JoeyPinkney.com Exclusive Interview
5 Minutes, 5 Questions With…
Carol Fenner, author of Running and Dancing
(Red Phoenix Books)
Two African-American girls grow into teenagers at the turn of the 20th century (1916-1917). The times are much different from they are today. The older girl’s sister fled the United States to find fame and fortune in another country, like Josephine Baker.
She left behind a daughter, and the two girls (one is the other’s niece) each experience different coming of age adventures, according to their temperaments. Bertine, eldest of the pair, is a runner, like her sister. But Alma is a different sort of girl – one who enjoys the dance of life right where she is.
Joey Pinkney: Where did you get the inspiration to write Running and Dancing?
Carol Fenner: My aunt (Carol Fenner) drew her information from our family. She (caucasian) was married to my uncle (African-American), and overheard a lot of oral history over many decades having to do with withstanding adversarial social situations in generations past. She found it to be inspiring, and being a story-teller, she knew how to make it accessible to other people in the form of great stories.
JP: What sets Running and Dancing apart from other books in the same genre?
CF: There are not that many books written for kids about the period of African-American history between the end of slavery and the start of the civil-rights movement. It’s as if that period disappeared out of our collective memory!
The beauty of this book is that it captures (and preserves) a vision of a family living through those times, striving to move the whole family forward. More African-American families should be working to capture the memories of family members, as they age, who lived through it. Those are precious , and irreplaceable, personal histories that help to illuminate our lives and an important period in history.
Stories of those times might not conform to conventional wisdom about those times; it’s not always true that black families were mired in poverty during those times.
JP: As an author, what are the keys to your success that led to Running and Dancing getting out to the public?
CF: Perseverance. And trust in the audience. Lots of industry professionals told me, both about my aunt’s book, Running and Dancing, and my own book series, “that will never sell.”
My aunt was told to cut the book in half. I was told that a science book written for older children who could read wouldn’t need pictures like a picture book. My aunt, and I, both, believed in our original vision, and in the fact that the audience will receive the story well — the work doesn’t have to be simplified, or diluted, to satisfy industry sensibilities.
My experience is that industry professionals don’t necessarily have a lock on the correct interpretation of what people will read! So, while its important to know the audience, it’s also important to be true to your vision for a book. Particularly in the case of my aunt, who was a mature writer at the height of her story-telling powers.
JP: As an author, what is your writing process? How long did it take you to start and finish Running and Dancing?
CF: I’m up every night ’till 1 am, and up again at 5 am trying to keep up with all the social media-ing and revising, and meeting with my crit groups, etc! I learned a thing or two from my aunt, who used to write in a little notebook all the time, whenever an idea, or a phrase, or snatches of dialog would come to her.
She used to have it handy while vacuuming, or washing the dishes. I do the same thing. She used to say, “Capture what your mind is doing while it is doing it rather than forcing it to work in front of a blank page when it doesn’t feel like working. It’s been an important technique for creating the initial write – something that you can revise later. And it recognizes that there’s a creative part of your mind that goes to work at odd moments when you are otherwise quiescent.
JP: What’s next for Carol Fenner?
CF: I’m publishing my own science-learning series for kids, called Windows to Adventure. The first two books are out already. Then I’m turning my attention to publishing more of my aunt’s backlist. I’m going to start first with Gorilla-Gorilla, which was a story that came out of my aunt and uncle’s visit to the Tokyo zoo in the 60’s.
My aunt, Carol Fenner, was an award-winning author (winner of a Newbery Prize). She left me her magnum opus – a manuscript that she was told was too long for kids (just before Harry Potter came out). I knew that she worked on this beautiful piece for twenty years, weaving in portions of my families oral history. I’m very proud to be able to put this book out there for the many fans of her unique, empathetic, writing voice. We (her family) think it’s her very best work.