“Over time, for me, history and literature became connected by the idea of STORY, by a preoccupation with the human condition…”
I am beyond excited to introduce this month’s featured author, historian, and activist, Frye Gaillard, to WELL READ’s readers. Frye is not afraid to write about hard topics, doesn’t shy from the truth, and shines a light on people who make a difference. He is a natural born storyteller, gifted with a curious mind and an ear for stories.
His award winning titles include A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement That Changed America, Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music, The Dream Long Deferred: The Landmark Struggle for Desegregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Go South to Freedom, a novel for middle grade readers.
His most recent publications include The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance, coauthored with Pulitzer Prize winner Cynthia Tucker; and Live As If… A Teacher’s Love Story, a remembrance of his late wife, Dr. Nancy Gaillard.
Frye has written more than thirty books and his writing ranges across the genres of history, memoir, journalism, and historical stories for young readers. He’s won The Lillian Smith Book Award, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Museum Literary Prize, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Humanitarian of the Year Award, the Alabama Governor’s Award for the Arts, the Clarence Cason Award for nonfiction, and the Eugene Current-Garcia Award for literary scholarship. The film adaptation of In the Path of the Storms, for which he co-wrote the script, won a regional Emmy.
He has served as writer in residence at the University of South Alabama, Queens University of Charlotte, and the Honors College at historically black Johnson C. Smith University. His byline has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Journal of American History, The Bitter Southerner, The Oxford American, Sojourners, Parade, and other publications.
Frye is the former southern editor at The Charlotte Observer, and Frye has also co-written title cuts on albums recorded by a half dozen Nashville artists, with two of those recordings reaching the top ten on folk and country music charts.
Now that you’ve read his impressive bio, let’s dig in!
I read that when Frye was on a high school field trip in Birmingham, he witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest during King's Birmingham campaign against racial segregation. I asked if that event was what made him want to become a writer.
Frye answered, “Seeing Dr. King's arrest certainly nudged me down the path toward writing - and specifically, I think, nonfiction writing. Because in that moment, history suddenly had a face, and it was the face of Dr. King. Over time, for me, history and literature became connected by the idea of STORY, by a preoccupation with the human condition and what William Faulkner called, "the human heart in conflict with itself." In stories like the unfolding civil rights movement, you could see the conflict within our collective heart. It took a while before I had words for all of this. But seeing the arrest set the dominoes in motion.”
“What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?” I asked.
“I always loved to read and I had some fine teachers in high school who helped me think about the power of words. Then, as a student at Vanderbilt, a stream of great speakers came through campus - people like Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, and others whose rhetoric and moral vision stirred our hearts and minds. I was also moved by the power of song lyrics - the words of Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell. There was a lot of inspiration back in those days,” Frye answered.
I’d read of some of the great experiences Frye had while he was enrolled at Vanderbilt University and asked if he would share his favorite with us.
Frye’s response, “My favorite Vanderbilt experience was probably introducing Robert F. Kennedy when he came to speak in 1968. I got to ride in the car with him from the airport to campus - me, Kennedy, and the astronaut, John Glenn, in the back seat. It felt so real and surreal all at once. But I was forever impressed by this presidential candidate and his offstage humanity - his seriousness about what he believed.”
After Frye graduated from Vanderbilt, he took the job as the managing editor for the Race Relations Reporter in Nashville in the early 70s.
“You were so young! Is there one story you’d like to share from that time?” I asked.
“I was really lucky to land a job at the Race Relations Reporter, a foundation-funded, non-profit publication with a staff of fine writers like John Egerton, or my friend, Jack White, who went on to work for Time Magazine. I'm not sure why they hired me, except, I suppose, that I was eager - and I cared about the story they were trying to cover. After a couple of years, there was some turnover during a time of funding uncertainty, and I sort of backed into an editor's role. I did have some career-shaping experiences. At one time, I was assigned to cover American Indian issues, which, in the beginning I knew nothing about. I read a book called Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, written by a great Native American author named Vine Deloria, Jr., who was also, I discovered, a really nice guy. I called him up, told him about my new assignment and asked if I was being impossibly presumptuous to undertake it. "Not if you listen," he replied. It seemed like pretty good advice for a writer.”
After writing so many articles, essays, and wonderful stories I wondered. “If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?”
Frye responded, “I would say, 'Younger self, don't try to write in anybody's voice but your own. You will just sound silly.' I still wince when I think about an early story I wrote under the influence of Tom Wolfe.”
“What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?”
