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Episode 40: Grace Elizabeth Hale is Undisciplined

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For Episode 40, I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Grace Elizabeth Hale. Grace is the Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia, and the author of four books. Her two most recent are Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, which was published by UNC Press in 2020, and In the Pines: A Lynching, a Lie, a Reckoning, published by Little Brown in 2023. In the Pines is a remarkable book that combines Grace’s investigation into her own family’s history and her expertise as a scholar of white supremacy to investigate the pervasive racial terror of the Jim Crow South and its lasting impact. Grace joined me to talk about how she put the book together, the joy of great editing, and much more.

Books by Grace Elizabeth Hale

Mentioned in This Episode

Transcript

Kate Carpenter:
Hello, and welcome back to Drafting The Past. I’m Kate Carpenter, and in each episode of this podcast I talk to a historian all about the craft of writing. This time I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Grace Elizabeth Hale.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Thanks, Kate, for having me.

Kate Carpenter:
Grace is the Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia, and she’s the author of four books. Her two most recent are Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, which was published by UNC Press in 2020, and In The Pines: A Lynching, A Lie, A Reckoning, published by Little Brown in 2023. In The Pines is a remarkable book that combines Grace’s investigation into her own family’s history and her expertise as a scholar of white supremacy to investigate the pervasive racial terror of the Jim Crow South and its lasting impact. Grace joined me to talk about how she put the book together, the joy of having a great editor and much more. Please enjoy my conversation with Dr. Grace Elizabeth Hale.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
For me, being a historian and being a writer have always gone hand in hand. I’ve always really felt strongly about… I always tell my grad students clear writing is clear thinking, so for me, they’ve always been linked and I’ve always tried to work on them in tandem from the earliest days of my career, so even on my dissertation, really trying to think about just how the craft of what I was doing, how accessible is it? I don’t know. For me, the great historians of earlier eras really wrote for a broader public. I’m thinking of people like W. E. B. Du Bois, many, many others, C. Vann Woodward, people that I certainly read in my early training in southern history, and they wrote for a broader audience, and so I always was thinking, I may not have a broader audience, but I’m going to try to work as if might that makes sense. I’m going to imagine those writers to be out there, I mean readers, and possibly to reach them.
So for me, those things have been linked. It was a bit challenging coming of age in grad school during the postmodern theory years. I read a lot of critical theorists, gender theorists, for example, during that time period and that writing was, let’s just say not poetic, not very lyrical, but there were things you wanted to take out of it and to know. So that was a challenge I think in my early years, figuring out how to take from that but not let the syntax, the kinds of ways of structuring sentences like penetrate my own prose. I don’t know if that makes sense. But I think right now it seems to me like we’ve got a lot of people paying attention to craft across humanities fields that I read in regularly.
I mean, not everyone does and that’s okay, but there are a lot of people who are, so I find it not quite as challenging to read the current literature today or what seems to me to be important that I need to read without feeling like I’ve got to brace myself to not let the style in. That’s a meandering answer, but I’ve always thought of them as linked. I’m always compelled by Truillot’s idea that history is facts and story. It’s always the facts and the story and a good story is, at least in my mind for me, the medium that I work in is writing, and so it’s good writing.

Kate Carpenter:
When and where do you like to do your writing?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
I am a morning person, so I get up. My caffeine of choice is tea. I drink a big pot. Probably look a little bit at the news, but try after being up for about an hour to be sitting at my writing desk. I don’t always achieve that. I’ve been a little late to get there. For me lately, getting to my writing more like 8:30 and I’d rather be doing it earlier than that, but getting up and doing it before my brain gets cluttered is my best option. I don’t want to think about a to-do list. I don’t want to look at the pile of things that I need to do that are not my writing, graduate student work that I need to read, other kind of secondary literature I need to read. There’s so many ways we can procrastinate, and we’re working but also procrastinating.
So I try very hard to get to my writing and to sit down at my desk and to do that work first thing in the morning, depending on my schedule, for as many hours as I can. I keep my mornings open to the degree that I can. I’m lucky enough to be at the level and the professorship of having a little bit of control over my schedule and being able to say no to things in ways that are harder when you’re younger and I certainly remember those days, but I really try to keep those mornings through sort of early afternoon free for writing, and for me that means not just producing words on the page. That writing might be notes, it might be outlines, it might be even just sitting and thinking deeply about something. I call all of that writing. I know a lot of people find like having a thousand words a day or some sort of words a day is a useful strategy for helping them in their writing.
That doesn’t work for me. I end up just producing a lot of stuff I throw away, I mean, and I’m not saying… If it works for you, use it, right? But for me, what works is just to hold open a time where I’m not going to do anything but write and or think, and that works for me to have that space open to think about the projects that I’m working on. There’s always a book project, and sometimes on top of that also some essays that I’m working on and just to have that be something that I’m spending some time with every day to the degree that I can, even if it’s only an hour.

Kate Carpenter:
How do you like to organize your sources and your research materials?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
I am so embarrassingly old school. I like the materiality of sources. I like books. I like paper. I have recently gotten a digital tablet so that I can write and then collect all the files on my computer, and I found that’s really working well for me because it’s like writing on paper, but I don’t have to… If I’m in a different location than my office, I can access my notes and I can track down what I have and I can print it out if I want to. But I’ve also got a backup digital file, so that seems to be working really well for me. But I really enjoy the actual act of writing by hand and I like to mark up things I’m reading. Documents, papers, and so I really like the materiality of files and papers and I know it’s bad for the environment, but the screen is distracting to me. I put my phone away. I try to turn off every possible thing that could make any notification really just be in the space of my thoughts.

Kate Carpenter:
There are plenty of things about screens that are bad for the environment, as well.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Yeah, there you go.

Kate Carpenter:
I would not beat yourself up about that too much. You mentioned outlining. Are you an outliner for your projects? How closely do you stick to those outlines?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
I am not an outliner in the sense of figure out exactly how it’s going to go and then sit down and write it. That doesn’t work for me. And again, you should do, any writer should do what works for them, so I’m not suggesting anyone else should adopt this method, but for me, what works is to have a sense of what I’m working on is about and to sort of keep relining it as I go, as it comes into my mind how one thing is going to lead to the other. But if I have it all worked out ahead of time, I don’t really want to write it. It’s the writing of it that helps me to understand what it is I’m trying to say, and I think also keeps a kind of freshness of voice, keeps a kind of excitement of discovery feeling in the prose, or at least that’s what I’m hoping for, gives it a kind of aliveness that if I’ve got it all worked out already in my mind that it’s some kind of an outline, it’s just going to feel like I’m filling in the blanks.
And so that of course means that I do a lot of revising because I’m not very good at foreshadowing because I don’t know where I’m headed, so I end up having to go back and revise and put that in. But I really love that feeling of working it out as I’m going. That just really excites all of my creative juices and that has worked for me, although perhaps it’s not the most efficient manner. I’m sure there’s many things we could say that are bad about it, but it has worked for me.

Kate Carpenter:
What does your revision process look like, then? How do you tackle that?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Well, often I will write a first draft by hand. That’s probably embarrassing to say, but literally with the pencil and a piece of paper, then I will type it in. Whenever I get to, when I sort of write as far as I know what I’m trying to say, I’ll type it in and then just give it a good revision in that process, and so those processes end up being very tangled up together for me. If I’m really on a roll, I might just keep writing and writing and writing and then type it all in later. But oftentimes it might be a page or two and then typing it in and revising, and that of course is the first of many revisions. I won’t say that that’s where the revision stops, but that’s where it starts in that process.
Now, I do sometimes write directly into the screen and I can do that. I used to not be able to do that at all. Now, now I actually can do that, but sometimes if it’s just really flowing for me or if, interestingly enough, if it’s going really well, I like to do it by hand, and if it’s not going well and I’m really looking for a kind of level of focus, I like to do it by hand. That helps me to put everything else out of my mind. Yeah, so that, again, probably more old school than most people, but that’s how I do it.

Kate Carpenter:
I have a strangely specific question, which is I’d love to write by hand, but I find it hard with history because of the footnotes. How do you deal with footnotes as you’re writing by hand?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Well, in the paper that I’m scratching it out on, and truly it can sometimes look like scratch. I will put the author’s name and the page number or some kind of abbreviation of the document just in a little parentheses, or if I’m typing into the screen, I’ll do that and all of the coming back later and really filling it in happens. And then sometimes also as I’m revising, I’m adding, so a lot of times I’m adding secondary sources that are more background than direct, if that makes sense. I’m adding that at a later revision process. But when it’s something that I’m absolutely like directly either quoting or using directly somebody’s idea and not quoting, and I need to make sure, certainly given current scandals of the world, that is accurately documented and footnoted, I just sort of make a note in the margin or something like that as I’m writing.

Kate Carpenter:
I’m really interested. So In The Pines is your fourth book, it’s wonderful, but your books have certainly thematic connections, but they’re on pretty different topics. What is it that draws you to a project as a writer and as a historian?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Well, I should start by saying how undisciplined I am, and I don’t mean that I’m undisciplined in the sense that I’m not particular about my historical work or that I’m not valuing the discipline of history, but I feel like I’m not good at the sort of professional vision of how what is supposed to develop a career, and some of that is probably the privilege of having gotten this job at Virginia and not ever been very interested in leaving it so that I didn’t have to sort of think about that. But I will say the other historian that I know well, that I’m friends with, who I think is somewhat like me is Bryant Simon, and his work jumps around a lot too. So some of it’s the privilege of being able to do that, I have to admit. But some of it is just deciding not to care about what the profession. You know, once you get tenure, deciding not to care about how the profession sort of thinks the safest way to build a career is.
And I guess that’s really a way of circling back to your main point, which is just how do you decide what you’re going to work on? And this is why I say I’m not very disciplined. I’m really bad, bad, bad at the idea of filling a historiographical gap. That like sends me into a coma. I mean, and I understand why it’s important. People should work like that, and I understand why I need to teach my graduate students to think like that, but it just doesn’t get anything about the creative process going for me. For me, what works is just a question that I really want to answer. Something I need, just feel very, very compelled to understand and to think through and to write about something for me has always been my best way to think through it, and to me, those practices of writing and thinking are so bound up with each other.
If I’m reading a book, I’m often very deeply not just skimming it, but I’m often just making a lot of notes and writing along with it, and that’s how I’m sort of processing it. So it has to be something I want to know the answer to, that I want to understand, that I really, really want to explore. I mean, it takes a long time to write a book and a lot of hours in a seat, and the older I get, the more my back hurts. I do have a standing desk now, too, but it’s just a hard thing to do. The only thing that makes me want to do that is something that I really want to know for myself, and maybe nobody else wants to know. I guess I just have a hope and some sort of a faith that somebody else will want to know about it, too. But that is how I pick what I work on. Probably it would be better to be more strategic about it, but that’s not how it’s gone so far, so I don’t know. My career is not, I’m not retired yet, so maybe I’ll get more strategic in the future.

