Episode 6: Carole Emberton Finds the Emotional Heart

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For the sixth episode of Drafting the Past, I interviewed historian Carole Emberton about her new book, To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Empancipation of Priscilla Joyner (Norton, 2022). Tune in to hear about Dr. Emberton’s writing and research process, her agent and editor’s advice for making her work resonate with audiences, and the craft book that she returns to again and again. 

Here’s Dr. Emberton’s bio from her faculty web page: “My research focuses on the U.S. South, race, slavery, and emancipation. My new book, To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner (W.W. Norton, 2022), tells the extraordinary story of one woman and her quest, along with other formerly enslaved people, to build free lives after the Civil War. Weaving together oral histories, genealogy, and other archival traces left by freedom’s “charter generation,” To Walk About in Freedom demonstrates that emancipation was not a singular event but an extended process that is still unfolding.

My first book, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), explores how the violence of a protracted civil war shaped the meaning of freedom and citizenship in the new South. I trace the competing meanings that “redemption” held for Americans as they tried to come to terms with the war and the changing social landscape. While some imagined redemption from the brutality of slavery and war, others—like the infamous Ku Klux Klan—sought political and racial redemption for their losses through violence. Beyond Redemption merges studies of race and American manhood with an analysis of post-Civil War American politics to offer unconventional and challenging insight into the violence of Reconstruction.

Currently, I’m working on a new project that focuses on a mass lynching that took place in my hometown of Russellville, Kentucky, in 1908, and how its memory has shaped the lives of residents for more than a century.”



Carole Emberton 0:01
Writing is hard work, and you’re constantly learning how to do it, or learning how to do it better. You know, there’s nothing magical about it, you know, there’s no sort of like lightning bolt or hallelujah chorus or little fairies that come and sprinkle dust on you.

Kate Carpenter 0:23
Hey there, welcome back to Drafting the Past. I’m your host, Kate Carpenter. And this is a podcast devoted to the craft of writing history. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Carole Emberton, author of the new book To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner.

Carole Emberton 0:40
Thanks for having me.

Kate Carpenter 0:42
In addition to her most recent book, Dr. Emberton is also the author of Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South After the Civil War, as well as many other articles and essays. She’s an associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo. We had an excellent time talking about her writing and revision process, the challenges of structure and finding the emotional heart of your narrative. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Carole Emberton 1:10
Even when I was in elementary school, writing, when we had creative writing assignments, you know, while the other kids would always go, ugh, you know, we have to write an essay, or we have to write a poem or whatever, I was always really excited by those assignments. So I always loved the creativity and sort of the freedom of writing. And also reading as well. I mean, my mother encouraged me from a very young age to read and to read widely. And that was, I was always sort of that kid who was reading stuff that no one else was interested in, and no one else was reading. But I think that played a large role in in my love of writing as well. When I went to college, I’ll have to admit, I didn’t know that being, you know, getting paid to read and write books was a possibility. I come from a very sort of working class background. So when I went to college, you know, I thought I’ll probably be a lawyer or something like that. But I went to, I ended up going to college at the University of Chicago. And so that really opened my eyes to the academic world. It became apparent to me I’m like, Oh, my gosh, there’s there could be career in this? This is fantastic. This is what I want to do. And you know, I went to a master’s program after my undergraduate, although my undergraduate degree wasn’t in history. It was in African and African American Studies, because I sort of floated around for a while and couldn’t really figure out where exactly I belonged. So I ended up getting a degree in African and African American Studies at Chicago, although most of my classes were in history. And I got to work with some really amazing scholars like Tom Holt, and Julie Saville and George Chauncey. And that really sort of set me on the path.

Kate Carpenter 2:46
And then you said, you went to a master’s program?

Carole Emberton 2:48
I sort of worked my way up the Chicago lakeshore, so I did the master’s program for two years at Loyola University, Chicago, in Rogers Park, and then I went on to the Ph. D. program at Northwestern.

Kate Carpenter 3:00
This is your, your second book.

