A Chat With Eddi Fiegel

Eddi Fiegel byline photo

The same year the United States entered World War II, a first-born baby girl named Ellen Naomi Cohen entered the lives of a Jewish family in Baltimore. Thirty-two years later, following a headlining performance at the London Palladium, the singer who had come to be known as Mama Cass was found dead at Harry Nilsson’s flat in Mayfair. As much an enigma in death as she was in life, her roller coaster journey of sex, drugs, politics and folk music became open for review in Dream a Little Dream of Me by British author and BBC correspondent Eddi Fiegel.

I met Eddi when her book first came out in 2005. Happily, we have reconnected in 2017 to chat about her latest project which focuses on the generation of young females who went crazy about one of Britain’s most popular exports, The Beatles.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: You belong to a generation that came into its own long after The Mamas and Papas had already disbanded. When did you first discover their music and allow it to captivate you?

A:  I loved The Beatles from an early age even though I was too young to have enjoyed them while they were still together and I soon realised that I loved the sound of other records from the ‘60s too. I remember vividly hearing The Mamas and Papas’ ‘Creeque Alley’ for the first time on the radio and immediately wanting to find out who it was by and where I could get a copy. I think it was the infectiousness of the melody and the gorgeous harmonies that just sounded so upbeat and captivating, particularly in grey London.

Q: Did you come from a musical background/childhood?

A: My mother grew up with classical music and when I was a child, she always had classical music on the radio or playing on a record. I also grew up playing piano and always loved music. Pop music, however, was my own domain, in contrast to classical which belonged very much to my parents’ world.

Q: Was music ever something you wanted to pursue as a professional career?

A:  I loved the idea of becoming a professional pianist as a child but was discouraged by my mother and a piano teacher who apparently told her I was unlikely to become a female Vladimir Ashkenazi. If I had another life, I’ve always thought it would be incredible to play a piano concerto with an orchestra.

Q: Tell us about your foray into the world of BBC reporting and how it shaped your decision to do feature interviews and biographies.

A: I worked as a BBC radio reporter for several years. I started off reporting from Spain where I was living in Barcelona at the time, doing reports on young people and music in the city. Then when I moved back to London, I began doing feature interviews with musicians and reporting from music events. I met some wonderful artists during that time. Amongst my favourites were Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Philip Glass, world music artist Anjelique Kidjo and Nitin Sawhney.

I had always wanted to write however and magazines like Mojo had begun asking me to write up some of my interviews so it was an easy progression. I also found that many of the skills I had learnt whilst training as a BBC reporter related equally to writing and were very much transferrable skills.

Q: What particularly made you want to write about the life and times of Cass Elliot?

A: I had always loved her version of ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’. In fact I had a seven inch of it as a child and used to love singing along, as although I don’t have a voice to speak of at all, my voice could more or less match her pitch so I could sing along easily.

Then in the early 1990s I discovered Cass Elliot’s solo albums.  I particularly loved tracks like It’s Getting Better, One Way Ticket and Make Your Own Kind of Music so I started trying to find out more about her. I was amazed and intrigued by what I discovered. I found out that she was born Ellen Naomi Cohen but that she had died young in London, under ambiguous circumstances. I also learnt that during her years with The Mamas and Papas, she had been a leading light of the LA social scene, hosting unofficial salons attended by everyone from The Beatles to Hollywood A-listers like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.

She was responsible for introducing David Crosby to Graham Nash and had been friends with Joni Mitchell. All this made me want to know more so I looked for a book on her life and saw that no biography had been written. I was looking for a subject for my next book around this time and I knew then that I had found it.

Q: Was this your first music biography?

A: No. I had written the biography of British film composer John Barry before. John is most famous for writing the scores to the original James Bond films as well as the Oscar winning Born Free, but he had also led a fascinating life. I have also co-written biographies of Madonna and Cher.

Q: What do you feel most distinguished her in a music industry which, at the time, was dominated by men?