Kate Carpenter:
I’m curious. I have talked to many writers who work with agents, but it sounds like you’ve had the good fortune of having some particularly wonderful agents. How has working with an agent affected the way you work as a writer?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Well, I think what an agent can do is to help you think about other readers that you might not think about. That’s at least something that’s been useful to me. So it’s not hard for me to imagine readers who are situated in the academy or that might be in a classroom or even just people that are general readers interested in history. But what an agent does is keep up with the sort of landscape of commercial publishing. I’m in two different departments and American Studies is itself an interdisciplinary discipline, as we like to say. That just trips off the tongue. So I’m already reading across a lot of disciplines in my life as a historian, and to think that I would also be able to keep up with everything going on in the world of publishing outside the academy is too much. Although I have been reading in the past five years, I would say I read a lot more sort of trade press nonfiction than I have in earlier moments in my career, especially trying to read people who I think are very good at narrative and pacing and some of those kinds of things that historians are not very good at. We’re often the too much information crowd.
So I think an agent’s very good at giving you a sense of that landscape of what people are publishing, both people with academic connections, non-academic connections, but in a world of commercial publishing. And it’s not that I think commercial is great, but I do think that imagining a greater audience than some academic publishing sort of opportunities is worthwhile, at least for me and for my writing. I may fail completely, but I always want to try to be aiming at the broadest sort of collection of readers of all types that I can be. And I don’t think we do as good a job inside the academy of thinking about that as we could. Although again, I would say that’s improved a lot, I think, in more recent years that… I published Making Whiteness with the trade press, that was my dissertation, and I didn’t know anybody that was doing that back then, and of course now I’m just surrounded by and know many, many people who are doing that, and so I do think there is more attention to those kinds of things to craft, to accessibility, to being… Don’t use jargon. Say a complicated thing in a clear way.
But again, I think the agent can help you understand that landscape. My current agent, so my first agent, Geri Thoma, has been many, many people’s agent that have probably been on the show. I mean, she had this sort of thing for a while where she was the person who represented serious scholars, especially historians who thought they might have some crossover potential, and she just used to represent everybody, and then very, very sadly, in 2020, I think it might’ve been ’21, she retired, so that was a sad day because she was great at just taking you on. There wasn’t as much of a barrier to entry with Geri. Her husband was an academic. She understood academics, but she also understood publishing. So she was this perfect bridge person, and she would take you on whether she thought she was going to get you what would be a pretty small advance with an academic press, but it would be better than you would’ve gotten on your own, or she was going to get something approaching more substantive amount.
So Geri’s really, many people could sing Jerry’s praises, including me, but she retired. I cried about that. I really did. I just thought, “This is just not a good thing. No one else will ever want me.” I’m not a commercial enough writer, but Geri managed to pass me on to Dan Conaway, and he’s very different from Jerry, but he is as… I mean, I just absolutely adore him and he’s not a history buff, and that’s going to sound maybe off on the surface like, well, why would you want an agent who’s not a history buff? But what’s perfect about Dan is Dan is a great story lover. He loves a good story. It doesn’t matter what genre it’s in. And if I can come up with something that he thinks is a good story and interesting, or I can write something up in a way that he’s engaged in it, then it’s just a whole nother level of whether or not it would be engaging to me or any of my nerdy history friends. So what he’s really done, in no way does he ever say what I should be working on, but he helps me to think about how it could be packaged, how it could be written or made into a story that would have a greater appeal, a broader appeal.

