"A path right in front of my feet"

An interview with Simone Zelitch, author of Waveland

On a sunny autumn afternoon, I met Simone at a quiet cafe in northwest Philadelphia. Over bagels and coffee, we chatted about the rich history of the Civil Rights Movement, the experience of being an outsider, using real stories to influence fictional ones, and much more. Below is the transcription of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

What inspired you to write about Freedom Summer?

Well, I consider myself a history nerd. In particular, I find myself drawn to movements that have enormous possibility are are undermined, sometimes by outside forces, sometimes by internal contradictions. I've written about a medieval peasant revolt, about a rebellion against Moses in the wilderness, and also about Zionism. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, I found myself drawn to the summer when the young black organizers of the Mississippi Movement invited close to a thousand white students to come down for a few months to register voters and teach in Freedom Schools. The presence of those privileged, undeniably brave, but sometimes arrogant, outsiders led to unforeseen and complicated consequences.

I understand the dynamics of entering a situation as an outsider. I teach at Community College of Philadelphia, where the students are primarily working-class and African American. Along those same lines, I spent two years in the Peace Corps in Hungary — again, coming into culturally alien circumstances as an outsider.

As I began to do some research into the Civil Rights Movement, specifically SNCC, I started reading about “wade-ins”. I read about one that took place at a beach in St. Augustine, and for whatever reason, from that image I got Beth Fine leaping into the pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. My books sometimes begin with an idea, they sometimes begin with an image, they sometimes begin with a first line — this book began very clearly began with this image of someone jumping into water and, as was the case with Beth Fine, she didn’t know how to swim.

So that was the origin of this particular piece. It led me to a lot of research, and I love research. To me, research and writing are completely entangled with each other. Finding out, for example, that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had someone who was in charge of cars — someone with lists of cars that all had nicknames. Or discovering how the SNCC office in Mississippi actually worked. Also, reading memoirs of the people in the movement was important to me — memoirs of major African American figures, as well as those of white women. It ended up creating a framework for the story.

You you love history and doing research. Can you tell us more about your research process?

Absolutely. I think this is pretty typical, but I like to begin by reading a lot of secondary source material.  A great book that generated some of my ideas is David Haberstam’s The Children, which is essentially about young people in the movement. Pretty quickly, I fixated on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which, compared to Dr. King and his movement, had younger people, was more radical, and thought in a transformative way about society. I started reading books specific to SNCC, and then memoirs.

I was lucky enough to have the resources to travel through Mississippi, which was an incredibly important trip to me. Among other things, there’s a Jewish character in the book, and he’s based on someone I met, a shopkeeper in Greenwood. I changed his name but he’s very recognizably himself, trying to negotiate between being an outsider among Christian Whites, and also feeling inherent racism towards Blacks (who, of course, were his customers). I found the ambiguity really fascinating, and I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t gone to Mississippi.

Because I had done the research in advance, and because I knew to look for certain sites, I felt like Mississippi was a place where heroes lived. I could think about it’s history of segregation and racism, but I was fixated on, for example, where was the Freedom House in a particular town? Where was the place where the Deacons for Defense, holding their guns, would stand guard? I visited Waveland, Mississippi, which gives the book its name. I got to see the grounds where the conference took place, where people were trying to shape the future of SNCC.

I also got to do archival research, which is a third level of research where you’re actually looking at documents — like notes from meetings, or a sketch someone did of the structure of SNCC. The archives were spectacular, and really helped the novel.

There’s been several recent films which take place around this time period — most prominently Selma and All The Way — and focus mainly on Dr. King. The SNCC characters in these films are perceived as more “hot-headed”, maybe, than their counterparts in Dr. King’s circle. Do you agree with this portrayal?

I have to say, I have a bone to pick with Selma. It makes James Forman look infantile. At least in All The Way — which I saw as both a stage play and an HBO production — SNCC is taken seriously.

In Atlantic City, SNCC challenged the Democrats, who were segregated. They brought delegates to the convention under the integrated Freedom Democratic Party. Johnson was afraid he’d lose the south, so he got Hubert Humphrey to basically scuttle it. Everyone was assuming SNCC would take some sort of compromise, but they didn’t. I thought that was fairly clear in All The Way, and that the SNCC characters were portrayed fairly. In particular you see Martin Luther King himself (or at least Hubert Humphrey) confronted by Fannie Lou Hamer. And that was pretty true to it.

In terms of Selma, I actually wrote a blog piece about it called “The Trouble With Selma, which I’ll attempt to summarize. SNCC was anti-leadership. They disliked the whole idea of doing what Martin Luther King says, not taking into account the grassroots — King is going to come, but then he’s going to leave. Having an infrastructure on the ground, that’s what SNCC was all about.

