Write Around the Corner

S3 E9 | FULL EPISODE

Write Around the Corner-Kim Michele Richardson

This episode finds us in neighboring North Carolina to talk with Kim Michele Richardson about her multi-award winning novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, a riveting journey through Appalachia with a pack horse librarian in 1936.

AIRED: January 28, 2020 | 0:27:07
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[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

- Welcome. I'm Rose Martin,

and we are Write Around The Corner

in Ennice, North Carolina with Kim Michele Richardson.

Her book, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,

takes us on a journey through Appalachia.

Cussy Mary, she's a packhorse librarian.

The year's 1936, work is really hard,

and it's really hard to come by.

Starvation is real,

and discrimination is prevalent, you see,

because Cussy Mary suffers from a congenital disease

that makes her blue.

This is quite a story.

Welcome. Thank you so much

for being on Write Around the Corner .

- Thank you for having me.

- This is a fabulous book,

and I can't wait to talk about it with you.

And I've got so many questions about Cussy Mary,

and this congenital disease about turning her blue,

but let's back up first, and talk about you.

As early as a young girl,

things weren't always easy for you

as they kind of were for Cussy Mary, were they?

- No.

I grew up under the grinding hills of poverty

and raised in a rural orphanage.

And up until age 11, and-- on to foster care

and then to being homeless at age 14.

- And what was that like to be homeless at 14,

and out on your own?

- Terrifying.

Terrifying because I was in

such a small and clustered environment

with nuns and so forth, and then to just be thrown out

into a world I didn't know anything about.

- And who did you find as that advocate or that person

that may have been your protector,

took you under their wing,

and made sure that you grew up into this fine woman

who created some amazing books?

- Well, I've had so many, but one particular,

I had a social worker who just kept tracking me down

and trying to find me

amidst probably other hundreds of other kids,

so I was pretty lucky.

- Hmm. And I love the fact that the determination and grip

that Cussy Mary has in your story.

And also, the sensitivity for the people around you

and the kindness that we need to show people.

Do you think some of that came about

because of the-- your background,

and the way that people jumped in to make sure

that you were going to be, in a way, nurtured

after going through a horrific beginning?

- I think, you know, I have much empathy for people

that've had hardships in their life,

and I can certainly identify with people,

no matter what they're going through.

And if anything, it was always my hope

that in this, you know, charged tumultuous world,

that if I could, you know, drop little seeds of kindness

and courage and compassion,

you know, then it was more than I've hoped, you know, for.

- And don't we all want that. I think,

you know, I feel like that too. - Yeah, yeah.

- I think we need that. - I think that where we go,

we can touch the lives of others,

and make it better, then we've done something right.

- And I had-- certainly, the basis of this

was these fantastic, fierce, brave women

who were in, you know, very trying times.

You know, bloody coal mines,

and horrible landscape and poverty,

so if they could overcome that, just think, you know.

- And what about your family now?

You have two daughters? - I have a son--

ROSE: A son and a daughter. - --and daughter.

Grown, and left the nest.

And my husband-- - Any writers?

- I'm sorry? - Are they writers?

- No. One's a lawyer.

She's also a fantastic knitter.

And the other is working in a little town

called Bowling Green.

My husband and I, we live in Lowell.

- And you have-- we were talking off-camera.

You also have some rescue dogs that--?

- Yes. - So, we surround ourselves

with critters, and that's good.

- Yeah. We just rescued a Hurricane Harvey rescue dog,

Houston to Denver to now us.

And then we've got a little 14-year-old

we rescued from the pound.

- I love them. I just-- it's sweet.

- The best. They make the best. - They are. You're right.

- Instead of full breeds, I just--

you can go to the pound, and there's your dogs.

ROSE: And they-- KIM: Companions.

- --love you forever. - Ah-ha.

- Well, when I was reading about you

and the process of your book, I found it interesting

that your husband creates detailed maps,

or has for some of your books.

So, as a way to kind of keep the town

in your idea of where you're going?

- So, yeah, also, I have so many little towns,

you know, that I'm doing.

And so, if he wants to keep the hardware, the barbershop,

or the good, you know, dry goods store--

and keep me all straight, he'll draw an intricate map,

which in the past,

publishers have used before in the book.

