Wayne Flynt-Interview with the author of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee

Wayne Flynt Interview with the author of Mockingbird Songs

Professor Wayne FlyntWayne Flynt, an expert on Southern culture and politics, as well as a good friend to the late Harper Lee, has recently published a collection of letters between himself and the beloved author of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The correspondence is titled Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee and occurred between 1992 and Lee’s death in February, 2016. Professor Flynt sat down to answer some of our questions during a recent interview:

About Wayne Flynt

OCBS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.  How was your childhood unique?

Wayne Flynt: I grew up mainly in Alabama. We moved often (I went to 12 schools between the ages of 6 and 14): Anniston came closest to being my home town though we lived in Birmingham, Sheffield, Gadsden, Dothan, Atlanta, Augusta, GA., etc. It was mostly unique because I was an only child, had few friends growing up, and compensated by assuming solitary habits, especially building model WWII airplanes, collecting stamps, and reading.

OCBS: Have you always wanted to be a historian?  If not, what else did you consider as a career and why?

Wayne Flynt: I have always loved history and majored in history and speech in college, but planned to be a Baptist minister until my changing racial views in the early 1960s made that an impossible course for me, or so I thought.

OCBS:   You’ve enjoyed success in academia and as a writer of history.  What are your ongoing goals for your career?

Wayne Flynt: My goals are continue to write history and popularize them in op.ed. columns, articles, and books.  I embrace the role of “public intellectual” and could not ethically remain in Alabama without working constantly for the goals Nelle embraced: the extension of justice, community, tolerance, and racial reconciliation.

Wayne Flynt on Harper Lee

OCBS:  Tell us about your relationship with Harper Lee and her sisters?  How did it begin?  What are your fondest memories of Miss Lee?  How did she inspire you personally and professionally?

Wayne Flynt: I deal extensively with this question in the book, but I first met Louise when she served on the planning committee of Auburn’s History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula in 1983.  Nelle agreed to attend and speak, and I met her that March evening in 1983.  We had a long and happy friendship with Louise before we came to know Alice casually when she showed up at a seminar at the University of Montevallo, where I lectured on the Depression-era historical context of TKAM.  I came to know Nelle only in the early 21st Century, when her concerns about Louise’s failing health caused her to contact us.  We began to write each other, but the friendship really deepened only after her stroke brought her to Health South rehab in Homewood (where we visited her regularly) and to Monroeville (where we wrote her frequently and visited at least once a month on average for a decade).  I actually swore after the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that I would never come back to Alabama to teach.  But months later I read TKAM for the first time and was so impressed with this remarkable story of courage, tolerance, justice, and community, that I changed my mind.  Though that event was only one of several that brought me “home,” it was pivotal.

Wayne Flynt on Writing

OCBS:   Which other writers inspire you?  Why?

Wayne Flynt: Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Boris Pasternak.  Each in his or her own way–utilized storytelling, community, and forgiveness/reconciliation as central motifs in their writing.

OCBS:  What is your favorite piece that you’ve authored and why?

Wayne Flynt: My favorite book is Poor But Proud because it gave people like my family (who appear throughout the book) the ability to tell their stories of great courage against long odds of poverty and stereotyping.  I consciously have written history from the bottom up, not from the top down, the stories of ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives.

OCBS:  Do you have other books in the works?  If so, can you tell us a little about them?

Wayne Flynt: I plan two more books about Harper Lee if I live long enough.

OCBS:  Are there others with whom you’d like to collaborate?  Why?

Wayne Flynt: I have not enjoyed collaboration very much.  Unless someone shares your work ethic and goal orientation, discipline and capacity for deferred gratification, collaboration is almost always frustrating.  The one exception was Alabama: History of a Deep South State.

OCBS:  What advice can you offer aspiring authors?

Wayne Flynt: The hardest part of any endeavor is getting started.  Everything is easier after you begin.  Seek out your most honest and caring friend to critique your work with candor and frank criticism.  You don’t have to agree with them, but they will teach you to try always to improve.

OCBS:  Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Wayne Flynt: lnside myself.

OCBS:  What is the hardest thing about writing?