Kate Carpenter:
That sounds like a very helpful perspective to have.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Yeah. So I’ve really, really loved that about him. Like I said, not on the surface Mr. History Lover, but when you can get Dan, you’ve got a broad crowd, hopefully.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, I was also struck in the acknowledgements of In The Pines that you talked about your editor on this book, Alex Littlefield, I think was your editor on this book. I was struck by this because I’m a big believer in the importance of great editors and appreciating them when we find them. What is it that you’ll take from Alex’s feedback as you move forward?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Really, truly everything. I mean, I might even cry. I mean, it was really… I have loved all the editors I’ve worked with. I really have been blessed to have just some fantastic editors, and before I speak about Alex, I’ll just speak about my editor immediately before Alex, Mark Simpson-Vos at UNC Press, who really was a dream editor for me. I mean, he just read and read and reread Cool Town and really was a joy to work with and made that book so much better, and so I had a really high bar when I came into this project and Alex just blew me away. Part of it was timing. It’s a long story that I won’t go into, but one pitfall to trade press publishing and anyone thinking about going there should think about this. I really had not thought about it enough. But there’s so much turmoil in the industry that people are constantly moving around and a lot of books end up abandoned.
For example, the editor that signed them, maybe the publisher of an imprint that signed them, by the time the book is done, history books aren’t written in a day, those people have moved on to somewhere else, and some cases there’s people present in that imprint that jump right in there and do the great work. But in sometimes a book sort of ends up almost orphaned, and I’ve known, I won’t name any names, but this has happened to friends of mine and it happens pretty frequently. That didn’t happen to me in large part because of Alex and also Dan. Alex moved around a lot. But because Alex believed in the book, because Dan is an absolute business genius, they managed to make it so the book could travel along with Alex, and that’s why it ended up with him at Little Brown after several moves. So that was really great in the sense that he had believed in it, signed it, and was very invested in it.
And it also meant that he was in a moment where he had a huge amount of time when I was turning in what I thought was really the very close to final draft, only to find that we were going to spend the fall going back and forth and redrafting and redrafting. But that sounds bad, but it actually ended up maybe being the best writing experience of my life because he had the time to really line edit and just sort of think about the overall structure, but think about each chapter, sentence level, paragraph level, every aspect of editing, and he had the time to put into it. Or he made the time, I don’t know. But it was just absolutely the most exciting process I’ve ever been through editing, because we would be sending chapters back and forth, drafts back and forth, and it felt like this just incredible conversation we were having about writing. And I realized that though I often write foreshadow or signpost in the margins of my grad students drafts, I didn’t really know what it meant.
So Alex assures me that most writers don’t know what it means, but he was really, really great at helping me to think about how to signal what’s coming next just with just little word here or there, you know? How to, also to really pay attention to character development and pacing. I think historians are really bad at pacing. We do a lot of research and we want it all to show up in the book, and I think there’s probably as much of In The Pines that didn’t show up there that is there. I mean, there’s a huge amount of it that was in a larger, baggier earlier draft that was cut. But there’s something about the power of being able to create a kind of lean, fast moving narrative that I had no idea how to do. So I hope I will take that away from this work with Alex because I do think pacing is just a challenge for historians. We just love that particularity. We love to have all those details in there and all those multiple contexts in there, and that for a lot of readers that may not be professional historians just bogs down the narrative. So my husband says of In The Pines, it’s the first book I’ve written that left him wanting to know more.

Kate Carpenter:
Amazing.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
So I think maybe that’s something to aim for, but I will definitely take all that away from Alex’s advice, and also some things about structuring. There’s a part, there’s a place in In The Pines where it’s not strictly chronological and that it’s okay. As a historian, we like to be chronological, but one can sometimes with a lot of, again, making sure people know where you are, foreshadow, make sure people know what you’re doing, but you can break that chronology. It doesn’t have to be a prison. So I think all of those things I hope I’ll take away with me.

Kate Carpenter:
So as someone who is in the midst of struggling with this on a project, was it hard for you to cut so much and did you have strategies for figuring out what to leave out? Because I do really struggle with that. Like, oh, I want to include all this detail and all of these things I learned.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Well, I think a huge part of the struggle in In The Pines, and every struggle is particular to that book, so I’m not sure my answer is going to be useful in a general sense, but maybe it will be. You really have to think about what does the reader really need to know to follow your story that you’re trying to tell and to build up a convincing case for the argument that you’re trying to make. So even if you’re not writing a book that you think of as a narrative or a story, it is a narrative or a story because that narrative is how you’re building your argument. So I learned so much about the black community in Jeff Davis County because to me that was a huge part of what the book was about. I really felt like… Many scholars have said this. This is obviously not my argument, but racial violence in the Jim Crow South is aimed at individuals, but it’s also aimed at communities, at black people more broadly, and it works on both those levels.
And so I really wanted to tell the story not only of Versie Johnson, who is the black man who was killed, but also to tell the story of as I could find out about black life in Jeff Davis County, and it’s the kind of story, I mean, the small town south outside of black belt areas or places where there are major plantation areas. I mean, there’s just really not a lot written about those kinds of places, and I really felt like I wanted that in there, and I just learned a huge amount about the black community, including all these things they did after Johnson was killed. For example, I did a huge amount of research into a voting rights case that originated in Jeff Davis County. It was in fact the first voting rights case that the NAACP brought in Mississippi. Constance Baker Motley was the lead attorney. It was just a fascinating story in and of its own right. All of it of course taking place after the central event that In The Pines is about.
And so a lot of all of that ended up being cut, and that made me really sad, but it wasn’t a book. All of that was too much for the reader that’s trying to get through to the story of Versie Johnson’s life and what happens to him and the more particularly immediate aftermath of that. So it was a question of the narrative pacing for me there and the story that I wanted to tell. But I think that applies just as well to a history book that you might be writing a dissertation that somebody might be writing. You’re trying to make an argument, and what do you need to make that argument, and much of what you think you need, you needed to find all that out to get to your answer, but you don’t have to put it all in the book.
And that is, I don’t know, that’s just a lifetime challenge for historians, right? I mean, I don’t think any of us will ever totally solve that problem, but I do think if you have an editor that you trust who can sort of slash and burn and you’re willing to go with that. You know what I mean? To give up a little of that, you really can… Just something great can come out of that. But it’s just the nature of the beast, isn’t it? History. You just have to do so much more research than ends up being what needs to be in your book, and I think first books in particular, we just can’t resist. We got to put it all in there, right? We want that dissertation committee, you know?