But I can look up, and I can see,

you know, that's about as organized as I get.

Otherwise, there's sticky notes everywhere

and pieces of envelopes, and so forth.

- So, do you have a special place,

or do you write at a big table?

What's that process like for you?

- I have a little desk, you know,

the same little desk,

and beside me, the dogs', you know, beds,

and they're walking-- And I'm more--

this is what I like to do.

I'm more like-- I consider myself

a kitchen table author.

So, when I'm developing this story,

it's like we're sitting at the kitchen table,

and I'm doing it intimately, and lyrically,

and we're talking.

And that's the way my-- I don't have any rules.

I never went to school.

What I do have is an agent.

Agents that believed in me, and just kept pushing me,

and-- "You can do this."

'Cause the first book I sold, I said, "That's it.

That's all you're getting." And they--

- I'm done. Yeah.

KIM: They laugh about it today.

And they said, "You have more in you."

And that belief and that faith can take you-- move mountains,

you know, and that's what they've done with me.

- That's kind of been a mantra for you

all along though, isn't it?

That belief, and that faith, and--

- Yeah. ROSE: --and staying centered,

and knowing that you can do it.

KIM: Yeah. Yeah. I guess I'm blessed.

ROSE: Is that something you convey to your family too?

Your kids? - Yes, you know, just persevere

and just keep going,

and keep that faith, and take others,

you know, and-- and, you know, help.

- Hmm. So, when you're writing,

if someone was to walk in and see you during the process,

are you having conversations with the characters?

Are you talking out loud? What's that like for you?

- Okay. That's like probably

some music is blaring that I can get into.

If I'm in particular scenes now when I edit, I'm quiet.

Everybody's quiet, and then it's like,

"Oh. Here's your toy. Oh, wait. You wanna go out?"

I'm talking to the dogs, "Oh, wait."

You know, it's very kind of chaotic,

but then, when I, like I said, editing's a whole different--

everything has to be really quiet.

And for the last year, I lived in Appalachia,

you know, and to make sure that I had that quiet

'lived on top of a mountain in a little tiny shoebox'

until I fell off the mountain,

and I broke my arm in seven spots.

And I say this, it wasn't really a cool

'bear chase me' or, you know, 'a snake chase me' story.

It was simply me toting down some Pyrex dishes

for an elderly mountain lady down her steps.

And I missed the bottom of it,

and the Pyrex went flying everywhere,

and nary a scratch.

Nothing on that Pyrex.

I had a-- - [Rose laughs]

- But seven breaks.

It was crazy, and then, wasn't two weeks later,

my husband came down with Lyme's.

So, we said, "We got to get home and get the medical care, and--"

- Well, you took research to a whole new level.

And I read that research is your favorite part,

but I don't think anybody wanted either you or your husband

to sacrifice your body

or your health to get the story

down on paper. - No.

- But that had to be quite an experience--

- It was. - --to tuck yourself away.

- You know, I think it is,

and I wanted that authentic setting.

And I wanted the book to portray--

even though, it's a novel.

I wanted it to portray everything from food

to the landscape, just everything.

- So how did you go about then

doing the research for Cussy Mary,

and then, of course, the packhorse librarians?

- So, I spent five years on this book.

And it-- it was--

a lot of research began, and started collecting pictures

and photography and museum archives,

everything I could find out.

And then, did the same with Cussy Mary

who has methemoglobinemia, which is a congenital defect.

She's not getting enough oxygen in the blood,

and it turns her skin blue.

- And I've got to tell you, when I read that,

first I wondered if it was really true,

and there were a few points in time

I went back to check like, "Is that true? It exists?"

And then I found, yes, and not only does it,

but the Fugates then crossed over

into Virginia into Lee County, and you still had family members

that were in that part of Virginia also.

We were talking before we started

about how some family members you met recently,

as a matter of fact.

- Yes.

They're still down in eastern Kentucky,

and I've met about five of them.

And also, when this book, the ark became available,

a librarian out in Oklahoma

who had lived in Troublesome Creek,

he contacted me.

He was reviewing it and just fell in love with it.

He was also a Fugate.

His name was Douglas Fugate.

So he was just telling me how much he admired the book,

and how authentic it was to him.

