After Abbey Road: The Solo Hits of The Beatles

AFTER ABBEY ROAD ebook cover

When The Beatles made their debut in 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show, I remember my father saying, “No daughter of mine is going to listen to the music of those long-haired Limey freaks.” And so I did what any passively rebellious tween would do. I went to my best friend’s house and listened to her records. For hours on end as we did our homework, we’d sing, “She loves me yeah yeah yeah” until her mother called up the stairs and told us to dial it down. Whereupon we retreated to the floor of her bedroom closet and continued, sotto voce, until dinnertime. Thus, what a treat it is to take a trip down nostalgia lane with author Gary Fearon’s new book, After Abbey Road: The Solo Hits of The Beatles. A must-read for anyone who needs a respite from the escalating insanity of 2020.

Interviewer; Christina Hamlett

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Q: Wordsmithing, songwriting, broadcasting—Wow! Were any of these creative pursuits in your career plan when you were growing up or did you fall into all three of these naturally as an adult?

A: My entire family is artistic as well as musical, so I always had the opportunity to dabble in the creative arts to my heart’s content. Early on, I wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist. In time, music took precedence and I got into broadcasting soon after that. Each of my interests continue to come into play through my many and varied projects.

Q: What was your “Aha!” moment when you first realized you were living the dream?

A: Even as a kid, I took note of how doctors display medical degrees on their walls, and I equated those ornate framed documents as a measure of success, in the same way that drivers licenses and diplomas immortalize achievement in black and white. During my time as a radio DJ, I won the Billboard Award for Air Personality of the Year, and lo and behold, the certificate came in a frame, delivered personally by Wink Martindale.  Although I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy many acknowledgements before and after, I’d say that was the moment that suggested I had “arrived.”

Q: Who or what would you say had the greatest influence on your perspectives about the world of entertainment?

A: Steve Allen, hands down. Most people will remember him as a TV personality, but he was also an acclaimed writer, songwriter, comedian, actor, DJ, and more. Steve was an entertaining example of how you don’t have to limit yourself to just one specialty. As part of a very early writing project, I ended up corresponding with him to ask permission to use an excerpt from one of his books, and he not only agreed but wrote me a three page letter with his fascinating thoughts on the subject. I never forgot his gracious gesture to help a budding young writer.

Q: A lot of parents discourage their offspring from, say, wanting to be a musician because they don’t want them eking out an existence. What’s your response to the advice to just get a day-job even if it makes them unhappy?

A: As they say, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Everyone needs an outlet of some kind. Creative people have a particular need to express what’s inside. It’s not just a weekend hobby for them, it’s who they are. I say, please don’t stunt any right-brainer who aspires to be a musician, artist or writer, because that would be messing with their very soul.

Q: Is there a particular era of music and/or movies which personally resonates with you as “best of the best”?

A: Popular music is constantly evolving (and not always for the better!), but I feel it found its footing in the ‘60s. Among other things, that’s when many recording artists starting writing their own songs, so we got more honest and inventive music that has influenced Top 40 radio ever since.

As for movies I’d have to harken back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. I wasn’t around in the 40s but so many of the movies from that era were groundbreaking and continued to inspire today’s filmmakers.

Q: In your bio you describe yourself as being as fascinated with the closing credits of a film as you are with its camera angles. Why is that?

A: Funny you asked that at this moment. I just got off the phone with my brothers, who are also avid movie buffs, and this weekend we had all seen Hitchcock’s North by Northwest on TCM. Among our observations was the director’s (or maybe the cinematographer’s) decision to do this shot from overhead, or only show the legs of a person walking, things like that.

I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes guy, riveted by what’s going on behind the curtain. The mechanics of moviemaking and the infinite number of talents involved boggles the mind. Other people leave the cinema when the credits start rolling, but I’m ready for a refill on my popcorn.  If nothing else, I want to know where the movie was filmed or who sang what song on the soundtrack.

Q: What do you normally listen to when you’re doing something creative?

