Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Interview: Rita Williams-Garcia

Inter­view by Vic­ki Palmquist

photo by Jason Berger

pho­to by Jason Berg­er

When you wrote One Crazy Sum­mer, did you already know you had a longer sto­ry to tell? And if you didn’t know then, when did you know?

I was so focused on telling the one sto­ry of children’s involve­ment in the Black Pan­ther Move­ment. As I dug into my char­ac­ters’ back­sto­ries and pro­ject­ed their actions into the future, I knew I had anoth­er book to write. This hap­pened in the mid­dle of One Crazy Sum­mer when I was explain­ing Cecile’s choic­es and his­to­ry to myself. I could see those ear­ly days so clear­ly. How she came to live with Pa and Uncle Dar­nell. There’s some­thing about know­ing the past that allows you to project into the future. Before I knew it, the seeds were begin­ning to spring up for P.S. Be Eleven. Then as I began to work out the plot for PSBE, I played my actions and con­se­quences game. What are the short term con­se­quences of these actions? What are the long term con­se­quences? This helps me to real­ly con­struct real­ism in the plot, espe­cial­ly in a sto­ry where all things can’t be resolved. Some things have to con­tin­ue on in a nat­ur­al way in the read­ers’ minds. Well, those darn con­se­quences became food for Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma. I didn’t plan three nov­els, but the char­ac­ters had more sto­ry life in front of them. I believe this is the end. I didn’t get that sense of rays shoot­ing out into anoth­er sto­ry.

How did you decide which episodes to place in each of your three books about the sis­ters?

I didn’t have all three sto­ries. One Crazy Sum­mer was its own sto­ry. When I real­ized there would be a Book 2, I thought more about the over­ar­ch­ing theme, which would be change which seemed to explode dur­ing the late 60s, ear­ly 70s. Change in the fam­i­ly, change in the polit­i­cal struc­ture, the unspo­ken but under­ly­ing change in the black com­mu­ni­ty as a result of return­ing trau­ma­tized Viet­nam vet­er­ans and drug use, the change the women’s move­ment brought to homes, coun­try and com­mu­ni­ty, and most impor­tant, those deeply per­son­al changes of our nar­ra­tor.  The trick was to com­press all of those changes, even cheat time a lit­tle to give young read­ers a sense of what it was like to be in the midst of those changes and see­ing how they weren’t just abstrac­tion, but changes that had direct impact. The third book allowed me to talk about what we in the black com­mu­ni­ty talk about amongst ourselves—holding onto fam­i­ly amid the break­down and evo­lu­tion of fam­i­ly. The plot­ting and focus of each sto­ry is dif­fer­ent. It is the incre­men­tal growth of the sisters—and even the fam­i­ly members—that is the con­tin­uüm that stretch­es across all three sto­ries. So, you can read any of the sto­ries in whichev­er order you chose, but you see and feel the change and growth of the char­ac­ters when the sto­ries are read from sum­mer to sum­mer.

Are you a busy, noisy-places writer or a qui­et-spaces writer?

I do a lit­tle of both. I need absolute qui­et at home. No radio, TV, inter­net, phones. When I’m out and about, I can work with the buzz and sirens of the city around me. My ears hear it as one noise. Cell phone noise, par­tic­u­lar­ly loud cell phone noise is hard­er. I car­ry ear plugs in my bag.

You’ve made this fam­i­ly so real, from when we first meet Del­phine, Vonet­ta, and Fern in One Crazy Sum­mer to the part­ing scene in Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma. I found myself want­i­ng to become a friend, stay­ing in their lives for­ev­er. What is the most impor­tant aspect of this family’s sto­ry for you, the writer?

I like the way that every­one feels they are right. This is good for me as a writer. It promis­es con­flict. But isn’t this at the source of most fam­i­lies and famil­ial con­flict? I hope in that way, I’ve asked the read­er to under­stand what they might not agree with. Oh, what a cool trick, if we can do this in gen­er­al!

Does writ­ing a first draft come quick­ly for you or do you weigh each word care­ful­ly as you’re writ­ing it?

bk_GW_PSI have a long incu­ba­tion peri­od. I spend a lot of my wak­ing hours day dream­ing the sto­ry. Telling myself the sto­ry. As I research and day­dream I begin to feel more con­fi­dent about the sto­ry. I start writ­ing a month or so lat­er. When I’m writ­ing the first draft the words are unim­por­tant. Occa­sion­al­ly, the con­nec­tion between myself and the nar­ra­tor is so strong that I’m a good 60%-75% close to final as I slog through the first draft. But I real­ly use my first draft to con­firm proof of sto­ry. To nail down direc­tion. But hon­est­ly, there are so many false starts. But the lan­guage of the sto­ry, the voice and tone of the sto­ry begins to take shape. I’m less anx­ious when I feel the sto­ry has its own voice and not just the few words I know. As I get clos­er to the final drafts I work hard on lan­guage. When the sto­ry is in good shape, I con­cen­trate on the lan­guage.

