A book club in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina recently read my novel Trueluck Summer (2016). They got in touch to ask me if I could Zoom or FaceTime into their meeting. Since I was already committed that evening, I invited them to email me any questions they might have about the book. Below are my answers. [Note: If you are on my email list, you will also get this post.]
If you haven’t read the book, here is the description, and you may want to skip the Q&A if you’re concerned about spoilers:
A hopeful grandmother. A sassy young girl. Their audacious summer stunt could change their southern town forever.
Charleston, 1964. Ida Trueluck is still adjusting to life on her own. Moving into her son’s house creates a few family conflicts, but the widow’s saving grace is her whipsmart granddaughter Trudy. Ida makes it her top priority to give the girl a summer she’ll never forget.
When a runaway truck nearly takes her life, Trudy makes fast friends with the boy who saves her. But since Paris is black, the racism they encounter inspires Trudy’s surprising summer mission: to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse. And she knows she can’t do it without the help of her beloved grandmother can Trudy, Ida, and their friends pull off the impossible?
Trueluck Summer is a Southern historical women’s fiction novel set in a time of great cultural change. If you like courageous characters, heartwarming humor, and inspirational acts, then you’ll love Susan Gabriel’s captivating tale.
Here is the Q & A:
Question: Debbie, a member of our book club, asked if you grew up in the ’60s? If so, how did you experience any of the Civil Rights Movement? Did you grow up in the South and see all of the injustices you tell about in the book?
Answer: Hi Debbie. I did grow up in the 1960s in Knoxville, Tennessee, but in 1964 (when Trueluck Summer takes place), I would have been several years younger than Trudy. Subtle and not-so-subtle injustices were everywhere, I’m sure, but as a kid, I didn’t really notice. It was the air we breathed.
In the late 60s, I invited the only black girl in my elementary school over to my house to play because she seemed lonely. She came (courageous of her), and I remember our next-door neighbor watching us in the backyard from behind her sheer curtains in the shadows. My parents discouraged me from doing that again. I had not specified that the ‘friend’ I was inviting over was black. That was the first time I realized personally that black and white kids weren’t supposed to play together. So, that is something Trudy might have done and did do with her friend, Paris. The seeds of novels are sometimes planted in our childhoods.
It wasn’t until I lived in Charleston from 1980 – 1994 that I became aware of the history of the Civil War (how could you not with Fort Sumter nearby—I even went with one of my daughter’s classes on a field trip there), and the Civil Rights Movement.
For several years we lived in downtown Charleston near Hampton Park and The Citadel. I had black neighbors who, no matter how nice I was, would lower their eyes if I spoke to them or would cross the street to the other sidewalk to avoid passing me, a white woman. So it seemed, in some ways, that the Civil War was still being played out there.
Charleston is an amazing and beautiful city, and I loved living there. In a way, writing a novel set in 1964 with Charleston as a backdrop was a love letter to my time there. It was also my way of imagining some of the healing that I wished for the low country.
Question: Missy asked if the story was close to your own truths? A political father or Trudy figure?
Answer: Thanks, Missy. Trueluck Summer is a story I made up in my imagination. My father was in no way political, a mayor, nor did he write novels in the attic. He was kind of the opposite, a product of his time, and more than a tad racist. As for Trudy, there are parts of her that are like me. Counting freckles was something I might have done as a girl, for instance. But otherwise, she is much braver and more outgoing than me. I was a very shy kid.
Question: From Sarah: I wonder if it was somehow inspired by the removal of the Confederate Flag from the capital in 2015? Did you read about that as it was happening?
Answer: Hi Sarah. I had already written the story a decade before, though it hadn’t been published yet. As I said in the Letter to Readers at the back of the book, initially, the story was from the kid’s point of view, and it languished in a file for several years until that horrible event happened at the historic black church in Charleston in June of 2015. In July of that year, I got inspired to finish it and pulled the story out of the file. I added Ida Trueluck as one of the main characters to help anchor the story. I loved creating Ida. She is like the grandmother I never had. I also really liked the idea of a grandmother and granddaughter being the heroines in a story. The story is fictional, so I never dreamed that historical flag might actually be removed ten years after I initially imagined it.
Other tidbits that seem to interest book clubs I’ve spoken to:
I have written several novels over the last 25 years. Two are a series: The Wildflower Trilogy (Book 1 is The Secret Sense of Wildflower. Book 2 is Lily’s Song. Book 3 is Daisy’s Fortune—the story is set in the Tennessee mountains from 1940- 1980) and the Temple Secrets series. (Book 1 is Temple Secrets. Book 2 is Gullah Secrets. Book 3 is currently being written, making it a trilogy, too. The story takes place in Savannah, GA and a nearby island in the early 2000s)
I always write in the mornings, usually Monday – Friday, for 3 – 4 hours. My ritual is to make a pot of tea before I begin, that I sip while I write. Organic Assam (a black tea) is my favorite.
I live in the mountains of North Carolina, near Asheville. I have two grown daughters who live in Knoxville. My oldest daughter loves history and researches my historical novels (or Gullah references) for me.
I am what is called an intuitive writer, as opposed to someone who writes using an outline. I never know where my stories will take me, and they play out in my imagination like I am watching a movie. I write what I see, scene after scene. This is, of course, followed by many months of challenging editing and polishing.
There are generally two types of structures in fiction. Those that are character-driven (which is called literary fiction) and those that are plot-driven (like mysteries, etc.). My books are mainly about the characters and their stories, with enough plot to keep readers turning the pages. Many readers tell me they don’t want to put my books down once they start.
My characters feel real to me, and I’ve heard from readers that they often experience them as real, too. My characters also feel like family to me. I miss them after I finish a book or series. But so far, I have always had more characters show up wanting their stories to be told. I often think how lucky I am to get to write stories for a living!
If you have you read Trueluck Summer, what did you think? Is it a controversial book, even though the setting is 1964? What questions do you have about any of my other books?