is honored to have as our guest, Dr. My Haley. Dr. Haley is the
widow of Alex Haley and collaborator of the award-winning epic Roots.
While working on her doctorate in Communications and African American Studies at The Ohio State University, Dr. Haley was inspired by a speech delivered on campus by author Alex Haley. After achieving her goal of earning a PhD, she set out on her next goal: to work with the renowned author.
According to Dr. Haley's
bio as posted on her web site, Alex Haley was impressed with My's
drive and gave her a major assignment—to assist him in writing the
remaining two-thirds of a book that was long overdue to his
publisher. Within a matter of months together they completed the work
and that book, Roots: The Saga of An American Family, catapulted Alex
Haley to international fame.
My and Alex married in 1977, and over the years collaborated on many projects, including the miniseries Roots: The Next Generation. After Alex’s death, My immersed herself in writing pieces based upon her growing up with her grandmother, other novels, and many screenplays for feature film and TV.
Dr. Haley recently authored a new American epic from the Civil War, The Treason of Mary Louvestre.
Good day Dr. Haley and thanks for participating in our interview
When did you first consider yourself a writer and how has your environment and upbringing influenced your writing?
I didn’t regard myself as a writer I don’t think until well after Roots was finished and I was working on other projects for Alex Haley. As time went by and I kept getting compliments from one or another about my work, I took a moment to smile and think to myself, “Hey, I’m really doing it. I’m becoming a writer.”
Sometimes when we think about where we came from we sprinkle those memories with fairy dust. I’m sure I’m not exempt. Yet growing up in our little Greenway Street community in South Charleston West Virginia with my beloved grandmother, Miss Julia, was divine to me. It gave me a feeling of tight community, lasting friendships, seeing to each other, and having time to “sit a spell” together with a glass of iced lemonade as the way it was supposed to be. It also gave me an “ear” for southern dialect that I enjoy. I don’t have to close my eyes to hear my grandmother and many of the folk there laughing and talking and sharing a warm understanding between them.
Does this upbringing influence my writing? You bet. You write from who you are and I am a part of these people and this place, proudly so.
How did you collaborate with Alex Haley in the writing of Roots: The Saga of An American Family?
When I started working with Alex, he was in a vise. He had missed so many deadlines with the publisher and TV producer that the urgency to produce copy was palpable. And Alex had only finished the first third of the book. He had gotten Kunta Kinte through the Middle Passage.
The research for Roots had already been done by Alex and his amazing master researcher, George Sims. Alex and his personal editor, Murray Fisher, had already broadly put together sections of materials that might evolve into chapters. So facing the last 2/3rds of the book to come, Alex and I role-played the characters section by section. I would review what he had written for a chapter and write side comments and suggestions for improvement. This work seemed endless because Alex was not shy about working materials over 10 or 15 times since his belief was that writing is really re-writing. Although I offered suggestions, whether Alex chose to use them was something else again. There was never a question whose book this was and who was the writer here.
I might see a section I thought Alex might want to highlight and I’d churn out some grunt-work as example to expand upon it. If Alex liked it, he might use it in his own way. This reminds me of the fun we had expanding the section where Chicken George was getting ready to go to his wedding with Matilda. I tried to stay vigilant about consistency of character – does the dialect sound appropriate for this character or that one? If there was ancillary research to be done, I did that too. For example, Alex got it in his head that he wanted Tom, the blacksmith, to make an iron rose for his beloved, Irene. So he tasked me to research tools of blacksmithing and methods that might be used to help Tom make something as delicate as a rose.
I also kept the pace. I saw what Alex was up against, what needed to get done, and by when. So I kept a tight schedule and pushed us to complete that material day by day. Often our routine was around the clock. I worked from 4 AM to around three in the afternoon. Alex preferred the evening shift.
So when you talk collaboration of this sort and under this time pressure demand, you’re talking about a daily kaleidoscope of endeavors that coalesce into the majesty of fluid teamwork that I was too grateful to be part of.
Are you a plot or character writer and what helps you focus when you write? As a follow up, do you work from an outline?
I would say I am character-driven. The story is inside me. But by and large, my characters tell me what they want to say and do. I’ve never had to concern about focusing. When I work, I am totally engaged. I had to laugh when you asked me about working from an outline. The answer is NEVER.
Can you share a little of The Treason of Mary Louvestre with us and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book? As a follow up, what purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story? Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
The Treason of Mary Louvestre is an entertaining, fast-paced, deliciously-seductive, historical novel. It was inspired by the true facts of the life of a little-known black woman seamstress turned spy during the Civil War. At great peril to herself, she copied the plans of the new southern ironclad called the CSS Virginia. Its mission was to barrel down the waters of Hampton Roads and help the South capture the Northern capitol at Washington. During one of Virginia’s worst winters, Mary walked the plans from Norfolk, her home, to the office of the Secretary of the Navy in Washington in time to assist the Union’s work on its own ironclad. These two ships would not only have their dogfight, but because of Mary’s courageous efforts, they would fight to a standoff. Thus the choke-hold blockade the North had on the South and its needed supplies continued, strong and steady.
