The period chose me. My uncle was born at the turn of the century, which made him an adolescent at the beginning of Prohibition. My family originated from Arkansas, and I made Beaumont Arkansas up. I thought I was being original only to find out there were hundreds of Beaumont’s around the country.
Why did you write your book in the style of a memoir, knowing it is a fabricated story?
Uncle Otto started as a short story, a factual short story. As the old adage goes for beginning writers; write about something you know about. There was an incident that occurred that only my uncle and I knew about, it’s in the book, so I wrote about that incident. When I decided to write a novel about my uncle’s life, I had no references; everybody had passed on. One aunt remained but she was the youngest of the siblings. So after much hesitation, and not a clue as to what to write or where to begin, I finally thought, “just start.” Then the question was where to start. The answer was, “from the beginning. I sit down to my computer and wrote the birth, which is the first chapter. After I finished the book, I made the short story the prologue.
How important are familial bonds and how do they drive the story? Why is family important?
My family is a very close family. My mother and aunts were like best friends. It wasn’t hard to visualize them as children. My mother told me stories of how they were as children, and from that I was able to see them as kids. I put most of her stories, as anecdote, in the book but I used my own knowledge and life experience to fill in the gaps. All of the characters in the story I had come across sometime in life. Otto’s best friend was like my best friend growing up. The family dynamic was all-consuming. We always spent holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving and so on at my grandparents house. There was no such thing as not going to grandma’s house for either of those holidays. If I or any of the grandchildren resisted going, we heard the same thing from our parents; “That is my mama, and you are going, period”
There wasn’t a lot of research, except for the factual aspect. There was the dates and activates of Prohibition. Mary’s meeting with Madam C.J. Walker, the riots in East St. Louis, and a few other things that I had to be accurate on. No surprises and nothing new; I just had to be accurate.
Will you return to this era/location in the future works?
I don’t know. I love historical fiction, in fact my second novel, Wayfarers, is set in the post-civil war era. Then my latest novel, Ruby, has yet to be published, and is contemporary.
What did you discover about yourself during your writing journey? How did it change you/how did you change?
I’m not sure how I might have changed but I was surprised at the emotional tug writing had on me. I experienced the death of my uncle Napoleon who died at the age of thirteen, around 1922. I knew of him and how he died but nothing prepared me for writing about the incident. Of course it was all made up, but when I started to write about it, especially when the news first got back to his mother, (my grandmother) I started to well up, and the tears began to flow; I could hardly see the computer screen for the tears.
How important is knowing family history to personal identity?
I think it’s very important. Even now with my cousins it’s as if we were brothers and sisters. Our parents saw to us being close. We still laugh at how our parents insisted that we gather at our grandparent’s house for the holidays. We could all recite that unforgettable statement from anyone of my aunts and uncles; “That is my mama, and you are going.” And this occurred as far back as I can remember. As a result, even as young adults, as long as my grandparents lived, all the grand’s showed up at our grandparents house for the holidays. That to me is family values.