A: Cass had an astounding voice and the determination to be accepted on her own terms. When she started out in music, she was constantly rejected by musicians, managers and agents who took one look at her and refused to believe that a woman of her size could become a star. As soon as they heard her sing, however, they were nearly always bowled over by her voice and charisma.

Q: What was the most astonishing takeaway you found when you were doing your research?

A: There were various points which I found fascinating in different ways. I had known that amphetamines had been routinely prescribed as a dieting aid during the 1960s but it was still alarming to hear about Cass having had them prescribed by her doctor when she was still an adolescent.  I was also fascinated to hear one of my female interviewees talk about her experience of the ‘free love’ ethos in the late 60s. She told me that she had felt there was as much pressure during that era to ‘be free’ with your love as there had been not to be free in the more buttoned up era which immediately preceded it. This seems obvious in hindsight but the way that era is presented rarely focuses on this particular female viewpoint.

Q: How long did the book take you to write?

A: Four years.

Q: Had she lived, do you think Cass Elliot would have stayed viable in the music business or done something else?

A: The 70s and early 80s were a difficult time for many performers who had become famous during the 60s, particularly those who, like Cass, didn’t write their own material. But from the mid 80s onwards, a new generation started discovering the music of the 60s and there was a renewed interest in them and their work.

I think Cass would have benefited from that and been championed by young artists and consequently the music industry itself. Musicians including Boy George, kd Lang and Antony Kiedis from The Red Hot Chilli Peppers have all talked about how much they admire her voice.

I also think she would have become successful as a TV star and possibly explored the world of politics further. She campaigned for George McGovern when he stood as presidential candidate against Nixon in the 1972 election and she talked about how she liked the idea of exploring that that area further.

Q: You have something interesting trivia to share about Cass’ high school class and the musical Grease. What is it and how does it speak to the younger generation today about trying to straddle the line between popularity and individuality?

A: Cass attended Forest Park High School in Baltimore which has often been talked about as providing part of the inspiration for the musical Grease. The musical was originally produced by two friends and ex-classmates of Cass’s– Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox, and the culture it portrays was very much the way things were for her. Classmates of hers remember the pressure amongst pupils to fit in and be liked but also to be quick-witted and smart.

The musical clearly portrays that and the idea of being yourself and having the strength to resist peer pressure is obviously still relevant today, particularly amongst high school students.

Q: You interviewed many fascinating and high profile interviewees from David Crosby and Graham Nash to the late senator and U.S presidential candidate George McGovern. Was it difficult to get interviews with some of these people and how did they respond to your request?

A: Was it difficult to get to some of the people? Yes. Getting to some of my interviews was indeed a very long drawn out process in many cases, but well worth it in the end!

David Crosby only agreed to talk to me after several people he knew and trusted had met me and presumably decided that I was ‘kosher’ and not a psychopath. Nevertheless, when Crosby finally agreed, he suggested we meet in a branch of the Coffee Bean near his home. I was surprised that we were going to conduct what I hoped would be a lengthy and in-depth interview in a café but after about 15 minutes, he suggested I follow his car to his home. I realised at this point that the café meeting had been my audition and that I had evidently passed.

The late Senator George McGovern meanwhile was someone I had initially written to requesting an interview but over a year later, I had had no reply. I had entirely given up on hearing from him, when, one night in the summer of 2003 my phone rang at around 1am. I happened to still be awake and answered the phone to find a very polite gentleman telling me down a very crackly phone line that this was George McGovern.

I can only assume he had not realised the time difference between the UK and US but he very graciously agreed to wait whilst I rushed to find my notes before we began our conversation. His memory of events some thirty years earlier was incredible and he was very complimentary in his recollections of Cass’s enthusiasm and support for his campaign and her ability to talk to supporters knowledgably.

Q: In an earlier interview I did with you, you observed that “Cass could have been Oprah before Oprah.” What did you mean by that?

A: Cass Elliot had a natural and winning way with people as well as a very quick wit, so she was perfect as a TV guest and I believe she would definitely have been offered work as a TV show host. There was in fact talk of this kind of thing with her manager and various people in TV before she died. Consequently I think had she lived, she would easily have hosted a show like Oprah’s and become equally successful doing that.