A: When I’m trying to write and want mood music, I usually choose something I’m so familiar with that I can hear it without paying attention to it. Lately it’s an instrumental album like Herb Alpert or Chuck Mangione. But my most effective soundtrack of all seems to be the lawnmower, when I’m cutting grass! Maybe it works like white noise, I don’t know.

Q: We both grew up at a time when subjects such as art, music appreciation and theater were a regular part of the grade school curriculum. Suffice it to say, these are always among the first subjects to get cut when budgets are lean. How does this harm us as a society if subsequent generations aren’t exposed to what the arts can teach?

A: This gets back to outlets, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if all schools understood how important the arts are for a balanced society. Sports is an outlet, but it’s a passive one for everyone but the players and cheerleaders. I don’t know what I would have done had I not had Music, Art and English teachers who recognized and encouraged my creative side.

Q: Your newly released book, After Abbey Road, chronicles the colorful stories behind the 220 solo singles penned and performed by The Fab Four. Why this book … and why now?

A: 2020 is a year of milestones in Beatles history. This is the 50th anniversary of when they broke up and started their solo careers. John Lennon would have been 80 this year, plus it’s the 40th anniversary of his death. There will be new re-releases and even a couple of Beatles-oriented films before the year is out, so I’m grateful that my book is enjoying traction from these other avenues.

Q: How did you come up with the idea and what was the biggest challenge in pulling together all of the content?

A: As a songwriter, I’ve always loved hearing the stories behind The Beatles’ hits. They found inspiration in everything from carnival posters to parking tickets, and those tales are readily found in the hundreds of Beatle books that already exist. But much less has been written about the creative spark behind their solo hits like “Jet”, “Imagine”, “It Don’t Come Easy” and so on. In all, they’ve released 220 singles since 1970 and it was my mission to unveil the backstory of each one of them, right up to Ringo and Paul’s latest singles.

The biggest challenge was indeed tracking down the stories behind some of the newer songs because the more recent the song, the less information was available. But after over six months of researching books, newspapers, magazines, videos, interviews and the Internet, it all came together, and After Abbey Road: The Solo Hits of The Beatles was released in May, the 50th anniversary of their last album.

Q: We tend to think of The Beatles as being together for much longer than they actually were and that the break-up was all Yoko’s fault. What’s your own take on why they went separate ways?

A: Great question. They were still just teenagers when they formed the Quarrymen and then became The Beatles. Throughout their 20s, they operated as one unit with little opportunity to explore their individuality. By the time they approached the age of 30, they had to separate just to find themselves. The different directions they took musically is just one part of the intriguing aftermath spelled out by their solo careers.

As for Yoko, she was certainly part of it but more of an accessory than the culprit. Now that I understand John’s insecurities better, I can appreciate why he was drawn to this strong and unusual woman who was so unlike his previous partnerships.

Q: Do you have a personal connection/experience with The Beatles’ music?

A: There was always music going on in my house, and The Beatles were the number one inspiration for my musician brothers and me. The songbook for Paul McCartney’s first solo album helped me learn how to play guitar. I’ve produced a number of radio specials about them as well as morning show parodies of their songs. I even had the pleasure of a phone chat with their producer George Martin shortly before he retired. It was almost in my DNA to write a book about The Beatles.

Q: What’s your favorite story-behind-the-song in this book?

A: It’s hard to pick! But one that comes to mind is a single by John called “Borrowed Time”. In 1980 he chartered a private yacht for a five-day voyage from New York to Bermuda. Two days in, they encountered a fierce storm with gale force winds that left the crew battered and seasick. John himself had to take the wheel for a six-hour stint that he said was the most terrifying and exhilarating experience of his life. Surviving the journey left him so inspired that he wrote two dozen new songs when he got to Bermuda, including “Borrowed Time”. Its Jamaican feel and the title itself borrows from a Bob Marley song he heard after he arrived.

Q: Assuming you could have lunch with George, John, Paul or Ringo, who would you choose, where would you go and what would you most like to ask?

