Q: How did you get started as a writer?
A: I never intended to be a novelist, even though storytelling, reading, and writing have always been important to me. Many years ago, while I was driving home from work one day, I started getting ideas for novels. Some might say my own imagination was the source, but I know it was God. By the time I got home from work, I had ideas for three books. When I shared them with my wife, Eileen, she said, “Well then, why don’t you write them?” Why not, indeed? So I began.
Unlike many writers, I have never taken a course in creative writing, nor have I read lots of books on the writing process or attended many workshops. My learning came by doing, and there was a lot to learn! Along the way, I have been blessed with people who have encouraged me, read my work honestly and sympathetically, and given me good advice. Dinah Stevenson, my editor at Clarion, has been my most important and influential teacher; much of what is good in my two published novels is due to her excellent counsel. Every writer should have as fine a reader and editor as Dinah Stevenson!
Back to my first books: I did begin to write and managed to complete a novel. Then, naively, perhaps, I began to send out inquiries to publishers. Never got a contract, but did receive enough encouragement to keep going. Ultimately, I had three novels finished, all about a family named the Camerons, a family, not surprisingly, very similar to my own. (It’s often said we write about what we know.) After many years and many revisions, these books remain unpublished. Perhaps one day I will return to them with a fresh eye and fresh ideas.
Q: How did your first novel get published?
Following numerous rejections for the Cameron family novels, I turned to a different subject: the lives of African Americans in the South during the early years of the twentieth century. My field of scholarship is African American literature, so I’m well versed in African American history and culture. I had an image in my mind of a young black girl sitting underneath a huge magnolia tree having tea with her doll. A second image of an old black man riding a shiny blue bicycle also came to my mind. The little girl became Carissa Hudson, and the old black man turned out to be Bailey—just Bailey. They are the main characters of my novel The Bicycle Man. I presented the first version of the book to my wife Eileen as a Christmas gift in 1998. Clarion offered me a contract on the book in the spring of 2004, and it was published in the fall of 2005. The published version, I should add, is very different from the first version: four or five rewrites different! This business of writing, revising, and getting published takes much time and much patience.
I secured a contract with Clarion by sending a query letter, following guidelines in A Writer’s Guide to the Market. That’s a difficult way to get your work published, since companies receive hundreds of queries and manuscripts every year. Many no longer consider any work from authors who don’t have agents. ( I do not have an agent.) So I know how fortunate I am that Clarion accepted my work. Dinah Stevenson worked with me closely to revise and improve The Bicycle Man. I’m proud to say it won an award from the International Reading Association in 2006 as one of the best young adult novels by a new writer. Going to Chicago to receive the award was an honor, and lots of fun, too.
Q: How did you come to write Caleb’s Wars?
A: While doing some research on African Americans’ participation in the armed services during World War II, I read of incidents in which black soldiers in uniform were denied service in restaurants in various places in the South. In one case, these soldiers were escorting German prisoners of war on a train, probably taking them to a prison camp. The prisoners were allowed to eat in the dining car, but the soldiers were refused service. Such discriminatory treatment—our enemies get the privilege of eating because they’re white, while our own soldiers can’t eat because they’re black—made my angry, and I decided to make it the subject of a new novel.
Caleb’s Wars offers young readers the chance to learn about events in American history that might be unfamiliar to them. For example, many people today don’t know that thousands of German POW’s were brought to the States during World War II. They were needed to work in industry and agriculture because so many American men were overseas fighting in Europe and the Pacific. Many people today also don’t know what it was like to live in America during the Jim Crow era, when all kinds of laws, customs, and rules (many of them unspoken but widely understood) determined race relations and stringently curtailed the behavior of black Americans. I want to tell stories from our nation’s past, even when those stories might make us uncomfortable. More importantly, I want to keep saying that racism is wrong and that human freedom is an essential value worth fighting—and dying—for.