Epilogue: Tale book project writes final 2011 chapter

Posted: Saturday, March 19, 2011
Ben Beagle bbeagle@batavianews.com The Daily News Online

“Mudbound,” the 2011 selection for the just completed “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, was not always the most pleasant book to read.

Author Hillary Jordan used her debut novel to explore racial tension and prejudice through the eyes of two families — the white land-owning McAllans, and the black sharecropper Jacksons — who struggle to survive on a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta just after World War II. Several scenes of violence, racism and the release of prisoners from Dachau were difficult for some to read.

“I cried my eyes out in parts of the book. Even though I knew it was not a true story, it was true,” said Debra Nanni of Batavia, one of six winners of a writing contest iwho had lunch with Jordan. “I know that those kind of things happened. It’s unfortunate that they did, and she didn’t gloss over it.”

Just as books sometimes contain an epilogue that brings readers up to date on characters and events, here is our own final look at this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” with five additional stories from Jordan’s visit to Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties:

Creating voices

A military veteran in the audience at Jordan’s talk at Genesee Community College mentioned that her depiction of the “brotherhood between former World War II soldiers Jamie (who is white) and Ronsel (who is black) spoke to me.”

Jordan replied: “My first love was a Marine, so I knew a little bit about that. What you do is project yourself out of your own head and into someone else’s, and imagine what it would be like to be them.”

In Perry, Jordan was asked about the brazen soldier talk.

“Dialogue comes much easier for me than narrative,” she said, attributing that to working in advertising where dialogue often comes more naturally.

Writing is hard

Jordan told a small gathering at a GCC luncheon that the process of writing is hard. She noted the many revisions “Mudbound” went through. Later, during her public presentation, she explained that unlike many authors she doesn’t write an outline of the book first.

“I don’t know a lot at the beginning as to how the book will turn out,” she said. “I just pull it out of my head. With Ronsel, I didn’t know for sure, but I just knew that in the end it would be something bad.

“It’s a spontaneous process,” she said. “There’s a quote from E.L. Doctorow, ‘Writing is like a long car trip at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ ”

Jordan was about 275 pages into “Mudbound” before she knew the ending.

“I had the characters, everything was set up, but I really pulled it out of my brain a sentence at a time,” she said. “I don’t know the ending when I began; I’m extremely jealous of people who do.”

And sometimes it’s easy

Sometimes, though, writing comes easy. Jordan related the story of one scene in which Jamie is dreaming of a flood.

The scene came to Jordan in the middle of the night. She got up from bed and began writing. It was 2 a.m. Soon, she had about 10 pages completed — a good day for her is usually about three pages. (The chapter in which Ronsel is abducted and attacked by Ku Klux Klan members took days to write, she said.)

“The next morning I had no memory of having written anything until I turned on the computer and saw the pages,” she said, calling the experience one of the strangest things that had ever happened to her as a writer.

“I don’t know where it came from,” he said. “I wish that it would happen more often.”

Favorite character?

Jordan was often asked who her favorite character is from “Mudbound.”

“I love them all, even Pappy,” an angry old racist, she said. “They are like my children.”

When pressed, she acknowledges that she identifies most with Laura, an educated white woman. “She was the easiest to write,” Jordan said. “She also gets the most page time.”

Compare that to poor Henry, who gets the fewest pages: “He’s very prosaic, and hardly ever heard,” the author said, noting that he narrates only two chapters.

The Jackson, the book’s black family, are all talkers, Jordan said.

“I adore Florence,” she said, and also noted an attachment to Ronsel, who arrived late in the process but turned her book from a family drama to a compelling story about social injustice that has garnered her much acclaim.

Pappy, who originally narrated his own funeral, was eventually removed from the novel. While readers had empathy for most of the characters, depite their trouble, there was none for Pappy.

“I’m not sorry I silenced Pappy,” Jordan said. “I think it’s a better book for having him be just a malevolence presence.”

The next books

Jordan is reviewing the final proofs of her second book, “When She Woke,” which is due out Oct. 4.

The book was called “Red” for the longest time, but was changed because so many other recent works use red in the title, including the action movie starring Bruce Willis and a just out memoir by red-haired rocker Sammy Hagar.

The new title was decided on just days before Jordan’s area appearance. Local readers were among the first to learn the new title.

“When She Woke” is a fable about a stigmatized woman’s fight for survival in a world about 30 years from now. The book explores issues of faith, love and discrimination due to skin color. Jordan began the book at the same time as “Mudbound,” but got stuck and set it aside for years. Political events of recent years renewed her interest in the story.

“By the time I got back to it, it came out beautifully,” she said. “And that rarely happens.”

Jordan also plans a sequel to “Mudbound” that will tell the story of Ronsel’s illegitimate German son’s journey to America to find his father at the height of the civil rights era.

“I thought I was done” with the characters of “Mudbound,” Jordan said, “but then all the fans of the book started talking. People would always ask me if I was going to write a sequel, and for two years I always said ‘NO!,’ emphatically.

“I mean, I’d have to do all this research,” she said. “It was nice to get away from it” for “When She Woke.” “Set in the future, it just has to be plausible. But with history you’ve got to get all the facts right.”

Eventually her fans won out, and a story grabbed hold.

“I swore my next book would be a comedy,” she said. “And by god, here I am going to post-war Germany and the Civil Rights South.

“I won’t say I want to write about the ’60s. I want to write about this young man whose about 20 in 1967,” she said. “It really about the story, and when and where it needs to take place.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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