At what point do you revise your man­u­script?

I revise after I have my clear direc­tion. After I have the first draft. I write in my note­book by hand, and make notes along the way (“Nah”, “deal with this lat­er”, “not work­ing”, etc.). Some­times I stop the for­ward move­ment to nail down a few ear­ly chap­ters because they anchor the sto­ry. But I try to push for­ward to con­firm that the sto­ry works, or what I call “proof of sto­ry.” I revise chap­ters sev­er­al times and drafts sev­er­al times. I should say, I don’t begin typ­ing the sto­ry until it is a sto­ry. I don’t know if I rec­om­mend that prac­tice. It’s just the way I do it.

I want to so bad­ly to ask you if these three books are bio­graph­i­cal and yet my ratio­nal brain knows they are fic­tion. As a read­er, I want this fam­i­ly to be real. I want to hear Miss Trotter’s laugh and Ma Charles’ laugh and I want­ed to be in that room with the whole fam­i­ly after the storm. Can you tell us what per­cent­age of these sto­ries comes from your own back­ground?

Who will read this inter­view? Hope­ful­ly, not my young readers—no offense!! I don’t think my young read­ers want to hear this clin­i­cal thing about my char­ac­ters. Any­way, I con­struct them all and tend to stay clear of bas­ing them on actu­al peo­ple. The char­ac­ters have to mag­net­i­cal­ly fit into the fam­i­ly and sto­ry. If I have a respon­si­ble char­ac­ter, like Del­phine, I give her a rea­son to acti­vate her super pow­ers. Enter Vonet­ta and Fern—in their dis­tinct ways. If Big Ma is fear­ful, tra­di­tion­al, a good Chris­t­ian (at least in her mind), her daugh­ter-in-laws must be in oppo­si­tion to that in their dis­tinct ways. Big Ma’s moth­er must be a source of con­ster­na­tion. Her son, who is in between tra­di­tion and change, must be her ally at times and her oppo­si­tion at oth­er times when it comes to his daugh­ters and his mates. See how it works? I might take an aspect of my moth­er and drop it into Cecile—but as strong and off kil­ter as both can be, they are two dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent moth­ers and per­sons. My moth­er was into her Jimi Hen­drix and Janis Joplin, but she was the woman of the house­hold and there was no mis­tak­ing that. She did absolute­ly every­thing, while my sibs and I were respon­si­ble for home­work, play­ing and mak­ing our beds.

If you know me at all, you know that I love mak­ing things.  Mak­ing char­ac­ters is the best Play-Doh™ ever!

Del­phine and I were born the same year, so I was aware of the world spin­ning and chang­ing dur­ing the late six­ties, ear­ly sev­en­ties. I kept a diary that not­ed sev­er­al events like assas­si­na­tions of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Sen­a­tor Robert F. Kennedy—as well as the man­hunts of their assailants. Apol­lo 11, etc., etc. I didn’t write these grand or pre­co­cious insights. I saw things as a child, so I kept that in mind as I wrote Delphine’s nar­ra­tive.

My own fam­i­ly isn’t like the Gaithers in the spe­cif­ic sense, but my par­ents migrat­ed from the south to Queens, New York in the 30s and 40s. My ear­ly life up until twelve was as an army brat. My father served in Vietnam—no drug involve­ment, but that’s not to say he wasn’t affect­ed by the war.  There were three of us kids, all thir­teen months apart. My sis­ter Ros­alind is the old­est, broth­er Rus­sell is the mid­dle, and I’m the youngest. Am I Fern? Nah.  My ear­ly life up until twelve was an army brat liv­ing on army bases and army towns.  

I lived through this same era but not in the same neigh­bor­hoods (Oak­land, New York City, Alaba­ma). After read­ing these books, I feel that my under­stand­ing of my own his­to­ry got larg­er. Do you feel that way as the writer?

bk_GWGoneCrazyAbsolute­ly. There is so much untold his­to­ry. One of the parts of his­to­ry that Gone Crazy tells, is of the cross­ings between peo­ple, be they through bru­tal­i­ty, neces­si­ty or choice. We are made up of so many peo­ple and his­to­ries. It seems ridicu­lous to con­tin­ue to tell a sin­gu­lar sto­ry. The best his­to­ry, to me, is fam­i­ly his­to­ry. We are all wit­ness­es to our times, and most of us main­tain con­nec­tions with our elders. We should take note of what we see, feel and think dur­ing our time, but also take in the sto­ries of our elders while they’re with us.

