I hope today starts your week off in the most positive of ways. I would like to help by introducing you to Elizabeth Guider, author of the historical fiction novel, MILK AND HONEY ON THE OTHER SIDE.
As always, please enjoy getting to know the author……
1. The first thing prospective readers ask me is why I was inspired to write a family saga set 100 years ago.
Sometimes what sparks an author to take up the pen is an arresting image that sticks in his or her mind, in my case one that knocked around in my head for many, many years. Growing up in a small town in the Deep South we’d come into town at least once a week—definitely on Sundays for church. As we trundled along in my father’s old station wagon toward the downtown we’d come to the top of a steep hill. Or rather, the bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. Across that breathtaking expanse, beyond the sandbars, poplars and morning mist was the state of Louisiana and in my innocence I imagined that there on the other side, as it were, lurked a world full of excitement and danger and lushness and the unexpected. That image, coupled with snippets of things I heard or saw growing up about race (remember, in the Deep South, such was inevitable), left me puzzled and intrigued about what it would have meant to be caught up in a relationship between black and white. One that almost by definition would be frowned upon, or worse. To make the story believable, I did a lot of research about what it was like back around the time of World War I for the two races, on both sides of the river, as it were. To make the plot compelling, I chose the most dramatic possible interplay between the races. As some of you will know, there were many more connections and relationships, sexual and otherwise, between white men and black women back then, but the obverse happened too. More rarely certainly and with terrible consequences if discovered.
So, in brief, here’s the basic plot of Milk and Honey on the Other Side:
Set in the Deep South in the decade after WWI, it’s a family saga in which the main characters grapple with the sweeping changes that unsettle the world in the aftermath of war and the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. The plot centers around the Ackermann family, headed by the flawed paterfamilias, Aristide, whose goal in life is probity but whose own behavior does not always square with that solidly old-fashioned virtue. Still, he does his best to stand up for progressive values so long as they don’t jeopardize his standing in the community. Unfortunately, the rambunctious river town of Vicksburg, MS—despite its gentile veneer—has a vicious streak. Race becomes both a lightning rod and a litmus test, each character revealed through his responses to the divide that separates black from white. Aristide’s biggest challenge comes in the wake of his wife Sophie’s death from influenza as he tries to shape the lives of his three children: Alfred has returned from the trenches jittery and distant; younger son James is fragile and ineffectual; daughter Aurelia is passionate and impatient with her role as a proper young lady. Her story is at the heart of the novel and sets the various plot lines on a collision course. During the flu quarantine of 1918 she and James are sent across the river to the safe haven of their aunt’s farm where they come under the spell of the most inappropriate of men, one Curtis Jefferson. He is black—gifted, ambitious, but by definition off-limits. Except that he and Aurelia fall in love. As dangerous as their relationship is, their love endures through the decade. Curtis trains as an engineer in Chicago, and though still hampered by the color of his skin, finds employment on the river; Aurelia is eventually ensnared in a disastrous marriage. The Mississippi River threads its way through the action, the Great Flood of 1927 bringing conflicts among the characters to a life-altering head.
Waterfront in Vicksburg, MS, circa 1918
2. I’ve also been asked to describe my writing process, which in the telling will sound more organized than it is on some days! Even so…
Because I’m also a freelance journalist I, like so many authors, have to carve out the time to do research and to write. As a general rule, I try to do so five or six times a week, usually three to four hours a day. When I’m on a roll—as in writing dialogue and trying to channel how my characters would have spoken back then—then I sit in front of the computer for longer; other times, let it be said, I plod along, trying at least to move the action forward or to improve upon any awkward constructions or generic descriptions. In my life as a Hollywood editor I once spoke with the British screenwriter Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey fame, among many other credits) and he revealed that one of his tricks as a prolific screenwriter was to always back away from the desk only when “in full throttle,” meaning not when he was stuck but when he knew precisely what he’d be tackling the next day. I try to do that too, as there’s little more demoralizing than sitting in front of a blank page not knowing how to fill it. As I suggested, too, given the historical background of this novel, I also spent considerable time reading up on the period, especially the 1920’s, and took notes from the material I thought most pertinent to the lives of my characters. Just one eye-opening discovery was a recent book about the great migration of blacks to the North after the war, where educational and work opportunities were opening up; thus, one of my main characters takes this route. Another was the fascinating account of the Great Flood of 1927 (in John Barry’s The Rising Tide) and its enormous and lasting impact on the country.