Wayne Flynt: The solitude it requires; the tremendous discipline it imposes.

OCBS:  If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

Wayne Flynt: The Bible.  It is even longer than the books I write.

OCBS:  What do you want readers to know about you?

Wayne Flynt: That I am an honest, authentic writer; that the most plausible explanation of any event is probably correct; conspiracies are rare.

More from Wayne Flynt

OCBS:  What’s your favorite genre to read?

Wayne Flynt: I enjoy history, theology/ethics, and Southern fiction.

OCBS:  Who is your favorite author and why?

Wayne Flynt: Harper Lee, my first real inspiration.

OCBS:  What book/s are you reading at present?

Wayne Flynt: Like Alice Lee, I typically read several books at the same time.  I just finished Olin Butler’s Perfume River, Natasha Treathway’s Thrall, Frederick Buechner’s Beyond Words, and Zora Neale Hurston’s The Complete Stories.  I am about to finish Kathie Farnell’s delightful memoir, Duck and Cover: A Nuclear Family (which the University of South Carolina Press is about to publish). 

OCBS:  Who is your support system, i.e. the first to read your work, review it, and critique it?  How do you choose these advisors?

Wayne Flynt: My wife was always my first and best critic.

OCBS:  What is your favorite saying and why?

Wayne Flynt: “We become the custodians of our own contentment.” The meaning is self-evident.

OCBS:  What advice would you give to your younger self?

Wayne Flynt: I am the custodian of my own contentment.

To order your copy of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee please visit our online store.

Which authors have influenced you most and why?  Has a personal experience with a writer impacted you?  We’d love to hear your stories.  Please comment below.


Charles J. Shields: Interview with the Author

Charles J. Shields

Charles J. ShieldsCharles J. Shields is a noted biographer and author of  Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee from Scout to Go Set a Watchman (Holt, 2016); John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel (Lebowski, 2016); And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, 2016);  and I Am Scout: A Young Adult Biography (Holt, 2008).   Shields is also the co-founder of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, a non-profit aimed at promoting the “art and craft of biography.”

Charles J. Shields: Background

OCBS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.  How do you think your upbringing affected you as an author?

Charles J. Shields: My father was a journalist. I described how he taught me to become a better writer in “The Editor at the Breakfast Table,” which is available here.

OCBS: Have you always wanted to be a writer?  If not, what else did you consider as a career and why?

Charles J. Shields: I wanted to be a writer because it was something that made me different in school. As Kurt Vonnegut discovered in high school, writing came easily to him when others complained that it was hard. All young people want to be competent at something: I was a good writer.

The other career I pursued was teaching. I became a teacher because I like schools and children. But after 20 years, I left in 1997 to write fulltime.

Charles J. Shields on Writing

OCBS: You’ve written a number of very successful biographies.  What are your goals for your career now?

Charles J. Shields: I need to try a different genre, now that I’ve completed a third trade biography, this one of John Williams, author of the novel, Stoner (1965). It will be published next year in Europe. I’m too accustomed to writing literary biographies, and I think I’ve gone as far as I can go. It isn’t the challenge it was.

OCBS: If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

Charles J. Shields: I’m envious when an author publishes a literary biography about someone I had hoped to write about, such as Tracy Daugherty did with Joan Didion. But I can’t wish to have been the author of a book written by someone else. That sounds like a problem for a therapist.

OCBS: Which other writers inspire you?  Why?

Charles J. Shields: I’m impressed by any book or article in which the writer figuratively grabs me by the collar and says, “Listen to this!” Recently, I’ve read two novels: Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson; Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn; a memoir: When All the World Was Young by Barbara Holland; a collection of essays: The Medusa and the Snail, by biologist Lewis Thomas; and Citizen, which is prose/poetry by Claudia Rankin. I’ve enjoyed all of them because the writers speak directly to me.

OCBS: What’s your favorite genre to read?  To write?  Why?

Charles J. Shields: I prefer reading and writing nonfiction— history, biography, literary journalism and criticism— because the art of explaining ideas and finding meaning in what actually happened appeals to me. Today I read ” Unearthing the Secrets of 
New York’s Mass Graves” in the New York Times and it floored me.

