Sunday, December 9, 2012

Maude Brown's Baby - Interview with Author Richard Cunningham!

A few weeks ago I had a signing for my recently published book, Galveston and the Civil War, at the FANTASTIC "indie" store, Galveston Bookshop.  The shop is more than just a book store; it is really a center of culture and discussion in Galveston, and I had so much fun talking to all the nice people who came into the store that day, many of whom are just wild about their island (they take great pride in being "BOI" - "Born on the Island"!) and are always looking for new books about its history.

Of course, an important part of that history is the September 8, 1900 hurricane that devastated the island, and took between 6,000 and 12,000 lives, and there are many great books on the subject, including A Weekend in September and Isaac's Storm.

The storm and its aftermath have also been the inspiration for several novels and the highlight of my day at the shop was meeting Richard Cunningham (and his wife, Lily Ann), who has written a wonderful story: Maude Brown's Baby.

My review:

I truly enjoyed this bookThe story takes place in 1918, but is grounded in the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 as the main character, Donald, was orphaned on account of the storm.  Throughout the book, the devastation of that horrible day and its aftermath is described; and its cost - not just in property but also in the way that families were shattered.  The real beauty of this book is that it will appeal to readers who enjoy different kinds of stories: coming-of-age, romance, historical, mystery, and more.  The romance is written sweetly and with nostalgia.  Indeed, part of the author's genius in the writing is so aptly describing a time that seems on the edge of two eras: for example, a family that had only ever owned a buggy got its first automobile...references to the Civil War (Matthew Brady and Clara Barton) are in tandem with the Great War; there are many of other examples.  Readers from Houston and Galveston, especially, will delight in the many references to people and places that are mentioned throughout.  His characterization of Galveston as a very rough-and-tumble place is just excellent.  Highly recommended!

I had the great pleasure of talking with Richard about our shared interests in writing and had the privilege of getting my own signed copy when he had an event at the delightful River Oaks Bookstore in Houston.

Richard was kind enough to answer some questions about himself and the book.


First - about Richard(!):

Richard Cunningham is a freelance science writer and commercial photographer. He holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Oklahoma State University and a master's in Science and Technology Journalism from Texas A&M University. Richard has been writing non-fiction magazine articles and books for more than 30 years. Maude Brown's Baby is his first novel.

...and the book(!):

Orphaned by the hurricane that wrecked Galveston, Texas, in September 1900, aspiring photojournalist Donald Brown has all but abandoned hope of learning who his parents might have been. He exploits what most consider a handicap: his nearsightedness. With extraordinary close vision he discovers clues to his origins in the photo of himself as an infant. He helps find a missing photographer by analyzing film from a damaged camera, and he gains the friendship of a young woman in distress. Donald's quest begins on September 8, 1918, anniversary of the Great Storm. War in Europe drags on, and he must soon register for the draft. Meanwhile, his friend Jake needs help finding a news photographer who is missing after an assignment in Galveston. Jake, a mercurial and ambitious womanizer, has ties to the island's nascent mafia. Donald finds himself more involved as clues point to a possible murder. When Donald's new friend, Clara, reveals a cache of photos that survived the storm, he discovers both the tragedy of his family and the source of his passion for photography. Maude Brown's Baby is the first in a series of historical mysteries that trace the life and career of Donald Brown.

And now, the BEST part - my interview with Richard!

Jim Schmidt (JS): Tell us a little about yourself; what inspired you to pursue journalism and photography as a career?

Richard Cunningham (RC): I’ve been lucky enough to have many interests over the years, but writing and photography go way back. My parents gave me my first camera when I was eight or nine, and at the age of 13, I used the first fifty dollars I earned mowing neighbor’s lawns to buy a typewriter.

Journalism was a natural major for me at Oklahoma State University. During my senior year, I was both the advertising counselor for the school’s daily newspaper, and one of four staff photographers for the yearbook. Oklahoma State was also where I met a guy who is the basis for Jake, one of the characters in my novel.

JS: What inspired you to write a novel? Is it something you've always wanted to do? What are some of the challenges and rewards of having one foot in nonfiction and the other in fiction?

RC: I’ve made a good living writing nonfiction articles and books about science and technology. I enjoy reading fiction and admire fiction writers, but never thought I could do it myself. My training has all been journalistic, where the goal is to learn a subject, then tell others about it.

When I began
Maude Brown’s Baby in November, 2010, it started as a short story for my own amusement. Within a week, I could see that it wanted to be a novel. In more than 30 years as a journalist, I’ve never had more fun writing.