A: I would invite John to the legendary Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis. John would appreciate its musical atmosphere and the fact that Elvis liked their ribs. Somewhere I’d slide into the conversation, “In 1970, you wrote lyrics like ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ and ‘I don’t believe in Jesus,’ but in 1980 you sang ‘God bless our love, God bless our love.’ Did something change during those ten years?”

Q: What is it about The Beatles that distinctly puts them in a class of their own?

A: In the last 60 years, no other band has come close to matching The Beatles in terms of commercial success, critical praise, and a lasting impact on music and culture. They were leaders – and in today’s lingo, “influencers” – beyond any act before or since.

Q: How has popular music changed in the last 50 years?

A: Like everything, it keeps pushing the envelope, always trying to be edgier than what came before. One of the more interesting things I’ve observed is that songs no longer seem to express any kind of vulnerability. Up through the 1980s, songs might say “I can’t live without you.” These days, the message is “I don’t need you.” It seems to be all about empowerment and anger. Literally half the songs in the Top 10 this week include vulgarities and dark intentions. That’s not progress; that’s unhealthy for everyone. Thank goodness country music still contains messages that celebrate love and country in positive ways.

Q: What was your favorite part of writing After Abbey Road?

A: Since the research itself turned out to be the biggest challenge, it was a minor victory every time I got stuck on a song but then would find the very information I was missing, often from an unexpected source. Overall, though, the satisfaction of contributing something of value to the legacy of my musical heroes is a reward unto itself.

Q: Were you surprised by anything you discovered in your research?

A: Absolutely! Along with some eye-opening backstories – as well as discovering songs that have become new favorites (like a Ringo gem called “Imagine Me There”) – a closer look at the individual personalities of the four ex-Beatles was very revealing. For example, George really wasn’t the sullen “quiet” Beatle of lore, and Paul can be a taskmaster in the studio who has chased off many a bandmate. My favorite revelation, though, was observing how each of them promoted “peace and love” in their own unique way.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m voicing the audiobook, which of course is another major undertaking. Based on the ones I’ve done for other authors, I expect it to be finished sometime in July.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Yes! I’d like to invite my fellow fans of music and writing to Friend me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/gary.fearon.9) and to sign up on my website (http://www.garyfearon.com/) for free songwriting tips. If you happen to buy a copy of my book, please drop me a line there so I can send you a link that will help you get the most out of After Abbey Road.

And thank you, Christina, for inviting me here!

 

 

 

Shrug

Shrug cover art

Lisa Braver Moss tackles two of life’s most difficult topics; child abuse and domestic violence, with wit, insight, and, as you’ll read here, personal experience. Although fictional, her new book, Shrug, is a step back in time to America during the 1960s scene at Berkeley College. Those were interesting times indeed, full of protests, drugs, and rock and roll; it was also a coming of age for the main character, Martha, and the author. This is an excellent read for anyone, but especially those who may have had similar experiences. So, grab your favorite beverage, get comfortable, and meet Lisa.

Interviewer: Debbie A. McClure

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Q         I have to start by asking this, Lisa; how much of Shrug  is autobiographical?

 A        Shrug is largely autobiographical. Some elements of the story are different from my own, of course, but I did personally experience most of what’s in the book, both factually and psychologically, and lived to tell the tale… 

Q         This must have been a difficult book for you to write, for many reasons. How did you make decisions about what to fictionalize?

A         Certain images and ideas would come to me as I was writing—or while I was taking a walk. For example, it occurred to me that the story would be tighter with three kids in the family instead of the four in my own family. I felt the main character, Martha, should be more musically gifted than I am. There are other examples where I wasn’t personally at an event that took place, but wrote it such that Martha is witnessing what’s going on.  

Q         You’ve stated that much of this story is based on personal experience. Why did you opt to write a novel rather than a memoir?