OCBS: Are there other writers with whom you’d like to collaborate?  Who? Why?

Charles J. Shields: No, I’ve never seriously considered working with someone else. I prefer working and being alone.

OCBS: What advice can you offer aspiring authors?

Charles J. Shields: Get into print any way you can. Freelance for the local newspaper; contribute articles to trade magazines or journals in your field; write an opinion piece. Submit poetry to online magazines. Become accustomed to having readers who may or may not like your work. Tell people in social situations that you’re a writer— confidently, unapologetically. But don’t depend on anyone’s approval. Believe in yourself and your work.

OCBS: What caveats does writing a biography include that aren’t necessarily a part of writing other genres?

Charles J. Shields: Well, it’s possible to hurt relatives, children, and partners if you write biographies of contemporary people, which is what I do. Whether the truth demands it is something I have to decide.

OCBS: What is the hardest thing about writing overall?

Charles J. Shields: The isolation. The world goes on while you sit in a room, noticing how the seasons change out the window as you continue to write, and write, and write.

OCBS: Who is your support system, i.e. the first to read your work, review it, and critique it?  How do you choose these advisors?

Charles J. Shields: My wife Guadalupe is my first reader. She’s a very intelligent, critical reader and I value her opinion. I also send out chapters to certain people who were part of the story to get their opinion. But except for factual mistakes they catch, I don’t find the process to be very helpful. They say, “Terrific!” and things like that. In the end, what matters to me is what I think.

More About Charles J. Shields

OCBS: What is your favorite saying and why?

Charles J. Shields: My own: “The great purpose in life is to take your destiny out of the hands of other people.”

OCBS: What advice would you give to your younger self?

Charles J. Shields: Stop judging people.

OCBS: What do you want your readers to know about you?

Charles J. Shields: I live at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and I like it here.

Make sure to visit our blog again soon for Shields’ remembrance of Harper Lee.  You can learn more about Charles J. Shields at www.charlesjshields.net.



Interview with Greg Neri, author of Tru & Nelle

Photo by Edward Linsmier

Next week, we are fortunate enough to be having Greg Neri, author of the book Tru & Nelle, stop by for a book signing while he is in town for the Alabama Writer’s Symposium. I was able to get a brief interview with Mr. Neri, through email, so our readers will get to know a little bit about him before he visits Monroeville next week. Then hopefully some of you will be able to meet him in person as well!

A little bit about Greg Neri

Photo by Edward Linsmier
Photo by Edward Linsmier

OCBS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background. How do you think your upbringing affected you as an author?

Neri: I was a quiet kid, an outsider, an observer of life, and a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. All that found a kinship with young Truman and Nelle.

OCBS: Have you always wanted to be a writer? If not, what else did you consider as a career and why?

Neri: I came to writing late in life. I was a filmmaker and digital media producer for a while, but did workshops with schools in hard hit areas on the side. Working with kids and hearing their stories eventually led me to writing about and for them.

OCBS: What inspired you to write your most recent novel, Tru & Nelle?

Neri: The day after Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away, I found myself watching his movie, Capote. And there, on screen, was Truman with Harper Lee (!) trying to solve a small town crime with his old pal from childhood. That got me curious. What was their childhood like and what was it about Monroeville that produced two of our greatest writers? When I found out that they were just a couple of misfits who pretended to be Sherlock and Watson solving small town mysteries as kids, I was hooked. That, and seeing how many of the events from their upbringing directly inspired To Kill a Mockingbird and many of Truman’s stories and that nobody had really tackled their friendship for kids before.

Neri on Writing

OCBS: You take an actual event and then spin it into a fictional masterpiece. How do you choose what to write? What does your writing process look like?

Neri: Wow, thank you. I’d have to say I don’t choose what to write, it chooses me. Every one of my books is inspired by something I accidentally stumbled across and couldn’t believe it was real. I’ve had books come out of a school visit in St. Louis, from talking to a distant cousin at a Christmas party, from coming across a photograph of a horse in the inner city, or reading a handwritten note from Johnny Cash. Seeing Truman at 8 years old in his little white suit and imagining him opposite Nelle in her overalls and bare feet solving crime as junior detectives is something too good to pass up. They were the ultimate odd couple.