Carole Emberton 3:02
Yeah. And a lot of people, you know, talk about the second book being harder than the first? For me, it was the exact opposite. That first book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, in large part, because my dissertation was a hot mess, it really, I had no idea what I was doing. And so it’s just, you know, I’ve never even looked at it, since I submitted it for my degree, I kind of put it away. And when I thought about the book, I really kind of started over, which I don’t necessarily recommend, because it’s a very stressful thing to do. But yeah, the book, my first book, Beyond Redemption, is really, really quite different from my dissertation. So the second book, for me, was really something I envisioned as a book from the beginning. And I sort of, I don’t know, I just had a sense of what I wanted it to be. And what I wanted to say, and I guess I was, you know, more confident in my ability to do that. And so for me, even though you have lots of other life events sort of intrude and, you know, approaching middle age and caring for elderly and sick parents, and having a child and all this stuff, I found the actual sort of conceptualization and the writing and the putting together of the book itself, the second book, much easier.

Kate Carpenter 4:18
Let’s talk a little bit about that putting together. We’ll start with just the very basics of when and where do you do your writing?

Carole Emberton 4:24
Well, that has changed a lot recently, because I had child, I have a 16 month old. So, you know, back in the olden days before parenthood, I was a very early riser. You know, I would get up at four or five in the morning. And I used to like to say that, you know, I was like the army, I did more before 10 am than most people do all day. And that was my sort of ideal writing time was sort of super early in the morning with my coffee when everything’s quiet, and that’s when I got the bulk of my writing done. As I’ve gotten older and now with the baby I can’t do that anymore. So I, I write, you know, I finished this book and did the revisions, I had a newborn, and I did it whenever I could. So I did it when she was sleeping, I did it, sometimes in the middle of the night when she would wake up, and I’d feed her and I’d put her back down and she’d be asleep. And I would sort of be awake. And you know, I’d have an hour or so it was just sort of whenever it was possible. I used to think, Oh, if I don’t have a couple of hours, really, it’s not worth sitting down and trying to do something. You know, having a kid has disabused me of that mythology. So I’m thinking like, I’ve got 15 or 20 minutes, what can I get done, and you can actually get quite a lot done when you when you sit down and kind of really focus. Where I write,? I write at home. My office is a little sort of alcove at the top of our stairs, and I face a corner. So I don’t have any windows. I don’t have any, I have some pictures and some things on the wall. But I don’t have anywhere to sort of look out the window and daydream. I’m not the kind of person, I can’t write in coffee shops. I know a lot of people do. I can’t, it’s too busy. It’s too distracting. I’m kind of all over the place. I usually don’t have music on. Unless it’s, you know, sometimes I can write to sort of classical instrumental things. But if there are words, I start listening to the words and thinking about that. So I’m really particular about noise. And usually I just write in silence.

Kate Carpenter 6:27
When you’re stealing small amounts of time like that, how do you set yourself up to be able to do that? I feel like I spend 15 minutes just trying to get my act together.

Carole Emberton 6:37
No, I know. And I used to have kind of, I saw someone on Twitter the other day, say, you know, they had this big candle, it’s like my writing candle has burned out. And I have to have another writing candle before I can write this next chapter, whatever. And I used to have sort of those, those kinds of rituals as well to get set up and then have my coffee or my drink. That is really, for me, it’s just gone out the window. So it’s just like, Oh, got time, let’s just do it. And like I said, it’s really, you know, woken me to the fact that you just don’t need a lot of stuff. And a lot of the stuff I did was just really unnecessary. So I just dive in and get to it. I mean, I’ve always been the type of person where, you know, when I finish, you know, if I’m working on something, I like to stop at a point where I’m not quite finished, where I know where I’m going to pick up tomorrow, or the next time I get to sit down to write, you know, I’ll go back and edit the last paragraph or something so that I sort of hit the ground running, and I’m not sort of like, okay, what am I doing today? I already sort of know what I’m doing today. So I can sort of get started right away, and not have to really figure out where I’m at.

Kate Carpenter 7:46
How do you like to keep your research materials organized?

