Dedria Humphries Barker is a long-time member of the Lansing writers community. She has been a speaker at A Rally of Writers in the past. This year we have her back with the launch of her new book, Mother of Orphans: the True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man’s Widow. We got a chance to talk to Dedria about her writer’s journey. Read Dedria’s bio on the Archive Page.
You have had an interesting career as a journalist and as a writing teacher. What made you want to tackle book length nonfiction?
I always wanted to write books. As a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to do, I said, write books. My first professional development course after college was the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver in Colorado. It was about book editing, and I worked as an intern at the Gale Research Company in Detroit. It publishes reference books about literature. But, I needed to make a living so I went to work as a journalist, first for the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit and then for Gannett Co., Inc. in Illinois and Lansing, Michigan. When I finally started working on Mother of Orphans in earnest I was working as a college professor where I got long stretches of time off, the sort of accommodation a writer needs to do a book.
What was your research process like?
My research process was long. Twenty years ago I got started on Mother of Orphans. On one visit to
MSU’s Wharton Center, author Toni Morrison, said that she loved research. Me too. I spent a lot of time in libraries in three states and six cities flushing out the details of the story. I had such interesting adventures as a researcher, I started to wonder what the researcher’s work day really was. So I timed myself. I would note the time I got started and work until I couldn’t anymore. I discovered my research day was not eight hours a day. It was more like four hours a day. Not a bid work day, better than banker’s hours.
Was there anything that surprised you in writing about family?
Mother of Orphans’ main story is about a married couple, Alice and John, and I was hesitant about writing their sex life. I mean, these are my great-grandparents. A close friend who reads a lot of romance novels kept after me to write John and Alice a love scene, but I resisted. When my son was reading the manuscript at the part where the couple’s daughter was born, he asked, where did the baby come from? What he meant was something’s missing here. Then I realized I needed to have some sort of love-making, even if it was just a suggestion, a hint, you know, behind gauzy bedroom curtains. Nothing like Beverly Jenkins whose scenes are too hot to touch, but something. That is when it started to dawn on me that in this story John and Alice were not my great-grandparents. They were young people in love. Then I studied sex scenes and got to working on that for the fictionalized version. In 2015 when author Janet Fitch was my fiction workshop leader at Squaw Valley, she gave my wedding night scene a big thumbs up.
Are there any cautionary tales you would share about taking on this kind of project?
Genealogists should be clear about what they are trying to do. Some people want a family tree with as many branches and leaves as possible. I was trying to clear up the family mystery about why my widowed white great-grandmother put her black children in an orphanage. I stayed pretty true to that, but then decided I wanted to write fiction and, for a number of years, was using my research to learn how to do that. Then I had to decide how much it mattered to me what my family thought.
My work was a rocking boat on high seas, while for decades my mother and her family had thought that boat was better left in dry dock. By closely following my teachers, creative nonfiction authors Kim Barnes, Michael Steinberg, and Floyd Skloot, and many other authors, I learned that getting at a truth had to be the main focus of the work. Finally, I started feeling confident enough to pursue just that: a truth based on research.
Do you think you will do other long form work?
I have already written a book-length memoir on being a East Lansing High School football mom, and pretty much written my mother’s father’s side of the family, a story about black businessmen in the early 20th century, so I plan to work on those some more.
I like books, stories, narratives. They let a reader go to someone else’s life for a while and sometimes that escape is exactly what a person needs.
Talk about the challenges and lessons of book promotion. LOL.
Well, as you well know, publishing a book is a complex undertaking. First, there is writing the book. Then, there is publishing the book. Finally, there is selling the book.
Promotion is part of selling. It involves calling booksellers, and librarians and book clubs, and generally telling everyone about the book. I was able to dive into promotion after reading my friend, author Randy Susan Meyers’ book, What To Do Before Your Book Launch. In it she said work with this basic premise: people have to know about your book before they can read it.
That made promotion a whole lot easier. Since then I have thought of promotion as simply telling people about my book. I am excellent at introducing people, and Mother of Orphans was another introduction. That was the main lesson that helped me get over the early challenge of being self-conscious about promotion. The other challenge was knowing what to say.
My experience as a magazine publisher helped with that. I used a script as I learned to be more natural in saying my message. And I had a great model in my good friend, Andrea King Collier, who has showed writers in the Lansing area, and across the U.S., to jump out there with enthusiasm.