Isabel Wilkerson on the Great Migration, structuring an epic narrative and the challenges of writing nonfiction
Continuing the spring flurry of awards, Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation announced last week that the 2011 Mark Lynton History Prize will be awarded to Isabel Wilkerson for her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Currently the director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University’s College of Communication, Wilkerson previously reported for The New York Times, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1994. We had a chance to talk with her near the end of March, and in these excerpts from that conversation, she discusses the thousand-plus interviews she did to research her story, the process of structuring a multi-strand narrative, and what she always knew would be the heart of the book.
You follow three main characters throughout your book – all of whom migrated away from the South. How did you come to select those three?
Those three were chosen after I spent about a year and a half traveling the country – North, Midwest, and West – interviewing, and in some ways auditioning, the protagonists who would ultimately provide the major strands of the narrative. I went to senior centers and AARP meetings, to quilting clubs and to the various state and city and town clubs that represented the southern cities and towns that the people had originally come from. There are Mississippi clubs in Chicago; there are Louisiana and Texas clubs in California; and there are Baptist churches in New York where everyone is from South Carolina.
So I went to all those different places and interviewed over 1,200 people in order to narrow it down to the three protagonists through whom I would tell the three main threads of the narrative. In the process of interviewing all these people, I heard many other stories that helped to clarify my understanding of the phenomenon I was writing about, expose me to a lot of different ways of looking at it, and gave me a general experience of the people who had gone through this.
There were people that had amazing singular experiences that caught my attention. There were people who had incredible stories of hardships during childhood or the journey itself – there was a woman who was actually born on the train to California. But I needed to have people whose stories would be strong, beginning, middle and end.
And of course, for narrative journalists, one of the major things that we’re looking for is someone who is open and candid, willing to cooperate with some level of almost investment in being able to share and take the time to tell the story – in other words, access.
Based on the structure of the narrative itself and the overarching story I was trying to tell, I needed to have three people, each of whom would represent one of the three major streams of this great migration – the one up the East Coast, the one to the Midwest and the one out to the West. I needed to have people who had left in different decades to show the breadth and scope of this migration. I needed people who had different reasons for leaving, different motivations and circumstances for going, and three different outcomes in the places they went.
Also from a narrative perspective, I needed people whose voices would be distinct enough so that as a person was reading the book, they would be able to discern from hearing or seeing a single comment from them, “Oh, yes this is Ida Mae,” or “This has got to be George,” or “I recognize Robert.” Each of them had to be distinguishable from the other, because theirs were going to be interlocking stories, stories where you follow them from the beginning of their journey in life and also in the migration until their arrival elsewhere and then their old age.
You wrote in your book that you set out in the mid-1990s to search for people, but it sounded like you had already read about and researched the migration by then.
That’s interesting, because it appears that way, but I had only had a general knowledge of the migration when I began. I could not have known all I would know at the end of the process. When you’re starting a story, you do some initial research, but I had not done a tremendous amount of research into all aspects of the migration when I began.
In fact, the kind of narrative writer I am moves from the ground up. I get the stories from the people I meet; I get my energy from the people that I’m interviewing. I don’t like to have any preconceived notions when I’m going in. I like to hear the story as it unfolds in front of me. Particularly with narrative, it’s got to be about the story that’s being told, it’s got to be about the character, the protagonist whose story you’re hearing. If you go in with a preconceived idea or too much information, you might miss something, because it doesn’t sound as fresh or as new to you, because you kind of know it already. I wanted to be able to have the discovery of learning about it ultimately in the same way the reader would. As I’m hearing it from their mouths in front of me, right there, in the middle of the discussion, I wanted to be able to respond to it with freshness in the same way I hoped a reader would.
When you do this kind of work, you have to make a choice. Are you going to spend the many, many, many months that it would take to do the archival research for something this big? I mean are we’re talking 6 million people over the course of a 55- or 60-year period of time, one that encompasses much of the 20th century.
