Parks first heard the story of Roy Hudgins —a woman who presented as a man in 1950s Delhi, Louisiana — when she was home from college in 2002. Parks had just come out as gay, which was not something embraced in her southern evangelical family. So she was astonished when her conservative grandmother told her that she’d grown up across the street from a woman who “lived as a man.” When Parks pressed her grandmother for more, the older woman said Hudgins played the banjo and was a pretty good country music singer, she but knew little else. She urged Parks to find out what had happened to him.
That plea stayed in the back of Parks’s mind as she racked up journalism prizes and accolades over the next few years. She was the first winner of New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s “Win a Trip” reporting contest, accompanying him to Africa in 2006. She got an internship at the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, which turned into a job that lasted 11 years. While covering bread-and-butter beats like education and suburban government, she longed to do more ambitious stories. She decided to find out more about Hudgins, using weekends and vacation days to travel to Louisiana for research and to try to obtain his diaries, which were kept hidden by a couple who took care of him before he died.
Parks left the Oregonian in 2017 to freelance; her work since appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, the Oxford American, USA Today and the Nation. In 2019 she won an education reporting fellowship to Columbia, where she studied politics and poverty, and began working in earnest on a book about her search for Hudgins’ story. “Diary of a Misfit: A memoir and a mystery” intertwines the story of Hudgin’s life —a largely lonely one, decades before same-sex marriage and trans rights — with Parks’ own story of being raised a Pentecostal Christian in the South and her fear of being rejected for being lesbian. Parks won the J. Anthony Lukas Works-in-Progress award, co-administered by Columbia and the Nieman Foundation for the book. Reviews since its publication have described it as “richly textured,” with praise for Parks for her “keen talent for observation, reporting and empathy.” The book was featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in mid-August, and Parks described her personal/professional journey to Tommy Tomlinson in a podcast interview for SouthBound.
Disclosure: I was not involved in Parks’ book, but overlapped with Parks for a time at the Oregonian; we are again colleagues at the Washington Post, where she covers gender and family issues. I asked her to take some time from her book tour to describe the reporting, writing and editing process for “Diary of a Misfit.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come up with the idea for writing this book?
I think my reasons for doing it changed over time. Initially, when my grandmother first told me about it 20 years ago, I didn’t know any other gay people or trans people. So I was really fascinated by the story just because I wanted to believe I wasn’t alone and that there was some context for me. Then when I really started working on it in earnest, honestly it was because I felt like I sucked at my regular job.
I had all of these ambitions back at the Oregonian to be great, but I didn’t know how. Now when I look back, I think actually going through all of those bureaus and less-sexy reporting jobs is what makes you great, or at least what makes you good. But at the time, I really I want to be doing huge projects. I wanted to get on “This American Life.”
Once I realized “This American Life” wasn’t going to hire me and once I got better at my regular job, the reason that I kept pursuing Hudgin’s story was to have a reason to go home. The older I got, the more scared I became of going home. I didn’t know how to do it unless I was working on this project.
How did you balance your daily newspaper job with this project?
I was in my 20s and had a lot more energy than I do now. I spent every vacation day that I had on this project. I did not do anything fun. It’s kind of become passé to encourage people to work for free on their off hours, but that’s the only way I saw I could do it. In my three weeks of vacation each year, I would just be full-on and not think about anything but this project. Then when I was back at work, I’d be back at work.
The thing that took the most time was transcribing all of the tape. I transcribed eight terabytes of video footage by hand. I would get off work, eat dinner and then sit there transcribing, or I would get up before work and transcribe.
How did this project evolve from being a podcast, then a film and finally a book?
When I first started reporting it back in 2009, I wanted to make a podcast. My mom had no idea what a podcast was. But she knew what a film was. So from 2010 until 2017 or ‘18, I worked on it as a documentary film but could never figure out what the end was supposed to be. One person told me that she wouldn’t give me a grant because Hudgins was dead. She was like, “He can’t be your main character.” I remember telling her on the phone, “Well, what about my grandma?” She was like, “What about you?” And I said “No, thank you. I’m a journalist. I don’t want to be in it.”
What changed your mind? Why did you decide to include yourself?
