Monday, July 2, 2012

Non Fiction Monday: WE'VE GOT A JOB


Welcome, Cynthia!
1. What inspired you to write about the Birmingham Children's march?

Ignorance and shame.

I was a senior in high school in 1963 and read articles in the local newspaper and watched news stories on television about what was going on in Birmingham that May. I learned about the infamous police commissioner, “Bull” Connor who attacked civil rights protesters with high-power hoses and vicious German shepherds. I was appropriately appalled. But, it turned out that I wasn’t sufficiently appalled because I wasn’t really paying attention.

About five years ago, while I was researching an article for Cobblestone magazine on music in the civil rights period, I learned that all of those protesters whom Connor attacked were children. I was mortified that I hadn’t realized that fact, especially since I had majored in History in college, taken a seminar in Southern History, and even taught American History in middle school and high school.

When I asked other people if they knew that the protesters in Birmingham were children, I discovered that very few did. I assumed that the news media had failed to share this information. But, through interlibrary loan, I ordered contemporary copies of my hometown newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, which was a dreadful newspaper, frankly—but not so dreadful that it neglected to mention or show photos of children marching for freedom.

I came to the conclusion that many of us wanted to deny the facts. We didn’t want to recognize that it was children who volunteered to face painful, possibly lethal, dangers in order to liberate their community. I decided that if children could confront hoses and dogs and jail, I should confront my own ignorance.

2. Would you like to share something about We've Got A Job's path to publication?

The book’s path to publication was long and circuitous. I spent about six months researching and writing an extensive proposal. My research included not only reading primary and secondary sources but also going to Birmingham, visiting sites, and conducting interviews. Thanks to the wonderful writer Chris Barton, who shared my proposal with his agent, then Erin Murphy signed me as a client. I was thrilled. She helped me polish the proposal and sent it to an editor, who also helped me improve and expand it. In the end, that editor wasn’t able to buy it—and neither were the next 18 publishers to whom Erin submitted it.

A friend suggested I try to write a school play instead of a book. Erin suggested that I try turning my research into a magazine article. That was a very demoralizing time.

The book has gotten a gratifying amount of positive attention, and people are surprised when I tell them that it was turned down 19 times. But, the point—actually, two points—that I want to share are that, ultimately, it found the absolutely right publisher, and the reason I know that is that what the other publishers turned down was not the book it became. The proposal that Peachtree presciently bought was a skeleton, which could be filled out in many ways. (I won’t go into bodily or fashionista metaphors here!) My editor, Kathy Landwehr, visualized the best way and painstakingly showed me how to achieve it.

Several reviews have called We’ve Got a Job a photo-essay. Peachtree devoted considerable resources to provide the rich visual materials. This is a related aspect of the book’s path to publication. Different publishers produce different kinds of books, even on the same topic. It’s critically important to find the publisher committed to your project, even if it takes 19 rejections to do so.

3. You've made several appearances across the country for the release of We've Got a Job. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend part of your launch in Austin, Tx at the Carver Museum where you interviewed Washington Booker. I was on the edge of my seat listening to both of you. It felt like you were old friends. Would you like to share a bit about your appearances and the lovely format you chose for your release parties?

I’m so glad to know that my friendship with Wash comes across. I’m not only indebted to the four people—Wash, James, Arnetta, and Audrey—who let me tell their stories in We’ve Got a Job but I also feel close to each of them (and saddened by Audrey’s death).

In addition to Wash’s visit to Austin for the book launch here, he and James also joined me for launches in Birmingham and in Atlanta. Together, we’ve made presentations to adults and to children in schools. I wanted to convey to audiences how we worked together while I was researching and writing the book, so I’ve organized our presentations as interviews. I ask them some of the same questions, such as, “What was it like growing up in segregated Birmingham?” and “What made you decide to march?”

Now that the book is done, we can share not only their answers to my questions but also the visual materials I gathered. So, I intersperse our “interviews” with slides of children getting arrested, attacked by hoses and dogs, and going to jail. I also show photos of the four of them as young children and as adults. This format has worked well because it’s been both informative and moving.

One of the most emotional experiences for me occurred in Birmingham when we presented the book to a group of about 80 people, black and white, at the public library. Because Audrey is deceased, I asked her sister, Jan, to speak for her, reading some of Audrey’s responses to my questions. As Jan walked to the podium, she burst into song—“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round,” which was the song that Audrey, who was only nine years old in 1963, sang when she marched and went to jail. The entire room joined Jan, as if we were all gathered at a mass meeting in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. You can see and hear Jan singing on my website.

Each time we present, the audience gets into fascinating conversations about race, discrimination, and the effects of the Civil Rights Movement on children today. The discussions are candid, heartfelt, and revealing. These problems are not resolved. Many of us continue to live in denial.

4. You come from a talented gene pool. Rumor has it, your family is triple published at the moment. Can you tell us a bit more about your literary family?

I like the way you phrased that, Lindsey. If I have any literary genes, I inherited them from my husband and our daughter!

Actually, although they’re both excellent writers—especially our daughter—they are academics, who write as scholars. The fact that their newest books were published at the same time as mine is a wonderful coincidence.

Meira, who taught eighth grade in public schools for eight years and now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, just published No Citizen Left Behind. And, Sandy, who teaches at the University of Texas Law School, published Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance. What’s especially fun is that Meira and I did a reading together at an indie book store in Boston, and a friend in Washington, DC held a Triple Book Launch for us.

There are definite overlaps among our themes. In fact, Sandy and I may have an announcement to make about that soon…

5. You have an impressive resume of articles published in the magazine world. Would you like to share with us about the differences in the world of publishing NF articles in magazines vs. books?

That’s an interesting question because the differences are subtler than one might assume. Certainly a book requires more research than an article—but only because articles are shorter. For instance, an article I wrote for Faces called “Next?” about an epidemiologist who’s trying to find the next pandemic entailed my calling scientists in Cameroon, reading technical journals, and prevailing on a local scientist to fact check my manuscript. It is true, though, that a book needs to get into greater depth.

Perhaps the greatest difference between articles and books relates to voice. Because children’s magazine articles range from about 400 to 1,000 words in length, the writing style is more efficient, flatter than in books. The latter, although they must be factual, too, can also convey a tone consistent with its subject.

6. And finally, the super important and mundane question... coffee or tea? Or both?

In the immortal words of Winnie the Pooh, when Rabbit asked him if he wanted honey or condensed milk on his bread, “Both.” But, unlike Pooh, not at the same time, please!

To find out more about the lovely and talented Cynthia Levinson, please visit her website. You can find her on twitter @cylev.


  1. I just ordered this book for my classroom! What a wonderful interview...very moving. If you don't mind, I'd like to print it out to share with my students when I preview the book for them.

  2. What a terrific interview and important book! And that must have been have fascinating to hear Cynthia talk with Booker Washington. And bravo to Cynthia for persevering in finding the right home for this book -- we're lucky for that.

  3. oops... I meant to say Washington Booker :)

  4. Nice to see this terrific interview here. Hi, Cynthia! I can't wait to read your book!