Anita Jones Roehrick is a writer, visual artist, and oral tradition storyteller originally from Albany, Georgia. Her novel-in-progress, Peach Seed Monkey, was a novella semifinalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She is Executive Director of The Gaines-Jones Educational Foundation, a family foundation she co-founded with her husband, Robert Roehrick. Their daughter Miranda is a junior at MA.
1. Your novel deals with a real event: the Albany Civil Rights Movement. You’ve interviewed real people, and you’ve been back to the place—Albany, Georgia—where you were raised. All writers have to edit—to put something in is to sacrifice something else. How did you make the decisions about what to keep in?
I’m still making those decisions. I imagine they will still be made up until the time to abandon the manuscript. Because this is a real event, I draw a line between what is theirs and what is mine. What I have the right to tell, and what I don’t. Most of this belongs to history; it’s in the public domain.
But when you talk to people who were arrested, who risked their lives, it’s very emotional. It’s personal, and people own their little piece of it. At the same time, it was a collective effort. Lots of people were arrested during the movement. There were a group of women who spent 45 days in the stockade. Some feel like they own the story, others feel like they don’t. And I walk into the middle and want to take notes. It can get touchy.
This is why I have changed the name and fictionalized the circumstances. I take only the piece that belongs to everyone: the archetypal story. That’s what you want anyway. Like Robert McKee says, “Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel.”
2. What does it feel like to be potentially standing in opposition to the story that they want you to tell?
I’ve had practice having tough conversations and making tough decisions. For example, deciding whether or not to homeschool our daughter. My husband, Rob, and I knew we needed to hold on to our truth and follow our own path. That was a real test of it; you don’t mess with your child’s future. There was lots of turmoil in our local school. Miranda was ready to go into first grade, and we thought, “Do we really want to do this?” We wanted to prepare the child for the road, and not the road for the child. Rob and I are both artists, so we figured out how to fix things in a creative way via homeschooling Miranda until the eighth grade. When I talked to others, peopled asked how we made such a hard decision. I said the decision wasn’t hard, but it was hard to get through the murky water. As soon as we got down to the clear water, it was not hard to decide. You had to get through the murk.
The Albany movement was so important to American history. A lot of other movements were based on it: the women’s movement, Dr. King’s movement. Albany was considered a failure because they did not succeed in desegregating. But what was learned was monumental.
I want lots of people to resonate with this story. I hope I’ve succeeded in that. But you know that someone’s going to read it and say, “That’s my story.” Or “That’s not my story.” You can’t avoid it. I hope that my editor will help me figure out how to answer these people. But it’s a real thing. People are so passionate about it. Now that I’ve made all of this noise about the book, I hope it proves worthy.
3. So often people say that writers have a story to tell, and so they write and rewrite the same story. What is the story here for you?
It started out being a very simple thing. I was looking at my father (born in 1921) and the men of his generation. He was born in the south and lived his whole life there. He saw a certain America, and had to reconcile himself to it. For example, voting. People talking about blacks getting the vote, but it was about getting the vote back. Whites made it inconvenient and dangerous to vote, but we had it since reconstruction. What did it take for my father and the other men to be men in their communities when they went out in the world and the larger society did not consider them men? But when they were home, they had the respect of their families. What did it take to straddle that line?
I wanted to explore this character. And that’s where I started with Fletcher Dukes. He embodies all of that: what it takes to be a man in your home and in the rest of the world. It takes a lot. Then the story grew into a lot more. It’s interesting to develop a character and walk around in that skin.
My dad is gone, died in 1999, but of course I have all of these questions I want to ask him. But I know a lot. I have him on tape, I’ve talked to other relatives. But it’s been an undersold story.
4. You’re a professional storyteller. Is writing a novel different?
I don’t see a big difference. I talk to myself a lot [laughter]. Verbalizing stuff really helps. A story is a story whether it is written or spoken. The storyteller in me has helped me a lot with the written version. They are inseparable to me.
This interview is giving me incentive to take my writing in another direction: a blog. There is so much research behind this novel. I could blog about that backstory. I could put my interviews of the characters online. I actually interviewed the characters. I know I’m talking to myself, but that’s my process. That’s how I get to know who they are. My first question was “why do you think you should be in my book?” That would be an interesting post.
5. What are the books by your bed? Who are your muses?
One thing you would find is Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Right now it’s my bible. I also love Zora Neal Hurston. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. Those Russian guys could write. It must be the long winters.
Those are some of the ones right now. I learn so much from them, and whenever I get stuck, I just open a page. I have stuff in the margins, all marked up, lots of “why/how did she do that?” I read it like a writer and learn.
The thing about Morrison is her way of condensing history and mixing it in with the characters in a way that blows you away. That’s what I’m trying to do. In a sentence she can collapse 300 years and apply it directly to the characters. When you get to the period you say wow, and then study it word for word. And say, “I can try to do that.”
All photos copyright Anita Jones. Connect with Anita at her blog, Peach Seed Monkey.