Ted Dunagan was born in 1943 in Coffeeville, Alabama. He completed the second grade there and then moved to Grove Hill, where he graduated from high school in 1961. He served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, after which he attended Georgia State University in Atlanta. Later, he married, began raising a family, and launched himself into the business world. Dunagan had known since he was very young that he wanted to be a writer; however, time, responsibility, and circumstances prevented this from occurring until a few years ago when he was finally afforded the time and opportunity to put pen to paper. Having been an avid reader since he was five years old, Dunagan already had a good start. He believes the best exercise a writer can perform, besides writing, is to read. He stumbled, scratched and clawed, fell down sometimes, but kept getting up and chased his dream. It took him six months to pen A Yellow Watermelon, but it took him six long years to get it published. Since then he has gone on to have three sequels published, Secret of the Satilfa in 2010, Trouble on the Tombigbee in 2011, and the fourth in the series, The Salvation of Miss Lucretia, is due out this March 2014. He also covers the court and crime beats and writes a weekly column for The Monticello News.
Interview by Mollie Smith Waters
MSW: Hi, Ted. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for SLR. Both my son and I are huge fans of your young adult series about two boys named Ted and Poudlum. The series has been very successful. For those who aren’t familiar with it, will you give us a brief synopsis of that series?
TD: A Yellow Watermelon explores poverty and racial issues through the eyes of two innocent boys, one white and one black, set in the rural south during the summer of 1948, during which time the two of them integrate the cotton field, where the whites picked on one side of the field and the coloreds on the other. They encounter danger and suspense while battling evil, but manage to save a family and set a friend on a river of freedom all while they discover a great but simple secret of enlightenment.
Secret of the Satilfa is the second in the series. During the fall of 1948, Ted and Poudlum have a fishing trip interrupted by fugitive bank robbers, who hold the boys captive for a time. There is no sign of the stolen money, but it is rumored to have been hidden somewhere on the Satilfa Creek. Nearly everybody in the county shows up somewhere on the creek hoping to find the money and claim the reward. Ted and Poudlum have a clue, in the form of a riddle supplied to them by one of the robbers, which leads them on an adventure they never would have suspected.
Trouble on the Tombigbee is the third in the series. During the spring of 1949, Ted and Poudlum, on a camping and fishing trip on the Tombigbee River, stumble upon a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan and learn the identity of some of the key Klansmen. The boys are discovered by the Klansmen and have to escape down the river only to swim into the arms of more trouble, including would-be kidnappers. Their escapades test their resourcefulness and challenge their awakening moral selves. Each bend of the river causes them to wonder what is the right thing for them to do.
The Salvation of Miss Lucretia is the fourth in the series. During the summer of 1949, the boys are allowed to train their dogs in this great and ancient forest, but they run into an unexpected resident of the forest—Miss Lucretia, the last of the Voodoo Queens, who had been banished from society and forced to live there alone for the past fourteen years. They are incapacitated by a voodoo potion, wake up chained in ancient slave manacles, but go on to discover Miss Lucretia is not exactly what she claims to be, and eventually, through the efforts of the boys, she gains her salvation.
MSW: Your books are set in and around Clarke County, Alabama, where you grew up. Also, you and the main character have the same first name. So how much of the character of young Ted is based on you and your experiences? Is there a real Poudlum? Will you tell us about him?
TD: During the period in which I was teaching myself the trade of writing, I read that one should always write about what one knows. But along the way I discovered that sometimes what you know is not quite enough to make the story “pop,” but that coupled with some imagination can make a story explode. To know is good—to imagine is everything.
The settings in all the books are real places. I did base the character Ted on myself using the memories I have of that time and place, but the scenes are a combination of what I remember and what I imagined.
And, yes, there was a real Poudlum; however, we didn’t meet until I was a teenager, and at that time he was several years older than I was, but we became great friends and discussed the things we saw and heard around us. I could ask him questions like how come colored folks said this or did that, and he could do the same with me concerning white folks. In the stories I use my imagination to make us the same age and placed us in the same place to make the plot work, because I knew in my heart that what I imagined could have been true. His real name was Oleander Robinson. He passed away just before the first book was published, but I have had the great pleasure of reading the books to his grandchildren.