The problem now is that it’s all I want to do. Now it’s hard to find time to work on a novel after taking care of my regular clients. I still have to pay the house note and buy food. 

The very best thing about having written the first book is all the nice people I’ve met at book signings and online. The book has also opened unexpected new doors. Sight Into Sound, a wonderful nonprofit organization that used to be called Taping for the Blind, has asked me to record
Maude Brown’s Baby for future broadcast on their radio station. I’m slow, but I love doing it.

JS: What inspired this story?

RC: A single photograph inspired the book. I paid four dollars for it in an antique store more than 20 years ago. The image (now on the cover) was of a sweet baby boy, about nine months old, sitting in a chair in what looked to be someone's home. That in itself was unusual for the time of the portrait, which I estimated to be about 1900. Across the bottom of the photo, someone had written, "Maude Brown's baby" but there was no other information about the child or the photographer.

For two decades, the little photograph sat on a bookshelf to the right of my computer. I saw it every day and couldn't help wondering who the child might have been or how their life turned out more than 100 years ago. For me, Maude Brown's Baby brings that child back to life.

JS: One thing that really struck me was how the story seemed to straddle two eras...for example, a family that had only ever owned a buggy got its first automobile...references to the Civil War (Matthew Brady, Clara Barton) are in tandem with the Great War...there are other great examples...was this purposeful?

RC: Yes. One of the fascinating things about the early years of the twentieth century is how fast things were changing at every level. Fashion, social norms, class structure, technology, communications, civil rights, workers’ rights, women’s suffrage and a host of other things were in flux.

In researching these topics, however, I continued to be struck by how similar the issues were even earlier and still are today. Women are still fighting for equal pay. In 2012, special interest groups are still using propaganda, fear and patriotism to drive public opinion, just as they were in 1918. Even birth control and marriage rights are contentious issues, just as they were 100 years ago.

I tried to tell the story of
Maude Brown’s Baby so that people would recognize these similarities between 1918 and today.

JS: Donald is an aspiring was that discipline changing at that time? What's the difference between "taking a picture" and "telling a story" as Donald was striving to accomplish?

RC: In 1918, photojournalism was an emerging field. Cameras were getting lighter and smaller, and film was getting faster. Photographers could take high quality hand-held shots quickly, which meant they could go anywhere to get the story and bring back pictures.

Advances in photography and the technology to reproduce them in newspapers also brought change. New magazines featured photographs instead of illustrations, and often ran what we now call photo essays; sets of images that tell a story.

“Taking” versus “making” a picture refers to the care the photographer takes to use his or her skill to tell a story. Someone “takes” a picture by pointing the camera and pushing the button. Someone “makes” a picture by paying attention to the quality of the light, the position of the subjects, the action or lack of it, and so on. As I point out in the book, however, photographers quickly learned they could lie with pictures just as easily as anyone could lie with words. In the book, the main character, Donald Brown, is aware of the difference and feels the responsibility of telling the truth with his camera.

JS: Is the book somewhat autobiographical?

RC: I think that all fiction must be autobiographical to some extent, because you have to write what you know. I’m a journalist and photographer, so my main character is a photojournalist. I’d have a much harder time making him a believable pilot or a sea captain, because I know nothing about those professions. The same is true of the characters in the book. Most are based on people I’ve known, including my grandparents. Naomi Stokes was my grandmother’s maiden name. Nina Carhart was the woman who lived next door, although her personality is based more on one of my aunts. 

My wife, Lily Ann, was a huge help in developing the women characters in Maude Brown’s Baby. When men write about women, or women about men, it’s easy to fall short. Lily Ann, who also has a masters’ degree in English Literature, kept me on track from the women’s perspective.

JS: Was Houston beginning to acquire its character of separate communities (you refer often to "The Heights," for example)?

RC: I believe that it was. There were the ever-present class and race distinctions, of course. Immigrant families, like some of my wife’s ancestors, migrated to Houston’s Fourth Ward, yet even today, you can see examples of the odd mix of houses that were there, some surviving from the days of slavery.

JS: Galveston is wonderfully written as a rather rough-and-tumble place in the late 1910s...prostitution, gambling, murder, etc...what kind of research
did you do to get this flavor?