What matters to me about telling this story is that Mary Louvestre was another of the many unsung heroes of our history, an ordinary person doing an extraordinary thing.
I chose to tell this tale of Mary Louvestre as a talented and privileged slave. She lived in the mansion house and was endorsed by her owners in her business as a rising popular fashion designer. In so doing, this story presents a different perspective about black life during slavery.
It was important to me to explore some of the many and varied relationships that powered and clashed in Southern culture of the times. There’s Tesh-Lucianne, the owner of Mary. Early on, those two enjoy a complex relationship that is satisfying and a hoot to both of them. They are more friends than owner/slave—or so it would seem. What happens later is disaster for them both. Then there’s Gie who slept with a slave but is rich enough that nobody better bring up the matter in her company. Handsome and charming Anders is the free black machinist who loves Mary with all his heart and wants to desert everything to marry her. There is Deputy Sheriff Gates, the despicable protagonist who you come to understand but hate his guts nonetheless. And nobody will forget Coolie Parts. She is the feistiest, most remarkable, outrageous woman to ever own a booming waterfront bar/inn business in Norfolk. She is steadfast her own person – and, lo that you don’t play her cheap—she’ll take on all comers. That her heart lies at the feet of Mary Louvestre is just the way it is.
This is not a history text. It is a story set in a historical time and place. It brings out congenial relationships as well as those that are disagreeable. There are progressive whites, slave-owning blacks, free black entrepreneurs, angry white lawmen, white barristers who want to help improve the plight of blacks—relationships that are as braided and as complex as they are today. Nothing is strictly “black” and “white”!
Many who have read the book have shared with me that they were transported to this historical period and marveled at their own unexpected engagement with the characters.
Through this tale, we get to know Mary Louvestre and personally experience an aspect of ourselves and our past that will enrich and enhance us. There is humor, drama, intrigue, sex, bravery, patriotism, and great danger. This book does not frolic the idea that we’re a fascinating people. It makes it plain.
My late-husband, Alex, used to tell me that you don’t write about a thing but that you are also changed by it. What did I learn from writing my book --that I can now personally testify to that.
In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
In historical writing, I believe it is important to stay true to the character of the times. That period is your space; your story in that space is your scaffolding. The vital materials possible to bring to texturizing that structure is the inviting part of good storytelling. It is not a predicament of what is too much. Your Spirit chaperones your efforts and your art. You just know it’s a raging cataract of hilarious good feeling when you know you got it right for yourself and your reader.
What was one of the most
surprising things you learned in creating your books?
Alex used to tell me, “Write to the senses.” I continue to be surprised how much his statement is entitled to respect.
What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Like clutching on to the last little piece of money you have, my mother would say, “Don’t fret about sinking options, spend it! If it’s a quarter, spend it. If it’s a dime, spend it. It’s a statement of faith.” Do the best you can do, then put your product out there to promote itself and you. Whatever you have created is your heart’s desire. At some point, you have to stand on who you are. Alex used to tell me that “Faith is hanging in there when you just don’t know.” Truly, I’m not reciting what I don’t believe is a blessing.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
What you owe to your readers is your best self – to lay out your talent and abilities in dead earnest in a way you know you’ve bored down on your task best you can. Whatever your mistakes today, don’t raise a sand with yourself. Surrender to the process. Grow and be tickled pink that you can get up tomorrow and try again. That’s your bonafide--you doing your art, your craft full out. That’s what you clap hands about and be immensely grateful and glad.
Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
They can visit my WEBSITE, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I’d be happy to hear from your readers on any of these sites.
My book is also available as an e-book and is in stores and online. Book reviews can be found at Amazon.com, GoodReads.com, as well as on my website.
As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
The question I would have liked you to ask me is, “What are you doing now?” The projects I’m involved in now are very exciting. I am working on the next book in the Mary Louvestre series. There will be six in all. I have just finished writing a one-man show based on Alex Haley’s life, and I’m working to launch a TV series that I have just completed.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking about my life as a writer, my book, and my many interests to audiences across the country—colleges, universities, museums, book clubs, radio and TV shows and more. I continue to stack my calendar for a host of events in the future. This allows me to share more of my passions like farm to table food, spiritual inspiration, healthy living and other elements that make my life rich and full.
I also get to talk about another interest I shared with Alex and that is genealogy, exploring how, ultimately, we’re all connected. We are this marvelous tapestry, ever weaving, I like to call – the Fabric of America.
As my grandmother, Miss Julia, would jokingly tease, “No flies landin’ on me.”
Thank you very much for this interview.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors