CAROL Your books bring to life Charlotte’s history. Can you give us a few words about how growing up in Charlotte shaped your books?
A. J. In 2008 I returned to my hometown of Charlotte for a high school reunion, and for some reason decided to drive through the heart of the city rather than taking my usual route on the perimeter. It was then that I saw how much open land remained where Brooklyn used to be. I couldn't help wondering why, 40 years later, the city hadn't built on the land they appropriated in 1968. That curiosity led to the writing of Tomorrow's Bread.
CAROL How did your first book, The Dry Grass of August influence Tomorrow’s Bread ? Was this your idea or did your publisher request another book?
A. J. I got a two-book deal when my agent sold Dry Grass to Kensington Publishing, in 2009; at that time I was given a year to write the second book. But I don't write fast, never have, and I didn't finish Tomorrow's Bread until the winter of 2017. The only real influence of the first novel on the second was that I'd done a lot of research for Dry Grass about black/white history in North Carolina; that came in handy as I started the second novel.
CAROL Where did you get the titles of your novels?
A. J. Both my titles came from poems. The Dry Grass of August is a phrase from Robert Penn Warren's poem, "Star-Fall," and Tomorrow's Bread is from "Democracy" by Langston Hughes. I wish I could write poetry, but I absolutely cannot, have tried. I read it quite a bit, though, and have a deep appreciation for the art form.
CAROL You seem to gravitate towards historical fiction. Please comment on your process of research. Any sticky points? Recommendations for other historical fiction novelists?
A.J. When I began to write Dry Grass it never occurred to me that I was writing historical fiction; I had a story to tell. The fact that it was set in the 1950s and would require a lot of research was of no concern, at least not until I began to have to check facts, to determine whether my memories were accurate. The internet is both a boon and a pit of misinformation. I learned quickly not to trust what I found online unless the source was valid (and sometimes it wasn't easy or even possible to track down an original source). Journals I'd kept over the years (some of them going back to my twenties and thirties) were helpful. Encyclopedia yearbooks were a boon when I discovered them. Old magazines helped me get into the mindset of someone living in the early fifties, especially my female characters. I saw how publications like Good Housekeeping, Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, etc., geared their advertising toward the stay-at-home mom. Magazines aimed at people of color were harder to find, but when I began to write Tomorrow's Bread, I found Ebony and Jet to be of incredible value.
There's a thing I do that might be useful to other writers: When I'm perusing magazines of the period of my story (the 50s for Dry Grass and the 60s for Bread), I find photos of my characters and create a scrap book; for Dry Grass it was a physical book; for Bread it was digital, on my computer. For example, here's a photo of Uncle Ray, sitting on the front porch of 1105 Brown Street, with the old rocking chair behind him.
And here's my doctored photo of 1105 Brown Street, with the magnolia tree dominating the front yard:
And the duplex they find:
CAROL That's what I use Pinterest for!
Next week, A.J. returns with more thoughts about writing historical fiction, writing as a white author, and what she's working on next. I'm giving away my copy of Tomorrow's Bread and the contest ends on September 5. Each time you leave a comment I'll add another entry in your name. Make sure you leave your email address if I don't have it!