SO I am in Alabama all week and I meet a girl at a book signing named Crimsynn. And of course the first thing out of my mouth—because I am in Alabama—- is, “So, are you named after Bama’s Crimson Tide?” And —because we are in Alabama—-her answer is, “Of course!”
Man, I love that state.
It’s the exact kind of thing I can never put in a book, a character named after The Tide, because people NOT from Alabama would feel I was exaggerating. But no, I am willing to bet Crimsynn has MANY Crimson-named sisters speckled across the counties. Alabama is freakin’ SERIOUS about her football. Oh yes.
Nother example? Grace and Grit, by Lilly Ledbetter and Lainer Scott Isom tells the true story of the women’s rights folk hero who was the force behind the The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Here’s the kicker for me: Lilly is really, actually from Possum Trot Alabama.
It’s a memoir, so no one can criticize these authors for resorting to stereotype when a girl from a place called Possum Trot, Alabama rises up all sassy and changes the country. I love the idea of this lady, who still lives in the state I think of as “the Beautiful,” saddling up all her Possum Trot-ness and going to war against corporate America. It was the first bill Obama signed into law.
Kirkus calls the book, “Inspiring….Frank and feisty,” and Ms. Says it is “Compelling…This story of a lifelong struggle for fairness deserves to be widely read not only as a document of a case so stunningly unjust that it sparked legislative change, but also as an introduction to a remarkable woman who also happens to be an outstanding storyteller .”
Oh but I love the south. And I love Lanier Scott Isom, who was kind enough to answer three questions about the book, the story, and the writing life.
She is also going to send a signed (and personalized, if you like) copy, to one commentor that the vicious Random Number Generator will viciously choose, shunning all others, with absolute randomness. It could be you. To enter? Leave a comment before midnight EST this Friday! Easy Peasy Chicken Squeezy! Now, here’s Lanier.
JJ: What is the relationship between writing and motherhood? (I mean this in a personal way — for you. Does one feed the other, are they similar for you, does doing one make doing the other harder, do these things compete or come from the same place ?)
LIS: Motherhood, at its worst tedious and mind-numbing, is like trying to make Jell-O stick to the wall. At its best, motherhood’s divine moments inspire my writing life. But, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, motherhood always conspires to keep me from writing. Why wouldn’t it? The demands of a family are endless, and it’s almost impossible not to be consumed by my two favorite need buckets clamoring for me, and only me, to fill them. This feeling of being absorbed by my role as a mother is the same feeling as the all encompassing process of writing a book.
Just as there’s never the perfect time to have a child, there’s never the best time to birth a book. When I began Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, the worst recession in American history was rocking the country and my household in particular. What would have been stressful on an average day became epic when the battles over my time raged.
Everyone in my family had to let go of certain expectations: the house wasn’t always perfect, my husband cooked dinner and went to the cleaners, the children stepped up and became more responsible with their chores and homework (okay, sort of). I had to lean on others, and trust that when the children were sick and I hadn’t met my daily quota, I would find time to catch up.I learned to write under imperfect conditions. Any illusion of always having a cup of tea, a lit candle and a peaceful interlude of uninterrupted time in my office, a sun porch I love, was shattered. I wrote anywhere and everywhere, whenever I could—even with a laptop propped on my lap in bed, typing as Frances read to me, nodding as Clint told me what happened at school that day. Sticking to my daily routine and ritual during school hours was a challenge when crises and croup cropped up. So, I obsessively made lists. By mid-morning each day, that list had already been rearranged. The psychic space I left open was the answer to the daily question: where do I fit in the unexpected turn of events that, more often than not, the day brings. If all went as planned, in the afternoon and evening when my mind was swirling and I was still half embedded in the dream trance of my book, it took an effort to reconnect and be present with my family.
