Isabel Wilkerson closed out the Mayborn by describing the 15 years she spent reporting and writing her book, The Warmth of Other Suns. The book chronicles the migration of 6 million black Americans out of the South and into the North and the West from 1915 to the 1970s. Formerly a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times, Wilkerson drew the conference’s heartiest standing ovation. Here are a few highlights plus the talk.
On choosing her characters: I wanted people who were beautifully imperfect. Perfection is not real, and readers cannot identify with people presented as perfect. I wanted to find people who were at peace with their mistakes and with the things they had done not particularly well. I wanted people who were willing to be who they really, truly were.
On the characters’ emotions: These people wanted their stories told. They were the ones who spurred me on in the end. They wanted people to know what they had endured. They had lived with this for so long, that they were in some ways unburdening themselves.
On access: People might make assumptions that because I’m the child of migration and because I’m African-American that I might have had an easier route to get to the people, but I can assure you that I did not. Ultimately, the act of being a narrative journalist, going out and doing the research, makes you an outsider, because you’re seeking something that they’re not used to giving.
On the anti-memoir: I wanted to do (the book) as narrative nonfiction and not as memoir because I thought it needed to be established that (the migration) was huge, that it happened, that it is true, and that it was a national outpouring of people.
The full talk, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows. And you can find a 2011 conversation between Wilkerson and Storyboard here.
IW: I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to come out of the cave of 15 years and to emerge into the light to be here among you, to be among truly kindred spirits. It is wonderful to just hear snatches of conversation about FOIAs and redacted passages in some FBI files, the DNA of a sentence.
I’m here to talk about part of what it took to write this book. It took 15 years to work on this book. I did not set out to spend 15 years on this book. I would’ve never signed on to 15 years. I come from the world of daily journalism. Fifteen years is multiple lifetimes.
And yet, the story called to me in a way that I think all of us are called to do whatever work it is we’re doing. All of us could be writing fiction if we wanted to. All of us have the skills to be writing fiction if we chose to do it. It would be so much easier, wouldn’t it? And yet, we decide to do this anyway. Nothing about it is easy, absolutely nothing, and yet we go ahead and do it anyway. There’s no guarantee of success, there’s no guarantee of readership, there’s no guarantee anybody’s going to see it. And yet, we do it.
And we do it, I think, because of a belief, and, I think, an obsession that the story needs to be told. The story must be told. The story is necessary and true.
I chose not to do (this story) as a memoir, even though I am the daughter of people who were a part of this Great Migration. My mother is from Rome, Ga. And my father was from Virginia. And had they not been part of this migration, I wouldn’t exist, which is really, truly an American story. The majority of us are the products of multiple combinations of lineages and migration streams and unlikely combinations that are the end results of somebody’s dream of something better across the Atlantic, across the Pacific, across the Rio Grande.
Now, to give you a little bit of background on what it was I was embarking upon, and I didn’t truly know all that I was embarking upon at the time I started, but this basically I knew: That there were 6 million African-Americans who left the Jim Crow South, the segregated South, from 1915 until the 1970s. That this was a multi-generational outpouring of people as defection, one might say, from the Jim Crow South, that occurred throughout the 20th century. It was not a single wartime outpouring.
While working on the book I discovered that (the migration) was even more urgent and in depth in people than I had realized. They were in fact seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country. This is the language that we don’t often think of for an internal migration such as this one. It really did not get the attention it deserved while it was in progress and does not take up its rightful place in our history books even to this day, and that was one of the goals of this book.
This was a defection from a caste system that was so arcane that I just want to say a couple things about that: There are no references in this book to water fountains or restrooms because every third-grader learns that in February. I did not need to spend time on that. In fact, had it merely been about water fountains and restrooms, I don’t think the migration would’ve occurred.
These people were doing something that we don’t often think about. This is the only time in American history that American citizens had been forced – or felt that they had no other option – to leave the land of their birth for another part of their own country just to be recognized as the citizens of the country to which they had been born. No other group of Americans has ever had to do that in our country’s history. No other group of Americans has had to act as immigrants within their own country. I wanted to find a way to make this come alive.
As large as this migration was, and as massive its impact, there was no Grapes of Wrath for this migration. There was nothing that put you on the train seat with these people as they poured out of the South. There was nothing that put you in the car with them as they hurtled through the desert to get to California or other parts of the West, even though this migration was many, many times larger than the historic dustbowl migration that we all know about, and deservedly so. I was going to have to tell this story with an eye toward: What would it be like for a Grapes of Wrath to be told in nonfiction?
