As a journalist, I've frequently gone against the adage of "write what you know." To me, the joy of writing has often been the discovery part of it—the research, the interviewing, the learning of a subject that before I knew very little about. I think half the fun is being a perpetual student. (I know, I know. Students are probably thinking, "She's crazy!" But it's true!)
In Flying South, however, I did draw on my past, on things I'd witnessed and on topics I'd written about for the Washingtonian magazine. Like Alice, I was a preteen in 1968. I remember well the upheaval and dramatic social changes going on during that time. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, civil rights riots and violent Vietnam war protests, it was a frightening time to try to understand the adult world. As Alice says, it seemed like anyone who wanted to make the world a better place was killed or arrested.
I listened to the Beatles, tried white lipstick, and had nightmares about the bloody images of Vietnam brought into our living room each night on television. I believed pop-phrases like: "Never trust anyone over 30" since our national leaders seemed to be making such a mess of things. I drew the peace sign on my school notebooks, without realizing what real peace required. I wondered why blacks and whites seemed to hate each other so much and threw rocks at each other during high school football games.
But I had two things that a lot of my friends didn't have which kept me grounded: wonderfully wise, elderly friends and a family who loved nature and gardening. My older friends had a good perspective on change and why it had to come. My parents' magnificent rose gardens provided a sense of hope and of seasons—that awakenings always follow endings. As Doc says in Flying South, "No matter what's wrong in your life, if you can make flowers grow or stand still in nature, you'llfind comfort."
All this would provide a backdrop for Alice, that and topics I'd written about for the Washingtonian—the feminist movement, mother-daughter relationships, domestic violence. Those themes just started twining themselves through Alice's story, without my really planning it. Sometimes that happens during writing, and it's a wonderful and surprising thing for the author! Characters can even take on their own force and become very opinionated about what I should do with them. Bridget—Alice's too-cool-for-school friend was definitely like that. (I'll tell you another secret about her. Bridget exists because my editor suggested I needed "a foil" to the curmudgeonly but devoted Doc. So, you see, everyone needs an editor to make a story better! Bridget was such a fun characterto write.)
The main theme in Alice's story is coming to deal with loss, and recognizing true friends. I wrote it after my father died. I couldn't find much for my own children, then eight and twelve-years-old, to read about coping with death. I wanted to help children understand that the influence of a loved one lingers and continues to enrich their lives. I also wanted to show them that friendships can come from people other than their peers, and to encourage them to look to nature for solace and metaphorsabout life.
I just needed a storyline toaccomplish it!
Luckily, years ago, I had started a sketch about an irascible old gardener I knew growing up. I pulled it out and started over, taking a bit of what I already had and adding a dollop of my father, a dab of a peevish but dedicated teacher I once had, and a heavy pinch of my imagination. I added the character Edna, a gentle yet brave African-American cook, to bring into the story the subtler kinds of racism that existed in even the nicest households ofthat day.
Life is about passing tests, Doc tells Alice, and doing what's right. With his nurturing, Alice learns to stand up for what she knows is morally correct, even if it's unpopular with those around her. She inspires her mother to do the same. As Bridget tells Alice about a black woman and child daring to eat in a restaurant popular with whites—(remember this was 1968, only four years after legislation was passed to allow blacks to sit or eat wherever they liked)—allowed and wanted are two different things. Alice thinks they should be the same.
Flying South is very different in tone and style from Under a War-torn Sky and Annie, Between the States. It's a quieter narrative, but actually is one of my favorite pieces of writing. That, too, is part of the fun of writing—always trying something new.