Q: What do you look for when deciding on the subjects for your books?

A: I have always tried to write books that I myself would like to read. So it has to be a person or a subject which intrigues me, that makes me want to know more.

Q: What do you think makes a great biography?

A: Good research, good writing, a passion for the subject from the author, and portraying the subject’s life in the context of the times they lived in.

Q: Your latest project is all about The Beatles. Tell us about it.

A: I’m working on a new book called She Loves You – The Girls Who Screamed for The Beatles.

We’ve all seen the newsreels and the photos of screaming girls waiting for The Beatles at Kennedy airport or at concerts both across the US and UK and we all know the story of The Beatles. What we don’t know is the story of those girls.

I want to find out who they were and how they came to be there. Did they tell their parents they were having a sleepover at a friend’s? Did they raid their pocket money savings to buy tickets? Did they wait for hours in the cold to see the group and what was it like when they did? What became of them in their lives subsequently? Did they go to college and get married?  Did they discover the women’s movement and live in a hippy commune? Where are they now and do they still love The Beatles? Do they have children or grandchildren who like The Beatles?

Each chapter of the book will tell the individual story of a different woman, using their experience of seeing or waiting for The Beatles as the starting point. I believe this generation of women have lived through particularly fascinating times and will have had wonderful and varied life experiences.  The book will, therefore, explore not only the story of Beatlemania but the story of a generation.

This book will also be a different experience for me in terms of the publisher. My previous books have been published by traditional publishers such as Macmillan but I am writing She Loves You for the award-winning UK publisher Unbound. Since they started six years ago they have had books nominated for major literary awards such as the Man Booker prize and hit books such as The Immigrant but the way they work is different in that they are a crowdfunding publisher.

When a lot of people hear this, they assume it’s virtually the same as self-publishing and this must be the last resort for an author who can’t get published anywhere else. This is not the case at all with Unbound. They have distribution of their books through Penguin/Random House ie major publishers who ensure that Unbound’s books are available in all bookshops as well as on Amazon etc and they have a commissioning, editing and marketing process just like traditional publishers.

‘So why would an author choose them?’ you’re probably wondering. Well, the reason is because Unbound allow authors much more control and input into aspects of the publishing process such as book jacket, editing, etc than traditional publishers. Crucially, Unbound also split profits with their authors, giving them 50% of the profits. With traditional publishers authors receive an advance; i.e., money upfront for writing the book (which we don’t get with Unbound) but then only about 2 or 3% of the proceeds from the cover price of the book.

The way the crowdfunding works is that everyone who supports the book gets their name printed in every edition of the book. Pledges start from $12 / £10 and there are different pledge levels from there on with different ‘rewards’ including signed copies of She Loves You and signed copies of my previous books. You can obviously pledge in your own name but some people also like to do this as a gift for a friend or relative.

If anyone reading this likes the sound of She Loves You, it would be wonderful if you could make a pledge, however small! All the details are here: www.unbound.com/books/she-loves-you

There’s a short video of me at the top of the page talking about the book and the pledge levels are detailed below.

Q: What is it about the decade of the1960s that so appeals to you?

A: Several different things. The 60s was an incredibly creative decade. There was an extraordinary explosion of talent with groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and The Mamas and The Papas all emerging within a few years.

You also had great fashion and social revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain’s ‘Swinging London’ the young generation were taking over and for the first time young people of all backgrounds and social classes were becoming stars in the worlds of theatre, film, fashion and literature.

In America, the Civil Rights Movement, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the hippie movement and the Vietnam War were all likewise momentous stages in America’s history.

I find these events fascinating in their own right and as they informed the lives of both Cass Elliot and John Barry, they have also made powerful and compelling backgrounds to their life stories. They will also have figured in the lives of the women whose stories I will be telling in She Loves You.