- But the whole idea of the blue people being gone,

that's not true

because you met someone. - No. No.

No, they're still out there and about,

and they've crossed to the-- of course, you know,

generations from 1820 when the first noted Fugate

came over here as a fringe orphan

to claim a land grant.

And it's all, you know, there's been more Fugates.

- And the idea about it is a recessive gene, right?

- Right. ROSE: Okay.

And it's a recessive gene of the hemoglobin

that's not getting enough oxygen.

- Yes. And it turns their blood brown, whereas ours is not.

And you can go online and study it better.

I've left some author notes.

- It was fascinating.

That part of the research was fascinating.

Where are some of the other areas

that your research took you for this book?

- Oh. Coal mining towns.

Um, one Christmas, I had a very quiet Christmas dinner

with a fire tower watcher, and though that was then born,

the fire tower watcher, R.C. in my book.

So, and he's shared a fascinating story

about his family.

His father working a fire tower and living in it.

And he ultimately did that too,

and I just thought that was a fascinating thing

to have one of my patrons, or Cussy Mary's patrons,

as a fire tower watcher.

- Hmm. That would be,

and I think that part of it is fascinating for the readers,

and it was for me to be able to go through and think about then

the research of where you went

so you could get that authentic voice,

and you could get the dialogue.

Which was tricky for me in a couple of places

because I'm reading it over and over.

And my co-producer Carol and I were talking

and she could go right through the words.

And I know I'm looking at it phonetically,

thinking, you know, syllable by syllable, you know,

to read it. - And that's a hard balance

because you don't want to strip the Appalachia people

of their music and their lyrics. That's theirs.

But, then you got to be mindful,

not the rest of the world is Appalachia

and they're seeing it for the first time.

So, it was very, very important to be authentic and honest

as I could be with it, you know.

Not to make them stick throated, but also not to go overboard.

So, I have, like, a relative

that lives in a part of Kentucky.

I can't even understand their words.

You know, a different pocket.

But then, you know...

So, there's a certain balance.

So, you can only hope that you achieve it for the reader.

- I think you did. I think-- - Thank you.

- --it was really a beautiful balance.

The other thing I found fascinating

was that you actually dug into Appalachian traditions--

- Yes. - --and certain--

What kind of things did you uncover?

- Oh, my goodness. I wanted, you know,

authentic food and toy-making, superstitions,

just Mary and all that

to just make it just, you know, diverse and, you know,

enlightening, and maybe giving things to the world

that some other people didn't know.

Thousands and thousands of hours were spent on research.

And the last thing was the mule, Junia.

And Junia has become a very much beloved character to many.

So, for the last part,

I was supposed to go over to my friend, Sara Gruen,

the writer for Water for Elephants .

I was supposed to go down the road

and ride her donkey and-- - [Rose laughs]

Hopefully, no broken arms though.

- --she didn't have-- but the day before,

I broke the arm. And-and, that's so...

But still, I spoke with mule skinners,

and I authenticated and read books enough to know.

But that was my last thing, is to go do the mule thing,

and I didn't get to do that.

But unbelievably, everybody just loves her

and thinks she's fantastic.

- Well, and I agree with that because Junia--

reading the part of the mule

that could have that much personality

and that much attitude that I think, "Mm, I like her."

- But if you think about it,

that was the thing they had to trust in those hills,

those packhorse librarians.

Their mounts meant life or death.

So, it was very important for me to give Cussy Mary

the proper mount, and I picked a mule.

I didn't pick a donkey or horse, which is what they used.

I wanted to pick the strongest of those animals,

and that was a mule because they're big preservationists,

and it's not they're being stubborn.

They're taking their time to think about things.

"Is this going to hurt me?"

And that's why they live longer than horses and donkeys.

- I didn't know that. - Yes.

And I love that they can kick from every side.

Backwards or front. That was cool as heck,

and I was like-- and then,

so, I got to thinking and I researched,

and I found the apostle.

The female apostle, Junia, whether myth or legend or real,

we don't know, but I said, "This is Junia."

- Okay. So, I have to know, I have to know,

how did Cussy Mary get her name?

- Okay. So Cussy Mary Carter got her name Cussy,

not because of her mouth obviously,

but I wanted to bring the Fugate family,

the blue people, from a special place in France,

so I chose this real tiny village

where I imagined that they could come from.