A         I felt that in tackling a memoir, I would have gotten way too bogged down by the issue of accuracy. I knew Shrug would be difficult to write, and I didn’t want to throw any more obstacles in my own way than absolutely necessary. I could easily see myself getting lost in the weeds. Of course, one has to get the details right in fiction, too—but in fiction, “right” doesn’t necessarily mean accurate. In short, I felt that I’d have more freedom with fiction. And then additionally, once I “got” the teenage voice, the manuscript fell into place. 

Q         Most of us can only imagine what living those experiences was like. Was it triggering for you to write this book, or more liberating?

A        There were a few times when I cried while writing, but it wasn’t often. Most of the time I was too focused on setting scene, being precise, and creating believable dialogue to have the luxury of reacting (or maybe I should say re-reacting) to the content. The writing was extremely liberating, as was the publication of the book, but my goal was not that. My goal was to write a book that would be absorbing, funny, and interesting to read, and that would make people feel less alone if they had similar experiences as a kid. 

Q         Martha, the main character in Shrug, seems to stand on the sidelines of the 1960s Berkeley protests. Was this your experience?

A         It was. I was way too focused on dealing with family madness, and trying to do well in school, to really engage in the social protesting of the time. I missed out, but I had so much on my plate emotionally that I really didn’t have the bandwidth to join my peers at rallies and protests. 

Q        Martha focuses on academics and music rather than turning to drugs or other self-destructive behaviors. Why do you think is this her path?

A         I think this is a great mystery, i.e., why some people turn to drugs and risky behaviors while others focus on what needs to be done. In Martha’s case, a combination of temperament and drive enables her to work hard despite all that’s going on at home. I don’t think we can really know why some people take one path while some take another. However, I think Martha is way too scared of seeing what it’s like to let go of achievement to really experiment much. It’s one of the sad parts of her life; she really misses out on being a kid. 

Q         Clearly you’ve given the whole question some thought, but why do you think children living with domestic violence tend to blame themselves?

A         That’s another mystery. Many psychologists and researchers believe that it’s too painful for children to acknowledge their own powerlessness in the situation. Instead, in blaming themselves, they can force the situation to make sense. It’s my fault; if only I could be a better daughter, if only I could convince my parents to stop all the hitting, things would be different. But batterers hit because they’re batterers, not because of anything the children do or don’t do. This matter of responsibility may seem simple, but in a lot of kids it causes more cognitive dissonance than self-blame does. Kids want things to make sense. 

Q         It’s interesting to note that the music of the time plays an important part in Shrug? Why is that?

A         I’m passionate about much of the music in the book, and before I knew it, it was permeating the manuscript and Shrug had a running “soundtrack.” That part is true to life—my father really did have a record store in that location (as well as opinions about everything). The “soundtrack” was a good way of enriching the world I was creating. Everyone at that time remembers what songs were popular. They may not have as strong a response to them as Martha does, but the music was a way to enable the reader to experience 1960s Berkeley. 

Q         Did you have a “shrug” as a child?

A        No, that idea just came to me as a stand-in for childhood problems I had that I desperately needed help with, but that didn’t have easy solutions. I also liked the various possible meanings of the shrug, such as I don’t know, I don’t care, and I don’t feel like talking. There are also ways in which Martha knows a lot, and cares too much, and does feel like talking (hence, the book, in her voice). And then there’s the issue of her ability to ignore what’s going on at home (i.e., to shrug it off) in order to achieve her own goals. The shrug has more than one possible interpretation. 

Q         For personal reasons it couldn’t have been easy writing this book. What do you hope readers take away from reading it?

A         When you grow up as I did, with domestic violence and psychological brutality, it’s difficult not to feel ashamed. Though a child is obviously never at fault in a situation like that, many survivors of childhood domestic violence carry shame into their adult lives and may not even be aware of its crippling effects. So I would like for any trauma survivor reading Shrug to feel a little less ashamed, and less alone for having read it. In general, I’d love for readers, trauma survivors or not, to experience Shrug as an entertaining, thought-provoking ride.

Q         What’s next for you, Lisa?

A         I’m happy to say that I’m working on some essays and gathering my thoughts for another novel.