Q: In the 1960s, there was not as much overexposure of celebrities as there is today. What do you think she would say about the current trend of baring souls and bodies in order to dominate the Internet and appease fans?

A: Cass was full of contradictions, so I think on the one hand, she would have welcomed more openness and honesty about celebrity’s lives. She herself famously posed lying naked (stomach down) in a bed of daisies for a photograph advertising one of her albums. So in that respect she was a non-conformist who loved sticking two fingers up at the establishment and having a bit of a risqué thrill.

I also think that had she lived she may, like many people in the 70s, have explored therapy and may well have come to do some further soul-baring of her own when talking to the media.

On the other hand, that all said, she was a classy, dignified lady who had good taste and so I think she would have wanted to draw the line at a certain point and retain a certain amount of privacy for herself and her family.

Q: If there is one question you could have asked Cass Elliot personally, what would it be?

A: There are lots of things I could have asked her but in particular I would love to find out more from her about the circumstances of her death. One of the myths I dismantle in the book is that she died choking after eating a sandwich. There is no truth in this whatsoever – it was simply a case of people jumping to conclusions in the immediate aftermath of her death. The details are much more complex and I explore those but it would be great to know some of the missing details.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A: For She Loves You, at www.unbound.com/books/she-loves-you on my own website: www.eddifiegel.com

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: No. Just to say: thank you very much for inviting me to talk about my work. I love the site and have enjoyed reading the interviews with other authors.

 

 

 

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You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?

You CAme Here To Die

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Visit Facebook any day of the week and you’ll see no shortage of political divisiveness, rants about corrupt government, and frustrations that American life as we know it continues to go from bad to worse. Is it any wonder that when people stay away from the ballot box on Election Day, it’s usually because there are either no candidates they feel they can trust or they’re convinced that their votes won’t make even an angstrom of difference?

During the turbulent 1960s, a young white California coed seized an opportunity to step up for something she believed in and embarked on a bold mission to register black voters in the Deep South, a decision that put her face-to-face with staggering poverty, rampant illiteracy, and the Ku Klux Klan. In her moving memoir about the Civil Rights Movement – You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You? – author Sherie Labedis paints a compelling picture of an era that is only a scant 50 years in the rearview mirror but which still resonates today.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: A lot of the best writers often declare that they were voracious readers growing up. Was this the case with you?

A: I had two passions growing up. One was riding my horse and the other was reading. My students often don’t like to read, but it’s the best way to flights of fantasy and trips to foreign lands. In high school I took a class called Advanced Reading. We had to read books from a list colleges would expect us to know and we kept a journal of our responses. My favorite author was/is John Steinbeck. My father used to play in Zane Grey’s backyard and he wrote about the West, so he was a usual companion. I also enjoyed the breadth and detail in books by Tolstoy.

Q: What/who are you reading now?

A: My husband and I are reading The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber aloud to one another. I have just finished Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, book two in his Century Trilogy. South Carolina: A History by Walter Edgar helps me understand the “whys” of my book. I am just beginning Carol Ruth Silver’s Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison.

Q: Was the craft of writing something that came easily to you when you were a student at Ponderosa (coincidentally, our shared alma mater)?

A: I was a very successful English student. I loved the little creative writing I did. However, I couldn’t get the knack of writing essays and reports until I started teaching.

Q: What did you imagine yourself doing as a career after graduation and who or what was the strongest influence in shaping that dream?

A: I didn’t know “what I wanted to be.” Cowboy was high on my list and I had great math skills. I needed more information on what the possibilities were. You and I went to a small high school with limited offerings. I transferred to the University of California Berkeley. Their schedule of classes filled a book. I didn’t even know what many of the words meant. I’d found the place to discover what the possibilities were.

Q: Where did your passion for civil rights begin and what led you to volunteer?

A: I blame an English teacher and my book is dedicated to him. Television brought all the pain and suffering of the Civil Rights Movement into our living room. My English and social studies teachers considered it their responsibility to get us to pay attention. Bruce Harvey, the Advanced Reading English teacher asked the class what we were willing to die for. It was a rhetorical question for most of the students. Not for me. I wanted to know. When I arrived at UC Berkeley, I was quite aware that the answer to that question was part of the possibilities I would consider.