Having a White protagonist at the heart of a novel about Civil Rights is a very interesting and different view. What does this perspective bring to the Civil Rights discussion?

It’s not that different, interestingly enough.

One thing I feel somewhat queasy about is the idea of the “White Savior” narrative. We see it in a book like The Help — and I like to see Waveland as a sort-of anti-Help. There are several different frameworks for this. One of them is: the Black people serve as redemptive forces for the White people, who save the day. Another is: the White people educate the Black people, so together they save the day. I really don’t want Waveland to be either of those.

Beth Fine actually is profoundly changed by her experience in Mississippi. I’d like to think that part of what she learns is her own humanity, but I also think that, eventually, she loses a degree of self-consciousness. She knows she has privilege, but she’s able to use that privilege in reasonable ways without feeling all weird and squirrelly about it. For example, when she first comes to Mississippi as part of the Mississippi Summer Project, she feels self-conscious about having an aunt who can help, or about having money — she doesn’t want to acknowledge it. She can’t stand people calling her Miss Beth, which they would all the time. Later, as she matures and gets more firm in herself, she regularly seeks help wherever she can find it. She starts to actually feel natural and easy with people in Mississippi.

I also have to say, I am White, and I’ve been in experiences where I’ve had to figure out my way, and negotiate my own sense of guilt and acknowledgement of privilege. This is something I know about emotionally. There are chapters from the point of view of African Americans in my book, though. That’s something that I feel fine that I did, but to some extent was risky for me to do.

Both this novel, Waveland, and your most recent novel, Judenstaat, have important events or locations in history that are a launch point for the characters and the story. What are the benefits and challenges of using real events and locations while building the world of the novel versus creating something from scratch?

I don’t know if anybody ever creates something completely from scratch. I have published five novels, and to a great extent, in every single one of them, I stole my stories. I see history as a really rich framework for worldbuilding. I think having a historical timeline, then figuring out how my characters interact with it, is a great benefit when it comes to actually plotting the novel.

In some ways, Judenstaat — which is an alternative history, where a Jewish state is set in Germany instead of Palestine in 1948 — was the trickiest along those lines. Some readers have been frustrated by this, because I’m taking actual historical events and changing them. If the readers don’t know the actual historical events, they’re like What’s real and what’s not? With Waveland, aside from the town of Melody and the characters (which I invented), the events are real and the time frames are real. It gave me a structure.

Describe your writing process in three words.

Flashlight Dark Path.

I do a lot of fumbling around, a lot of false starts. When things are going well, it’s as though whatever is driving me is lighting a path right in front of my feet, and that’s how I find my way. I was asked by The Qwillery, are you a plotter, a pantser, or a hybrid? I’m definitely a classic pantser — I do it by the seat of my pants. I sometimes get to the point where I step back and plot. But the advantage of having a historical framework is that the path and the checkpoints are there.

If you could meet one of the characters from Waveland in real life, who would it be and why?

I love Larry Walsh, but I’m not sure Larry is the one I’d want to meet. I’m going to choose Freddie, who is someone relatively obscure. I think I’m too close to Beth to need to meet her, and Larry I feel like I know. I would like to know what it was like for Freddie to live through this time, to see these characters and interact with them, and how she was changed by it. So, in some ways, who I’d like to speak to is not a primary character, but rather someone who was affected by all the other characters. I think I’d be scared to meet Beth. She is my roundest character.

Do you find as you write more novels, your characters become more “real”?

It’s novel by novel. Very often, the most real character in any book of mine is not a central character but someone who interacts with a central character. Each of my books is very different: they have clear, unifying themes, but take place in very different places and often have very different feels.

I think I’ve become more ambitious as time has gone on. Judenstaat is definitely my most ambitious book. But I think the characters all belong to the world they’re in, and are developed — I hope — in context to that world.

Do you have any superstitions around your writing process?

Yes, and I think most people do. I don’t like to talk about works in progress — I think that’s a very common one. I like to keep drafts and then re-type those drafts, rather than revise on the drafts themselves. When I was working on Judenstaat, I was in colonies a lot, and I had a certain coffee mug I always drank from. It had a picture of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on it, which was a big influence on that novel. I found it helpful to drink from that coffee mug. I’m a big believer in habit, too. A big thing: walks. Walks in the morning before you write, if you can manage them.

Is there a novel or an author that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?

I recently read something by Jerome Gold, who runs Black Heron Press, that I was really impressed by: a memoir of working in a juvenile prison. He’s been doing extraordinary work for years. Terry Bisson is quite wonderful as well.

One guiding spirit for Waveland I want to call out is James Baldwin. I read and thought a lot about what he had to say about the movement. He’s phenomenal.