Most of the time my children view what I do with the lifted eyebrow of a skeptic. When I tell them to get off the computer, they complain, snapping, “But you’re always on the computer.” I’m actually doing my job I tell them. Sure, mom. Whatever. There’s something suspect and self-indulgent about being a writer, even when you’re published and earning a living, than other chosen professions. Until the actual book is in hand. Then my sweet cherubs proudly take that big beautiful book to school to show their teacher and class, and announce to the cashier at the grocery store, and any other poor soul, that “My mom is a writer and has published a book.”
Diana Gabaldon said it well when she remarked, “You know everyone wants a piece of you if you’re a Mommy. And they want it all the time—everyone wants all of you all of the time. And therefore to see you doing something like this, I can say they feel threatened—they don’t like it, and they will let you know in no uncertain terms.And so you are constantly having not only to fight off your family, but also your own feelings and guilt.”
I am familiar with the working mother’s guilt because I experienced it during my career as a teacher, publicist and editor. But the beauty and difference between being a working mother and being a a writing mother is that I can take the knowledge, insights, feelings and range of experiences I encounter as a mother and use them to deepen my material in a way I don’t think translates quite the same in other professions.
When my daughter came home one day, she was disheartened by the fact that when she played football in gym class, the girls were given a soft Nerf ball instead of the hard leather football. “It’s kind of like Lilly’s situation when they treated her differently for being a girl,” she concluded from the backseat as we drove home. I knew then that the hiccups my family experienced because I’d dedicated three years of my life to writing Lilly’s story were more than worth it. The book is a part of the family like a sibling: we love it, resent it, and fight about it, but ultimately, it deepens our experience as a family, and we are proud to call it one of our own.
LIS: Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight For Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond is a mouthful for a title. Grace and Grit was the original title for a profile I wrote about Lilly Ledbetter right after President Obama signed the The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2009.
Grit refers to the hardscrabble childhood Lilly experienced growing up in Possum Trot, Alabama, in the 1940s, with no electricity or running water. It refers to her tenacity at Goodyear where she worked in a grueling manufacturing environment for almost twenty years, enduring a level of harassment most people couldn’t handle for one week. She also exhibited grit fighting her legal battle, which lasted a little more than a decade of her life.
Grace refers to many aspects of Lilly’s character. This is a woman who took up ballroom dancing as a hobby and release from her work life as a tire plant manager. Dancing, Lilly discovered a part of herself she didn’t know existed. She found rhythm and beauty and joy. So much so, she won a national championship in Miami. When President Obama asked her to dance at the Inaugural Ball, no problem. She was all grace. She was also full of grace fighting for pay equity in court and Congress.
JJ: What does the collaborative process entail when writing another person’s memoir?
LIS: Creative nonfiction requires as Anna Quindlen says, using “the eye of a reporter and the heart of a novelist.” In other words, to weave a compelling narrative requires the journalistic skills of a reporter and the craft of a novelist. Once you have researched, interviewed, and fact checked, you have to wear your storytelling hat. It’s time then to take the material you’ve gathered and give the story heart. But I struggled to get much emotion from Lilly. She, like many southern women, is not one to reveal her innermost thoughts very easily.
As one of the “Greatest Generation” she also isn’t one to complain; she just endures, and then, she acts. Over two years together, we spent countless hours talking, but one moment stands out in my mind: the moment when Lilly finally decided to open up and trust me, to show me a sense of vulnerability.
It was one winter afternoon when we’d been driving around Possum Trot, looking at her childhood home and her grandfather’s farm. We’d stopped at the small family cemetery. Standing in the cold on her grandfather’s grave, squinting her eyes as she looked across the cemetery to the bare trees scattered on the ridge, she mentioned as casually as if she were commenting on the chilly weather, “You know, Tot tried to kill my dog once, but Mama backed him down with a butcher knife.”
That’s all she said. I didn’t press. After that moment in the cemetery, I knew she felt comfortable talking honestly about the harsh challenges she endured throughout most of her life. That’s how we worked from then on. She gave me a glimpse, a tiny glimmer, the actual facts of the matter as we continued our conversations over days and weeks and months. I then dug deep within myself to express her feeling about these experiences.