Carole Emberton 7:48
I’m terrible. I will admit, you know, if, as a professional researcher, I think if anyone ever looks into my files or papers, one of these days, they’re gonna be like, how did she do? What is this? This is crazy. I’m really not a greatly organized person, I, I have written notes, I have typed notes in like four or five different softwares. I use Evernote, sometimes. Sometimes I just use a Word document. Sometimes I’ve got things in notes on my phone. Zotero, there are things in there. So I hate to admit it, because it’s really not a great lesson for folks. But I’m a really haphazard researcher/writer, but somehow, I always like, I don’t know, I just have a sense of like, where something is. Sometimes it takes a long time. It’s really frustrating. But generally I, you know, I don’t lose stuff too often. But yeah, I guess, I guess my problem is, I, you know, I see other people talk about like, oh, I use this program, or oh, I use this method or whatever. I’m like, Oh, I’ll try that. And then I try it for a while. And then, so I’ve got some stuff in this and some stuff in that. And so I’m just kind of all over the place, unfortunately, which is, doesn’t make me a great model, I don’t think. Because when I would tell my, you know, when I teach our honors seminar for our thesis writers, you know, I was like, you know, be very organized and figure out what your system is going to be and stick to it. And I should take my own advice.

Kate Carpenter 9:20
I’m sure I will not be alone in finding this deeply encouraging, that you still produce beautiful work? I have aspirations of being an organized researcher, but it tends to fall apart rapidly. So I appreciate it.

Carole Emberton 9:35
I love reading about other people’s methods, you know, and I love like, what do you do? What do you do? Like I said, I love seeing that. And I’m like, Oh, well, I’ll try that. That seems perfect. And then you end up with like 15 things going on at once.

Kate Carpenter 9:50
Where in your research process do you like to start writing?

Carole Emberton 9:54
For this second book, and I think for everything except my dissertation, I write constantly. And that may, I think that’s maybe one of the problems with my dissertation is because when I started the process as a graduate student, I had this sort of very linear understanding of like, oh, you go off for a year or year and a half, and you do the research, and then you write. And for me, I, that’s, I research and I write and, and that’s a very sort of dynamic process and ongoing process. Ever since that time, I’ve done things sort of as I’m going, right? So it’s never, I think one of the problems that people have a lot of times is that you, you could research forever. And you always feel like I need to know more, I haven’t read enough. And that could just go on forever. And you would never actually start to write and try to start putting together your own thoughts. You know, when I’m on a research trip, and I’m finding things in the archives, of course, I’m taking notes, and that’s part of the writing process. But then I always try at the end of the day or end of every couple of days to sort of sit down and sort of take stock. And what have I found, what questions has this raised? And so I kind of journal it through very kind of a freeform kind of writing. And one of the things starting to do more writing for public audiences, something you know, like the Washington Post, or you’re writing op eds, or things like that, I think is really helpful because it’s, it gets you through that, to start thinking about, you know, What messages do I want to convey? What do I think I have to tell people or share with people? What do I think people can learn from this? And just, you know, start doing that, as soon as possible.

Kate Carpenter 11:36
Is your process different for those types of pieces?

Carole Emberton 11:39
No, not anymore. I mean, because I really think my experience having written for those outlets have been, you know, the second book is with Norton, it’s with a trade publication. So it’s a more narrative history. That is really the sort of mode that I now prefer, that is what I, you know, I like writing. And it’s the sort of the style that I that I like to follow it, which is, you know, not to say, I don’t appreciate sort of more academic or argument driven kind of things, but it’s just, I find it more fun for me, as a writer and a thinker to think about, you know, how am I going, what do I want to share? How am I going to get people to understand what I’m talking about? And, you know, and not just other people in my field, who already know what I’m talking about, but people who may not really have a sense of, of this history and, and thinking about how to how to pitch it or how to cast it for, for those kinds of readers?

Kate Carpenter 12:41
Did it take you time to adapt to that sort of approach?

