Friday, January 8, 2010

Weaving a Story with Irene Latham

Leaving Gee's Bend is one of my favourite books of all time. I'm proud to welcome the author, Irene Latham, to tell us more about the intricacies of weaving such a heartwarming story.

Describe Leaving Gee’s Bend in a one liner.
Ludelphia Bennett, a determined, ten-year-old African American girl in 1932 Gee’s Bend, Alabama, leaves home in an effort to find medical help for her sick mother, and she recounts her adventures in quilt pieces.

Leaving Gee’s Bend is a coming of age story set in the 1930s. What inspired you to write such a story set in that specific period of time?
I was inspired to write this book in 2003 when my husband and I traveled to New York City and viewed the Quilts of Gee's Bend art exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Although I live only 120 miles from Gee's Bend, it wasn't until then that I became aware of the art and history of Gee's Bend. Something happened to me as I walked through those rooms... I was moved by the quilts and by the voices of the quilt makers. Then, as I researched, two events kept calling to me: the 1932 raid on Gee’s Bend and the subsequent Red Cross rescue. Of all the amazing events in the history of Gee’s Bend, those were the ones I knew I wanted to include in my story.

Tell us more about Gee’s Bend.
It’s a tiny African American community – unique, in part, because it’s so isolated. And the quilts these women create are incredible works of art. It isn’t art for art’s sake, but art borne of necessity. The quilters use everyday fabrics, whatever is available to them, like denim and calico and corduroy. It’s a quiet, rural place, hot in the summertime, and many of the roads are dirt, even today.

The way things ended, I assume this is a one off book?
Oh, I think Lu has many more stories to tell! I’d love to find out what happens to her next. Also, I’d love to know Etta Mae’s story. I’ll let you know. 

You actually travelled to Gee’s Bend as part of the research. Will you tell us more about research for this book? Were you inspired to write the story because you went there, or did you go there after you were inspired?
Yes, I travelled to Gee’s Bend and Camden a number of times, after I first saw the exhibit in New York City. Fortunately for me, the quilters’ lives have been well-documented, thanks to Tinwood Alliance, the group that first brought the quilts into art museums. I spent a great deal of time listening to audio recordings, to help me capture Lu’s voice, and I had a lot of fun poring over the November 1932 issues of Wilcox Progressive Era (local newspaper).

How does quilting come into play?
It was my great fortune to marry into a quilting family. Ludelphia is actually named for my husband’s grandmother, who spent lots of time telling me the stories behind her quilts and also showing me how to stitch. Couple that with my life as the daughter of a gifted seamstress, and there’s no mystery where this story comes from.

Do you do any quilting yourself?
My 2010 quilt project is a charm quilt. I’m currently collecting 4 inch squares of fabric – the fun thing about a charm quilt is that none of the fabrics repeat. So I need over 300 DIFFERENT fabrics to complete the project.

What are some books that have inspired you as both a reader and a writer?
Lately I’ve been reading Barbara O’Connor’s books. She has a knack for creating great characters and simple stories. My favorite books in childhood were the Little House books. And if I had to pick one author to emulate, it would be Katherine Paterson. She’s a brave writer – one who isn’t afraid to give kids credit for their depth of emotion. I strive to write like that.

In your opinion, what’s the hardest part of writing a story based on a real life event? Why?
It’s hard not to put in every single thing I learned! There are so many fascinating details that didn’t make it into the book... but the goal of writing historical fiction is for the character’s story to soar above the historical events. The history is really just a backdrop. So the hardest part really becomes forcing oneself to hold back.

We live in a time when young people have numerous choices for entertainment. What would you like to say to people who may be hesitant about reading a book for "fun"?
Reading a book is a way to travel across the universe and through time, a way to have adventures real-life may never afford you. It’s safe and doesn’t cost much and is absolutely exhilarating. And there are so many books! No way to run out.

Thanks for the interview, Irene! Is there anything you’d like to say to readers and aspiring authors out there?
Readers and writers are my most favorite people! Thank you for existing. Now go out and tell your stories in whatever way that makes sense to you – maybe even in a quilt.

Cross-posted at: LiyanaLand! on 8 January 2010.


Post a Comment