There’s this really famous book-writing class at Columbia. My professor, Samuel Freedman, really pushed me to just try one chapter with myself in it. The words he used were, “Don’t act like you don’t have skin in the game. This is personal to you.” Once I wrote one chapter about myself, I thought, Dang! It was so much better than anything I had ever done.
As journalists, we’re taught to not put ourselves in our work. All of my favorite journalists in the 1990s would lionize the invisible journalist. I did not want to break from that rule. I worried if I did this, I’d never get another job. Even now I still have that fear that people aren’t going to let me be a regular journalist if I’m a human
How did you organize everything?
I have a folder for every single chapter of the book, and each of those folders has a bunch of research. Almost every chapter is built around a scene and they kind of alternate between a reporting trip that I took and then my personal life. What I would do is try to fill in those trips with outside research.
Chapter 2 is all about my grandmother being a sharecropper and the sharecropping business, and how she ends up in this rural town living across the street from Roy. For that, I read multiple books about cotton and about sharecropping. I would listen to old episodes of the Grand Ole Opry or the “Louisiana Hayride,” which were popular radio shows when she was growing up.
Small-town newspapers covered everything back in the day. I read this article about there had been so much oil and so many people moving to Delhi that the bank had to hire three extra tellers and they ran out of money. It’s only half a sentence in my book, but I just love that detail. That’s the kind of thing no one is going to remember to tell you when you interview them, but to have that kind of contemporaneous document is invaluable.
How did you put all the threads together of Roy’s story, your relatives’ stories, yours?
I went through several different structures. I would make note cards of every possible scene. I sketched out a lot of rising and falling action. I made the major arc and then I would make arcs for each chapter. There’s an arc to the whole book, but then each chapter needs to also feel like its own little complete thing with a beginning, middle and end. Most of the chapters have multiple scenes in them.
My goal was to do 500 words a day. On the days when I really couldn’t write, I would just try to push myself to get to 500 words. On the days when I would exceed that, I’d get to have a lot of ice cream and be like, You’re amazing. You did a thousand words today. A lot of this was in the pandemic, too, so you really needed the treats.
You give a shout-out in the acknowledgments to Anna Griffin, an editor at the Oregonian when you were there, for reading through multiple drafts.
The thing that she’s best at is asking you a question. She’ll just ask you things she would want to know. Oftentimes as I went to answer her questions, it would make everything much richer.
What is the main difference between book-writing and journalism?
You don’t get immediate feedback. I had a couple of meetings with my book editor, but for the bulk of writing, you’re your own.
To get a book deal, you have to outline the whole book. I had already had a basic idea of the structure. Some of that changed as I was writing it. When my editor bought the book, one of the first things she said is that everyone wanted more of my mother than I had outlined. I was initially resistant to that, but I think they were right.
Most of my chapters were 7,000 words, which is about the length of the magazine articles I was doing at the time. So I was just like, I’m writing this 7,000-word piece. It honestly didn’t feel that different.
Was there a lot of back-and-forth with your editor after you sent in your manuscript?
My editor didn’t tell me how to write the book, but told me what she was interested in. She sent me a 14-page letter with a lot of questions like, Why isn’t your dad in here very much? Can you talk more about romantic love? It was less like sentence-by- sentence editing and more of the big-picture stuff.
What were some of the biggest challenges?
Finding the right agent is probably one of the harder parts — finding that person who really believes in you and will push you. I initially talked to my agent in August 2018 and she told me she liked aspects of Roy Hudgins’ story but she would not initially represent me because I didn’t have his diaries. After I started writing for the New Yorker other agents reached out to me. Some of them would talk to me in this exoticized way: Oh, you’re a poor Southern lesbian. I can sell that. I finally wrote my agent back. I told her I didn’t have Hudgins’ diaries but really needed to do this book. She said OK: “I’ll take the long game with you, but you have to go back and try one more time.”
What’s your advice you have for someone who aspires to write a book?ƒ
Know that it’s going to be hard, so make sure that you absolutely want to do it. Also, be extremely organized and come up with a system that works for you to make it happen in a manageable way. I also think having thick skin helps. My book went out to an auction and eight publishers put in bids. But a lot said no.
Lisa Grace Lednicer is the local night editor of The Washington Post and an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Maryland.