Two events moved me. One was in 1964 and, in the world of civil rights, it was called Freedom Summer. Black civil rights organizations recruited white college students to go to the Deep South to register black voters. Mississippi and Alabama had made it absolutely obvious that they would not allow integration and that they didn’t mind terrorizing and killing blacks to keep it from happening. Civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) thought that if white college students were beaten and killed on television, racists might back down. This was a miscalculation. Three voter registration workers, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, disappeared in Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman were white and Chaney was black. It was forty-five days before their bodies were found, killed by the Ku Klux Klan. How could that happen in my country?

The second event was the Selma March in March of 1965. Six hundred blacks, men, women, children and old folks determined to march from Selma, Alabama, fifty-four miles to the statehouse steps in Montgomery to get down on their knees to pray for the right to vote. They never got out of Selma. They were stopped by a wall of police on horseback, carrying clubs, guns, and tear-gas. The beatings were so severe and so widespread the day is known as Bloody Sunday. Something in me snapped. I was now eighteen and when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at colleges asking for volunteers for a second Freedom Summer, I signed up with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Q: You were only eighteen, white middle-class and educated when you arrived in Pineville, South Carolina. You write that you were simultaneously horrified and overwhelmed. Why?

A: My parents were struggling to be middle class. Even so, I had a horse. We could come and go as we pleased. We had food, a warm home and, even though my mom made most of my clothes, we had all the clothes we needed. We had medical care. My dad had a car and, although it was an old clunker, my mom had one, too. When I was accepted to Berkeley my mom had to get a job at the post office to pay my way. We didn’t get what we wanted when we wanted it – sometimes we never got “it.”

The black world of South Carolina was the opposite of what I had known. In Charleston I learned that black people didn’t have health care when I met a woman dying with a rotting leg that could be smelled for blocks. Flies flew around a sore full of pus and her leg ballooned below it. I was sure “someone” in the black community would do something. I was told to report the problem to the church and they would do the best they could.

People were starving, barefoot, overworked and illiterate. They had mules and wagons, not cars. Most had no electricity or telephone in their tumbledown cabins, some of which had existed during slavery. Plumbing was outside including the pump for water. They were controlled by the white power structure and the Ku Klux Klan. We were there to help them register and vote because until they did, nothing would change.

Q: Knowing that three volunteers had been murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964, how did your family react to your wanting to leave a sheltered upbringing in Northern California and immerse yourself in the thick of poverty, racism, illiteracy and Ku Klux Klan violence?

A: Remember the adage, “You reap what you sow.” I’m afraid that is where they found themselves. They taught us to do what we thought was right. If we believed it, we had to commit to it. They had no idea where that philosophy would lead. They didn’t preach at my brother and me, they modeled the behavior for us. So, when I showed up and said I was going south, they were in a hard place. They were afraid. They were angry. They gulped and backed me up.

Q: Speaking of the KKK, what sort of tactics did they employ to try to encourage you and your fellow volunteers to leave?

A: The most frightening situations involved fire at the elementary school and the church where we had our mass meetings. They did drive-bys. They shot into our parking lot. One night several pickups pulled up and turned their lights on high and just sat there while we cringed inside the office. I was driven off the road and there were miscellaneous beatings and arrests.

Q: Looking back, what was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome as the veritable stranger in a strange land?

A: I was one of three white volunteers from the Bay Area. Our job was to get blacks to register to vote regardless of the consequences and one of those consequences might be death. Other possible consequences included losing one’s job, being taken off the food subsidy list and there was always the Klan. So here I was at eighteen going door by door trying to get these folks to believe me and trust that what I was telling them was the truth. “Trust and believe.” Now why would black Americans – they were called “colored” then – not trust white people? Two hundred and fifty years of history was part of it. A second reason was that most of them had never been “touching” close to white people before. Theirs was a world where they had to step off the sidewalk or cross the street if a white person walked toward them. Third, every rule of southern culture was supported by violence and retribution.