First of all, this was not a move as people (today) might move. This was in some ways a life-or-death seeking of political asylum. These people were leaving a caste system that was so arcane that it was actually against the law for a black person and a white person to play checkers together in Birmingham. Throughout the courtrooms of the South there was a black Bible and a separate white Bible, to swear to tell the truth on in court. I came across this in a headline out of a North Carolina newspaper; the only reason it made news that particular day was because there had been a trial in session and they could not find the black Bible for the person about to take the stand, so they had to actually suspend the trial and the bailiff or the court officers or the sheriff deputies had to comb the courthouse to find the Bible. These are the kind of arcane realities for people on all sides of this caste system. It did not just affect African-Americans; it meant everybody had to learn what the rules were in order to abide by them and in order to not climb over or breach the wall.
I knew I was going to be telling the stories through three protagonists. I did not have the protagonists. I did not know where I was going to find the protagonists. I did not know who they would be. I just knew there would be three protagonists through whom I would tell the story. Each of these three people would represent the three migration streams through which the people worked out of the South. There was the East Coast stream, which carried people from Florida and Georgia and the Carolinas and Virginia to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, and on up the East Coast. There was a Midwest stream, which carried people from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis and the entire Midwest. And then there was the West Coast stream, which carried people from Louisiana and Texas to California and the entire West Coast. They really wanted to get to Alaska, and they did, believe it or not.
They went to every state that was not South. The goal was to try and track those three streams. So I was looking for three protagonists who would represent the three streams.
Then I needed to have more than that. This is narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, we need to have our characters leap off the page, to have our readers see themselves in these people, to feel as if this is the closest that our readers will have to actually being someone else. The goal was to find someone who would be fully accessible, available and real people.
Real people. They needed to be real people, obviously, but they needed to become real on the page.
I needed to have people who had left for different reasons so you could see the unfolding of this migration through the stories of the people. They all left for different, precipitating events, and I wanted to have the reader close on the ground as they were making that decision to go. I wanted to have people who were from different socioeconomic backgrounds, people who would represent a variety of circumstances. I also needed, more than anything, people who, when you were on the page with them, you knew you were on the page with them. One of them ended up being a surgeon with a gambling addiction. That got my attention. That was someone who would clearly stand out on the page, and did.
I ended up essentially holding auditions for the role of being in my book. I didn’t call it that. I didn’t say that to the people. I didn’t even in my own way think of it like that at the time. But looking back on it, I realize that’s what I was doing. I was in some ways holding a casting call, and that casting call took me all over the North, the Midwest, and the West in order to find these people and to interview people and to narrow it down to the three. That meant I ended up interviewing over 1,200 people in my casting call.
Where I went was all kinds of places, anyplace I could think of where senior citizens might gather who were already in exile, you might say, expatriates in the North from the South. I actually went to AARP meetings on the south side of Chicago. I went to Baptist churches in New York, where, believe it or not, everybody is from South Carolina. I went to Catholic churches in Los Angeles, were everybody was from Louisiana. I went to other Baptist churches, where everybody was from Texas. Texas is a big state. There were lots of multiple Texas competing clubs within some churches in Los Angeles.
I felt that there were clubs in all of these major cities in the North for the people who had left. They had left to create colonies for themselves, which is what people often do when they migrate. In Chicago for example, there are multiple Mississippi clubs: There’s a Greenwood, Miss., club; a Greenville, Miss., club; a Grenada, Miss., club; a Newton, Miss., club; a Brookhaven, Miss., club. And if you were in the Newton club you didn’t go to the Grenada club. I mean why would you go? As small as these towns were, there wasn’t much intermingling. So I had to go to all the different clubs to try to find people.
People might make assumptions that because I’m the child of migration and because I’m an African-American that I might have had an easier route to get to the people, but I can assure you that I did not. Ultimately, the act of being a narrative journalist, going out and doing the research, makes you an outsider because you’re seeking something that they’re not used to giving. I often tell students and other people interested in this work, “It doesn’t matter who you happen to be. Ultimately, what you end up having to do is making the most of who you happen to be in order to get access to people that you need.” And it means being empathetic, being aware constantly of your circumstances, because the people in the world you’re entering may be alien to you but they’re keenly aware of the differences you may bring to it. I enter these places as a total and complete outsider. I didn’t go to anybody that I personally knew.