MSW: Your newest book makes the fourth in your series. These boys have battled bank robbers, outlaws, and even the KKK. Did the real Ted ever get into as much trouble as the fictional one? Out of their adventures so far, which is your favorite Ted & Podulum book? How much more do you think you can do with these characters?
TD: The real Ted did get into a lot of trouble, but I don’t think quite as much of or as the fear-shivering kind the fictitious Ted did. However, I think most of what happened to Ted and Poudlum did actually happen to somebody, based on the stories and rumors I remember hearing. For instance, I never actually found a functioning moonshine still, but I did find the remains of one which had been long abandoned, so I just let my imagination take it from there. I think the boys have a ways to go yet.
MSW: I am probably one of the few who had a chance to read your new book The Salvation of Miss Lucretia when it was still in its infancy, so I know that the character of Miss Lucretia is a bit of a departure from your other characters in that she has a “voodoo” connection. What made you decide to incorporate this theme into your writing?
TD: The boys had been exposed to bootleggers, bank robbers, the Klan and kidnappers, so why not voodoo? It was a natural for Miss Lucretia because she was a direct descendent of Cudjo Lewis, the last African slave to be brought ashore in the U.S. It happened on Mobile Bay on the ship Clotilda. I also did some extensive research on voodoo as it was practiced in Haiti in the late 1930s.
MSW: Do you have additional books planned for this series? I remember at one time you said you had an idea about a book with the two boys and some cattle rustlers. After four books, do you feel that the boys’ adventures are still as exciting as they were in the beginning?
TD: I have almost completed the fifth in the series, The Bovine Bandits, in which the boys hook up with a new and different kind of hero to battle a gang of cattle thieves whose leader has everyone convinced he is a preacher conducting a tent revival. And, yes, there will always be excitement when Ted and Poudlum are on the scene!
Beyond that I plan to execute a work which a lot of the kids who have read my books have requested. They all want to know if Jake, the escaped convict in A Yellow Watermelon, is ever coming back. The title of number six in the series will simply be Jake. It will be the story from Jake’s point of view, beginning when he was the age of Ted and Poudlum, through his arrival in Clarke County, his escape and his eventual triumphant return.
MSW: You’ve thrice won state-level book awards. Which awards did you win?
TD: I’ve won several awards. A Yellow Watermelon won the 2009 Georgia Author of the Year Award for YAF, was selected as an Accelerated Reader Title in 2010, and was selected to the inaugural list of books which every young Georgian should read by the Georgia Center for the Book. Secret of the Satilfa won the 2011 Georgia Author of the Year Award for YAF. Trouble on the Tombigbee won the 2012 Georgia Author of the Year Award for YAF and the 2013 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.
MSW: Now that you’ve got a new book coming out and The Yellow Watermelon is being released as a paperback, do you have any plans for other upcoming conferences or signings?
TD: So far here’s what we have scheduled:
March 1, The Augusta Book Festival, Augusta GA
April 5, The Ferst Foundation, Eatonton, GA
April 19, The Alabama Book Festival, Montgomery AL
April 25, Monroe Academy, Monroeville, AL
April 26, The Clarke County Museum, Grove Hill AL
MSW: In addition to writing the Ted & Podulum series, what else are you doing these days?
TD: I stay fairly busy on Mondays and Tuesdays researching and writing the crime and the court stories for the local weekly paper, The Monticello News. I also write a weekly column for the paper called I’m Fixin’ To, which may be viewed at www.themonticellonews.com.
MSW: Recently, your book A Yellow Watermelon was adapted into a play? Did you work directly with the playwright on the adaptation? Have you seen any of the rehearsals? When and where will the play debut? How would one get tickets?
TD: Cathi Gunter is the local playwright in Clarke County who wrote the adaption of the book to the play. I read it and made a few suggestions, but Cathi did all the work. I haven’t seen any of the rehearsals, but they do send me pictures. The play will debut on Friday, March 7, at 11:00 am for kids from different schools in the county. For everyone else, it will debut on Saturday, March 8, at 7:00 pm. Only 300 tickets will be sold, and they are available at all branches of The First United Security Bank, The Gift Gallery in Grove Hill and Traditions in Jackson.
MSW: Ted, thank you again for taking time to talk with SLR. My son and I look forward to reading your next book and seeing the play in March.