Monday, August 26, 2019

Author Interview with Anna Jean Mayhew: Part I

As a fan of historical fiction, I love it when a book seems so real that it could have happened just like the author described it. That's how I felt when I read Tomorrow's Bread which I reviewed last week. (If you haven't already read my review, please do that first. This interview will make more sense if you do.) Some of my questions about what was real and what was fictionalized were answered in the Author's Note, but not all. As you'll see in this interview, A.J. Mayhew drew from facts and her imagination. There is no better way to write a book. 


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!


Sandra Warren said...

I always LOVE to hear the back story about how and why a book was written; the author's choices, etc. This was great. I look forward to reading Part 2.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Sandra. Me too!!

Rosi said...

I always enjoy reading how authors go through the writing process. Thanks for an interesting interview.

Clara Gillow Clark said...

Fascinating, Carol. I’m eager to learn more about the author’s discoveries in her research.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Clara. Nice to see your comment. Working on part 2 of this interview! And you would love Tomorrow's Bread.

Kathleen said...

I love learning about Anna's process for researching, including pictures! (I know you're not surprised to read that! :)) I never thought of Pinterest! Duh! TOMORROW's BREAD is definitely on my TBR list.Reading this makes me more excited to read yours, Carol!

Carol Baldwin said...

Great to see your comment, Kathleen, You'll love this book!

Caroline McAlister said...

I love that idea of compiling a scrap book of images. This was very helpful. My historical fiction project I'm working on right now is a hot mess.

Carol Baldwin said...

Great, Caroline. Pinterest is a great way to do this simply. I'm CarolannBaldwin. Look at my images for Half-truths!

Caroline McAlister said...

I love this idea of looking through old magazines and making a scrapbook of images. My historical fiction project i am working on is a hot mess right now. Maybe I'll step back and make a scrapbook to help me with some of the characters.

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