|This is my grandmother's house in Jasper County, Mississippi, setting for Freedom Summer; Love, Ruby Lavender; Each Little Bird That Sings; and The Aurora County All-Stars. My grandmother, the original Miss Eula, is on the right. Her mother, who becomes Great-great Aunt Florentine in Little Bird, is standing next to her. I still go back to this house every year, although it is abandoned today, much like Carrie Watt's house (and town) in "The Trip to Bountiful."|
Ludie: "Why can't you sleep, Mama?"
Mrs. Watts: "... I never could sleep when there was a full moon. Even back in Bountiful..."
"The Trip To Bountiful" (1985) got me started writing about Mississippi, my Bountiful. When I first saw this movie, something cracked open in me -- something old and ancient and full of aching memory -- even as I watched the opening credits, that mother in her flowing long skirts and apron, chasing her overalls-clad small son through a field of bluebonnets under the full moon, finally scooping him into her arms, all to "Softly and Tenderly." (You just need the first minute and half, below, for that amazing field of bluebonnets and that beautiful song -- whew - watch it in full screen.)
Last night I bowed to the moon and to those days. I tiptoed inside, turned on the softest lamp, and read some of Horton Foote's play (again), read a bit about Horton Foote (again), and, as I started to get sleepy, read some of the Paris Review interview with Shelby Foote (Horton's third cousin) just because I could.
And that's where I found this:
INTERVIEWERWhen you were writing The Civil War, which is some million and a half words long, did you type the whole manuscript up yourself?
FOOTETwice. I’ve never had anything resembling a secretary or a research assistant. I don’t want those. Each time I type, it gives me another shot at it, another look at it. As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search.
Exactly! That's very much how it feels to me, researching and writing. When I was starting out, writing essays and features for magazines, I did research the way I wrote reports (and there was no internet to help me). When I started writing for young readers -- Freedom Summer and Ruby, in the 1990s -- my research was based around "What happened to my pool in Mississippi?" and "How many days does it take a chicken to hatch out of its egg?" I also used oral histories, a technique I still incorporate in all my work.
Today, research is an altogether different animal. It includes my curiosity (I tend to wander, as you've seen, but I trust the wandering and always put it to good use), new ideas, reaching back to fundamental questions ("What WAS Freedom Summer??"), and trying to provide a look at history that readers can hear, taste, touch, smell, and see.
From Horton Foote's obit in the NYTimes: "Mr. Foote depicted the way ordinary people shoulder the ordinary burdens of life, finding drama in the resilience by which they carry on in the face of change, economic hardship, disappointment, loss and death."
Yes. A book for young readers doesn't have to encompass a grand story. It needs to be about a true heart.I try to start from there.
On that note I went back to bed fortified by the benevolent moon, a movie I loved, the remembrances of a town I cherished, and the encouraging words of those whose footsteps, far ahead of me, I trust.
Not bad for a night's work.