Carole Emberton 12:43
Absolutely. It is a different style of writing, you know, it’s, it is different. I mean, so when I was, you know, starting this new project, I did a lot of reading about creative nonfiction and narrative nonfiction. And I started reading a lot of stuff, written not only by practicing historians, but also you know, a lot of long form investigative journalism and thinking about how do you put together a really captivating story? How do you get people’s attention? How do you, and for me and particularly for the story about Priscilla Joyner, how do you make sure that the human story, right, and the emotional struggles of Priscilla Joyner and the charter generation, how do you, you know, put that front and center and make sure that that doesn’t get subsumed by a lot of the background and the context and things like that?

Could you talk a little bit about how you settled on the structure of this book, how you focused on Priscilla Joyner? I noticed, I found some older bios that you’d written where it would, you know, say whatever you were working on now, and those often described the project differently than it seems like it ended up.

Well, I started out, you know, I wanted to write about the Federal Writers Project and the ex slave narratives or what a lot of people refer to as the WPA ex slave narratives. I’d used those for a chapter in my first book, and I just sort of was in awe of them, right? I mean, I got, I thought, there’s really a lot to be done here that hasn’t been done. I want to focus on these. They’re so amazing. They’re so rich, I think. And for so long historians have misjudged them and underestimated them. And I really wanted to find a way to write about all these amazing stories, these emancipation stories that I was finding. Of course, the problem is there are so many, and you run the risk of just sort of it being a deluge, right, for the reader. Just too much because a reader can only take in so many stories, so you have to make choices. And so I was really looking for one or two or three people that I could sort of anchor the book to. A model for me was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. She does these, she did her own interviews with African Americans who had moved from the South to the North during the Great Migration and early to mid 20th century. And she sort of had three or four main characters, right, people that she followed throughout the book. So I thought if I could find and figure out a way to sort of do that kind of thing where I could anchor the story in, in people that the readers could get to know and to get to understand, that’s what I want to do. And then when I read Priscilla Joyner’s narrative, which is, in many ways, very unusual, both for sort of the length and the complexity of the life story that she sort of unfolds, I thought, this is it. This is it, maybe I can tell this story about the long emancipation and sort of the the trials and the tribulations of the charter generation. And I could use her as sort of the main character, but then bring in some of these other people that I think have other important things to say, to help fill out the story. You know, at the moments where she doesn’t have a lot to say about a particular subject or sort of goes silent.

Kate Carpenter 16:23
I want to come back more to talking about the specifics of this book. But I’m also curious to know, is there a point in your writing and your drafting where you share with someone else?

Carole Emberton 16:33
Yes, absolutely. Probably, you know, the real key difference for this project was that I worked with an agent, a literary agent, in developing the proposal, the book proposal. So I actually had a book proposal sort of drafted that I, when I began working with her, I sent Lisa Adams of the Garamond Agency, who’s just amazing, you know, I sent her the proposal, and she was like, This is great. And then we proceeded to rework it for about 10 months, before she began sending it out to prospective publishers. So she was like, This is great. This is wonderful. Now basically start over. Because it was still kind of academic-y. And this was the sort of the point of the process where I was really focused on like, Okay, how do I write this for a wide audience? What are the expectations that general readers have? And how do I convey the story in a way that they will find compelling and interesting, and also recognize the historical importance of what I’m trying to sort of say. So she was instrumental in my ability to do that. And then, of course, you know, my editor at Norton, Amy Cherry, you know, has read pretty much, I sent her, you know, several chapters when I’d gotten that written, and then she read the whole manuscript, so she, you know, she’s reading along the way as well. But then I also have trusted friends and colleagues who, you know, a couple people who’ve read the entire manuscript, and other people who have read chapters here and there, depending on sort of what their expertise and focus is. So it’s absolutely crucial to have people read and to give you feedback, you know, to make sure you’re getting the history right, but also, you know, to sort of think about is, is this engaging? Is this a good read? Is this the kind of thing that that other people are going to want to read? Is it clear?

Kate Carpenter 18:33
What does the revision process look like for you, then?