OCBS: What advice can you offer aspiring authors?

Neri: Give yourself permission to write badly in that first draft. Your job is to get all that information crammed in your skull out onto paper so you can see what you have to work with. Don’t edit yourself, let it fly– good, bad or indifferent. It’s about momentum. Later, you’ll make it sing.
OCBS: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

Neri: I have given myself up to completely to follow my gut and listen to what the story is telling me, not the other way around. It’s a scary proposition sometimes but it has led to a series of books I could not have possibly predicted.

The Children are Our Future

OCBS: Your books are geared more toward middle grade and young adult. Tell us a little about the involvement you have had with school visits and your past work with inner city kids.

Neri: My connection with kids drives my whole effort. I am inspired by them and relate to those who are outsiders or have insurmountable odds to overcome. I try to represent their stories and their voices in my work. I hope my stories expand everyone’s knowledge of what is happening all around them that they may not see. Kids need to know that they are not alone. My books are realistic and deal with tough issues sometimes. But they are also hopeful.

OCBS: What advice would you give to your younger self?

Neri: Don’t be so shy. Speak up more. Know that you have worth.

One Last Thing……

OCBS: What do you want your readers to know about you?

Neri: That life is about having as many different kinds of experiences as possible. I try to say yes to any new experience. That has taken me to Russia, allowed me to live in Berlin, led me to places I never would have gone, and to people I never would have met. My life is so much richer for that. And that is why I am coming to Monroeville!


Well, that was fun and informative! We hope as many of you as possible can come to the signing next Thursday night. Have you read Tru & Nelle? Have you read any other books by Greg Neri? What are your thoughts?


Ted Dunagan: Interview with the Author

Ted Dunagan
Ted Dunagan
Ted Dunagan

Ted Dunagan is the award-winning author of A Yellow Watermelon, Secret of the Satilfa, and Trouble on the Tombigbee– a trio of books that has become known as the Ted and Poudlum Series.  The fourth book from Dunagan, The Salvation of Miss Lucretia was recently published and much anticipated.  A fifth book is currently on the horizon; it will be called The Bovine Bandits.

Ted Dunagan: Background

OCBS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.  How was your childhood unique?

Ted Dunagan: In 2002, I retired after more than 30 years as an executive in the corporate world, after which I finally found the time to chase my dream of being an author– while finding employment as a writer and a columnist for The Monticello News.  It took me about six months to write the original draft of A Yellow Watermelon.  Then it took me almost six years to get it published. I grew up in a very unique place the rural South, which is the setting of the books.

Ted Dunagan: On Writing

A Yellow Watermelon by Ted M. Dunagan
A Yellow Watermelon by Ted M. Dunagan

OCBS: Have you always wanted to be a writer?  If not, what else did you consider as a career and why? 

Ted Dunagan: When I first discovered books, I thought I wanted to be just like some of the characters I read about, but it turned out that what I really wanted to do was to write about and create more characters as impressive and similar to the ones I read about.  Being blessed with a large family as a young man, I settled into the business world to provide for them.

OCBS: Do you have other books in the works?  If so, can you tell us a little about them?

Ted Dunagan: I am currently editing the fifth in the series titled The Bovine Bandits, in which a tent revival arrives in town and Ted and Poudlum discover the presenters aren’t exactly who they claim to be, and a new hero arrives on the scene and teaches the boys you don’t have to wear a big white hat and ride a big white horse to be a real hero.

OCBS: Which other writers inspire you?  Why?

Ted Dunagan:  I discovered the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, Jack London and Mark Twain when I was about 10 years old.  They and others inspired me greatly because their work allowed me, in my mind, to travel to foreign and exotic lands, to meet kings and queens and knights, and wizards and villains, and a few heroes.  These days I am inspired by the work of Charles Dickens because of his ability to string words together creating memorable characters who always get their dues, good or bad.

OCBS: Where else do you find inspiration for your work?