Let me give you an example:
I went to all these senior centers and found myself at a senior center in Los Angeles. Of the several things I was trying to overcome, one of them was the very definition of what I was writing about. These people did not see themselves as part of the Great Migration. No one used that term. This is a term for sociologists and historians, but not the people themselves. So there was a challenge to get them to even understand what I see in them. I could go into a senior center and ask: “How many of you were part of the Great Migration?” Not a single hand would go up. If I ask, “How many of you came from either Texas or Louisiana to get to California between these years?” everybody’s hands would go up. They didn’t identify themselves as that because the goal was to break free of the expectations of being in a group. They wanted to see themselves as separate and apart, and as having made a decision for themselves.
One time, I was in a senior center in Los Angeles – and I typically would have to make arrangements, don’t just show up. There are good days and bad days to show up. You don’t want to go on a day when they’re playing Bingo because no one’s going to listen to you, no one’s going to talk to you, they’re busy. When you hear there’s going to be a fish fry or a steak dinner, that’s a good day to go because a lot of people show up to that. This particular senior center was extremely formal and very well organized and they actually had a program that particular day. It was a very big day; a lot of people were there, and I couldn’t wait to start talking to people. I flew in from Chicago, so every day I went to any of these events it was a very big deal for me, a lot at stake; I needed to make sure I made the most of my time. On the program, right before me, was someone from the Los Angeles County Department of Aging who had an important announcement to make for those who had gathered there. He handed out some brochures and he said, “I want all of you to read these brochures very carefully. We’re getting reports from our seniors of unscrupulous people who are going up to our seniors and asking them all kinds of questions. They wanted to know where did they come from, where were they born, what kind of work did they do, when did they get to Los Angeles, do they own their own home, do they have children, do they have grandchildren.” Pretty much everything I wanted to know. And that was just the tip of the iceberg of what I wanted to ask them. He asked them to read this brochure very carefully and to be very cautious because these people – these unscrupulous people – were wiping out the seniors’ savings, they were taking the homes and their pension checks, so be very careful of someone who starts to ask you questions.
“Next up is Isabel Wilkerson, who is writing some book.”
I had to figure out what I was going to say and what I was going to do because this was very important stuff. I merely acted as if the person hadn’t said a word. What choice do you have? I told them what I was doing. Anybody migrated from Louisiana or Texas between these years, 1915 to 1970: I’d love to talk to you. That was an example of what you have to go up against when you are an outsider in somebody else’s world. I tried to interview as many people as I could there, getting names and numbers and following up.
This work has so much in common with ethnography and anthropology, because you’re entering another universe. You have to learn quickly what the rules and the expectations and the protocols are. You have to learn the hierarchy. Who is in charge and who is not? Who can perhaps persuade or influence the person you have identified? I was keenly aware of the social graces and the things expected in the world I was in, but I always had challenges.
I should remind you I was racing the clock. The migration began in 1915. That means these people were really getting up in years. These were very old people. When I first started on (the book) in the mid- to late ’90s I remember being told, “You’ll never find anyone from World War I,” which of course meant I wasn’t going to stop until I did. These people were really getting up in the years. Every single year, they were passing on, and I was losing the very core group of people that I needed. I was keenly aware of the passage of time. So I found myself on a bus. There’s a parking lot – many of you from Chicago, there’s this particular place in Chicago. I don’t know why this place was a popular place to gather, but this is where all the tour buses would gather for all the family reunions or whatever church trips they were going on. In the early morning hours, about 8 in the morning, the parking lot would be filled with all these buses prepared to go all these places. I ended up going on one of those buses with seniors who were going from Chicago to a casino in Iowa. It was the first of the month. I’m making my way on the bus, and they were very, very gracious and kind. It turns out that particular day, on that bus, someone had brought a cooler with a delicacy from the old country. When the people on the bus found out what this delicacy was on that bus with them, there was an uproar. People in the back were saying: “Be sure to save some for us! Can you get it back here? We want some!” I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was not clear what it was that had caused this commotion.
They were so polite and kind though – they actually offered me some first. And this was one of those dilemmas that squarely reminded me of the outsider-insider reality that I was in. So this is what it was. I hadn’t heard of this thing they were talking about. They were all excited about hog head cheese.