RC: There are many good books on Galveston history, as well as newspaper articles from those days. For a while, people referred to “The Free State of Galveston” in reference to the city’s loose interpretation of state and federal law. I’m also lucky and old enough to have known people who were in Galveston during the late 1920s and early 1930s—so not too long after my story. One older woman I knew forty years ago had been a “flapper” during the Roaring 20s, and she told me stories about her time in the Galveston gambling clubs. I thought of her as I wrote about the characters of Rebecca, Jenny and Maye.

My father-in-law also worked in one of the Galveston clubs as a busboy when he was a young teenager. He told me that once, someone warned him not to come to work the next day, and sure enough, there was a gangland-style shooting at the club.

JS: In researching the great hurricane 1900 what did you learn about how it disrupted families?

RC: I begin Maude Brown’s Baby with a letter from a doctor at John Sealy Hospital to his wife, who happened to be away from Galveston at the time of the storm. He wrote to let her know he had survived, and he described how, on the day of the storm, a young woman had left a child (Donald Brown) at the hospital. She never came back, so Donald was raised in a Houston orphanage.

To write that part, I first read a collection of letters that survivors had written in the days immediately after the storm. With their words in mind, I wrote the letter from the doctor to his wife. I tried to capture all the emotion of the real survivors, so that if you read all the letters, you might not be able to pick mine out from the rest. The letters are in a book is called
Through a Night of Horrors—Voices from the 1900 Storm, edited by Casey Edward Greene and Shelly Henley Kelly.

Two other books were most helpful:
Galveston and the 1900 Storm by Patricia Bellis Bixel and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, and Galveston, a City on Stilts, by Jodi Wright-Gidley and Jennifer Marines. Jennifer Marines was also kind enough to provide some additional information about construction of the seawall. 

Photographs, of course, were the main source for my descriptions of the area, both at the time of the storm and in 1918. I studied them for hours, until the images seemed to blend together with things I remember as a young boy in the early 1950s.

JS: How would you classify MBB?  It's part romance, part mystery, part history...maybe that's the beauty of the story!

RC: Thanks. I’ve been calling it a “historical mystery.” There is certainly a bit of romance, but there are three mysteries involved. One is the missing-and-presumed-dead news photographer. The second is the mystery around Donald’s birth: Who were his parents? Who took the photograph of him as a child, just before the great storm?

The first two mysteries are fiction, but the third one is real. The third mystery is the photograph itself, the one I bought in the antique store so long ago. I still ask myself, who was the real boy in that picture? What was his real life like? Did he even live to be an adult? I may never know, but someday, someone who reads Maude Brown’s Baby may be able to tell me who he was.

JS: Are you working on a sequel?  If so, where will the story take us?

RC: Yes, Maude Brown’s Baby is written to be the first in a series, much like Jacqueline Winspear’s fine Maisie Dobbs novels. I’ve started the sequel, which begins on September 30, 1918, just one week after the first book ends. I can’t say how the story will unfold, but as historical fiction, it will be driven by real events.

JS: Any advice for aspiring novelists?

RC: All kinds of advice, but mainly, know your characters pretty well before you start writing about them. When were they born? Who were their parents? Where did they go to school (or not). What do they look like? What do they enjoy? What do they hate or love or fear? Do they have any quirks? (everyone does) Are they fun to be around, or pretty annoying?

Once you know your characters, then it is just a matter of putting them into different situations to see how they will react. Before long, your imaginary friends will become real in your mind. They will take on a life of their own, and might even lead you in directions you never expected to go. Don’t fight it. Follow them eagerly. That is part of the joy of writing fiction.

Thank you Richard!  And Best Wishes for Continued Success
and Inspiration!


Mark said...

Neat! I especially like the implied mindset of anyone born on an "island." It develops interesting characters:)

Unknown said...

Hi Mark, it turns out that my wife was BOI at John Sealy Hospital.

Researching the book and more recently, reading James' excellent book, "Galveston and the Civil War," has given me a real appreciation for that unique city.


pol said...

Reading through books of interest on goodreads I found your blog and since this is one of the books I hope to read soon I have checked your blog and the review. I lived in Galveston for couple of years 59-60 and met my husband there, moved to Ga where he lived. I have a sister still living there in her 80's. Her Husband was from old established family there by name of Bertalino. his father has statue on the island too. interesting I should find this book and info as I know lot of it.....
Paula O(

Unknown said...

Hi Paula,
One of the things I've enjoyed most since publishing Maude Brown's Baby is all of the interesting comments I've heard from people with ties to Galveston, or similar events in other places. One lady told me about her grandmother having to swim for her life during a hurricane in the 1930s. I'll bet that you and your sister have some interesting stories about Galveston.