Excerpted from Her Dream of Dreams by Beverly Lowry. Copyright © 2003 by Beverly Lowry. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Beverly Lowry
Author of HER DREAM OF DREAMS
Q: When did you become interested in the life of Madam C.J. Walker and why did you decide to write a biography on her?
A: I became interested in the life of Madam C.J. Walker pretty much the minute I heard of her existence, in the summer of 1992. Like a lot of white people, I didn’t know who she was before then, much less what she’d done or how she got there. Once I heard the story and read a little more about her, my feeling was: how can I not be interested? But not just in her. My own prior ignorance startled me a little, and still does.
I grew up in the Mississippi delta, in Greenville. At that time the population of the town was about 60% African American and about 10% Asian, primarily Chinese American. The Asians lived within their own community but, while strictly segregated by law and tradition, the black and white cultures in many ways were the same—music, food, language, the basic dance steps of life. Because of these very real circumstances of my day-to-day life, I think I have never not been interested in race, and what makes for differences between us and what, on the other hand, connects us no matter what.
I’m not a scholar or a historian. I wanted to find out how Sarah Breedlove became Madam C.J. Walker. And that’s the nut of it. And the only way I knew to do that was to find out everything I could about the time, the place and the circumstances of her life in whatever form that information was available, then sit and look at those facts and study them and look at them some more, until they came together and I thought I had reason enough, back-up material enough, to say, this is how it probably was. Which is about all a biographer can do, anyway.
Q: How did you go about doing your research?
A: I started out the research process by catching up on American history, not just as it was lived by African Americans, but, I guess, primarily so. Sarah Breedlove was born in Delta, Louisiana, in wet, flat—hot, fertile, mosquito-ridden, etc.—bottomland, country I know very well. I explored the place in books and newspaper accounts, then went there. I spent a lot of time in Vicksburg as well. I wanted to get the beginning right, before moving on, and my basic feeling was that, despite her claim that “I got my start by giving myself a start,” her background definitely contributed: her family, in particular her mother. But Sarah’s parents had been considered property, the same as a fencepost or livestock. And so the only way to in a sense “find” them was to investigate documents and reports about the white people who once owned them. I spent a lot of time in the Madison Parish courthouse, the Warren County, Mississippi, courthouse, and at Louisiana and Mississippi state archives. I found an incredible amount of fascinating material having to do with the white Burney family—most of which did not end up in the book. Beginnings are crucial and, I find, messy. I always muck about in the early pages, for a long time.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your own family history.
A: My mother and father came from Arkansas delta, on or close to the Mississippi, around Helena. My father once played four-string banjo on the roof of the Peabody hotel with big name bands that came by, and paid for my birth with nickels he collected from a pinball machine he had installed in the drugstore where he worked in Memphis. I was born in Memphis (at the same hospital where Elvis was pronounced dead) named for a debutante whose picture my mother saw in the Commercial Appeal. In time, my father—whom we called either Big Daddy or simply Big—went on the road as a traveling salesman. He was good at that, most people said the best. From my girlhood days he was on the road and we lived by commission and went up and down as his sales did. I know what it is to live that way, the way Madam Walker did when she was on the road as well—her own life—drumming up sales and telling stories; changing the stories as the times demanded. She and my father made up their lives as they went along, and this too has its ups and downs, for the children.
Stories have been a part of my life since long before I arrived; stories are what I imagine and search for. I didn’t think of myself as “Southern” for a long time but in researching Her Dream of Dreams, during a conversation with a black friend from Vicksburg, she asked me if I thought of myself as a Southern woman. I waited a long time and finally answered that I guess I did, did she? And she came up with the same hesitation and the same eventual answer. So there we both were: black, white, what could we do?
I didn’t want to pretend to be anything other than what I am, writing this book: a white women looking for the life of a black woman.
Q: Do you feel that the facts of your own history are what gave you the drive to write this biography?
A: In the choice of biographical “subject matter,” Geoffrey Wolf said—somewhere, sometime—there are no accidents, and I believe that is true. In all of my novels, somebody is always defying historical, political, cultural odds to get beyond where anybody in her family, hometown, life would have ever thought, predicted or hoped for, and that somebody is usually a girl or woman. What I knew about the young Sarah Breedlove was, if anybody or anything could have chipped at her spirit or convinced her to pay attention to the expectations laid out for her in advance, she would never have grown into the Madam C.J. Walker she became. That she did, was extraordinary.
Q: You have such a unique perspective to this biography. Please explain why you chose this angle.
A: I guess I don’t think I exactly “chose” an angle. I have always assumed that style and substance are impossible to separate. From the first word I put down, I knew it would be me telling the story, as I found it. I didn’t want to get in the way of hers, but I felt I had to establish the voice of the narrator from the beginning and hold to that. And I was the tale-teller. And the process of discovery was always a sub-text. Biography’s not a life but the story of one. This is the way I thought I could tell this one.
Q: You made your mark in the book industry as well as the film industry when your nonfiction CROSSED OVER(a moving account about your friendship with confessed murderer Karla Faye Tucker) became a made-for-TV movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Diane Keaton. How did you feel about the success of your work that hits so close to home?
A: The writing of CROSSED OVER was extremely difficult, but was something I felt I had to do, and that I had to confront the two heartbreaking and complicated stories of Peter Lowry and Karla Faye Tucker head-on, as directly as I was able, not in fictional terms. Their lives needed to be told and to stand, as they lived them. It is the facts of those lives and deaths that will haunt and sadden me for the rest of my life; the book and the movie extend their lives, allow other people to know of them and, I hope, pay tribute.
Q: So now that you've written one true-life nonfiction that has been made into a film and a biography on one of the most heroic woman in history, what's next? Any new books in the making?
A: I’m returning to the early years of my research on HER DREAM OF DREAMS to the years of slavery, and will write a biography of Harriet Tubman, another American hero but of a very different kind. This book will be much shorter than the Madam Walker book and will also involve a great deal of re-examination of myths and legends. I have also written a draft of an erotic novel called After Edward, which I will eventually get back to and I mean to write a book about the government’s secret creation of Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the early 40’s.
Beyond those…I don’t know.