My Georgia-born mother never made it, and my Virginia-born father never demanded it, so I never had it and never heard of it. I was from a different migration stream. I had to be very careful with how I responded to this because I certainly did not want to insult these people because I hadn’t heard of it, and I wouldn’t want to out myself as someone who didn’t know something so simple in their culinary culture. I also didn’t want to insult them by telling them there was no way in the world I would eat that. I needed to find a graceful way to get out of this thing and still stay in their good graces. I just said something about high blood pressure, which I did not have, which they took as a reasonably acceptable reason for not eating. They could certainly be aware of high blood pressure, so they passed it on and I got out of that one.
Of course, no one on that bus was anyone I (used) in the end. All of this might be seen as spinning the wheels, but this is all part of the process of hearing stories, of a tutorial of hearing so many stories that by the time I found the actual people who would be the actual protagonists in the book, I had an almost degree in what it meant to be in this Great Migration.
Now, clearly, I ran into a problem as a result of the fact I was from a different migration stream in that instance. When I went out to California, I ran into similar kinds of cultural situations. That was, the names were different. The names of the places people were from were different. It seems all the little towns they were from purposely mispronounced them so people from the outside could be shown by trying to pronounce them or say them. All of the touch points that we take for granted were different wherever I went. When I went to California, the foods were different. There were red meats and rice. There were many, many different ways of making chili with or without sugar. Then there were the issues of oxtails and all the things I was not accustomed to. Then, when I got to New York, I was doing the same kind of interviewing. I actually went to senior centers where not only did I run into people who recognized the town my father was from, suddenly it had meaning. That’s how beautifully predictable a migration stream is.
That shows you how in some ways, if you just dig long enough, you run into yourself.
In any case, it was a reminder that once you get inside these worlds, you truly are an outsider and you must act according to the rules of the places you happen to be in. When it comes to actually finding these people, they were not in the places I described to you. Not one of them.
The story of how I came across Dr. Foster, the man who went from Louisiana to California: It took two years of this casting call to narrow it down to those three people. In the end, with him for example, I went to all these places where people from Louisiana, there were multiple Louisiana club meetings, there were Juneteenth parades (I know here in Texas, this is a very big deal here in Texas). They carried with them that celebration to California. I actually had a booth at the Juneteenth parade. That’s how desperate I was. I went to all these different places and I started to run into people again and again and again. One Louisiana event, a woman came up to me and said, “I have seen you at all these different places. I’ve heard the questions you’ve been asking, and I hear what the people are telling you, and now I’m seeing you again. I think I have the perfect person for you.”
When someone says that to you, especially the way I go around doing this – I sort of think I have to look under every rock and only I can know which rock will lead me to the right one. And this was like someone setting me up on a blind date. And I wasn’t feeling too keen about that. But I took the name down, and I called him eventually. I didn’t call him right away. And I met with him.
He was one of these people who was not at any of these events. The club he was a part of was a private one, so he wasn’t easily found. And so when I met with him, the very first thing he said, after having brought out some lemon pound cake with vanilla ice cream, which I did not want to eat, and he watched to make sure I ate it all, he said to me, “I love to talk, and I am my favorite subject.”
And so, with that, I knew I had found the one.
Even as we laugh at that, acknowledge that in some ways these are the many joys of this process.
I want to say a couple of things about the process of the writing and how I feel I had to find a way to pull it together. I needed to actually move into their lives and see what it was like to be them — the moving between people, moving between families, moving between states. One was in New York; one was in Chicago; one was in Los Angeles. I was constantly rotating between the three. I had to pick up where I left off as if there had been no break. I had to give the illusion that I was with them all the time even though I was not. Many things might have happened in the course of the time that I was not with them. There was the occupational hazard of age and aging.
Sometimes I would arrive from out of town to visit someone, and instead of seeing them in their own home I would have to go to the hospital, which meant very little of the real work got done. It meant sitting with them at the hospital and just watching them. It meant taking them to dialysis. There was no reporting, no time spent, no recollections of experiences because the time was spent doing that. That’s all part of the work. That’s what we do when we enter people’s lives.
The other thing that had to happen with the process was to try and recreate what their experiences had been. One of the jobs I had to do, and a lot of people couldn’t understand this at all, was I was bound and determined to recreate the journey of the man who had driven from Louisiana to Los Angeles. What he had done was, he had a friend in Houston, so he first drove to Houston and he had a place to stay there. He said, “I’m this close” – and we’re in Texas so you know it’s not that close – “so I might as well go to Mexico, from Houston.” So he went to Nuevo Laredo, then came back, and all of this took more time and made it a more perilous journey. And he had not anticipated that when he got back to Texas he still was not free to stay wherever he wanted. He ended up finding that he was unable to find a place that would take him in for the night, and he had not anticipated or prepared for that. He was ready to and needed to sleep and yet no place he went to would take him in in Arizona. And that meant he had to drive through, ultimately, three states, from the Texas border all the way to California, without sleep. These were perilous times, and we’re not talking about all that long ago. These people are alive today. It happened to be 1953 when he made that drive, but this was a world that existed until into the 1970s where African-Americans might not be assured of a place to stay when they were driving. They might not be assured of being able to get gas or being able to get food. They had to live in an almost alternative universe from everyone else who was on the road.
