Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Q&A with Monica Chenault-Kilgore




Monica Chenault-Kilgore is the author of the new historical novel Long Gone, Come Home. She lives in Edison, New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write Long Gone, Come Home, and how did you create your character Birdie Jennings?


A: Long Gone, Come Home emerged from a journalism project where I was conducting a series of one-on-one interviews with diverse, multigenerational women to discover what lessons they thought their younger selves would impart upon their older selves; what dreams and expectations for the future they had when they were young; and what significant events in their lives challenged them or put them on the trajectory that led them to this point.


While working on this project I interviewed Birdie, a dear friend of my mother whom I had known since I was a girl growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. In real life, Birdie was a woman to admire – beautiful, accomplished, and confident.


In my interview she recounted her family life in Kentucky, a stint working at a tobacco factory, and her loves with such joyful optimism, it sparked my imagination. Long Gone, Come Home is by no means her true story, but when I finished the interview, my creative juices began to flow.


The character Birdie is a combination of real-life Birdie’s experiences and other friends of my mother who grew up during the ‘30s-‘40s.  These women who appeared deeply rooted, connected, and built to withstand the winds of time led me to write scenes about women coming into their own being, dusting off adversity to do whatever it took to provide for their families and their community.


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


A: To create a transportive slice of life during the 1930s-‘40s, I researched at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, the Rutgers University library, and various other local public libraries that had a catalogue of articles from African American newspapers.


I read articles detailing church events, high society pageants and balls; arts and entertainment reviews; classified advertising and news articles where incidents were written with such panache.


While researching the political landscape during that time I was surprised to see many of the issues raised then are the same issues we are demanding to address today.


During the ‘30s-‘40s, there were heated presidential campaigns where the fight for votes fell along racial and regional lines; the ramp up and entry into WWII; and the fight and flight for jobs, housing and education which led to the Great Migration where many African Americans travelled from the South to escape poverty and the ugliness of segregation and racism.

In New Jersey, where I now reside, I was commissioned by my local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission to interview several African American veterans of World War II and the Korean War.


Their stories were amazing. It was a privilege to speak with heroes who fought for our country with pride despite the racial discrimination they faced at home. I incorporated their stories throughout Long Gone, Come Home.  


Q: The writer Kristin Beck said of the book, “Nuanced and atmospheric, this is a story of people pursuing big dreams amid great injustice, and ultimately realizing the value of family and the enduring power of love.” What do you think of that description?


A: As a first-time author, I am honored to receive such an endorsement from a seasoned professional. I am so grateful for it. I visualized each scene and wrote the words I hoped would recreate sensations I felt when I visualized struggle, challenge, loss, that “ah-ha” moment and falling in love.


I wanted the conversations to be reflective of the times and immerse the reader in that period. I wanted to include the things that impacted daily life and reflected the self-sufficiency of a community that had to depend on each other.


Most importantly, I wanted to showcase the success of those who strived to overcome, to succeed against all odds and the long-reaching embrace of family that enabled them to do so.  


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The original title was All Fly Home and evolved to Long Gone, Come Home. “Home” being the key word in the title. The thought is to capture the sentiment that no matter where you go, no matter how far or however long you’re away, home is where we are all meant to be, and where we return. Home is the recognition of who you are and where you derive your inner strength and your attributes for survival.


I think most of us have experienced while growing up, as my character Birdie does, that we didn’t want to be like our parents. When, as teens, we rolled our eyes whenever our parents started giving lectures on life.


But there comes a time when while looking in the mirror, our middle-aged self stares back as the image of our parents or our voices ring out the familiar phrases we heard in our young lives. It’s then we realize we’ve come full circle – we’ve come home.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A historical fiction tentatively titled Cakewalk. Set during the 1900s-‘20s, it is a coming-of-age story of Lucille Love, a fictional woman’s rise from child star singing as a traveling evangelist along the revival sawdust route to becoming a vaudeville singing sensation.


Along the way, Lucille falls in love with the wrong man, and is thrust into the seedy side of the business which forces her to make decisions at a young age to keep her wayward troupe members alive and paid.


However, Lucille’s biggest challenge is an incident from her past – a robbery gone wrong that threatens to eclipse her chances for vaudeville stardom and her life.


This story reflects the life African American vaudeville entertainers experienced on a tough circuit where talent was mere currency and ingenuity to survive the climb to the top was the “pot of gold.”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There are people, places, and events in Long Gone, Come Home that I hope readers will be curious enough to want to learn more. Incidents such as the Silent Parade in 1917 in New York, and people such as poet Langston Hughes, actor and activist Paul Robeson and Walter Barnes, a popular clarinetist and band leader.


Another interesting nugget: To see what Birdie wore on her wedding day, just Google the pattern number mentioned in the story to see the dress.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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