Ted Dunagan: Besides the fact that I like to tell stories, I wanted kids to have a good knowledge of what it was like to be a kid over 60 years ago, and I wanted to present it in a manner so that it was not only inspirational, but also exciting to read.  I believe I’ve done that without using any vampires or wizards or zombies as characters.

OCBS: What is the hardest thing about writing?

Ted Dunagan: Writing is a difficult thing to do and it takes a great deal of work, time, and dedication.  The hardest thing to do is to sit down and start.  It’s kind of like running, you dread the thought of it, but once you get started it’s not too bad, and when you finish you feel really good.  I use some rules and techniques.  I will share my number one rule, which is when I begin a project, I write no less than three pages a day, every day, until it is completed.

OCBS: How long– on average– does it take you to write a book?

Ted Dunagan: It usually takes me about six months to write the first draft, which I do in longhand.  Then I sit down at the keyboard and type it.  After that, I sit down and read it in the first attempt to get all the gremlins out of it.  Then I have it edited by three others in order to get it as near perfect as possible before presenting it to my publisher.  No one will read your work if it is not as close to perfect as possible.  All this takes about a year.

OCBS: Every writer gets writer’s block. How do you overcome it?

Ted Dunagan: To avoid writer’s block all you have to do is think before you write.  If you haven’t thought about what you want to write, it won’t happen.  I usually do my writing late at night after everything is still and quiet, but only after I have thought, daydreamed and augured with myself off and on all day.

OCBS: Who is your support system, i.e. the first to read your work, review it, and critique it?  How do you choose these advisors? 

Ted Dunagan: My support system consists of three wonderful friends, a newspaper editor, and two retired middle school English teachers.  I chose them for their knowledge of how to present the wonder of the written word.

OCBS: What advice can you offer aspiring authors? 

Ted Dunagan: If you want to write you have to learn the trade, just as if you decided to be a bricklayer—you can’t just go out there and begin laying bricks the first day.  I’m an autodidact (self taught), which I would not recommend.  Study journalism and find a job where you have to write. Read, read, read, especially the classics, and write, write, write every day.

Ted Dunagan:  More from the Author

Secret of the Satilfa by Ted M. Dunagan
Secret of the Satilfa by Ted M. Dunagan

OCBS: What book/s are you reading at present?

Ted Dunagan: I just finished –for the second time– A tale of Two Cities, and I am currently, also for the second go around, reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

OCBS: How do you relax? 

Ted Dunagan: By shutting out the world and all that’s in it except my imagination and my memories.

OCBS: What do you want your readers to know about you? 

Ted Dunagan: May I brag a little here?  My first three novels, A Yellow Watermelon, Secret of the Satilfa and Trouble on the Tombigbee, all won Georgia Author of the Year Awards in the Young Adult Fiction (YAF) category.  All three have also been selected as Accelerated Reader Titles, and are taught in many schools.  Trouble on the Tombigbee also won the 2013 Yerby Award for Fiction.  The fourth book, The Salvation of Miss Lucretia, hasn’t won any awards yet, but it was just recently born.  I traipse all over the South conducting author visits at schools and libraries, teaching kids what it was like to be a kid long ago, the wonder of reading, and the art of writing.  I have conducted more than 250 of these sessions and presented to over 15,000 kids.

Make sure to check out all of Dunagan’s books and weigh in with your thoughts on his stories below.

An Interview with Professor Wayne Flynt

open book

Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe recently had the privilege of interviewing Professor Wayne Flynt, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University. Professor Flynt is a premier Alabama scholar and historian, as well as a close friend of Harper Lee. He stops in our little shoppe from time to time, and has graciously agreed to answer a few questions for our blog!

Professor Wayne FlyntProfessor Flynt, you hold the title of Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University. What made you want to enter the world of academia?

Though when I entered Howard College in 1958 I planned to become a minister, by the time I graduated my views about race diverged so much from southern white culture and especially Southern Baptist majority opinion that I decided to enter grad. school and take a Ph.D. while waiting for attitudes to change. When I finished my degree in 1965, white racial views if anything had hardened due to the influence of George C. Wallace and “massive resistance.” At first I became a college teacher because my first love seemed impossible if I wanted to remain Baptist and live in the deep South. But in time, I felt a sense of calling to college students as a ministry as much as I once felt that call to pastor a church. Over the years, that sense strengthened as I taught college Sunday school classes, began tutoring programs in black high schools, and mobilized students to help register black voters and engage in work with the poor.