We were aliens. We came from 3000 miles away. We had different ideas, manners and language. Language was a major problem. The people of Pineville, where I spent most of the summer, had a Geechee or Gullah accent. The Gullah People, who came from the west coast of Africa, live on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Theirs is the most complete and oldest “African” language in the United States. I expected to hear a southern accent, not an African dialect and it was very difficult to understand. We, on the other hand, spoke collegeese – long sentences made up of big words about things that were largely unimportant to them. Stated simply, we wanted them to risk their lives on something that probably couldn’t happen and they didn’t trust us, didn’t like us, were afraid of us and couldn’t talk to us.

Q: What is something about the Civil Rights Movement that most people don’t know?

A: One thing is that it was made up of “common” people. Local black teenagers – high school students – did most of the work for our project. We didn’t have a Martin Luther King, Jr. Newspaper men weren’t hanging around to watch what happened. No photographers caught the flames when our church was burned to the ground. We were just folks who thought change was necessary and we were willing to work until that change happened.

Most of the people I knew were not nonviolent. I was in a farming community. Men carried rifles because they were hunters and because they wanted to protect their families. If we took kids to a demonstration, we frisked them first to be sure they “seemed” nonviolent.

Recently I met a black woman who was part of The Movement in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early sixties. She was interested in my book, because she didn’t know there were white people involved in The Movement. Freedom Summer recruitment was about 1000 whites. Our Second Freedom Summer recruitment was about 400. Whites were part of the Freedom Rides, but most of the demonstrations were carried out by blacks. However, whites did take part.

Q: Tell us about some of Pineville’s bright spots that reinforced your commitment to the causes you believed in.

A: Let me refer you to your “Share your favorite scene from the book” later in thisinterview.Mrs. Crawford made a conscious decision to trust me with her life. Each time someone got on the bus to go to the courthouse they trusted us. That’s incredibly heady for an eighteen-year-old considering what the dangers were. This is my best example of “connecting” with local folks. It just took months to get to this point.

Q: If you were newly graduated today, where would you go to make a difference?

A: Register and vote. Pay attention to the issues. If you want to “go” somewhere, there are still a Peace Corps and a Teacher Corps. Many churches have projects helping the poor and disadvantaged here and abroad

Q: What inspired you to write You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?

A: I have a South Carolina family I will describe in another question. We’ve been family since 1965. In 2000 I took my husband Joe down to meet them. He made a video of the family reunion our visit engendered. Later that year I was going to have lunch with a dear friend. I wanted to give her a special gift, so I took the video and shared it with her. “You have to write a book about this,” she said. She edited every word. The book went its own way as books will and it is not about the Sarah Butler family, but it definitely started with them.

Q: What’s the story behind the title you gave your book?

A: Let me share an excerpt from my book.

Monday, June 14, 1965

“You came here to die, didn’t you.” It isn’t a question. It’s a challenge from a scrawny Negroteenager in faded bib overalls. His bare chest glistens in the hot Georgia sunshine. He reeks of body odor and my stomach lurches as I look up at his black eyes, then down to his unshod feet in the grass.

I’m standing on the sidewalk at Morris Brown, a Negro college in Atlanta. The Civil Rights Movement is front-page news across the United States. As an eighteen-year-old, white, female voter-registration volunteer from California, I’d expected to be applauded upon arrival for a week of voter-registration training. Instead of a welcoming committee and pep rally, only this young man’s almost angry dare welcomes me.

“I’m talkin’ to you,” he snaps. I force myself to meet his eyes. “If you didn’t come here to die, it’s time you git back into that car and head back to New York, Chicago or wherever you come from.”

Q: Share your favorite scene from the book.