And that was Cusset, France.

And so, that's where, you know, her name came from.

- And it's perfect. - Yes.

And I just imagined-- it doesn't say particularly

where the Fugates descended, in my research,

but I could see the general area.

And I was looking and looking

and researching for about a week or so.

And I was like, "Cusset, Cussy." So, there it came.

- And what did you want her personality to tell everybody?

- I think I wanted her to be what I imagined these women,

these brave, strong librarians, all primarily female librarians,

maybe just a couple of males, had to go through.

And I wanted, you know,

to show that she could be fierce and strong

and persevere throughout anything,

through anything, you know, that was thrown her way.

And that's literally what the librarians did,

and what the people of Appalachia did

and have been doing ever since.

- So, let's chat a little bit about the other characters.

So Cussy Mary is a fantastic character.

She's living alone with her dad, and he's got one idea.

That she just needs to get married off.

He's a coal miner-- - Yes.

- --and thinks that the only way he can truly protect her

and keep her safe is to marry her off.

- That's right.

Because we were in volatile times

and desperate times with the depression.

And of course, the mother's already gone,

and he knows his health is failing.

And he needs her to be safe and to be fed with a roof.

Whether it's the right decision or bad decision,

that would be a father's way, back then.

He's not doing good.

He may not be long for the world.

So, he's got to protect Cussy Mary.

- And then--

But that's not her idea. - No.

- Finding a husband and getting married off

is just not in her plan. - No.

She is happy with the books,

and she knows because of her blue skin,

there is no one that really wants to marry her

until the daddy opens up and says,

"I'm going to give you a few dollars and some land."

And then, it brings in people, you know.

- Some unsavory people.

- Yes. Very much.

- And, you know, that part about the courting candle,

some of the parts I thought, "Well, was there really a town

called Troublesome Creek?"

And that's true. - That's true.

ROSE: "Was there really a courting candle?"

True. - There is. True.

And though it may be more legend,

it probably, ideally 200 years ago,

was used maybe to keep the candle in place.

But then, patriots learned to use it

much like maybe you were sitting on your porch

and your daddy with your bow out there,

and your daddy was slipping off and on the light switch.

Time to go.

But the courting candle, the way it's designed is

when it burns to a certain thing,

it's time to go.

And that taper could be lifted up or down.

- And I love the fact

that she was kind of manipulating that on her own.

[laughter]

- So, when I found out about it,

I thought, "Mmm, I've got to have this in my book."

How cool the conversations that could've taken place

over and under it and around it,

and that your happiness depended on this.

- Mmm. - If you think about it.

- Yeah.

- So, it was just something I stumbled across.

- Well, and the fact that she--

I'm glad you did stumble across it.

The fact that she really wanted to be respectful for her daddy.

- Yes. - But this love of books

and the connection she made... - Yes.

as a packhorse librarian,

that was so authentic and so real,

the connections she had with those families

and the people that she visited.

- Hmm-mm. Well, the program ran from--

FDR's program, this Packhorse Initiative,

ran from 1935 to 1943, I believe.

And it was initially to get women to work.

Nobody dreamed that the impact

in the most impoverished area in America,

in Eastern Kentucky,

what impact it would have on them.

But if you think about it,

it became a serious bridge to education,

to getting out of there and getting a better life.

And just, it opened the windows to their world.

- And I was touched by a line you had about--

she knew that she was delivering literacy for the soul.

- Mm-hmm.

- And that just was so beautiful.

Because she really painstakingly tried to pick

what articles or books...

- Right. - or things she could deliver.

And became, you know, almost a family member;

even though that journey was arduous.

That was a tough journey that she took.

- Oh, yeah. In rain, sleet, snow,

just like the postman yesterday.

But through, you know, wild critters,

and unlawful men, you know, and mistrust of the coal miners.

It was very dangerous.

- Well, but then, she also had this added, you know, burden,

of being blue.

And they nicknamed her Bluette. - Yes. Yes.

- And you nicknamed her Bluette in the story.

- Uh-huh. For the damselfly. Yes.

It was not an easy time for her.