There were many references to the migration among economists who were looking at it, sociologists who were looking at it, anthropologists who were looking at it while it was unfolding. You could look at census records and census analysis. Editorialists were among the main sources when it came to journalism. A lot of time could be spent doing that, but I chose to focus on the people first, because the people were getting up in years, and it was kind of this race against time to get to them before it was too late.
I had to make the logistical, methodological decision to go for the people first without truly having done all the research that I might have preferred to have done starting out. The people came first, and then the archives, because the people would not always be there, but the archives would. So for this particular narrative, it was the wiser choice, really in some ways, the only choice, to make.
You have a lot of demographics and legal battles and Jim Crow information and riot history folded into the narratives. Did you have a strategic way you approached bringing those things together – the story with the facts and data?
It became clear to me fairly early on that in some ways the book is multiple books in one – each one of the characters could have been a book unto him- or herself. Then there’s all the archival, historical, demographic data that also had to be folded in – that’s almost a book unto itself. Then there’s the weaving in of the other stories, the secondary people who would have been the runner-up candidates for the protagonists’ slots. They’re all folded into the book, too. It’s multiple narratives, multiple books, in one.
It’s so close in and intimate when you’re in the moment with these people, as they’re preparing to leave or learning the rules of the caste system as children or growing up in the South during that era. You needed to stay with those individuals in that moment, because it’s a rare thing to be able to get that close in on someone’s life, particularly of an era that is hard for us to imagine today. To bring in some demographic data at an intimate moment seemed out of key, you might say, with where you happened to be with that individual.
I was writing it separately anyway, because I wanted to stay with each individual story as I was telling it. I was really inspired by the structure of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which also was an inspiration on multiple levels. It’s about a migration; it’s about getting inside the hopes and fears of people who were leaving the Dust Bowl region of the United States at the exact same time that Ida Mae was leaving Mississippi. It struck me how those parallel migrations were going on, but they were recorded differently at the time.
The idea of how to fold in the intimate stories of individuals going through this journey while also reminding the reader of the larger canvas on which this was occurring – “The Grapes of Wrath” was an inspiration for doing that. Now, obviously that’s fiction, though he had been a journalist, which I think all of us should be inspired by. But that book has inter-chapters, and the inter-chapters are absolutely magnificent.
Did you start out with “The Grapes of Wrath” as a model, or did you light on it at some point?
I paid closer attention once I was in it. A lot of the research that I did was on works of the era. I spent time in the world of that moment. I read books that came out in the 1930s, John Dollard and Hortense Powdermaker. I read work from economists in the 1910s and up, looking at the language that was used by writers and by scholars of the day. I wanted to know how they looked at things. How was it perceived at the time that it was unfolding? What do you even call some of the things that we don’t have names for today? I spent a lot of time, and clearly Steinbeck was going to be crucial, because “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the best-known narratives about a journey ever written in the United States.
There is so much hope in the drive toward a different world, or a broader world, but there’s a lot of sorrow in the three lives you focus on, even after they make it out. Was that part of the reason that you picked the people you did, or did it just come out that for the people that you wanted, that’s where their lives went?
I think that they are reflective of the experiences that the majority of these people had. The experiences of people in these cities would have been very similar.
I don’t know how to answer the question on some level, because I think their lives began with heartbreak and sorrow. I also think that on leaving, their goals were quite modest. They had a lot of hope, but they knew that they were not going to become CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies or build skyscrapers. They’re representative of the reality that they all faced on arrival.
Putting myself back in the moment of making a decision about which three people would be the protagonists, at that time, I didn’t know what the end result would be in their lives. So I had to look at the limited information based on the interviews that I had done with them. Then the work began to truly know fully what happened in their lives. You might look at it and think, “She knew this, this, and this, and that’s why she chose them.” But there’s a lot that I didn’t know. It took years in order to hear all the things that had happened to them. They didn’t just tell me everything in one sitting, nor did they tell me everything the first time something came up, or after the first question. It took many, many months and ultimately years with some of them for all these things you see in the book now, for these things to reveal themselves.