Kate Carpenter:
We want credit for all that.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Yeah, we did all that work. We want other historians to know. We visited all those archives and we’ve got a little bit of a history, because I’m also in American studies where this does not reign. Historians have this little bit of this time in the trenches, almost the hazing, going to all these out of the way archives and being treated badly by archivists, which almost never happens. But I mean we have this kind of thing about that where we sort of fetishize that, I think. So I think that’s something in the discipline of history that we really have to fight against if we want to write books that are understandable by a broader public and that reach a broader public, that grip readers, and the general public is so focused on history these days, they really need to hear from us and not from kooky YouTube influencers and TikTok people that they don’t really know what we’re they’re talking about. So I think it would be good if all of us could be better at this, but I do find it hard myself and I recognize why we all struggle.

Kate Carpenter:
So In The Pines is both incredibly deeply researched, but it’s also a very personal excavation of your own family history. What was it like as a historian to sort of blend those approaches? Was that a challenge for you?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
It was a challenge, but also I had really had practice, and so there’s a way in which Cool Town and In The Pines are just such completely, completely different books and people would wonder why the same historian or how possibly the same scholar could write both of them, but there is something at the level of the genre, if you will, that is very much linked between the two. So they’re both very much books where I have a personal connection to the story, but I’m also trying to tell it not as a memoir. So using that kind of personal connection as a framework, if you will, as a sort of way to lead a reader into the story, but then not being the main character or even a particularly important character, almost not even a character of the book. A minor character, let’s put it that way. So I think that even though the topics are very different and the tone is very different, the writer’s voice is very different, they both are engaged in a similar kind of genre mashup. I don’t think I could have done this if I hadn’t practiced on what is mostly a pretty happy story with Cool Town.

Kate Carpenter:
To explore how Grace brings the narrative to life on the page, I asked her to read an excerpt from In The Pines. Here’s Dr. Grace Elizabeth Hale reading from the introduction to In The Pines.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
From the Jackson Airport, now named for murdered NAACP leader, Medgar Evers, the route to the place many locals called Jeff Davis County follows I-20 west for a bit before heading south on Highway 49. For a few miles, the road pushes through a snarl of traffic lights, strip malls and fast food franchises. Orange and white barricades squeeze the lanes where a widening project has stalled. In the middle of this construction, a large electronic billboard blinks cheerful words of therapy that flash and then are gone. Life is a work of art. If you don’t like what you see, paint over it. A smaller portable sign pushes another kind of comfort, the legalization of marijuana. More traditional remedies, Southern food and faith, also appear, sometimes at the same spot, like the giant white cross towering over the barn shaped building that houses Berry’s Seafood and Catfish restaurant.
The first time I drive this route in a quarter of a century, the clouds look like someone has plowed them and the morning sun turns the furrows into ditches of light. Nothing seems familiar. All the way to the Piney Woods Farm School, a black institution founded in 1909 and the first landmark I recognize, I worry that I am lost. About halfway to Prentiss, before a town called Mendenhall, the route turns right onto Highway 13. Mixed forests and farm pines grow right up to the road and then suddenly ravaged scenes from an unreported conflict appear. Acres clear cut and not replanted. Cut trunks sticky with sap sit stacked beside the road or chained to metal poles on the open backs of trucks. Occasionally I pass a farm, often an older wood house sharing space with a red brick ranch and a smattering of barns and other ramshackle buildings in varying degrees of disrepair. Sweaty cows swap flies in emerald fields fenced with barbed wire.
The end of the smooth asphalt and another clear cut announced the Jeff Davis County line. Neat red chicken houses line up perpendicular to the road and fill my car with a hint of their noxious smell. Old gas wells sit on bare dirt lots bristling with rusty pipes, tanks, gauges and gates. Single and double wide trailers, more brick ranches in a farmhouse or two scattered among plots of scraggly pines or older oak trees and pecans. On the outskirts of Prentiss, three white wooden crosses guard a pond filled with scum in a pasture gone to scrub. Prentiss, the county seed of Jeff Davis County, has been dying for more than half a century.

Kate Carpenter:
I confess that I had a super hard time choosing an excerpt, in large part because there are so many good passages in this book that I wanted to talk about, but I picked this one mostly because you get to do something here that historians don’t often get to do, which is that you are describing the scene as you are experiencing it in the present day. But I think it’s clear even as you read it, but is especially clear as you continue to read the book, that you’re not just reciting randomly everything that you see. Each kind of detail is really doing work in leading us into the plot or the mood, or even Berry, the name of the restaurant here, is a family name that will recur in the book. How did you choose what to include in a description like this?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Well, I’ll start by saying that I’m married to an artist, a visual artist, and a lot of the people that he knows are also visual artist. He’s mostly photographer, but he works in other mediums, too, and they’re very good at paying attention to detail in the world and the multiple ways in which something that you could see in the world has meaning. I mean, that’s what photographers do, right? So hanging out with them has been great for me on that front, and I think in some ways what I tried to do in that passage was to sort of create a series of really stunning photographs and prose. And so I did take notes when I was traveling for my research and sometimes things come straight from that, of stuff that struck me. But then of course there’s a huge amount of editing, and the editing part was trimming it up to make sure that each detail is not only something that was there, but is something that is telling us something that we need to know about the place.
And I imagined my readers as mostly being unfamiliar with Mississippi. I do think people who go to Mississippi as that don’t live there tend to go to certain places. Perhaps as a tourist. Perhaps they visit universities if they’re academics. But I imagined most of my readers would really have no sense of this Piney Wood region of Mississippi, and there hasn’t even been a huge amount of literature like written… For all of the great writing out of Mississippi, there hasn’t been a lot written from out of that region, so even on that level people don’t know the place, and I felt like the place was a hugely important character in the book, both the place in the present and the place in the past. Because one of the major points I wanted to make implicitly more than explicitly was that the present that is there now is a result of the past that I was going to tell, and of course other pasts, not just that story. So I wanted people to understand it.