- Hmm. Well, as we take a look at the story

and the way her life begins to unfold,

you know, the opening scene--

the opening scene in the beginning of the book is,

really kind of sets the tone of you're realizing

that you're going into a world

that is full of so many unexpected challenges.

- Yes. And I had three different openings.

First, I didn't have that there,

and when the publisher acquired it,

I presented them with three different openings.

And told them, you and your team pick,

you know, and I knew in my heart

that the opening we had of 1936 and coming in there,

was the opening that would be the most honest,

honest and authentic for Kentucky.

And because you are in Kentucky 1930s.

- And, again, just a rough time all over.

But even, you know, magnified, for Appalachia and the region,

and what people were having to deal with

and go through at that time. - Absolutely.

- The other thing I found, in a way, was comforting

was Ms. Loretta.

- Yes.

- And having someone who was such an advocate, right,

and a stabilizing force.

Is she based on anybody in particular?

- No. She's just there as I could imagine.

She's an elderly lady in her 80s,

and she doesn't want them government books there.

And she's gone so far as-- I won't give it away,

but anyways, she tricks Cussy Mary

into, you know, reading her Bible to her

instead of them government books.

And by the way,

though Roosevelt did pay the packhorse librarians

$28 a month, he never provided books.

The program didn't provide books, their mounts, anything.

- And I found that fascinating. KIM: Isn't that fascinating?

Because they had to be clever,

and they had to end up, you know,

getting their books from you know, boy scouts,

and other cities,

torn and cast-off books, and so forth.

And even making scrapbooks, and so forth,

you know, with newspaper clippings,

and all that.

- One of the parts that I--

and there were parts that brought me to tears

that I thought, "Oh."

As readers, and your readers go through this book,

and people who are going to pick up this book will,

I'm sure, join me in some of those real emotional moments,

that you are dealing with the harsh reality of the time.

At the same time, you want to be cheering

for some of these characters.

Right? - Right.

- And then, on the other hand,

I found myself sometimes laughing out loud,

or feeling so positive. - Right.

- So you took me on an emotional rollercoaster,

which was wonderful throughout the course of the story,

besides teaching me some things

that I didn't really know before.

And I think that's one of the beautiful things

about this book was how you took this historical time

that was horrific for so many including those in Appalachia,

but then you wove in beautifully this other culture of people

along with the packhorse librarians

who provided so much good.

- You know, when I first discovered

I want to write about these five years ago,

it was very important to me.

I thought it would be a privilege and an honor

because this was going to be the first book

traditionally sold, a literary novel.

And I wanted to pick them, like I said,

honestly, authentically.

For 80 years, no one knew about the packhorse librarians.

They were just like a little blip in history.

- Well, you've told an important story,

and I'd love for you to share some of Ms. Loretta's words

with us, if you would.

- I would be happy to.

"'Here, ma'am,' I dropped the wet rag into her open palm,

"trying not to offend her with my touch.

"Loretta moved clumsily,

"and the cloth fell to the floor, and our hands met.

"A tiny gasp slipped past my teeth.

"Before I could give the rag back,

"she groped for my hand, latched on,

"and said quietly in her old voice,

"'See all my fabric, child? Sure is a lot.

"Well, them cloths are a lot like folks.

"Ain't much difference at all.

"Some of us is more spiffed up than others,

"some stiffer, and still some softer.

"There's the colorful, and the dull,

"and the ugly and pretty.

"Old and new ones.

"But in the end, we's all fabric cut from His cloth.

"Fabric and just that.'

"'Yes, ma'am,' I whispered.

"'Now I know you're a blue,

"but these old eyes don't care, nor feels the color none.

"It feels the heart child, and it's a fine one.

And you're a fine hill woman.'"

- What a beautiful passage.

- Thank you.

- And it captures so much of the essence

of the characters and the story.

Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

- Thank you.

- My thanks to Kim Michele Richardson

for sharing The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.

It's a wonderful story,

and it causes a lot of us to think about

how we can be a little kinder, a little bit more compassionate,

and a little bit more understanding.

Also, thanks to our host Ginger Collins

for having us here at her home in Ennice, North Carolina.

I'm Rose Martin, and please check us out online

because Kim Michele and I are going to continue to talk

about this book and lots of other things.

So, check us out online, and I'll see you next time,

of course, Write Around the Corner .

[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

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