How does Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma relate to the past?

Even though Gone Crazy  is set in the sum­mer of 1969, its reach extends back to the 1830s, up until the 1870s, through the turn of the cen­tu­ry, and so on. My grand­moth­er was raised by her great-grand­moth­er, who was a slave and whose father fought and died in the Civ­il War. My grand­moth­er was our family’s link to this peri­od. I thought about these human links and that they dis­ap­pear. So, I began to think about the Charles-Gaither-Trot­ter fam­i­ly tree.  I esti­mat­ed approx­i­mate­ly when the ances­tral char­ac­ters would be born and what was hap­pen­ing dur­ing those times. I immersed myself in Alaba­ma his­to­ry to bet­ter weave the cross­ings between African Amer­i­cans, Native Amer­i­cans and Euro­pean Amer­i­cans. (If not for every oth­er of my African Amer­i­can class­mates brag­ging about their “Indi­an” roots, I would have missed the Native Amer­i­can branch in this Alaba­ma his­to­ry!) My sis­ter even jumped on the “we’re part Chero­kee” band­wag­on, although I knew bet­ter. Alaba­ma was the per­fect set­ting! It had the rail­road sys­tem run­ning from the Okla­homa Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ries through Aug­tau­ga Coun­ty dur­ing Recon­struc­tion, plus a tex­tile mill dat­ing back to the 1800s. (The tex­tile mill was where Louis Gaither Sr., as well as Uncle Dar­nell worked—although I scrapped that fact from the nov­el.) The KKK was active in Alaba­ma from post-Civ­il War, peter­ing out in the late 1800s and then resurg­ing in the 1920s, and active through the 1960s in George Wallace’s Alaba­ma. So even though the three sis­ters were not raised in the Jim Crow South, and most of the “Whites Only” signs have been removed, they are breath­ing the air of the past that still has its pres­ence dur­ing their time.

I thought about the two sis­ters whose lives hadn’t changed much from the time their father was alive. They retain a lot of that past. Ma Charles wouldn’t have indoor plumb­ing if not for her neigh­bor. The idea of sub­sist­ing and shar­ing with neigh­bors is how both sis­ters lived, per­haps fol­low­ing the ways of their moth­ers. Ma Charles talks about how “oth­er folks” (you know she means white peo­ple) jumped out of win­dows dur­ing the 20s because of the mar­ket crash, while poor peo­ple with gar­dens sur­vived it. Her purist free-range eat­ing and organ­ic gar­den­ing is now all the rage. Both she and Miss Trot­ter keep true to the lives they lived as chil­dren born in the late 1800s, down using “sad irons” that are placed on a hearth or on a stove, instead of elec­tric irons. The bonus is, for Del­phine, who is serv­ing her penance while iron­ing the sheets she refused to iron ear­li­er, Del­phine is also touch­ing hands with his­to­ry. Hold­ing hands with women who knew slav­ery and eman­ci­pa­tion. She doesn’t know that, but I do! My hope is that the read­er does also.

I’m about change, but I love that nei­ther Ma Charles nor her half-sis­ter, Miss Trot­ter don’t want to change who they are. These are women who were edu­cat­ed in a one-room school, with kids from five to fif­teen, and as young women they prob­a­bly remem­ber when Okla­homa became a state.  They have to feel those times when Native Amer­i­cans need­ed work pass­es to work out­side of their des­ig­nat­ed ter­ri­to­ries and reser­va­tions. The 82 year-old sis­ters have to feel those times when African Amer­i­cans tes­ti­fy­ing in court would have pro­vid­ed enter­tain­ment for white peo­ple. And I have to under­stand what would have been humil­i­at­ing for them, their moth­ers and their father. I have to feel those times and what they mean to the char­ac­ters with links to the past. Mind you, it all can’t go inside the sto­ry, but time, place, and peo­ple must be a part of me while I write.

3 Responses to Interview: Rita Williams-Garcia

  1. Marion Bauer September 24, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    Great inter­view, Rita!! It’s so good to hear your wise, warm, won­der­ful voice, if only in this some­what removed way!

  2. Liza Ketchum September 24, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

    I agree! Won­der­ful to hear your voice and to learn about the back­ground to this third nov­el. We loved read­ing the sec­ond one in our book group; can’t wait to read the third. Be well!

  3. David LaRochelle September 27, 2015 at 5:30 pm #

    I so enjoyed ONE CRAZY SUMMER. I’m eager to read the final book of this fas­ci­nat­ing tril­o­gy!

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