Kate Carpenter:
When you’re writing about place in the present, you obviously have the advantage of getting to go there and look at that place and stand in that place. When you’re writing about place in the past, that’s a little more complicated. How do you work to create that sense of place?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Well, I think that was the biggest challenge for me of this book. Cool Town is also very narrative, but I had been in the places that I wrote about in the time period for the most part. There’s some parts of the book that there were a little bit before I had the direct experience, but I had a lot of experience. This book takes place mostly before I was born, so no such luck on that front. I will say that I spent a huge amount of time looking at historical photographs. We are lucky to live in an age when many university archives and historic archives have digitized photographs, so I spent a huge amount of time, for example, looking at pictures of logging in this region when this region was actually covered in old-growth longleaf pine forest. There is no longleaf pine there now, so you really can only look at photographs to get a sense of what that forest was like.
So I looked at a lot of historical photographs, as many as I could find, and just tried to read anything I could find that was descriptive of the place, and then also just used the heck out of the Mississippi Encyclopedia. That’s not exactly the name of it, but it’s produced by the University of Mississippi. But most states have a kind of state encyclopedia, and I found that to be just a great like, what kind of fish are there in a stream, and how do I understand what’s going on with cattle ticks in 1910? Bizarrely enough, these kinds of things, when you’re trying to describe them, you’ve got to know details about them that might not be in most academic history books, and I found these historical encyclopedias to be great sources of information. Also, frankly, I used the ones for Louisiana and Alabama. I mean, the Piney Woods as a region, as a forest kind of stretched across those states, so I got some help from some surrounding states, but I found that to be just a really great source for trying to figure out the specifics.
And I think while historians are really good at providing lots and lots of detail, we’re not necessarily trained to set scenes or to be concrete about things, and if you’re a historian, you want to make sure you get it right. If you say that fish is there, you want to know it had been there, right? Like everything, I did a huge amount of research trying to figure out how mills work in places where the drop of the water is not very far because the ground, there’s not a huge change of elevation, and so you can’t have a water wheel in the old-fashioned sense, so like if you’re milling timber, how does that work? See, that didn’t end up in the book, but I could explain it to you. So it’s a lot of just being glad that those encyclopedias are out there, And frankly, university archivists in places like… University of Southern Mississippi archivists were just phenomenally great. They answered many, many, many of these kinds of questions. Another totally great source, the WPA state histories and county histories and the drafts of them even before they got edited, a really great source for particularities that mostly you’d wonder, well, why do you need to know that?

Kate Carpenter:
Well, you mentioned the narrative structure of this book a little bit earlier, that it doesn’t always proceed exactly in chronological order, and sometimes there are even sort of overlapping histories trying to uncover what’s happening here. There’s this great effect as a result that as a reader, we feel like we’re sort of alongside you as you’re puzzling out what happened. How did you come to that narrative structure and keep it all straight as you were working?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
A lot of revising. For me, the easier thing to do is to be in the space of the past than in the space of the present because that’s what I’m trained to do and that’s what I’ve spent most of my life doing. So knowing when the moment is to come to the space of the present, mostly I did that by thinking about, when do I want to talk about a document? I don’t want to talk about every document I’ve used. That would truly bore people to death. There’s a huge amount of any kind of historical research. Let’s face it. Sometimes our research is boring. You’re just searching and searching and searching, right, and hope that you’ll find that little thing, and days can go by and you might be still searching, right? You definitely don’t want to drag your reader through all that, but sometimes you do find something that is really an incredible document or you want to, like for me, I really wanted to have it be a part of this book, how Jim Crow had shaped the archives.
So not just how it shaped what people did, but how it shaped what people said about they did and how it shaped the journalism and how it shaped even the archives that would be around for us to look at in future years to try to understand what happened. And so it seemed to me that I needed to have a little bit of that kind of discussion of how the documents sometimes lie or are spotty or are wrong because there isn’t a sense that black life is important on the part of the people making the documents or not much investment of time or care to get things right. So I wanted that to be in there. So I just tried to think of, what are kind of moments in my sort of search through the research that would be interesting, that are not those tedious days, but are those more exciting moments, and can I narrate that for the reader.
And it’s kind of a pet, I’m so aggravated, it’s a pet peeve of mine by people, and I think David Grant is an amazingly great writer, but the way that he talks about doing historical research, you would think that he invented it, that no one had ever done it before him, and that really bothers me, and it shouldn’t because he can write however he wants to, but it’s like, why have we given that away to the journalists? Right? We know so much more about research. We could write so many more interesting stories. We also know when somebody like David Grant talks about sitting in an archive and getting a document that acting like no one’s ever touched it. I mean, 20 historians have probably read it in the last 10 years. Right? So I just thought, well, I could do that. I could write about the research process in a way that would show people, not just for the sake of understanding the research process, but for the sake of understanding something that was important about the greater story.