Carole Emberton 18:35
I sort of, again, I sort of write and revise simultaneously. So you know, I’ll, I’ll write something, and then I’ll go back, and look what I, you know, wrote yesterday, and I’ll start from there and sort of move forward. It’s sort of constantly going and constantly evolving. Again, it’s not sort of a linear, like, I’ll write a full draft, and then I’ll go back and revise it. It’s sort of always being reworked, because you know, you will, you’ll have people, you know, give you some feedback, and you’ll start changing things. And so it’s really sort of, I guess, dynamic or organic as it as it sort of goes and grows.

Kate Carpenter 19:12
For a book like this from from the time you sold the proposal to it coming out, what kind of timeline were you working with?

Carole Emberton 19:18
Let’s see, Norton, we agreed, I signed the contract with Norton I think, in around December, November, December 2017, I think, you know, so it’s like three or four years, you know, it’s I think I, and I think the pandemic pushed me back a little bit and stuff. You know, it’s, it’s, I am not a fast writer, and I used to feel really self conscious about that, because I see a lot of people who really just, you know, they put the pedal to the metal and they’re putting out books every you know, couple of years and, you know, they’re the people you see like, I’m working on three projects at the moment. You know, they’re, that’s not me. I can’t, I’ve got one thing, one main thing going and it, it takes a long time. And I’ve, you know, I think one of the challenges to being a writer, at least for me, is to stop measuring myself by what other people are doing, either their speed or their success or what have you, and just learn to sort of accept, this is my process. This is how I work. This is the speed at which I work. And that’s okay. Just sort of be more accepting of that.

Kate Carpenter 20:33
To give us a better sense of her writing process, I asked Dr. Emberton to talk to me in detail about the very first paragraph of her book, To Walk about in Freedom. Here’s how that paragraph goes: “The car stopped in front of her small wood-framed house on Second Avenue in Williamstown, a Black neighborhood in Suffolk, Virginia. Three people got out. One was the school principal, a man well known in the community. The other two were strangers. Priscilla Joyner stood up slowly. She was nearly eighty years old. She did everything slowly these days. As her guests exited the car, she held up her hand in a half-hearted hello from the yard. Like the principal, who always wore a jacket and tie, the other two, a man and a woman, were smartly dressed. Priscilla had made sure her dress was pressed before she put it on that morning. Over it she tied a faded checked apron, also clean and pressed, just in case she brushed up against something or maybe to hide a stain or worn spot on the garment underneath. She hated it that she couldn’t get on any decent shoes. Her feet swelled terribly, and the only thing that fit was a pair of her husband Lewis’s old boots, if she took the laces out. They were run over at the heels, but it was the best she could do. Maybe her visitors wouldn’t notice.”

I love this passage, just because the detail is so rich. I mean, you immediately put us in this scene. And I feel like I’m getting to know Priscilla already in just this paragraph. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that detail, how you approached this paragraph, and what you were thinking as you wrote it?

Carole Emberton 22:09
Yeah. And that’s exactly what I want to do. So thank you for saying that. I wanted people to get a sense of who this person was, and what was happening to her at this moment. And sort of how hard it was for her to initially open up about these topics that she was being asked about. And I used two sources. One is the interview transcript itself. And the woman who was mainly conducting the interview, and who later wrote the transcript out, was one of the workers for the Virginia Writers Project named Thelma Dunston. And so she wrote a very kind of evocative sort of prelude to the interview where she’s sort of describing, you know, arriving at Priscilla’s home and what it looked like, and she was very sort of writerly in her description and sort of setting the scene. So that was very helpful. And the other thing I had were, I had about three, black and white, not very good quality, but good enough, photographs that were taken, it’s not clear if they were taken, because I think Priscilla Joyner was interviewed several times. So it’s not clear that they were necessarily taken on this first day, but they might have been taken on a subsequent visit, of Priscilla Joyner sort of in her yard and talking about what was happening. So, you know, I could see sort of what she was wearing, or what she was likely to have been wearing, which actually did match the description that Thelma Dunston made of what she was wearing in the interview transcripts, you know, and I thought the details of just being able to sort of look at them and it, you know, tells us a lot about who she is and the conditions in which she’s living and what her life is like, at that particular moment. And why this is, you know, it seems very kind of mundane and ordinary, but it actually was kind of a momentous occasion for her to be invited to speak about her life and to give her life story to these agents of the federal government in this way. So I wanted to, you know, set the scene, I wanted something to, you know, hook the reader and to draw them in and for them to, and for them to care about her.