Much of your research and work involves Alabama, what about Alabama initially sparked your interest?

My initial research focused on 20th century Florida, and my first two books were political biographies of a FL. governor and U. S. senator. Then I changed focus to write about the people from whom I came, southern poor whites. Because I taught for 38 years at Samford U. and Auburn, I gradually specialized more and more on my home state, writing 9 of my 14 books about Montgomery, Alabama’s economy, Alabama Baptists, Alabama missionaries who served in China in the 20th century, and co-authored the state’s standard history. My interest grew from my family history in Alabama, which extends back 6 generations.  

Professor Flynt throughout your career as a teacher and historian, you’ve done a lot of writing. Can you talk about your inspiration when it comes to your writing? And your process?

Early in my career, I loved conducting research and hated writing. Now I love writing and hate research. Writing is lonely, solitary work that does not prosper from interruptions. I am a highly social person who loves people and talking. Therefore, I really had to discipline myself. Now, in my mid 70’s, I think I am less social and more solitary. I also have lots more confidence in my writing skills. I never try to write unless I have at least half a day clear of interruptions. During that time, I don’t answer the phone or do anything else that diverts my attention.  Also, I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, or any social media, which really helps avoid disruptions. I write hard on a first draft without any revisions. When I finish a chapter, I begin a meticulous revision consisting generally of 20 rewrites, the first of them pretty comprehensive. After that, my revisions are mostly wordsmithing.  

Professor Flynt what was your favorite book to write? Which was the most difficult?

Keeping the Faith, by Wayne Flynt
Keeping the Faith, by Wayne Flynt

My favorite book to write was my memoir, KEEPING THE FAITH: ORDINARY PEOPLE, EXTRAORDINARY LIVES. It was deeply introspective, forced me to confront some things about myself I did not like, and challenged memory as a guide to the past. Often, I found that what I wanted to remember was not likely what happened. Also, it is much easier to remember what I did (I often kept extensive journals) than the MOTIVE for what I did.  

The most difficult book was TAKING THE GOSPEL TO CHINA: ALABAMA MISSIONARIES IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM. The book was a collective biography of 50 people, and I couldn’t allocate 50 chapters, one to each of them. So, I had to find common experiences, which was often quite difficult.  

What do you like to read? What’s your favorite book?

I like to read southern history, history of W.W. II, and southern fiction. My favorite book, not surprisingly is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I first read it in 1963 as a race novel, but during ensuing years have found different meaning at each stage of my life. Now, I consider the novel about tolerance and non-judgment.  

What are your favorite pastimes?

My favorite pastimes are creek fishing from a canoe on Alabama creeks and small rivers and basketball. I enjoyed playing basketball on an Auburn city league team and was a rabid fan of college basketball both at Samford and Auburn. I also grow roses, with a peak of 77 bushes, now diminished by lack of energy. Roses are like children: they reward attention and punish neglect.

Professor Flynt, what’s your proudest achievement (personal or professional)?

My proudest achievements are my wonderful 54 year marriage to Dartie, my best friend, two incredible sons, and 6,000 students also mostly wonderful and incredible, people of integrity, committed to justice, and making the world better by their presence in it.

Professionally, I am most proud of my election as president of the Southern Historical Association. The Southern Historical Association is the largest organization in the world dedicated to the study and explanation of the American South, with some 5,000 members worldwide. Curiously enough, there is a robust Southern Studies Group in Europe involving scholars from Russia to the United Kingdom who specialize and teach Southern history and literature as a regional subgroup of what is taught there as “American Studies.” The South is the only “region” of the U. S. studied and taught as a separate area of studies.

Ravi Howard: An Interview With the Author of Like Trees, Walking

Ravi Howard
Ravi Howard, author of Like Trees, Walking
Ravi Howard, author of Like Trees, Walking

Ravi Howard on Growing Up

OCBS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background. How do you think your upbringing affected you as an author?