“I remember Joe Cumming, the Atlanta bureau chief of Newsweek and a wonderful wordsmith, telling me there are only two ways to get better as a writer: You have to read, and you have to write. By that, he meant, read the work of really good writers and try to think critically about what they are doing, about why it works. And then, just write; just practice, until finally you develop a voice of your own. I also read Eudora Welty's, One Writer's Beginnings, in which she said good writing was learning to see, learning to hear, and finding a voice. Or words to that effect. Writing is hard, or at least it always has been for me. Satisfying, but hard. And it doesn't get easier because your expectations are upwardly mobile. Or at least they should be.”
“Did you ever have to fight to get to tell a story the way YOU wanted to?”
“Yes, I have had to fight to tell the story the way I wanted. I am very stubborn about this. I'm also VERY careful about who I ask to read a work in progress. Yes, I'm looking for honest feedback, but it needs to come from somebody I trust, somebody who understands the delicacy and vulnerability of the process. I know many people love writing groups. I avoid them like the plague. Writing, for me, is an intensely solitary thing. Once I'm finished, once it's the way I think it needs to be, the vulnerability subsides, and I can let it go. People who read it can respond as they wish. Fair enough. Those responses are, in a sense, a completion of the creative process.”
So many books to choose from, I had to ask, “What book are you most proud of?”
“I think there are two books I'm most proud of. The first is A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s. It's probably gotten the most response and widest distribution of anything I've done, and it was certainly the most ambitious. It weighs in at just under 700 pages, but I think - hope - it succeeds at telling a story and sustaining it from start to finish. To me, that decade - the one in which I came of age - unfolded like a story, and I wanted to capture a sense of that. The second book is much more personal and much more obscure. It's called Live As If... A Teacher's Love Story, and it's a memoir about my late wife, Nancy Gaillard, who spent much of her career as a teacher and principal in the inner city schools of Charlotte, before becoming an Assistant Professor at the University of South Alabama. She earned her doctorate at the age of 67 from the University of Alabama. While she was there, the football team won two national championships. She was always happy to take credit for that, though she admitted, in fairness, that she had to share some of it with Nick Saban. She died of leukemia three years later. Telling her story was both a labor of love and an honor.”
“Frye, what are you working on now?”
“Well, I have one new book that's been out for a couple of months, a collection of interviews with authors, co-edited with a wonderful writer named Pat Toomay. Pat and I had a mentor and friend, John Seigenthaler, who was the crusading editor of the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. For more than 40 years, John hosted a public television show in which he interviewed such writers as Nikki Giovanni, Pat Conroy, Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ann Patchett, and many others. More than 900 interviews in all. Pat and I picked about two dozen of those conversations for a book called, A Word on Words: The Best of John Seigenthaler's Interviews. It's a book full of wisdom and warmth. Seigenthaler was as extraordinary as his subjects.I have another book waiting for a final verdict from a publisher. I probably shouldn't jinx it.”
Frye has met and interviewed so many interesting people over his career, but if he had the chance to interview someone today, who would it be?
“Oh wow, if I could interview anyone... I used to say it would be Nelson Mandela, but he is no longer with us. I've interviewed Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, so maybe now it would be Bruce Springsteen or Joni Mitchell, or Odetta. I love great performers who also understand the literature of music.”
For years the legendary John Seigenthaler hosted A Word on Words on Nashville's public television station, WNPT. During the show’s four-decade run (1972 to 2013), he interviewed some of the most interesting and most important writers of our time. These in-depth exchanges revealed much about the writers who appeared on his show and gave a glimpse into their creative processes. Seigenthaler was a deeply engaged reader and a generous interviewer, a true craftsman. Frye Gaillard and Pat Toomay have collected and transcribed some of the iconic interactions from the show.
Featuring interviews with:Arna Bontemps • Marshall Chapman • Pat Conroy • Rodney Crowell • John Egerton • Jesse Hill Ford • Charles Fountain • William Price Fox • Kinky Friedman • Frye Gaillard • Nikki Giovanni • Doris Kearns Goodwin • David Halberstam • Waylon Jennings • John Lewis • David Maraniss • William Marshall • Jon Meacham • Ann Patchett • Alice Randall • Dori Sanders • John Seigenthaler Sr. • Marty Stuart • Pat Toomay
“A child of the Sixties and one of the leading civil-rights reporters of his generation, Frye Gaillard has given us a riveting tour along what he calls the fine line between history and journalism. As a reporter, he has witnessed a great deal and interviewed many of the key figures of the decade that shaped America’s future while breaking its heart. As a scholar, he has read widely and thought deeply about our nation’s halting pursuit of justice and mercy for all. A Hard Rain is essential reading for a time when an American president has willfully ignored the hard-earned lessons from our passage through the most tumultuous decade of social change since the Civil War.” -- Howell Raines ― former executive editor of The New York Times