Kate Carpenter:
Yeah. It’s funny you say that, actually, because I was struck in this book there are a couple of times where you’re, not to rag on David Grant, who I also think is wonderful, but you take a very generous approach often to talking about your research process where you note when there are times that your expertise, sort of the limits of your expertise have been reached, and you work with like a genealogist, you mentioned, who works with black family histories and who you can turn to and say, “Am I getting this right? Am I doing this?” And I really appreciated that, that sense that you as the individual are not the only person with expertise here.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
I came away from this project with an absolute realization that in my entire career as a historian, I had, A, not for a second understood what genealogists know, and B, how that has impoverished my own and every other scholar that, especially people that work on the 20th century. Well really probably any time period, but I can speak most to the one that I work on. Genealogists know so much. They know how to do research in ways that we don’t know, and it is just, why did I not know that? Right? Why was I a historian for over 20 years without knowing that? I mean, that’s my own ignorance. But genealogy also, frankly, to be really clear about it, has just so benefited from the digital revolution, the digitization of documents for genealogical research. It’s just astonishing what you can look up and historians are making use of those tools, but I think we could all make more use of them, better use of them, and no one knows how to use them like genealogists, and so I don’t know.
I also was just like, I am doing this genealogical research. I really want someone who’s a professional to tell me that I’m not wrong or to check me, just like I would have another historian read something and know if I’m correct about things that our discipline knows about. So I found that to be just super, super helpful. I thought I had found Versie Johnson, and the genealogists I talked to weren’t sure, and that was good. But then when they were convinced, that was like, okay, then that’s right. Yeah. So that, I do think maybe that’s also a little bit of a gender thing. Any time I’m working on something, I’m always drawing on lots of other people’s expertise. I’m not just alone adventuring into the archive with no one else. There’s always the archivist, if nothing else, and all those folks that are helping you.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, I know we’re running short on time, and I want to ask a little bit about your own influences. Are there people that you like to read or other media maybe you watch or listen to for inspiration?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
I mean, I would say if you want to write well, then just read the best writing or what feels to you like the best writing that you could get your hands on, and that can be a problem for academics because we are reading for brilliance of argument or theoretical innovation. Those are important things, but that doesn’t always mean the writing is clear or lyrical or memorable or other kinds of ways in which writing can be good. There’s different definitions of good writing. So I really strongly urge all, anyone who wants to be a writer, to just try to read really people that are celebrated as great fiction and nonfiction writers. I mean, you may read some of them and decide for yourself that you think that’s awful and they’re overrated, and why are they considered great? But that’s its own learning experience.
And so I used to read a lot of fiction. To me, there’s been just such a kind of outpouring of great nonfiction, creative nonfiction, that I’ve been reading a lot more of that I would say the last 10 years, and not reading, I still do read some fiction, but not reading as much fiction. But people that just constantly influence me. Saidiya Hartman’s latest book. I mean, I just think about Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments all the time. I just think that’s just a really stunningly innovative, original book with passages of dazzling writing. That was really my model for how to make lives live on the page when there’s not a lot of evidence or information. How can I do that? And so I’m grateful to Saidiya Hartman all of the time. I’ve learned, I mean, one of the things I think about all the time is how Claudia Rankine uses gesture in her work, how you can read her work and what she makes out of a small gesture, that way that poets just are so good at the kind of way that words mean something on so many different levels as metaphor, as description, as sound. I mean, I also read Ada Limón’s poetry, which I think is very beautiful. Lately, somebody gave me a book of her poetry, which I’ve just really, really been enjoying. And the best novel I’ve read lately, I mean, I read Vaster Wilds, I think it’s called.

Kate Carpenter:
Mm-hmm. Lauren Groff.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Oh my gosh. I did not want anyone in my family to talk to me over the holidays when I was reading that book. I just got completely sucked in and felt like I was in a different space. And if you describe the story of what that book is about, it’s not sort of a natural that I would like that. I don’t even know why I actually decided to read it, because it really isn’t. I mean, I do really like her writing. But anyway, so I recommend that. I felt like it just really was so great at pulling me into a completely different world and making me think about deep important things in that space, but not in a way that was overly philosophical. I don’t know. It’s a novel. It feels like a novel. So I really, really loved that. Lately I read, reread. I don’t know that I actually ever read it. I think I saw the movie years ago, but I am trying to think about…
I’m working on a book about Appalachia and I’m working on miners, and I reread at the advice of my agent, Dan, A Perfect Storm because it’s such a great evocation of a place, a boat out in the deep sea and a job of deep sea fishing that most of us don’t know anything about, and it’s just very good at sort of bringing you into that space, and I wanted to think about how I could use steel things, use techniques or things that he was doing to bring alive this world of mining, which is obviously a different space, but the same in the sense that most people haven’t been in a mine. It’s work that we’re not familiar with. That’s a space that we’re not familiar with. I’m myself incredibly claustrophobic, so I don’t think I probably ever will be going in a mine. So I think you can seek out writers that are doing something well that you’re trying to do and learn from them.

