The first plot piece of my novel in progress (current title: Out of the Red Summer) was set when I was in grade school.
I was maybe 10 when my parents took me to see All the Way Home, the play based on James Agee’s achingly lyrical A Death in the Family. (I’ve blogged elsewhere on my thwarted fatal intentions for that evening.)
Sometime in my teens I read A Death in the Family, which opens with “Summer of 1915,” a mesmerizingly beautiful essay built on the simple ritual of men in shirtsleeves watering their lawns. Years later, in 2000, when my husband and I were contemplating moving from Italy to the unknown of Knoxville, TN, “Summer in 1915” made that move seem possible.
Soon, after moving here, we saw the Knoxville-based Carpetbag Theater’s searing spoken word performance of “Red Summer,” a re-creation of the Knoxville Race Riot of August, 1919. Not fiction but fact: Four years after Agee’s idyllic, fictional summer, Maurice Mays, a handsome bi-racial man (see above), was blatantly framed for killing a white woman. The next day, National Guard and hundreds of drunken, heavily armed white men were backed by National Guard machine guns as they opened fire on black Knoxville. Hours later, streets ran with blood. Bodies were dumped in the Tennessee River; black families fled the city never to return. In the coming months, all charges were dropped against the white rioters. Mays was executed, an almost certainly innocent man.
Agee’s idyll of summer evenings in a white suburb, and bloody streets in an August rampage: two sides of a deeply divided Southern city. Suppose there was a cross-over figure? I began to construct a fictional white woman who would weep for Maurice Mays, not because they were lovers (although he had many) but for a deeper cause.
As a historical novelist, I look for links, ideally collisional links between characters and their times. Characters who will be lurched to new circumstances, driven out of their boundaries, their self-images shaken.
So, having finished my third historical novel, Under the Same Blue Sky, and having done three set far from home, I came back to these collisions in the city where I now live: the men in shirt sleeves, and the men in rampage. I envisioned three women, different in class and color, who would be profoundly changed and tightly entwined by the Summer of 1919, and who would struggle to find a restoring peace for themselves and for Knoxville. They will be the three voices of my novel.