BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Our writing series has focused on options to try if a muse is encouraging you, with some of Chicago’s finest authors offering their tips to get started. This week, we bring attention to the world of non-fiction.
Compelling non-fiction begins with an author gifted not only in doing the research but also in telling the story. These two women excel in doing just that. The Washington Post has called Gail Lukasik’s White Like Her one of the most inspiring stories of 2017. She recently appeared on Megyn Kelly Today describing her own mother’s identity in the complex world of racial passing in the United States.
Lucia Adams, considered by many as one of Chicago’s top writers, has authored several non-fiction books and commissioned biographies. Her highly popular columns have appeared in Spotlight Chicago where she served as editor, River North News, Classic Chicago Magazine, and in New York’s AVENUE magazine and Manhattan Media newspapers.
A mystery writer whose female detective lives in Door Country, a poet holding a PhD in the field, and a former PR director at Robert Morris University, Gail Lukasik has mastered a variety of writing styles. But it was a wish to learn more about the grandfather her mother never spoke about that led her into non-fiction.
Her research became White Like Her, which the Daily Beast says she wrote “bravely and eloquently with a researcher’s eye and a daughter’s heart.”
“In 1995 I was between teaching jobs and somehow thought about my grandfather who had lived in New Orleans. He was a real mystery guy and my mother, who lived in Ohio, never would respond to my questions [about him].
“I went to the census records, and it had ‘(b)’ beside his name. My friend, who was an investigative reporter, suggested that I write the Louisiana vital statistics to get his birth certificate. When it arrived, I saw ‘(c)’ for colored. I was in complete shock.
“When my mother, who had milky white skin, came for a visit, she denied it and then got very quiet and seemed very frightened. She made me promise that I not talk about it until after she died. I kept her secret.
“In 2014, three months after she died, I saw an ad for the PBS genealogy road show that was looking for mysteries concerning New Orleans families. ‘Serendipitous’ would be the only word for it. I went on the show, and they found that a 1940 census confirmed everything I thought. I knew I was going to write the book. The show aired on a Tuesday in 2015 and on that Friday, I received a call from a woman who said: ‘I am your cousin—welcome back to the family.”
“I knew that the story was not just about me, I needed to write the bigger story about racial laws, slavery, Jim Crow, and the concept of passing for white. The experience was very cathartic—I wanted everyone to see this family and allow my mother to be herself at last.”
Though Lucia does not aim the focus of her upcoming book, Bror Blixen in Africa 1913-1938, at family matters, her story does have a personal connection: “In the cold summer of 1986, I wandered into the Cinemart on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, New York, to see anything that happened to be playing. It was Out of Africa and away I flew to a luminous terra nova for two or three hours falling hard for a minor character, Bror Blixen, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer with uncanny charisma and verisimilitude. Who was this irresistible man, as nonchalant and charming as his wife was tense and disagreeable? Thus commenced a long, oft-interrupted journey to find the answer.”
“When, years later, I read Daphne Sheldrick’s Story of Tsavo, and her rescue of baby elephants orphaned by poaching there, I knew I would have to try to understand why Bror made the pioneering effort to open up this untouched land of Tsavo, this Garden of Eden, this Noah’s Ark, for big game hunting, leading paying clients, the creme of the international social elite who killed for pleasure and trophies, not for profit.
“I had to tell the story of why an aristocrat on his uppers in the tropics desperately needed to earn a living by leading these ‘lions in the morning, champagne in the evening safaris’ for, among others, the Vanderbilts and the Prince of Wales.
“Wahoga is the Swahili word the local tribesmen gave Bror, meaning wild goose, someone in one place and then another.”
When did you know that you were a writer?
Lucia: On my fourth birthday, I announced I wanted to be a writer. I scribbled before I could read or write in the margins of books—my favorites were my father’s poetry books because they had lots of white space.
Gail: I knew at a very young age that I wanted to write. I wrote my first short story and first poem at age 7. I kept them to myself. I journaled a lot. I think I did this to process the world around me, to re-create it to my way of thinking. I am from a working class background, and it wasn’t necessarily encouraged
What advice would you give to potential non-fiction writers on choosing a topic?
L: Choose a topic that is intellectually challenging, though most write more from the heart than I do. If you feel the need to expurgate emotions, reveal inner truths, go right ahead. Often I wish I could, but the meddling intellect always gets in my way.
G: If you are considering doing a personal story, reach out to elders in your family to ask what they remember.
L: Every single day do something: write, research, or edit for a minimum of three hours, on vacation, anywhere; never falter. Keep the narrative moving as fast as possible—don’t slow down!
G: Just write—and remember all writing is about rewriting.
What about research?
L: My main problem is stopping research, a passion. Every day I find another fact to add, and my sentences become packed, an extreme Strunk and White. It is very difficult to stop learning something new.
G: I was being educated about my own people, and it suddenly became very personal. It was about how they suffered and how they triumphed.
I wanted to go way back to the beginning of slavery in America. I was determined to find at least one slave in my family, and I did: a woman named Marla who came over from Africa in the early 1700s in the beginning days of slavery.
Another, Leon Frederick, my great-great-grandfather, was mustered into one of the first regiment of colored troops in the Civil War, and his name appears on the African American Civil War plaque in Washington, D.C.
Were there surprises along the way?
L: I always had the idea of animal rights behind the tale of their slaughter and decimation by Western man in the colonies. Wahoga morphed from an exciting baron’s biography to an account of what he and his clients perpetrated.
Gail, what are you working on now?
I have just finished an historical novel called A Matter of Memory and sent it off to my agent. I am so enjoying this genre and having my characters inhabit a real place.
It is set in two places: Warsaw in 1943 and Chicago 1969 during the ‘days of rage.’ It begins with a Catholic woman who takes in two Jewish children and because of the traumatic nature of her life’s journey, it moves to her psychotic break here in Chicago.
Whether you explore family secrets or cherished memories, or the life of a stranger who somehow touched your life, recommend filling those pages with the same passion expressed by these two writers.
We end the series next week with a glance at memoir writing, and advice on how to put your own story into words.