Metaphor for writing a book

Metaphor for writing a book

Since embarking on my new book project on the Rhythm Club Fire, I’ve gotten questions about why I’d want to work on something so depressing, which is a blog for another day, but mainly they’ve been about what I’ll say.  At this point, I cannot answer that question.  None of us who has authored a book can, especially when we are so early in the process. So, I’ve come up with a metaphor that I think works, and one which people who’ve never written a book can understand.

“It’s like putting together a 500-piece puzzle,” I answer.

At the beginning is the idea, and all of those pieces of evidence.

Puzzle Pieces GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

In the early stages, you begin pulling together ideas that form the basic framework for the book.

So, the basic outlines of the story are . . .

Further into the project, some of the ideas begin to take shape.

largeportionspuzzle
This much is very clear.

Eventually, the day comes when you have figured it out and hooray!

My book is almost as good as a Renoir painting! Not quite, but . . .

As with any puzzle, it takes time and patience, but part of the joy is in the process–figuring out where the pieces fit. When it’s complete there’s a moment of euphoria, but it is fleeting.

Now what?  Time to start a new puzzle.

Dixie’s Daughters almost never happened

Confederacy Daughters Unveil Monument
Members of the UDC gathered at the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery, located in Jackson Circle. ca. 1913, Courtesy of Getty Images

I want to share a story about my 2003 book Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (University Press of Florida), which will be issued as a revised edition with a scheduled publication date of January 2019.  Woot!

When I drafted the new preface, I thought it would be interesting to provide a little background on the publishing history of Dixie’s Daughters. My justification for including it was that I wanted all of you out there who have struggled to get something published or may end up in that struggle, particularly graduate students and junior scholars who follow my work on Twitter and elsewhere, to know that you aren’t alone.

The struggle is real!!

My own road was such a bumpy one, I despaired that it might never happen.  On the advice of my editor, however, what follows will not be in the revised edition.  Nonetheless, I want to share it with you, in case it is of some comfort or inspiration.

So, for your amusement and edification, here it is:

“It may come as a surprise that Dixie’s Daughters was almost never published. Despite the fact that no less than twelve university presses expressed interest in publishing my dissertation, it was rough going. Three different university presses received the manuscript at various points in time. The editor at the first press I sent the manuscript to never sent it out to readers. Perhaps it served as a very robust coaster for whatever was in his coffee cup. A second more prestigious press did due diligence and I received readers’ reports. One of them supported publication, while the other demurred, citing scholarship that I should engage. The only problem was that said scholarship had yet to be published and remained a work-in-progress. A third regional press took it in for a proposed series that never materialized. After revisions, this press sat on the manuscript for an entire year, only to box it up and mail it to me with the note that it was no longer of interest. At my wit’s end, I reached out to Marjorie Spruill who suggested I work with Meredith Babb at the University Press of Florida. Meredith laid out the process for getting the book published, so I took the boxed up manuscript that had been returned to me and mailed it to her. Unchanged. Within two months I had the readers’ reports and a book contract and, it turned out, a new tenure-track job with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.”

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

 

What’s Happening!!

The cast of What’s Happening!!

As a pre-teen in the ’70s, I was a fan of the show “What’s Happening” with Roger, Dee, their Momma, Rerun, and Dwayne. And let’s not forget Shirley. So, even though I’m writing about what’s happening with me as an author, I can’t help but think of that show.

I’ve got a few speaking/book engagements coming up, too.

University of Michigan, March 12th
Tennessee Williams Festival, March 25th
Univ. of Louisiana-Lafayette, April 10-11th
Seminary Co-op in Chicago, May 3rd
DePaul University, May 4th

Then, in May, Louisiana University Press will release the volume Reassessing the 1930s South, which I co-edited with Sarah Gardner, a professor of history at Mercer University.  The volume is truly interdisciplinary as it brings together scholars of history, literature, and American Studies.

This summer, I’ll return to Natchez for local research on my newest project, which will examine the Rhythm Club Fire that took the lives of 209 African Americans on April 23, 1940.  It was one of the deadliest fires in the history of the U.S., outranking the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911.

