We’ve Got a Job (Peachtree, 2012) by Cynthia Levinson tells the little-known story of the 4,000 black elementary-, middle- and high school students who voluntarily went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama, between May 2 and 11, 1963.
Their protest efforts succeeded where adults had failed, and they helped desegregate one of the most racially violent cities in America. Focusing on four of the original participants, who participated in extensive interviews, this book recounts the amazing events before, during and after the Children’s March.
There was such a lovely interview with Cynthia on Audrey Vernick’s Literary Friendships blog about how she got the idea to write this book, that I couldn’t possibly compete with it.
So, I decided to ask Cynthia about a topic that always fascinates me – the writing process.
Once you decided this was a story you had to tell, how did you start?
I read. This may sound obvious or old-fashioned because, these days, there are many sources of information. But, I made a concerted effort to read just about every nonfiction book I could find—for both adults and children—on civil rights and on the history of the South. Several of the books for adults had won Pulitzer Prizes and were, literally, voluminous. Periodically, I interspersed my fact-finding with wonderfully evocative historical fiction.
After a couple of months, when I started seeing the same information in multiple sources, I realized that I had covered the terrain as best I could. Still, I kept reading for another month. When I began to detect inconsistencies and contradictions in what I was reading, I knew that I had finally learned enough about both civil rights and its coverage to be able to evaluate the sources.
Without this depth of book-learning and, finally, analysis, I wouldn’t have known what questions to ask when I ventured from the library to the site of the events.
How did you find the children – now all grown up – that you interviewed for your book? And were they eager to participate, or did you have to convince them?
Fortunately, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has been conducting video interviews with civil rights activists for the past 15 years. Portions of the recordings are posted on the BCRI’s website. And, many complete transcripts of these interviews are available for purchase. So, I contacted the interviewer, Dr. Horace Huntley, and the archivist, Laura Anderson, and asked for guidance on which transcripts to read. In addition, I contacted many of the people who were quoted or discussed in all those books I had read! Ultimately, it was a matter of making cold calls, just like a pre-Internet Encyclopedia salesman.
Most people I contacted—I considered dozens of people before settling on the final four—were very generous with their time and information. Audrey, for instance, invited me to her home where I got to see where Dr. King discussed strategy with her mother and the piano where her father’s choir leader practiced the song “We’ve Got a Job.” Another person offered to participate but, then, stopped responding to my inquiries; after many months of futile effort, I honored her ambivalence and stopped stalking her. A third person interviewed me—for good reason!—before agreeing to participate.
I knew it was important to show the events from various perspectives because history is not a single story. The second to last paragraph of the book summarizes the role that each of the four children played during the March. Finding the right mix of people who were willing to spend hours and hours being interviewed and then vetting what I wrote was a major undertaking.
What was the hardest part about researching this book? Did you ever despair that you wouldn’t be able to find all the information you needed?
The research was intense and prolonged but I despaired more about the writing than about the research. (Maybe this just says more about me than about the general process of writing nonfiction.) The reason for this gets back to the inconsistencies and contradictions I mentioned before. I also discuss this issue in my Author’s Note at the end of the book.
As we know from recent research on court trials, witnesses’ and participants’ perceptions of events differ, not only from each others’ but also over time. Some of the memories my interviewees shared with me did not accord with the written record or with other people’s memories. Sorting through these multiple perspectives required very fine-grain and sensitive probing and cautious writing.
An area that confounded me for months was the relationship between the civil rights protests and Birmingham’s mayoral election, which was going on at exactly the same time. As with the rest of the research, though, I found an amazing book on internal politics in three Alabama cities, including Birmingham, which sorted out for me how the election and the civil rights movement were integrally related.
Then, I certainly despaired about being able to write about municipal politics in an engaging way for ten-year-olds. As with the rest of the writing, my indefatigable editor helped me explain the issues clearly and succinctly.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while gathering your information?
Everything was fascinating! But, the areas that, perhaps, interested me the most were the ones where I—and many other people—wanted to resist the truth.
The first of these was the fundamental discovery that it was children, not grown-ups, who were jailed, attacked by dogs, and hosed. The second, related to this, was that extremely few white people in Birmingham knew about the marches, attacks, hosing, and jailings, even while they were going on. How could they not know what was happening in their downtown every day for almost two weeks? The answer, I discovered, is that the newspapers buried the information, and the city was so segregated, their lives did not intersect.
These were hard-to-accept but riveting truths.
How was fact-checking done? By you? By the publisher? By outside experts? All of the above?
Yes! I sent the manuscript to the people I interviewed, for vetting, as well as to several scholars. Peachtree’s editors also probed the “facts” in detail, to be sure they were actually facts, and also sent the draft to an outside reviewer.
We discovered several errors, which was both relieving and dismaying. I also revised some statements to make them less assertive and more nuanced. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who read the drafts, though I fear that errors may remain.
I am especially grateful to Jane Ann Baggett, a 10-year-old reader and writer who told me exactly what she thought of the manuscript from a reader’s perspective!
How long did it take you from your first forays into research and interviewing until you finished your final, submission-ready draft?
I never had a “final, submission-ready draft.” What my agent, Erin Murphy, submitted to publishers was a very extensive proposal.
Getting from the initial idea to the point of sending out the proposal took about eight months. Then, everything lay fallow for about a year while the proposal was rejected by 18 or 20 publishers. From the point that Peachtree bought the proposal to the time that the final manuscript, complete with photos and source notes and index, etc., was sent to the printer took another two years. During some of that time, I researched and wrote intensively; for many months in between, I had to allow my editor to work on other people’s books!
Did researching and writing this book change how you will approach future books? Do you have a more refined, clearer writing process now?
Although I thought I kept scrupulous source notes, fact-checking took an inordinate amount of time because I had to re-trace several research routes. So, I’m trying in my next projects to be more careful about foot-noting.
The writing process, however, has not, yet, become more streamlined. The reasons are that I’m trying my hand at picture book manuscripts, which require an entirely different style from long-form narrative, one that I need to learn. Also, each subject and its intended audience requires its own approach, its own format and voice. Perhaps if I muster the energy for another middle-grade or YA book, I’ll be able to apply the lessons I learned from We’ve Got a Job. Meanwhile, the lesson I learned is to take a break!
What advice would you give to writers who want to create in-depth nonfiction books? What should they keep in mind?
Love your subject. Love it so much that you have to pull yourself away from the research and writing to feed your family and see your friends. Keep loving it so that, when you get to the copy-editing stage, you’ll actually care whether or not the commas are consistent. Love it so that when it sees the light of day, you’ll be proud to share the story only you could tell.
Thanks for visiting us, Cynthia!
You can learn more about Cynthia and her book by visiting her website. The book is officially released on Feb. 1. And, if you visit the EMU’s Debuts blog that week, you’ll learn even more.