I sought to recreate that journey. I rented a Buick, like he had – he had a 1949 Buick Roadmaster. He said, “You would’ve wanted it too, before you dismiss it.”
I had my parents with me, though they did not want to talk about their experiences. My mother had vowed not to talk. If she caught herself about to talk, she sort of would catch herself and stop. You’re in the deserts; you’re in the mountains. There are hairpin curves. It’s complete and utter total darkness. There’s no other cars on the road. I had gone without sleep as he had because I was trying to recreate it to the letter as he experienced. At some point, I began to veer off the road; I had fallen asleep at the wheel. My parents knew from the outset they weren’t allowed to drive, they weren’t permitted to drive. He had to drive the whole way; I was going to do it as well. As I was beginning to veer off the road, my parents got very alarmed and said, “You have to stop the car, and if you won’t stop the car, let us out.” We were nearing the town of Piedmont, Ariz. There were motels and hotels there. I had to stop, and when we stopped, it made me feel even more empathy for what he and millions of other African-Americans had to endure – he hadn’t had that option. So I was not able to recreate it to the letter because I had my parents with me, but it gave me more empathy for what they had gone through.
The world that we’re in, it takes a lot of guts to do what we do. It takes a lot of fortitude, it takes a lot of faith to take this great chance on the hope that something will come out of all the work we do, all the time it takes. And, in this same way, these people made a great leap of faith into the unknown. They may have never been out of the county to which they had been born yet they were going to places far, far away that they’d never seen before. In some ways, what they did was a testament to the power of individual decisions, the power that one person can actually make a difference. One person added to another person added to another person, multiplied by millions, actually changed the regions they had been forced to flee.
By their decision to leave, and by their arrival in these big northern cities, they forced the North and the South to look at what was going on here, and to finally force all Americans to confront what was going on and to change it, so that it’s a more equal world than it would have been if these people had not left in such large numbers. They looked around at themselves and said, “Here in the land of our birth, our work is devalued and our very lives are devalued. Perhaps we will fare better elsewhere.” And so they sought out other parts of the country.
I can’t stop talking about it because I find such inspiration in what they did. It’s humble people who had very little, very truly nothing, just hope that there’s something better across the river and across the mountains.
I hope that it will be an inspiration for us, (knowing) that they (could) do all that they did with so little.
All of us are descended from somebody who had to make the tough, tough decision to leave all those things they knew for things they had never seen. All of us are descended from someone who had to have that moment of departure. You have this young person who is about to board a ship to sail across the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean, or has packed up their things in a van or in the back of a truck to cross the Rio Grande, or at a railroad platform about to board a train to take them to California or to Chicago or to New York, or wherever it might have been. At that moment of departure, there was no guarantee that anybody who was there with them – their mother, their father, whoever might have been with them – there was no guarantee that they would see their parents alive again. Think about the magnitude of that sacrifice: No guarantee that they could see their parents again.
When you think about it, that’s a tremendous sacrifice that is hard for us to even imagine today.
Remember that they had no Skype. There was no email. No cell phones. No reliable long-distance telephone service. And for many of them who had access to it, the people they were leaving didn’t have phones. That was going to be a complete break from what they knew. That was a leap of faith.
In some ways that is why all of us are here at this moment at this place at this time, because somebody along the way made a sacrifice. We are products of people who followed their dreams with nothing to go on but hope and faith, and so I want to close with these words of Richard Wright, which I have come to memorize because they’re so embedded in me now. I also think they speak to all of us at this cusp of this new way of thinking, and what we’re doing, and where it’s going, and what the future holds.
These are the words of Richard Wright, who was part of the Great Migration. He wrote, as he was about to leave Mississippi for Chicago in 1927: “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, (just perhaps) to bloom.”
From the Q-and-A with audience:
Q: Tell me some of the techniques you used to get them to talk to you.