A: Canvassing I met a lady named Rebecca Crawford. She lived alone in a little cabin. She told me she had registered, but she hadn’t. I tried to convince her to go to the courthouse with us – to help other folks register. She said she would, but I was sure she wouldn’t. When the bus pulled out of the parking lot going to the courthouse, she was walking up the road to catch it. Once on the bus she told me she had never registered and that she could neither read nor write. I told her all she had to do was write her name. She tried, but the bus ride was too short. I promised to “Come and learn me how to write so I cain regster next time.” My favorite scene is about that day.

The road is just as long and as hot as before. Far ahead, I can see someone moving toward me. I recognize the straw hat first, then a basket on her arm and finally that beaming, delighted face.

“It’s you!” She sets her basket down in the middle of the road and raises her arms to heaven as if in thanks. I shake her hand and smile back into her eyes.

Before I can say anything, she says, “Chile, Ah bin wonderin’ where you was. Sunday Ah prayed that you come an’ learn me how to write.”

I explain I have been busy trying to get other folks to register.

“When Ah gots up this mornin’ Ah was feeling something extra good was gon’ happen today. Ah clean my house real good. Ah felt so gran’ I come on down the road. Ah saw you an’ Ah knew what that good was. Look what Ah can do.”

She bends down and picks up a stick. With a steady head she writes Rebecca slowly and deliberately in the sand.

Note: I remembered this story “purely.” I’d written it down in my journal in shorthand, but I’d never forgotten Mrs. Crawford. (I actually wrote to her until she died and I still write to her daughter.) This was the first story I published. It was the lead story in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul and it is part of You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You.

Q: Were there any surprise rewards that came to you from penning your experiences for publication?

A: There were delightful rewards. The first came before the book was even written. I was at the release weekend for Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul. There were three days of book events.  We read our stories at dinner one night. After I read mine, a black lady came up to me with tears running down her face. She took both of my hands and said, “You were talking about my mother and grandmother, my aunts and all of my relatives. You made me see them in a way I never have before and I am so proud.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

I wanted to see if other folks remembered each event as I did. So, I interviewed everyone I could find who had been involved that summer. What a marvelous experience that was. I did the interviews in person and my husband videotaped each one. Why marvelous? I hadn’t seen most of them in over forty years. We’d been “in the trenches” together and seeing them was a powerful experience.

People come to my book-signings and tell me their stories about how they dealt with discrimination in the 60s. There was much more going on than we thought.

Q: Some voter rights volunteers served, went home, and lost touch with the communities in which they had worked. Fifty years later, what is your relationship with people in Pineville, South Carolina?

A: I have mentioned Sarah Butler’s family before. I met her canvassing. She was already a voter, but she wanted me to talk to her husband. She was in her sixties and she was so sweet to me. She was the place I would go when I was just a scared kid. I desegregated a black college in Columbia, SC. At Thanksgiving and Christmas my dorm closed and I had nowhere to go. So, I went to Sarah’s. We wrote and talked on the phone until she died. On her deathbed she told her daughter Lottie that I was a good one, meaning white. She said that Lottie should keep me, that we were sisters. And, Lottie and I have acted on that request. Lottie turns 93 in September and I will be at her birthday party as I try to be each year. I am Aunt Sherie to two generations of Butler descendents. I have other relationships in the community as well. I have been blessed!

Q: What were some of the difficulties you encountered in getting the book “out there?”

A: I had just begun the book when a book agent told me that the Civil Rights Movement was over and that no one would care about what I had to say. I couldn’t get an agent. I couldn’t get a publisher, so I published myself. I am not a marketer, but I am doing the best that I can. As my southern sister Lottie would say, I’m waiting on the Lord to show me the way while I plug along.

Q: What would you say is the book’s strongest takeaway message for readers?

A: VOTE! Get involved. There are problems that need to be solved. We can’t trust that someone else will solve them for us.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m writing about my family. I come from a bunch of characters and they all told stories.

You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You is not a finished project. Making it a household word – or at least a schoolhouse word – is an enormous endeavor.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: I have a webpage at sherielabedis.com. On the webpage you can find information about the book, about me, teaching resources, discussion questions for book clubs and my blog.