Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Q&A with Wanda M. Morris


Photo by Monique and Brandon Chatman



Wanda M. Morris is the author of the new novel Anywhere You Run. She also has written the novel All Her Little Secrets. Also an attorney, she lives in Atlanta.


Q: What inspired you to write Anywhere You Run?


A: I had just finished writing my debut novel, All Her Little Secrets. The country had just come through the aftermath of the 2020 election. States like Georgia and Texas began to enact state laws that made it much more difficult to vote, particularly for the disenfranchised, the working class, and the elderly.


It reminded me of the times my mother told me she was unable to vote when she lived in Birmingham, Alabama.


I had a character from All Her Little Secrets that continued to ramble around in my head long after I finished writing that book. I thought it might be interesting to put a face on an aspect of the civil rights movement that still continues to plague us to this day – equity at the voting polls and what that means for full and fair equal rights in this country. 


Anywhere You Run is a coming-of-age story of two young Black women in the South and how their lives are impacted by the emerging civil rights movement of the early 1960s. 


The book opens with the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi – two white and one Black. Against this backdrop, Violet Richards is brutally attacked. She kills her attacker and flees before anyone can find the body.


Through a series of events, she winds up in a small rural town in Georgia. Her older sister, Marigold, is in trouble too, but of a different sort. She is unmarried and pregnant. When the police come to her door looking for Violet, she decides that it is better for her to flee too and that in doing so, it might solve her problems.


But what the women don’t realize is that their problems will only get worse because a man from Mississippi is hot on their trail and he has some dark secrets and a very unique motive for finding the two young women.


Q: The CrimeReads review of the book says, in part, “A southern setting where voting and abortion are both increasingly restricted feels…rather like today, if I’m honest. Wanda Morris, too, has noted the parallels, and there is a sense of political urgency that helps speed this thriller along.” What do you think of this description, and can you say more about how the book's historical themes relate to those of today?


A: Molly Odintz, the lovely woman who wrote that review, really understood what I was trying to convey. Yes, there are parallels. So many of the themes from 1964 that I cover in the book feel eerily familiar in 2022 -- voting rights, police brutality, a woman's right to financial independence and to govern her own body.


Keep in mind, it was less than 60 years ago that Blacks secured the right to vote under the Voting Rights Act of 1964. It was only 50 years ago that the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade gave women the right to govern their own bodies. That's not ancient history.


Right now, my millennial daughter has fewer rights than I had when I was her age. And now those hard-fought rights are being whittled away. And when you think about it, so much of this all comes back to the right to vote. I tell people if you think voting doesn’t matter, then you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 


A: I owe a huge debt to the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History located here in Atlanta. I spent hours there culling through books and documents on the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.


Researching things like Medgar Evers’ work to secure voting rights for Black Mississippians, the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three Freedom Riders who were trying to help Black Mississippians get the right to vote.


Some of the research was very difficult to go through, particularly pictures and first-hand accounts of the lynchings and beatings of Black people and civil rights activists who stepped into the fray.


Something that surprised me but it shouldn't have -- women were not allowed to obtain credit in their own name without a cosigner. Married women were required to get their husband's permission and his cosign to obtain credit. 


On the other hand, there were some aspects of the research process that I really enjoyed.


To bring authenticity to the book and immerse myself in that time period, I spent a huge amount of time reading old magazines -- Life, Ebony, Jet, and Tan --  and listening to music from the early 1960s.


In fact, I created a playlist of the songs that inspired the novel: Spotify playlist for Anywhere You Run. There's every type of music included, from a civil rights anthem to Patsy Cline to James Brown to Thelonious Monk. 


I talked to older relatives who lived during that era. I also got to talk to Jonathan Shapiro, a civil rights lawyer who actually worked on the Mississippi Summer Project helping Black Mississippians get the right to vote and serve on juries. I owe a huge debt to Jonathan and his wife, Hank Phillippi Ryan (Yep, that Hank Phillippi Ryan!).


Q: The novel is told from various characters' perspectives--did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one character before turning to the others?


A: When I write a novel, it's like I'm watching a movie in my head. I see and hear the characters talk to each other. So I write it as I see it in my mind. Because I knew this would be a cat-and-mouse chase of a book, I knew I would need to write it from various points of view.


I started with Violet's character and let the story flow from her inciting incident. Violet's story is intimately connected with that of her sister, Marigold, and Mercer, the man chasing them. Each of them harbors a secret that if revealed threatens to change their lives in a very bad way. That threat drives the tension of the story.


There's also a fourth POV, sort of. It's the voice of Violet and Marigold's older sister, Rose, who is deceased. She tells the story of what it was like to live under the oppression of the Jim Crow South through a series of diary entries that Violet reads throughout the book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I am writing a contemporary novel about a young woman who must rise above her personal insecurities to save a Black landowner in Georgia's low country when she uncovers an illegal scheme that threatens to undo the legacy and generational wealth of disenfranchised families, including her own.


The story explores what it means to have a home and how difficult it is for disenfranchised families to build a legacy of generational wealth for those they leave behind.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Wanda M. Morris.

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