IW: I ended up drawing on everything. If they had photographs, we would just spend hours just looking at the photographs. Whatever they had that would help to excavate a memory would be the kinds of things I would do with them. There were funeral programs at the very heart of the collections of many seniors; it’s a very important part of life for them. In many different respects, I say in the book, they collect funeral programs as people now collect email addresses because that’s a way to keep touch, or keep memories, with the people they knew. They’re not necessarily sad. They’re actually what helps keep alive the memory of what they knew. That was also tremendous information because each of those funeral programs would have a synopsis, a bio, of the people. Music was an important part of it. Whatever they were listening to, whatever they were inclined to listen to was a way to see what was important to them and would spark a memory.
I (also) went and took those who were willing to do it back south, to where they were from. Of course that was an opportunity to be flooded with reminders and memories and also to see other people they knew and to hear the interactions. Suddenly the language that they had once been steeped in, in the South, came into full flower and language and things and references I had not heard when I was in the world removed in the North or in the West became even richer and deeper in the South. I actually went with Ida Mae Gladney to Mississippi. She was a person who was a sharecropper’s wife and she had been terrible at it, terrible. One of the things I had said in choosing these characters: I wanted people who were beautifully imperfect. Perfection is not real, and readers cannot identify with people presented as perfect. So I was looking for people who were beautifully imperfect and were willing to acknowledge that, because this isn’t the kind of work where you want to pin someone to a wall and say, “Isn’t it true you’re not perfect?” I wanted to find people who were at peace with their mistakes and with the things they had done not particularly well. I wanted people who were willing to be who they really truly were, and she was willing to admit that she was truly terrible at picking cotton.
When we went back to Mississippi where she was from, I was driving down a very quiet road, no other cars in the road. We were looking for her sister-in-law’s double-wide on this street on a dirt road somewhere in Chickasaw County, Miss., to get there we crossed what would be called bridges, but they were actually dirt mounds. It was harvest time. The cotton was high. We were driving for miles past all this cotton, and at a certain point, she wanted to get out. She wanted to get out of the car. She wanted to pick. I said, “First of all, we’re in Mississippi, and this cotton does not belong to us. There might be people who might not appreciate our going in and picking their cotton.” And she was like, “They’re not going to care what little bit we pick.” There was no one around, and we were isolated. She hopped out of the car – and she was in her 80s at the time – she hopped out of the car and she couldn’t wait to get out in the field. When she had to be in the fields she hated it, but now that she had been away for 60 years and was back, it seemed like it had sparked a memory and she couldn’t wait to get out there.
She started picking, and she was showing me how it was. It was the only time I had gotten that close to it.
I went to family reunions of all the people. I saw them at the hospital. I went to church with them. I went to the casino with them. I went to any place that they might be willing to go. Back to places where they had worked. Wherever they were willing to go, I would go.
These people wanted their stories told. They were the ones who spurred me on in the end. They wanted people to know what they had endured. They had lived with this for so long, they were in some ways unburdening themselves. They had gone through so much heartache. They were victims of post-traumatic stress. There was a Catholic priest who really got into the book; he told me, “You didn’t choose these people. You only think you chose these people. These people chose you.”
Q: I’m totally inspired by the scope and the ambition and the perseverance of what you’re describing here. How did you support yourself for 15 years with all of this travel?
IW: With nonfiction, generally, we do get an advance. But 15 years is a long time, a really long time. I was on leave from the New York Times, but I was coming back and forth to do things with them and for them. Katrina happened during the course of this, so I came back. There were some opportunities to do things that were useful, both to remind yourself that you can still write on deadline and secondly that you get some income there. Also, I was teaching. I taught for a good bit of time. That was a wonderful opportunity because that allowed me to not just help support myself but also to get access to archives. There are two major choices a person has when they do this kind of work. One of them is to dive into the archives and try to understand as best you can the phenomenon of what you’re trying to write about; do as much of that archives work beforehand so that when you try to go out to find your protagonist, you know as much as you need to, to be able to identify who would be most representative of what you’re trying to write. Or, you can just go in the field and start finding people, not knowing all that you might otherwise know, and then go to the archives later. I think that made a difference with the final product. I would not have met some of them had I not gone to the people first and to the archives second. They simply wouldn’t have been there. They would’ve passed.
Don’t miss our other coverage of this year’s Mayborn Conference: a talk on voice, between Jeanne Marie Laskas of GQ and Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated, moderated by the Tampa Bay Times’ Ben Montgomery, and the keynote address of Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb.