it] came from.
Still, I knew how to be a stubborn child, so I backed up and let Olivia boil over. I knew what it was like to adore a father, and experience hellfire with a maam, so much of this book is culled from my life. The first character to be spun from thin air was Love Alice. Her name, and its reason for being, burst in my head like a kernel of corn popping.
Love Alice was the first chirping robin of spring, and she had this gift, could look in anothers eyes and know his Truths. Only in subtle ways could Love Alice tell us how she saw herself. Afterward, I briefly considered writing a book from her viewpoint, but she was too profound, too accepting, and Id never be able to sustain her for that long. Love Alice was the perfect friend.
Junk was enormous fun to write, and at the end of each scene, I had trouble leaving him. He became Love Alices soul mate, Olivias rock, and a baptizer and pillar of the community. Because I wanted this book to also be about overcoming, it seemed only right that he, too, had been badly hurt.
In my stories, I love to harbor, then expose, secrets. Not all of them, when let loose, bloom as deliciously as my hotelier and trumpet player. I fashioned him from sweet fantasy comfortably handsome, close to his God, and sexy to the core. Every woman should experience one Wing Harris.
Although my face is that peachy color we folks call white, I live in a mostly black community. I love its fluid movement, the hum of its language. I was not at all surprised when Olivia prayed to God to change the color of her skin. I began her story upon conception: her refusal to leave her mothers womb, how Ida could not recognize her birth and was trucked off to an asylum. Heres a true story that I almost included in this book. Maybe itll show up in a later one.
When I was born, we lived over a grocery store in Toronto. My father built crates in an alley for Canada Box, and sold meat pies from the basket of his bicycle. With my mother gone off to a small private hospital for shock treatments, we moved into rooms at the top of Grammas house. On Sunday evenings, Dad dismantled my crib, roped it to the top of the car, and threw all the baby things in back. Then he laid me on the seat beside him and drove around Toronto, looking for an aunt and uncle to take me. In a relatives house, hed set up my crib and kiss me good-bye.
To help support us, and to pay the doctor and hospital bills, he worked three nights a week building radios and record players for RCA Victor. He visited my mother in the hospital and took a Wednesday-night electronics class in the back room of a Chinese restaurant.
After work on Fridays, hed come to me, dismantle my crib, tie it to the car, toss in my stuff, and drive us home. The next Sunday night, we began again.
My poor aunts must have grown terribly weary of me, sometimes calling Dad to come and get this kid. No matter, he once told me. When Gramma saw you coming, shed open her arms wide.
Thus were born Olivia and Willm. Writing love for grandchildren was a given, and Im sure Im not finished. Because I did not want to bore the reader, I wrote what I hope are unique relationships between characters. Something basic happens when two people are in a room together, even if they have not yet met. As each characters face, name, and trouble spilled from my fingers, I knew the possibilities were endless.
If there ever is a sequel to Sweeping Up Glass, Olivia will feel deeper ties to earth, sky, and water. And, had there been an epilogue to the epilogue, surely Willms connections to his mother and grandmother would have impacted the ways in which he raised his own children.
From the beginning, Olivia ached to show readers that when a thing seems to be solidly black and white, maybe it isnt. And that moment by moment, she chose her actions and who she wanted to be. I opted for this title because, in the face of tragedy, Olivia reached for her dustpan
As for picking Kentuckywhy does any place speak to us? I wanted to set my people down in a community that was close and passionate and persecuted, and somewhere along the way Id fallen in love with Kentuckys mountains and their stories. In the saddest places, I saw dignity. And somewhere I cant remember the exact spotI heard music.
My children and their offspring are far more to me than just my blood and bone. The real Ida gave me her creativity and stubbornness. She passed on two months after Sweeping Up Glass was sold, never knowing it existed. In its pages, I dont think shed have recognized herself. Still, she worked crossword puzzles in the newspaper with a pen until six weeks before she died. Not much got past her.
My father was a fine speaker. Guests would say Put on the kettle, Frank, and tell us a story.
Making up talesfor which I was spanked as a childis now the axis on which my world turns. May that happen to us all.
Know this: Sweeping Up Glass is fifty percent truth, and fifty percent based on fact. The other fifty percent (which speaks of my math skills) is flat made-up.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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