Ravi Howard: I grew up in Montgomery, and my parents are originally from the Mobile Bay area. When I was young, many of the familiar names of local civil rights history were still alive and active. I think that informed my storytelling because I had layers of history to learn. The history I learned from personal reading and teaching was complemented by the history I heard.  That idea of listening is central to writing fiction. We’re presenting stories that feel like they are being heard as much as read.

Ravi Howard on His Career

OCBS: Have you always wanted to be a writer?  If not, what else did you consider as a career and why?

Ravi Howard: I have. It took a while to realize the interest was specifically in fiction. I’ve worked as a print journalist and in sports television production, so I’ve moved around and tried many forms of writing. I’ve enjoyed them, but fiction has become central to my writing career.

OCBS: Your first novel—Like Trees, Walkingwas a substantial success. What are your goals for your career now?

Ravi Howard: I just want to build a career that includes novels, short stories, and other forms. With the time it takes to complete a novel, it’s important to remain active in multiple forms. Also, while I enjoy the work of historical narratives, I want to explore other contemporary stories as well.

OCBS: Who is your support system, i.e. the first to read your work, review it and critique it? How do you choose these advisors?

Ravi Howard: I have colleagues from teaching and former classmates that sometimes read excerpts. I attended graduate workshops with a dozen or so writers, and those critiques were helpful. Now the groups are smaller. It depends on the work or the section. The short stories and novels I’ve published have all gone through rounds of notes with editors.

OCBS: Which other writers inspire you? Why?

Ravi Howard: A favorite has always been the work of Ernest Gaines. I’ve also enjoyed the work of contemporary writers like Attica Locke, Mat Johnson, and Dolen Perkins-Valdez. They have varying styles that include elements of mystery, humor and historical fiction. They create vivid storytelling and the language is beautifully crafted.

Like Trees, Walking
Like Trees, Walking

Ravi Howard On Writing

OCBS: What’s your favorite genre to read? To write? Why?

Ravi Howard: I like to read a variety of styles and genres, so it’s difficult to pick a favorite.  Sometimes contrast is the best approach. Since I’ve been writing historical fiction, it’s a nice departure to read mysteries or contemporary short stories.

OCBS: Are there other writers with whom you’d like to collaborate? Who? Why?

Ravi Howard: I don’t see myself collaborating in fiction because it’s so solitary, but I see the writer-editor relationship as collaborative. Also, when books are optioned for film, there are opportunities to see how the novel changes form in a different medium. I think these are ways that writers and those in media work together to edit or transform a story.

OCBS: What advice can you offer aspiring authors?

Ravi Howard: Reading is central to the process. Also, revision is where the fiction takes shape. Don’t compare rough drafts to the finished work of published authors. Understand that the layers of revision bring the work into focus.

OCBS: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

Ravi Howard: I’m more willing to let go of lines, characters and ideas that don’t work. I understand that what I take out helps to enhance the work that’s left. It was harder to let go earlier in my writing career, but I’ve come to understand that trial and error is necessary.

OCBS: What is the hardest thing about writing?

Ravi Howard: It’s difficult to measure the time it takes to write a book. It can be uneven. Some pages flow quickly and others take more time. Sometimes the slowest parts of the process lead to the best work, but it’s difficult to gauge simply by looking at the page count.

OCBS: If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

Ravi Howard: I can’t say that I look at the work of others that way. I think I look at the work as a reader without feeling like the work could have come from me. I might enjoy the idea of finding work and images that I would never have conceived.

Ravi Howard—The Final Word

OCBS: What is your favorite saying and why?

Ravi Howard: Fiction is an art of make-believe (Albert Murray).  He speaks to the importance of imagination in writing.  Even work based in historical fact must me imagined in a compelling way.

OCBS: What advice would you give to your younger self?

Ravi Howard: I would have taken more creative classes in college. Film and drama. I don’t think I would have pursued those paths, but stepping away from the familiar would have been challenging and rewarding.

OCBS: What do you want your readers to know about you? 

Ravi Howard: Like most writers, I came to the profession as a reader, so I share the enjoyment of books as one who spends time discovering new stories just as they do.