3. So how do I try to get the balance right among facts, fiction and fun?
One of the great sayings in the newspaper business (other businesses too, I reckon) is “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That’s harder to do than it sounds when you’re trying to respect what actually “happened” and yet create characters who are more than stick figures. A good novelist, in short, shouldn’t be interested in demonstrating how much time he or she has spent in the library, in history seminars or on Wikipedia but rather in how effectively he or she gets the reader to turn the page. In my first novel, for example, I had to struggle mightily to let my imagination take over from what I actually experienced or observed during the fascinating year I was writing about (namely Rome, Italy in 1978 where I was living at the time). Looking back, I can find passages in The Passionate Palazzo where the facts got in the way of the characters behaving as naturally as I would like. With the second novel, I found the period in question equally fascinating but more removed in time obviously from my own personal experience. That, ironically, made it easier to depart from or elaborate on the basic facts of what was going at the time and in the places in question. An added pleasure with this second book was lying awake at night to hear a character or two work out a conflict in their own voices. Almost like a séance it was occasionally. (As a result, I got in the habit of keeping a notebook next to the bed, just in case what they said in the dark could effectively be used by me the author in the light of day.) To my mind, it’s really fun, and liberating, when characters start speaking and acting on their own—provided you’ve grounded them sufficiently in your own mind, as to their roles and their eventual destinies.
4. Another theme that almost automatically I found myself dealing with in this novel was the dawning struggle of women to take a more active independent role in society. However, what became clear early on is that empowerment didn’t—and still doesn’t—descend upon us overnight.
Having come of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s it’s logical that I would be drawn to themes about women’s struggles—everything from their marriages, to their often thwarted educational aspirations, to their trials in the work place. And, it can be argued, the obstacles that women had to overcome 100 years ago are not that dissimilar from those we still grapple with today, just writ large, as it were. Just as my main character Aurelia Ackermann in Milk and Honey begins, at age 18, to chafe against the strictures placed upon her, actual women in the U.S. finally got the right to vote. That, I think, was the first salvo in a century-long push for women to come into their own and control their own destinies. In the case of my lead character, I wanted to portray her as conflicted as many young women of the time likely were. They wanted to explore more fulfilling directions for themselves and yet they arguably found it difficult to disappoint family and friends or risk ostracism from them. In Aurelia’s case, the struggle is immeasurably magnified first because of her attraction to a black man and secondly for her fateful decision to enter into a loveless marriage. Empowerment comes in fits and starts for her, but I did my best to dramatize it convincingly and satisfyingly for readers.
Anyway, I hope I’ve managed to pique the interest of any of you who are curious about the period in question and how the issues of race and women’s rights played out at the time. And I’d be delighted to respond to any questions or comments. I can be contacted at email@example.com.
My author links:
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Elizabeth Guider is a longtime entertainment journalist who has worked in Rome, Paris and London as well as in New York and Los Angeles. Born in the South, she holds a doctorate in Renaissance Studies from New York University. During the late 1970’s she was based in Rome where she taught English and American literature and where much of the action of her first novel, The Passionate Palazzo, takes place. While in Europe she worked as an entertainment reporter for the showbiz newspaper Variety, focusing on the film business, television and theater. She also traveled widely, reporting on the politics affecting media from Eastern Europe to Hong Kong as well as covering various festivals and trade shows in Cannes, Monte Carlo, Venice and Berlin. Back in the States since the early 1990’s, she specialized on the burgeoning TV industry and eventually held top editor positions at Variety and latterly at The Hollywood Reporter. Most recently she has freelanced for World Screen News as senior contributing editor. She divides her time between Los Angeles and Vicksburg, MS where she grew up and which is the setting for her second novel, Milk and Honey on the Other Side, an inter-racial love story which takes place in the post-WWI period. She is now at work on her third novel, By the Light of the Moon, They Danced, about two sisters growing up in the 1960s.
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Until next time……………………………Happy Reading & Reviewing!!!