Monday, June 24, 2013

Q&A with author A'Lelia Bundles

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A'Lelia Bundles
A'Lelia Bundles is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, a biography of her great-great-grandmother, the famed entrepreneur. She also has written a biography of Madam Walker for young adult readers, has a book coming out soon about the Madam Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, and is working on a biography of her great-grandmother, A'Lelia Walker, Madam Walker's daughter. A'Lelia Bundles worked for ABC News and NBC News for a total of 30 years. She lives in Washington, D.C., and her website can be found at

Q: You are currently writing about A’Lelia Walker, your great-grandmother. How is that project going?

A: I’m almost finished with it. I’ve been working on it for too many years! I’m polishing it; the rough draft is done. I’m working on the polishing of Chapter 7—I have about seven more to finish editing.

I’m finding it much harder this time than with the first book—actually, this is my fourth book, but it’s the second that’s a historical dive. Maybe I set the bar for myself with the previous book—I reread it, and I think, “That’s actually pretty good!” Each chapter is like rolling that boulder up the mountain, like Sisyphus.

It’s taken me longer than I had anticipated, because [A’lelia Walker’s] life is so different from her mother’s. … [Madam C.J. Walker’s] was a great American rags-to-riches story. The story of her daughter is that of the first real black heiress, a celebrity, [the daughter of] the classic successful parent…. She was a very interesting, flamboyant person; she loved art and music and theater, and was part of the Harlem Renaissance community. She, as a person—it was not the same arc to the story. Not rags to riches, but grappling with a celebrity identity.

Q: You grew up hearing about your great-great-grandmother and your great-grandmother, so were there surprises when you started doing research for your books?

A: There were a lot, because what I knew growing up—that Madam Walker founded a business, my mother went to work every day in that building, I knew the basic official company bio [of Madam Walker]…. But all the other details of her life, I really didn’t know. No one had written that. I pretty much started from scratch.

Q: How was it to write about family members? Was it a struggle between the descendant part of you and the journalist part?

A: The journalist part of me really wanted to tell this story. They both were dead before I was born [which made it easier]. I’ll never really write about my parents! This was writing about these women from a distance. And an important moment for me was when I was in graduate school at Columbia and doing serious research [on Madam Walker]. My mother was very ill, and I said I was finding some things [about Madam Walker] that were not very flattering. She said to tell the truth. That was a great gift to me.

Q: You’ve also been working on another book?

A: An Arcadia pictorial history book. I agreed to do it a year and a half ago, [thinking the other book would be done,] and I whipped it out in three weeks. These books are really great because they capture little pieces of history that wouldn’t warrant a major book. It’s on the Madam Walker Theatre Center, a national historical landmark in Indianapolis where the company was based. It was built in 1927. It’s where my mother worked every day.

Q: You’ve also written a biography of Madam Walker for young adult readers. Do you prefer writing for one audience or another?

A: I enjoy the more comprehensive books. The young adult book—I was wanting to write about Madam Walker, and in 1991, not a lot of people were saying we need more books about African-American women, slightly obscure historical figures.

I was on the Radcliffe College Trustees board with [the late Harvard professor] Nathan Huggins, and he was an advisor to Chelsea House, which was creating a series [of biographies of African-Americans]. That was how that book came about.

In 1991, believe it or not, there had never been a book written about Madam Walker. Now she’s everywhere. That opened the door and gave me something I could show [literary agent] Gail Ross, along with a book proposal.

Young adult stories—I love them, and I love the fact that these books are available, but for me, that was probably a one-off; I like getting into more context.

Q: You worked for many years for ABC and NBC News. What do you think of the changes in the journalism industry in recent years?

A: It’s complicated. On the one hand, I love the fact that anybody can write anything; and there’s good and bad about that. If I’m on Facebook or Twitter, I can exchange information; I can write a blog; I can read things by people who would never get a byline in The Washington Post, The New York Times, [or appear on the networks]. Now, the doors are wide open.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of crap that’s out there that not substantiated and not well edited. The business model has blown up; people are writing for free because many websites don’t pay.

When I started, there were the three networks and PBS. You worked your way up. There was a certain filter; you met a standard. Now, NPR is a must for me every morning, and I like certain news programs. I would find it very hard to work in most news organizations today; it would be hard to put on the celebrity stuff, the rancorous behavior in Congress—it isn’t really a story, it’s a spat, but it ends up [on the news].

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew when I was 8 years old that I was a writer. It was the excitement, the adrenaline that I got at an early age--I knew it was my passion. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to continue, and to be part of a community of writers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

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