Kate Carpenter 24:26
The voice is so great in this opening, and throughout the book, of course, but it’s so strong here. Did it take you a while to work on voice? Or is that something that comes naturally to you?

Carole Emberton 24:37
Oh, yeah, I think that, you know, I’ve been working on it for a long, long time. It’s not… the one thing that I have learned is, I mean, I think, as I said, I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I’ve always enjoyed working on it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily something that comes naturally to any of us. Writing is hard work, and you’re constantly learning how to do it, or learning how to do it better. So there’s really, you know, no matter, you know, there’s nothing magical about it, you know, there’s no sort of like lightning bolt or hallelujah chorus or little fairies that come and sprinkle dust on you. You know, while you’re sleeping. It’s hard, hard work. You rely on a lot of other people to sort of tell you, yeah, this works. Yeah, this doesn’t work. And working again, with an, you know, a literary agent and a publisher who works for a trade press, you know, it’s a really different process. They really, you know, tell you this works, this doesn’t work. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would you do it like this? You know, and so it’s, it’s, because that’s what they’re attuned for, is really, how is this going to carry for a reader? That was, I really think, instrumental in helping me sort of develop the ability to do this. But again, it’s, it’s it’s an ongoing process. And I think, you know, I’m glad to hear that you think I’ve been successful at it, but it’s something that still, you know, whatever the next project is going to be, you really have to keep at it. And each project is different. And each audience is different. It’s, it’s never, you’re never, I think, completely a master at it.

Kate Carpenter 26:22
What were some of the types of things that your agent and editor gave feedback on?

Carole Emberton 26:26
You know, the the one thing working with Lisa, my agent, you know, the one thing she asked me very early on, when she read a very early draft of the proposal, she said, she asked me, What is the emotional core of your story? What is the heart of your story? What is it about? And that really gave me pause. Because certainly nobody ever asked me that about my first book. And I don’t think people ask about, you know, that for most academic books. And so I really had to think like, what is the, you know, what is the drama? What is the emotional core of the story? And, you know, when I thought about it, it was really this relationship between Priscilla and Anne Eliza, what that was about and the way it obviously affected both of them over this very long period of time. So once, but once you know that, right, once you’ve figured out what that is, then it’s much easier to sort of pin the other things that you’re, you know, that may be going on in the book around that. But I think that’s a big difference between, you know, an academic book, or a book that’s more sort of geared toward an academic audience versus one that’s geared more towards a trade or a general readership, because I think you really do need to have that emotional, you want the reader to have that emotional investment. They’re not reading it, because they need, you know, it’s on their comps list. They’re not reading it, they’re reading because they want to read it, you really have to convince them that it’s worth their time.

Kate Carpenter 27:57
Speaking of the hard work of writing, one thing that you really make look easy in this book, but I know can’t have been easy, is that you weave Priscilla Joyner’s story so smoothly with other stories, and then also the much larger and complicated historical context in which she is is living and growing. How do you juggle that? Is that, is that challenging for you? Does it come naturally to you?

Carole Emberton 28:24
It is, it was really hard, because like I said, you know, she’s the emotional, you know, she’s the main character. You know, she’s the person we’re following. She’s the person that, you know, I hope readers are invested. Right, I would like that want to know what happens to her and her family. And so she had to, you know, I think she had to be front and center. So she’s the beginning of every chapter. And she’s sort of at the end of every chapter as well. You know, there are so many gaps in her story, because of, of who she was, and the kind of historical record that she did and didn’t leave behind. So I have to draw on other people or I have to sort of spin things out, you know, in a, in a broader kind of way. But I was very conscious, you know about where she appears. And so she’s at the beginning, you know, of every chapter, she’s at the end, I always circled back to her. And wherever I can, you know, even in the middle parts of chapters, I’ll reference back and try to, you know, remind readers of how this relates to her story.