Kate Carpenter:
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
That one is easy, and that is just if you’re going to write, you got to write. I mean, it’s just boring to say it. It doesn’t sound, I mean, it’s not profound, but a lot of days it won’t go well. I think that’s my advice that I probably didn’t know when I was younger is just sit through it. Just sit through it or just keep writing, and you’re going to throw it most of it away. But if you don’t write, or at least for me. People are different. But if I don’t write, if I say, “This isn’t going well. I’m just going to go do something else,” I don’t get through it. The next day I’m going to have the same problem. So you just have to, I don’t know.
For me, I just have to sit with it and just put in that time and know that there’s a kind of inspiration to writing, but there’s also a discipline to it, and when I was younger I thought you wait for the inspiration, and now that I’m older, I think, no, the discipline is what sets you up for the moments of inspiration. So again, maybe this is not advice that works for everyone, but waiting for that inspiration, especially at earlier moments in my life when I had two small children. I have twins, and lots of pressing things at work, and you’re never going to get that inspiration. Really discipline. Discipline makes moments, those moments possible.

Kate Carpenter:
Before I let you go, can I ask if you’re up for talking a little bit more about what you’re working on next?

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Yes. I’m always happy to talk about it, and probably to too great a length, but I am working on a narrative history of the Brookside Mine strike in 1973, ’74 in Harlan County, most well-known through Barbara Kopple’s film, Harlan County, USA, which I think is a great film. But the reason that I’ve decided to write a book about it, there’s several, but I’ll briefly say what those reasons are. One, Kopple herself is a part of the story, and because of her direct cinema filmmaking style, her film is not mostly about her, and you don’t understand how the actual making of the film plays a role in the strike. So that’s one thing. Secondly, a huge amount of work is going on outside of the space of the strike, so I think many people are familiar with a strike, and then you have a picket line and you’re trying to keep people from coming in and working in the mine or the mine from being open while you’re on strike.
In this case, it’s for union recognition by the united mine workers. Sometimes the strike is about getting a better contract, but this one’s about actually getting union recognition and the union contract to start with. But what’s interesting about this strike is that they’re really inventing the corporate campaign, what we might call today, the kind of broad corporate campaign, and that’s really something that’s going on in the ’70s that I don’t think we know a lot about, which is the way that unions and their allies are thinking beyond the picket line, beyond the actual strike against the company, and even beyond the boycott, which has become calling for a public boycott, the great boycott, the [inaudible 00:56:09] boycott. These are kind of ’70s iconic strike techniques. Well, they can’t use that method in Brookside because the mine is owned by an electric company, and they can’t ask all the people living in North and South Carolina to boycott their electricity.
And so that really makes for a lot of creative innovation in terms of thinking about how to hit the corporation and make people in the world who live far from Harlan County care about these strikers and their families, and they do a brilliant job of it. But probably the most important reason I wanted to work on this book is because they win, and I wanted to write a book about working class triumph and also use that as a way to think about where a lot of people were trying to go in the ’70s that didn’t happen in this country, but what kind of coalition, loose coalition of civil rights, anti-poverty workers, welfare rights people, feminists and others are trying to do to create a kind of what some scholars have called a movement or a movement of movements or a coalition, and to bring the unionized white working class into that movement and that vision of what a very different vision from the neoliberalism that comes to pass. They didn’t know they were going to lose at the time, and they had a really powerful vision, and I feel like it’s a vision that we’ve lost sight of and need to have and see, and it’s a vision of people coming together, not in a kind of easy, stupid post racialist or some other such BS way.
Not that at all, but recognizing difference and yet creating alliances that are not dependent on absolute agreement or even identification, or not based on a kind of notion of identity politics. Not that they’re anti identity politics, but that these coalitions have to be beyond and outside of all that and bigger than all that to win, and I just think that’s a message we need for now, so it seemed like an important time to revisit the story. The other small thing is that there’s so many sources, so after working on this book with needle in a haystack research projects and sources that were very, very hard to find, I’m very excited about the fact that there’s about a hundred recorded interviews, for example, that other people have already done with people in Harlan County and they’re there. Those people are now dead, but somebody else interviewed them, and I can use that source, so that’s just really, really exciting for me.

Kate Carpenter:
It sounds like a great project, and this has been a wonderful conversation. Dr. Grace Hale, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting The Past to talk about your process.

Grace Elizabeth Hale:
Kate, it’s really, really been fun to be on your program. I’m a huge fan of this podcast, and so it’s really a joy to have a chance to be on it.

Kate Carpenter:
Thanks again to Dr. Grace Elizabeth Hale for joining me to discuss her writing, and thanks to you for listening to this episode. By the way, did you know that there is now also a Drafting The Past newsletter? It’s free and you can subscribe to it at draftingthepass.com. There you will also find show notes and links to all the books discussed in the show. Until next time, you know the drill. Friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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