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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October Happenings with Goat Castle

The Goat Castle tour has begun!  Here are the October events:

October 3rd:  Radio Interview with Cat Smith on KSVY’s Hollywood & West Napa, on 91.3 KSVY Sonoma at 1:05: EST.

October 4th:  Interview with Author’s Voice in Chicago. Listen in to this virtual book signing!

October 10th:  Reading and signing at Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, SC

October 15th:  Southern Festival of Books, Nashville, TN

October 18th:  Scuppernong Books, Greensboro, NC

October 19th:  Interview with NC Bookwatch (Airtime TBA)

October 25th:  Talk and signing at Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL

October 28th:  Louisiana Book Festival, Baton Rouge, LA

Then, it starts all over again in November!

 

 

 

 

 

Book Covers, Design Choices, and the Author?

Note: This post primarily applies to university presses, since this is where I’ve published.

The design of a book cover should convey the essence of what’s inside and intrigue potential readers (read: buyers).  As an author, I’m interested in how a designer visualizes the title and the ideas I’ve expressed in a book I’ve written or edited.  This can be both exciting (“The designer got it!”) or worrisome (“Whoa, that’s really off the mark!”).   It’s a process that I didn’t pay much attention to with my first book, and one I am far more invested in at this point in my career.

Dixie's DaughtersConsider the design of Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, published in 2003.   I didn’t have any quibbles with the font and the designer tried to incorporate some element of Confederate symbolism in the reddish bar below the photograph by adding stars.  Stars and bar, anyone?  There’s also a Confederate gray, one might say.

The photograph, one I found, is from a girls’ school in Texas where the students wore Confederate-inspired uniforms and are all standing at attention with rifles cast over their left shoulders, as though they were members of the CSA.  This conveyed a theme in my book, which is that it was women who took on the cause of Confederate memory and, in a sense, they were soldiers in the Lost Cause.

The only issue I had with the cover was that the initial gray color in the title muted my name and it couldn’t be seen.  This was upsetting, since it was my first book. It has since been corrected.

My second book Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture came out in 2011.  A lot had changed since 2003. I was a more mature scholar and while I was open to the designer’s interpretation, it turned out that I needed to weigh in on this decision.

Because there were hundreds of songs written about the South by Tin Pan Alley lyricists, there was an equally large number of sheet music designs from which to draw from.  The art of Tin Pan Alley “Dixie songs” were, as you might expect, rich in color and design.  Like a book cover, the sheet music art was intended to convey the story told by the song, so the designer had plenty to draw from.

Some of the covers, however, should come with a warning: “Beware of racist caricatures!”  It should be implicit, really, but for some reason the initial design for this book actually drew from one of those racist covers.  That was when I said “hold up!”  The designer clearly misunderstood the implicit message.

Dreaming of DixieThe revised design got it right, because this was a book about how the South had been romanticized in American popular culture prior to the advent of television.  Here’s Miss Southern Belle strumming her banjo, sitting on some oversized cotton bolls and gazing out on a bucolic southern landscape.  Even the clouds look like cotton.  The art work is adapted from the sheet music for the song “The Whole World Comes From Dixie (When They Play That Dixie Tune).” No problems with seeing my name here.

My latest book, which presumes there’ll be another out in the ether, is Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South.  It comes out in October, but I’ve already got a jacket design, because marketing! (Speaking of marketing. . . reviewers, book bloggers, librarians, and other avid readers can now request to see the galleys on NetGalley.)

It’s a true crime story that drew on my skills as a historian, but it is written to be accessible to a broader audience.  Set in Depression-era Natchez, Mississippi, it offers insight into the decline of the Old South and southern families, but also about the Jim Crow South and the racial justice that sent an innocent woman named Emily Burns to one of the most notorious prisons in the region at the time, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman.

This book is very personal to me and so I really wanted the cover to reflect something of the southern gothic drama that unfolded that year, which resulted in national headlines. I also wanted to recognize Emily Burns, who family members called “Sister,” since she was the other victim in this crime.  She had to be on the cover. It had taken me five years to find a photograph of her and, more to the point, up until now, community memory had virtually erased her from the story.

First take on the design? No Emily.  “It didn’t work. It was confusing. Looks like she was the one murdered,” I was told.  “We can put her on the back cover.”  No, no, no.  This perpetuates her place in the story as being in the background.  No.  I also worried about the font of the title, so I pushed back.  Next take: New font, Emily, and two of the other principals in the case.  Much better.  Then I gave consideration to the original font design, because I was wrong. It was right on the money, because the font had been adapted from a ticket to Goat Castle (also known as “Glenwood”)  in the 1930s. You’ll have to buy the book to learn why there were tickets to Goat Castle.

Goat Castle

The final take on the design pushed all of the buttons–southern gothic, image of Goat Castle, the two white principals Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, but Emily “Sister” Burns was there, too.  There was also the font that drew from the ticket.  Success!

Goat Castle

I’m not suggesting that an author be involved in design.  In my case, I’m a historian and so just as I wouldn’t want a designer to correct me about history, it works the same in reverse. At the same time, the book represents you and your work, so when the situation merits your involvement, I believe that you can and should have a honest conversation with your press.  Be willing to compromise, however, because your press is responsible for marketing your book.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment section below.

Exploring the Land

Exploring the Land

Whenever I begin new writing projects, I do so not by heading directly to the archives, but by going to the place where events happened.  There’s usually something about the geography, the architecture, street patterns, and even the climate that helps me better understand the places I write about.

Burwell School, Hillsborough, NC
Burwell School, Hillsborough, NC

I’ve been doing this ever since I wrote my first serious undergraduate history paper.  The place was Hillsborough, North Carolina, and I wrote about a female seminary called the Burwell School that operated there beginning in the 1830s.  I went to Hillsborough, once the colonial capitol, to familiarize myself with the place. Fortunately, the building that housed the seminary was there, too, so I spent time in and around what had also been a large home.  In fact, very often such schools operated out of peoples’ homes–a fact I learned by going there.

Dunleithtourguide
Sarah and I had a very entertaining tour guide at Dunleith

More recently, I’ve spent time in Natchez, Mississippi, where it all began with an exploratory trip with a fellow historian from Mercer University, Sarah Gardner. We flew into New Orleans, rented a car, and made the 3 hour drive to the little town on the bluffs. Had I done a better job of looking at a map, the closer airport for reaching Natchez is in Baton Rouge, less than an hour and a half drive away.

It was a great beginning to a new book project.  Seeing the town, walking its streets, touring some of its mansions, and going to the edge of the bluff on which the town overlooks the Mississippi River helped me gain a better perspective of the town’s historical importance in the antebellum era.  Over the course of several visits there, I continued to learn more about the town through its streets and geography.  So well, in fact, that I have even given people directions when I’ve been there on a research trip.

Mississippi River from the Natchez bluffs
Looking at the Mississippi River from the Natchez bluffs

It’s not always easy to get to the place one studies, especially for students.  Still, I think it’s a worthy goal to encourage them to go if they can, and find ways to assist them when they can’t, by encouraging them to study maps or even go on Google Earth to “see” the landscape for themselves.

Cypress bog in front of Melrose
Cypress bog in front of Melrose, a suburban estate in Natchez

Exploring the land–both the natural and built environments–is a wonderful way to get to know the places we write about.  It also adds to our historical perspective.

Cheers,

KLC