 

History and the YouTube Generation

You can learn just about anything on YouTube.  There are thousands of “how-to” videos for fixing things in your house, setting up the Bluetooth in your car, or solving complicated math problems.

There is also a lot of historical content, some of it very well done and surprisingly popular.  Well, surprising to me, but probably not the generation who has grown up looking for short-cuts to history lessons, which is why historians like me should be involved in their creation by providing reliable content and expertise.  Very recently, I did just that.

A video producer named Coleman Lowndes contacted me and asked me to Skype with him and talk about the “Lost Cause.”  It’s a term that I often have to explain to students and even public audiences. That interview, along with one given by historian Kevin Levin, were then incorporated into the video Lowndes produced for Vox, an online news media outlet that reaches a large millennial audience.

Here is the end result:

Now, while I might take issue with the title, the content was spot on.  And entertaining. It’s also not a lecture, although many of those exist online, too.  At least one lecture I found had been viewed over 400,00 times.  Not bad at all.  But the video above?  It’s closing in on one million views.  ONE MILLION.

I credit this to the video producer who made it, Coleman Lowndes.  He knows his audience–the millennials of the YouTube generation who want to learn and be entertained at the same time.  Please understand: I’m not saying that this generation is limited to one learning style, but if they are going to seek out a video explanation of a historical idea or an event then it’s important to grab, and hold, their attention.  Lowndes did that well.

Even we, historian/teachers, appreciate an entertaining history lesson, which is why so many of us like Drunk History, which began as a YouTube series.  Students like them, too.  One of my favorites is about Harriet Tubman, played by Octavia Spencer.

They get students’ attention and instructors can use them to enhance lectures and prompt discussion.  Just like those Vox videos.

There’s much more out there in YouTube land.  There is history in song (here’s one on the Declaration of Independence), traditional documentaries, and restored historical newsreels.

YouTube videos aren’t the only way to reach the latest generation, of course. But maybe, just maybe, they can spark a real interest among those viewers to go beyond the video in search of more information.  For historians, that’s a win-win.

Seasons Bleatings!

Seasons Bleatings!

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”

Dear Friends and Readers,

I have so much to be grateful for this year, especially with the publication, in October, of my book Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South by UNC Press.

My travels to promote the book took me to Chicago, IL, Spartanburg, SC, Greensboro and Charlotte, NC, Mobile, AL, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, LA, and several towns in Mississippi, including Greenwood, Oxford, Jackson, and, of course, Natchez!  I did so with the support of family, friends, and my press–especially Brandon Proia (my editor) and Gina Mahalek (my publicist).

 

Along the way, I wrote some essays about the research that went into Goat Castle for Publishers Weekly, the Organization of American Historian’s blog Process, and an essay that linked my research to today’s incarceration of women of color for TIME magazine.  I appeared on several podcasts, and did a number of Q&A interviews for book bloggers and even VICE magazine.

What I had not expected was Charlottesville.

In the midst of promoting my book, I got caught in the public whirlwind about Confederate monuments. That began in August after white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville under the pretense of defending the Robert E. Lee monument there. In response, I wrote op-eds for the New York Times (twice), The Washington Post,  and CNN (twice), while also being interviewed by numerous media outlets including the BBC, i24 Israeli television, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Slate (France), the Los Angeles Times, and newspapers in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan.  To be honest, I lost count of the interviews, because this issue became a global one overnight.  I was also reminded of the fact that people don’t always appreciate what a historian writes. And yet, I also believe that historians must continue to write on issues for which they have expertise.

But, back to the goats.

Writing Goat Castle was the most rewarding endeavor of my career.  I met wonderful people in Natchez, got to know descendants of one of the principals in the book, and was able to write a book that most people have found accessible.  Everyone from my Aunt Wilma to my hairdresser seems to like it, and not just because they know me.

I’m frequently asked “what’s next?” I’m still trying to figure it out.  When I do, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, Goat Castle has only been out a couple of months.  And, it still has a future.  Stay tuned.