Thank you, Lisa. We wish you all the very best in your future endeavors. Below are a few relevant links to help our readers connect with this author, and discover her work.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Shrug-Novel-Lisa-Braver-Moss/dp/1631526383/ref=sr_1_1

Website: http://www.lisabravermoss.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Lisa-Braver-Moss-Author-1189704587852504/

Twitter: @lisabravermoss

 

The Devil Knows

The Devil Knows cover

In the early 1960s, residents of Manchester, England were horrified by the sadistic murders of five local youth between the ages of 10 and 17. Known as The Moors Murders, the perpetrators of the crime spree—Myra Hindley and Ian Brady—showed absolutely no remorse for what they had done, nor did they serve up any explanation for why they targeted their particular victims. Upon conviction, the pair received consecutive life sentences rather than execution, the death penalty having been previously abolished. Author David Cooper revisits the scene of Hindley and Brady’s crimes in his new release, The Devil Knows.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Every author’s journey starts in a different place. Did you always know this is what you wanted to do for a career or did inspiration strike during the course of making a living doing something else?

A: I became interested in becoming an author after I interviewed a soap opera star and the interview was published in a national women’s magazine.

Q: Were you a voracious reader as a child?

A: Yes.

Q: What are some of the titles we might have found on the nightstand of your 10-year old self? As a teenager? As an adult?

A: As a teenager, The History of Mr. Polly. As an adult, Misery.

Q: Who are some of the authors you feel have had the greatest influence on your own voice as an author?

A:  Stephen King

Q: What attracted you to the true crime genre?

A:  I remember the Moors murders very well. I was the same age as their last victim at the time.

Q: So tell us what inspired you to pen a book about a pair of such heinous, unrepentant serial killers.

A: I thought that a story about their relationship would make good reading to give readers an idea of what made them what they turned out to be.

Q: How did you structure your research (i.e., interviews, newspaper accounts, etc.)?

A: I was in touch with Ian Brady and I researched internet and newspaper archives.

Q: As the story began to unfold, did you find yourself coming up with theories of your own on what drove Ian and Myra to commit such terrible crimes against children?

A: I got very involved with the story while I was writing it and my personal theory was that their past personal lives drove them to commit these crimes.

Q: How long did it take you from start to finish?

 A: About 15 months.

Q: Do you allow anyone to read your works-in-progress or do you make them wait until you have typed “The End”?

A: I allow one friend to read my works-in-progress.

Q: Like many of today’s authors, you chose to go the route of self-publishing. What governed that decision for you?

 A: One can get a book published much quicker by self-publishing.

Q: What did you learn about this DIY process that you didn’t know when you started?

A: To be honest with you, I didn’t realise it was so easy.

Q: What are you doing to market your work?

A: I am a member of lots of Facebook groups, so I market a lot that way and on other social media.

Q: Does writing energize or exhaust you?

A: I find it adventurous.

Q: What is a typical writing day like for you? And do you write every day?

A: A typical writing day is mainly doing research and yes, I try to write something every day.

Q: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

A: A dog. I love dogs and have three.

Q: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

A: Yes, every one. I’m very pleased when I receive good ones, of course. As far as the bad ones, well, I can’t please everybody.

Q: Who is the most famous person you have ever met? Did reality match expectation?

A:  I met Ginger Rogers. I never expected her to be like she was. She was a very nice lady. I didn’t expect a Hollywood legend to appear like a normal person in real life.

Q: Let’s say you could invite three famous people (living or dead) to a small dinner party you were hosting. Who would make the guest list and what would you most like to ask them over the course of the evening?

A: Mother Teresa. I’d ask her why she chose to become a nun.

J.K Rowling.  I’d ask her what the secret is to her success.

Pope John Paul II. I’d ask him what he and Mother Teresa had in common.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I was a very good friend of a child killer’s wife.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m finishing my series about a paranormal investigator, then I’m writing another true crime book about the Cannock Chase murders.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A:  http://davidjcooperauthorblog.wordpress.com

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A:  Yes. Thank you for taking the time to interview me.

 

 

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.