The heart is a demanding tenant; it frequently makes a strong argument against common sense. ~ from Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler
A favorite quote of mine comes from E. L. Doctorow in a lecture he gave on Historical Fiction at the City University of New York (CUNY). In this lecture, he says, “What is the past if not the present and the future?” I thought of this quote as I read Julie Kibler’s debut novel and historical fiction, Calling Me Home. Kibler’s novel ties past and present together, seamlessly, within the framework of an unlikely friendship between elderly Isabelle McAllister and young Dorrie Curtis.
As Dorrie drives Isabelle from Texas to Cincinnati for a funeral, Isabelle reveals how, as a young woman, she fell in love with Robert, a young black man and the son of her family’s housekeeper. Robert is Isabelle’s first and greatest love, and in 1930’s Kentucky–in a town where blacks were not allowed after dark–they struggle against racism of the times to stay together.
Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home has taken off with great success because, I believe, fiction based in history often unfolds into stories that could just as easily happen today. Likely, there are still families who would make it more than difficult for couples of different races to be together. After all, racism isn’t dead. It’s all over the news.
I’m honored to host Julie here for a quick Q&A, where she talks a bit about the book and the people who helped shape the story. I’m also offering a book giveaway. Leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of her novel. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, July 2nd.
Now welcome, Julie Kibler.
CC: In the Acknowledgements and the book’s dedication, you mention your grandmother. Can you tell us a little more about the role she played in bringing your novel to fruition?
JK: While I was growing up, my grandmother puzzled me. She wasn’t always very “grandmotherly” and seemed unhappy a large part of the time. Long after she died, my father shared with me that she had fallen in love with a black man when she was a young woman in Northern Kentucky, and that she wasn’t allowed to be with him. It seemed to provide an explanation of sorts for why she was the way she was. The way I figure it, this young man must have been her one true love, and her life must not have turned out the way she hoped it would. I thought about this a lot and for a long time, and eventually decided to write a novel—not her story, as I don’t know the specific details, but the story of a young woman in a similar time, place, and situation. I like to think she guided me in a way, almost as if she sat at my shoulder whispering to me of how it felt to be in love with someone when that relationship was forbidden for bad reasons.
CC: Much of CALLING ME HOME takes place in Shalerville, a Sundown town in which Robert and his family–and any other African-Americans–are not allowed after dark, a threat made clear by a sign posted at the edge of town. Though Shalerville may be a made up place, Sundown towns are an ugly reality of our American past. Was it difficult to research the existence of such place; did you find people hesitant to discuss them?
JK: Shalerville is made up, but it’s a composite of the small Northern Kentucky towns where my father and grandmother grew up—all sundown towns—and most like my father’s hometown. I didn’t know about sundown towns until I started questioning my dad about where he grew up. I’d visited his hometown and others over the years, and I knew them from from a child’s eye view or a more modern perspective, but I was really surprised to learn about the signs and the rules. My dad graciously shared the details he could remember of his childhood in a sundown town. While I was growing up, my parents were very open to people of all races and religions, and I think he, too, felt it was important that others knew what happened. There are few visible records, such as photographs. And yet there are still many, many towns in our country that are not open to people of other races. The signs are simply missing now. I’ve had conversations while meeting with book clubs where people relate stories of people excluded from small towns because of race in recent years.
CC: In this interview with Natalia Sylvester, you write about doubt, saying we worry too much about whether or not we should write a certain story or if we have the “right” to tell it from the perspective of a character whose experience is so different from our own. How do you know when you’ve not only conquered a bit of that doubt, but that you are indeed meant to tell the story?
JK: I think when a story haunts you so much that you can’t possibly NOT write it, when the characters are loud and clear in your mind, and in a way, demanding to be heard, you just have to sit down and write. Write it for yourself if for nobody else. And then, maybe you’ll be brave enough to show it to someone else. And when people read it and tell you it’s a story that needs to be seen, you send it out and see what happens. Sounds easy, huh? Maybe not that easy, but that’s kind of how it goes.
CC: What are you reading these days?
JK: I’m about to finish up Me Before You by JoJo Moyes. I’m really loving it, and I can tell it’s going to make me cry before it’s all over. I am not an extremely emotional person outwardly, but I have a strange love affair with books that push me there. I like movies and music and books that lead me to an emotional catharsis. I think it’s healthy to have a good cry now and then.
CC: What advice might you offer other writers on the road to publication?
JK: First things first. First, write the book. THEN worry about all the details getting it to publication. Without a finished book, your chances of publication as a debut author drop about 99.9%, by my purely unscientific calculations. And speaking of finished … I think aspiring writers too often send out things that are unpolished, and kind of … unRIPE. (Believe me, I have done it myself in the past! I speak from experience!) They haven’t done the work it takes to learn their craft. They are in a hurry to send out a rough draft the minute they type THE END. This isn’t smart. You lose a lot of chances—especially with literary agents—by doing this. Agents are looking for stories that aren’t just unique ideas, but are nearly ready to submit to publishers. As an aspiring writer, your competition is too tough to risk sending something that isn’t quite ready. Be patient with yourself and your writing, and that will more likely pay off. Try to think of writing as a marathon, not a race.
Next? Don’t assume that just because you write one book, the next one will be easy. I’ve learned that each manuscript I’ve completed has been written in a completely new way. There is no secret formula, as far as I can tell. Allow yourself to be open to new methods with each new story. This isn’t so easy for a writer with OCD tendencies, trust me, but it’s the honest truth.
Julie Kibler began writing Calling Me Home after learning a bit of family lore: As a young woman, her grandmother fell in love with a young black man in an era and locale that made the relationship impossible. When not writing, she enjoys travel, independent films, music, photography, and corralling her teenagers and rescue dogs. She lives in Arlington, Texas. Calling Me Home is her debut. Visit her website for more on the book, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.
Don’t forget to leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of Calling Me Home!