Kate Carpenter 29:28
Is that something that you had to continue working on in edits? Or did you, I know you edit as you go? So was that something you were?

Carole Emberton 29:34
Yes, I actually, sort of the first full draft of the manuscript, I had, I guess I had like, actually sort of short chapters with her in them and then longer sort of contextual chapters, which my editor thought was kind of, she didn’t care for that. She was like, this doesn’t work. So we sort of combined them so that the I had sort of longer chapters where she’s at the beginning. And then it flows a little bit sort of different, rather than be kind of, Amy thought it was a little bit choppy the way it was. So, yeah, it’s, again, it’s a continual sort of sort of conversation and process about, you know, thinking about structure. I mean, this is another thing. I mean, the structure of the story really matters. You know, it’s, it’s not just about, you know, the easiest way to convey the information, it’s about doing it in a way that you know, complements the story, and helps you tell the story.

Kate Carpenter 30:34
One thing I’m always interested in is how historians deal with it when they are writing about violence and racism and trauma in the past, does that impact the way that you’re writing? Is it something that you think about or try not to think about while you’re writing?

Carole Emberton 30:49
My first book was all about violence and racism. And really, you know, just really, it was a downer, it was, it was a really hard book to write in many ways. And the story I wanted to tell with Priscilla Joyner was not just one about all the hardships, and all the terrible struggles she faced, which of course were important to understand her life. But I wanted to spend more time and help readers understand, you know, the many many small ways that she and the other members of the charter generation built community and built families and found love and belonging, in the face of all of these tremendous and often really ugly obstacles that they had to face. So this book is really, obviously you can’t tell a story about emancipation, and about life in the Jim Crow South, that doesn’t involve just virulent racism and violence. But I hope what I’ve done with this story, is to really tip the balance towards showing how that even in the midst of all of that these people who were born into slavery, and who sort of walked across this historical boundary between slavery and into freedom, the really, you know, just the strength of their character and their determination to, you know, find the places and the people where they belonged. That was really the story I wanted to tell.

Kate Carpenter 32:39
Have you ever gotten any particularly influential pieces of writing advice?

Carole Emberton 32:43
Like I said, when Lisa asked me that question about what is the emotional core of your story, that has really stuck with me. And I think I will always think about that, no matter what I’m working on, that was really important. Another thing was when I was in graduate school, and a really close friend, when I began working on my dissertation, gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is sort of a cult classic among writers and dissertators. And for good reason, you know, it’s a fantastic, you know, inspirational story, you know, look at the writing process. I mean, Anne Lamott’s really talking about, she’s a fiction writer, but it holds true for nonfiction writers and dissertators as well. And it’s, you know, it’s laugh out loud funny in many places. And it’s also the, it’s the book that taught me that writing is hard work, there’s nothing magical about it, you know, you put your butt in the chair and you and you work, it’s, you know, it’s not, there’s no kind of secret formula to it. And that people who tell you that writing is easy, they’re either liars or they’re not very good at it. So I always really appreciated that about Anne Lamott. And I go back to that book, often, you know, when I need a little inspiration, or just want to sort of revisit some of, you know, just her profound wisdom. So those were, those have been really important for me, and I think just sort of learning on my own again, that, you know, you do what works for you. I mean, it’s, you can always see what works for other people. And it’s always interesting to hear what other people’s processes are, and their methods. But just because it works for one person, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you and you have to find what works for you. So if you know if you need to sit in the in the laundry room, you know, to write? That’s fine. If you work in coffee shops, that’s fine. If you can’t, that’s also fine. To each her own.

Kate Carpenter 34:48
What other writers do you look to for inspiration? Are there any you’ve read recently or in the past?