One thing that surprised me, though I’m not sure why, was how many pages you spent on the actual migration. Now that you’re talking about “The Grapes of Wrath,” I see the parallels. There’s so much attention to the departure and even the planning to get away, which illuminates a lot about their lives. When did it strike you that the actual travel narratives of their leaving would be so important?
Thank you for so much for saying that. You spend so much time on the work itself in a cave, and how people will perceive it upon completion, you just can’t know. But that was probably the driving question – no pun intended – for the narrative. I was absolutely drawn to the act of leaving. If there was any one thing that was motivating me, that I wanted to bring to life, it was what it took for them to leave. That decision and their departure had such an impact on the country as a whole; that becomes in some ways the central moment that was going to change the northern and western cities as we know them. That’s what I wanted to understand.
Getting to the central core of the story was the decision itself and how they carried out the decision. For that reason, I interviewed a lot of people who were the children of the migration. These people were retirees already. I enjoyed hearing their stories, and it was all part of the reporting process and part of my own education. It was a living archive, interviewing real people over the span of the time that I did was like combing a living archive.
But the children, of which there were many, from a narrative perspective were going to be disqualified from being protagonists in the book, because I was looking for the people who were driving the car, not the lap children or the children in the back seat. I interviewed a lot of the lap children and the children in the back seat, and that gave me a fuller understanding of the larger story, but that was not who I thought should be the protagonists for this story, because I wanted to understand the decisions that went behind the change that would ultimately occur in all these cities. It ended up being, in my view, the heart of the book. It was always my intention that it would be the heart of the book.
The conditions under which they make those trips – there’s a real feeling of going into the unknown with them: the way that Robert Foster is driving and driving and desperately trying to find a place to sleep. The larger context is something that we’ve heard and read about before, but the idea of him at this moment in his life, leaving the South to go West is very compelling.
It shows you the power of narrative [laughs] – and I’m not saying that because of our conference! I’m saying it because the goal of all that we do is to pull readers in so that they can picture themselves in the role of that person, to picture themselves as that person. Many people have told me that they’ve experienced a range of emotions, particularly during that central section of the book, where they felt worried for him, fearful for him – for all of them.
That was the goal. The goal of all that we do is to bring the reader in so that they can imagine themselves in that situation, so they can wonder “What would I have done if I had been this situation?” That’s the power of building a narrative that so draws readers or viewers in, so that they feel they are these people.
Of course with narrative nonfiction, it takes so much effort and time to draw close enough to individuals and have them trust you enough to share what you need to make it come alive for a distant reader who will be absorbing this from far away or totally different circumstances. It is really a magical thing when you think about it.
I once heard an editor explain that when he was working with a first-time book author who was an experienced journalist, he had to tell him to write with “the voice of God.” That comment came to mind, because there’s almost a Biblical tone to the stories as you tell them. Was that you reflecting their voices, or were you thinking in an epic fashion as you were trying to give a tone or voice to the book?
Hearing all those stories, I in some ways absorbed them into my very being. It just became a part of the way I thought about this entire experience. I think that all of those voices, absolutely all of those voices – the children in the backseat, the voices of the anthropologists who had been traveling in the same parts of Mississippi where Ida Mae grew up, the economists who were looking at it from Chicago – all of those voices get inside you, those perspectives and the language of all those writers, speakers, scholars and editorialists, of all those multiple eras. It all gets inside you, and you distill it, and out comes your own voice almost in a new language.
It takes the infusion of all those different voices to help you come up with your own. They all counterbalance each other, and once you have been exposed to all that, then and only then, can you write with the authority that you need to, because you have read enough to speak as an author. It’s interesting that the word author can be found within the word authority. You only have that authority when you’ve done the research.
What else should we know about the book now that it’s in the world?
