Meet Irene Latham, Author of Leaving Gee’s Bend

Leaving Gee’s Bendauthor, Irene Latham, recently charmed a packed audience during her visit to Oxford, Mississippi. Below, she’s generously shared her thoughts on writing and quilting with SLR contributor Abigail Greenbaum. Enjoy.

SLR: How did you discover the quilts of Gee’s Bend, and why did they move you so deeply? What about these quilts in particular, so distinctive from many standard American quilts, made you want to write this story? 

IL: I first viewed the quilts in late 2003 at the Whitney Museum. My husband and I were vacationing, and for reasons I am still deciphering, I insisted we see the exhibit — even though we were arriving in the city on the last day of the exhibition and just hours from the museum’s closing. As much as I’ve tried in the years since to describe this experience, I feel I never quite get it all the way right. 

     I can tell you this: it was as much an auditory experience for me as a visual one. While we waiting in the two hour line for our turn to view the quilts, I could hear the DVD The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend playing in the background. Having lived nearly all of my life in the south, the voices of the women were so familiar to me, yet what they were talking about was so unfamiliar.

     They spoke of their hardships, of working the fields and toting water up from the spring. And they sang. It was a spiritual experience for me to hear those old hymns in their resonant voices. Add that to the vibrant, bold design of the quilts and the unique history of this tiny bend in the Alabama River, and I was in love. I really never set out to write a story so much as to feed my own obsession. But when the story came, I knew I had to tell it.

SLR: In your author’s note, you say this book comes from your love of quilts and your experience growing up as a seamstress’s daughter. Is the process of writing a novel at all like the process of making a quilt? How so?

IL: Oh, yes, there are so many similarities between the process of creating a novel and creating a quilt! For years I watched my mama take plain pieces of fabric, hunch over the sewing machine into the wee hours, then hang a beautiful dress from the doorframe.

     Writing a book requires the same imagination, work and dedication. And now as I continue with my 2011 quilt-a-month challenge, I am even more aware of the similarities: each art forms requires the artist to make a multitude of choices — for writers, it’s characters and plotlines; for quilters, it’s patterns and fabric. Each is a learn-as-you-go process.

      My mother’s favorite saying is, “as you sew, so shall you rip.” It’s the same for writing a book! I spend a lot of time picking out the wrong words and restitching.  

SLR: Ludelphia Bennett is such a wonderful and headstrong narrator. Why did you decide to tell your Gee’s Bend story in the voice of a child?

 IL: The wonderful thing about a child narrator is how it allows the author and reader to approach difficult subject matter (such as the hardships of sharecropping and the Great Depression) with an innocence that we, as adults, lack. Ludelphia did not pass judgment on her own world, and her experiences were not colored by the prejudices and biases an adult might hold. She only knew her life as it was, and that fact allows us to experience the events in the book with a sense of wonder and adventure and discovery. She’s quite a gal, and I do believe she exists in all of us.  

SLR: Mrs. Cobb, though clearly a villain, is also a very well imagined character with heartbreaks of her own. Is there any historical source for her? How did you come to develop such a compelling “bad guy?”

  IL: The 1932 raid on Gee’s Bend was actually the responsibility of a Mrs. Rentz. When I was unable to find any credible information on her, I decided to create a fictional villain for the sake of the story. I knew I wanted her to be complicated, because aren’t we all? She’s responsible for such an inhumane act, but she’s also a victim of heartbreak and disappointment. I’d love to know more about Mrs. Cobb and believe that she eventually feels regret for leaving the people of Gee’s Bend to starve that winter.

SLR: Do you have plans to write more about Gee’s Bend? Are there other textile arts that might inspire future novels for you?

IL: I would love to see what happens to Ludelphia in 1937 when they bring in government housing. She would be 15 years old, and there would be all sorts of new people for her to meet. I can just imagine her having another grand adventure — one that might even involve those fancy shoes from the Red Cross drop that Mama says she’d better hang onto “for when she changes her mind.”

     Additionally, I keep a close watch on museum exhibits, and since the release of the novel, many good souls have pointed me toward other hidden gems in Alabama and elsewhere. Next up is a novel called Don’t Feed the Boy, about the son of a zookeeper mom and elephant keeper dad who struggles to escape the confines of zoo life. I used the Birmingham Zoo as my model for the zoo, and I had a great time discovering the world of zoo people and exotic animals and all the excitement and controversy of zoo life. Look for it in 2012.

     Irene Latham is a poet and novelist who writes heart-touching tales of unexpected adventure. Her debut midgrade historical novel Leaving Gee’s Bend (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010) was awarded Alabama Library Association’s 2011 Children’s Book Award and has been hailed as “authentic and memorable” by Booklist and “a tale that will stay with the reader forever” by Book Page.

     A resident of Birmingham, Alabama, she has published over 170 poems of various books, journals and anthologies, including a full-length collection What Came Before, which was named Alabama State Poetry Society’s book of the Year and earned a 2008 Independent Publisher’s (IPPY) Award.

     Her newest volume of poetry, The Color of Lost Rooms,was released by Blue Rooster Press in late 2010, and her next contemporary midgrade novel Don’t Feed the Boy, about a the son of a zoo director mother and elephant keeper father who struggles to escape the confines of zoo life, will be released by Roaring Brook/ Macmillan in 2012.

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