Carole Emberton 34:54
Yeah, I mean, recently, you know, I read Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried, which, you know, won the National Book Award and it’s just, you know, again, it’s just sort of an, you know, an amazing, you know, book with a really strong emotional core that, you know, takes this fractured very, you know, sort of scant archive and really rebuilds these lives from it. And I was just sort of, I’ve always been in awe of her. And that’s just such a wonderful book. When I teach a graduate seminar we have on sort of, just, it’s sort of a research seminar. So people are working on whatever they’re working on and just sort of focused on the writing. I always have students bring in sort of their favorite pieces of writing, historical writing, or nonfiction writing each week, so we can, you know, just a little bit so we can all read together and sort of analyze, why is this your favorite, what, you know, what grabs you about it? And one of the things you know, I start the semester, and one of the pieces I always bring in is the beginning, sort of the introduction to Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which she’s talking about, you know, the funeral procession there. And it’s sort of the last time, it’s just a few weeks before the beginning of World War One. And it’s the last time where all the families of, you know, European monarchy, are all together. And she’s just setting this really rich scene of this processional and who all is there and what they’re wearing. And you know, when you really get the sense that this is sort of a final moment, right, it’s never going to be this way again, and, you know, there’s dark clouds looming, but it’s just sort of, you know, it’s, for me, it was always such a magnificent, you know, I felt like I was there, the way she’s able to describe it. And that’s actually what I was trying to accomplish with that opening to, with Priscilla Joyner in To Walk About In Freedom. I mean, I don’t write about royal people, I don’t care about, you know, that, I care about the people on the other end of the human spectrum. And, you know, this is the most ordinary, most sort of unimpressive, you know, scene that you could possibly imagine if you want to counter those, those two things or put them into, you know, contrast. But I wanted to accomplish the same kind of thing. I wanted someone to feel like that they were there that they were seeing this, and that it was building up a sense of expectation about what is to come that I think a good sort of opening or introduction can accomplish.

Kate Carpenter 37:28
Is it too soon to ask you what you’re working on next?

Carole Emberton 37:31
No, you know, I’ve been mulling it over. It’s still sort of in the mulling stages. And the reason I think I’m mulling this over for a long time is because it’s it’s kind of personal. I’m wanting to write about an event that happened in my hometown of Russellville, Kentucky, which was where I was born and raised. It’s a small town near the Tennessee, kind of in central Kentucky near the Tennessee border. And in 1908, there was a mass lynching in my hometown that took the lives of four African American men. There have been, there has been an ongoing attempt by the local African American community in my town for the past, I don’t know, probably decade or so to sort of raise the, to put, you know, to put a historical marker up to this event and more recently to get the EJI, the Equal Justice Initiative memorial to come to town. So there is, you know, there have been attempts to sort of have a kind of reckoning in my hometown about this mass murder that took place so long ago, and sort of the the repercussions, sort of the you know, the way it has shaped that town in the 100 plus years since that happened. So the next book I’m going to work on is going to be about that. It’s going to be about the lynching, it’s going to be about the way that that event, the amnesia that the white citizens of the town have had about that. Because I was a product of that. I didn’t know about until I read about it in college. Right? Grew up there until I was 18 years old, went off to college. And it was, I didn’t know about it. But African American people who live in that community, it’s a very different story, right? I want to tell the story of the event, the aftermath of the event, my own sort of, you know, sort of thinking about how could I have grown up in this town, which is a very small town, and never had, never known about it? Like, how is that possible? How is that possible? So it’s going to be kind of a part memoir, part history, part I don’t know what. Right? So this is why I’ve been mulling it over for a while because I think it’s going to be it’s going to be hard to to write about and to sort of put together, but I think it’s, I think it has to be done. I think I’ve been thinking about it really for a long, long time and just kind of getting to the point, sort of in my own life and in my own intellectual development where I think I can handle it.

Kate Carpenter 40:16
Well that sounds powerful. I hope to hope to get to read it one day. Dr. Emberton, this has been wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about your writing process. And I just want to thank you for being willing to come on the show.

Carole Emberton 40:29
Oh, thank you for having me.

Kate Carpenter 40:31
Thanks again to Dr. Carole Emberton for joining me for this episode of Drafting the Past. And thanks to you for listening. You can find links to the books we talked about at And if you’re enjoying the show, share it with a friend or leave a review on your favorite podcast app. Until next time, happy writing.

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