From a narrative perspective, I am really happy that the structure seems to have worked. I spent a lot of time on the structure. It was a challenge to take three different people in three different decades from three different states who take three different routes to three other states and weave in the contextual archival detail and give it all meaning.
There was the tremendous challenge of trying to harness literally file cabinets full of material. I have railroad timetables from the Illinois Central Railroad that I got off eBay. I have photographs of actual advertisements and specs for the car Doctor Foster drove, his Buick Roadmaster, so that I would know exactly what it looked like inside and out. I didn’t even make that much use of everything I had, but I wanted to have it. I bought a green book, one of the books that African Americans who were driving would have used in that era, because they couldn’t be assured of being able to stop when they were making these long drives. They had these little guidebooks, like an AAA guidebook, with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of places that had agreed to permit them to stay. And they would use that on their journeys. I wanted a copy of that.
There was so much work to gather the material that would become the basis of the narrative, but I think the greatest challenge from a writing perspective was how to bring it all together in a way that the reader could follow it. The fact that I don’t get asked about it a lot may be the best commentary of all, because that was a lot of work.
I’ve been asked if I had an outline or a master pattern to spread out the story, but it ended up being an organic process, because I found that an outline seemed like an artificial imposition onto the narrative. I found that it was not working if I tried to superimpose some order onto the experiences of the people as they were unfolding. So I made a decision not to use an outline. Does that surprise you?
I felt a pattern in the narrative, but I didn’t know if it was one that was planned, or one that emerged. It seemed like a fairly simple structure – my sense was that you were taking us through a scene from each of the characters’ stories with inter-chapters. Very occasionally you would return to somebody’s story without rotating through all the protagonists first. It did read seamlessly, though, so I know our audience would like to hear any other thoughts you want to share on structure.
As nonfiction writers, we have to adhere to the facts that we have obtained. If you were writing fiction, you could decide “I want to do this or that.” But you’re dealing with actual facts and real people and whatever it is you have from them and from the archives, and you have to think about how to structure that and how to organize that, where to stop and where to begin. You may not have enough from this person in this particular year, but you have a lot from this other person. That’s just the reality when you’re dealing with nonfiction.
Sometimes you hear fiction writers say, “I was in a zone, and the character told me what to do.” As journalists, we don’t have the luxury of experiencing that, but having this volume of material may be the closest we can come to it. You do have a wealth of things to choose from, and you can learn how to make the best use of what you have. You may not have everything you want, and you may not have everything you need to make your initial idea work, but somehow you have to make it work.
If it seemed like it was natural, I can say, on some level, it was organic – but it was not natural. This is really hard work. It is really, really hard work.
Anything else you want to say about how to manage that work?
I’m still absorbing that I got through it, so there’s no one bit of advice that I could give. Unfortunately, each project is different, so maybe there are things that would be applicable to this one that wouldn’t work for another one.
This is one thing I would say: something this big can seem so daunting when you’re about to begin it that the only way to do it is to do it in small steps. Otherwise you would never do it – it would be too overwhelming. In some ways, it’s like preparing a meal: it all starts with the flour, the baking powder, the spices and the garlic. You start small. You don’t think about the big thing you’re undertaking. Thinking about the big thing can stop you in your tracks. That’s how I got through it, by looking at just what is in front of me to do today: “I will be writing about Ida Mae and her arrival in Chicago.”
It’s nonfiction, and we have to go with what we’ve got. So, first over-reporting is what I do, and it’s what a lot of people do. There’s a lot on the cutting room floor when you do this kind of work – as well it should be. Not everything you get needs to go in, and not everything you get is the reader going to be interested in. There’s way, way, way more things that didn’t get in than got in. That’s a good thing; that’s how it should be.
Have as much as you can, so that you have choices once you begin cooking. And then you start small. You start by chopping the onions, or you peel the garlic. Or you measure the corn meal. That’s how you begin it. I think focusing on the task in front of you is what gets you through it. It seems so big at the end, but it’s all one piece coming together with the next, with the next, with the next. And you have a narrative.