Julie Hedgepeth Williams interview with David Alan Binder

Post date: Jan 10, 2018 11:51:49 PM

Julie Hedgepeth Williams interview with David Alan Binder

Her most recent book, A Rare Titanic Family, has won the 2014 Ella Dickey Literacy Award, given to authors whose work has helped preserve history. The book is based on the firsthand account of the Titanic as told to me by my great-uncle, Albert Caldwell. I speak around the country, performing a one-woman show as Sylvia Caldwell telling the Titanic story, or presenting the speech Albert gave for more than 60 years, accompanied by a PowerPoint slideshow. I also speak on my other book, Wings of Opportunity, about the Wright Brothers' time in Alabama. Check out her website at https://sites.google.com/site/raretitanicfamily/.

"Julie Williams has this uncanny ability to take your hand and make you fly with her to times past as you read her wonderful prose... You feel the chilly air on your face when she describes the night setting on the doomed ship, and you agonize with Albert as he weighs his next steps in the face of mortal danger rushing towards his little family." -- Istvan "Steven" Zerkowitz of Roger-Wilco.

1. How do you pronounce your name?

Julie Hedgepeth Williams – the “Hedgepeth” trips up most people. It’s Hedge and peth, not Hedge and path. (peth with a short “e,” rather than “path” with a short “a.”)

2. Where are you currently living?

I live in Birmingham, Alabama, USA.

3. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?

Truth is far, far, far more amazing than fiction. Everyone says that, but it’s so very true! For example, I wrote A Rare Titanic Family, about my great-uncle who survived the Titanic when he was 26. I knew him well and heard the story from him dozens of times firsthand, but as I researched the book, I learned SO much that he had kept secret. For example, he and his wife were actually fleeing their jobs in Bangkok against their boss’s will, and their boss was actually tracking them around the globe. My great-uncle and his family were in a cat-and-mouse chase around the world, and they were the mice. He had never mentioned that. Likewise, my Titanic family considered taking the Carpathia home from Naples but saw a placard for the Titanic there and decided to take the Titanic home instead. As Titanic aficionados know, the Carpathia picked up the Titanic’s survivors and took them to New York after all. Had I put either of those facts in a fiction book, they would have sounded contrived – but truth is far, far, far more amazing than fiction. In my current book, Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes, I was touched deeply that the middle of the three Joes, Joseph Addison Turner, actually did what he set out to do, but he didn’t live long enough to see it. Turner (named for his idol Joseph Addison, whom he imitated as a writer) had longed to be the founder of Southern literature. He died thinking he had failed. And yet his teenage printer’s devil, Joel Chandler Harris, actually did start Southern literature when he wrote down and published the tales he heard told by the slaves on Turner’s plantation. These were the Uncle Remus stories, which were wildly popular in their day, and at the time were considered to be a life force reconciling North with South in the aftermath of the Civil War. How I wish Turner had known of his success! I hope my book helps make up that difference. As to my other mass market book, Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama, I was simply astonished to find out the Wright Brothers had even been in Alabama. They held the nation’s first civilian flying school in Alabama, and their students flew the world’s first night flights here. I was born in Dayton, Ohio, where the Wright Brothers were from, on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is on the Wright Brothers’ old flying field. Then I moved to North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers’ first flight took place, and my sisters’ social studies teacher was the granddaughter of the man who took the famous photo of that first flight. I had been following the Wright Brothers all my life. But I didn’t even know they were ever in Alabama, my adopted state. Once I found out, of course I HAD to write about it! The truth is indeed amazing.

4. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?

I think all history should be written in a breezy, conversational style as though it were a novel – but it of course should be true. I don’t know why “creative writing” means fiction, when history should be written as enjoyably and creatively as fiction. You can certainly write the truth while also being creative! I draw from a lot of first-person accounts and other primary sources.

5. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?

I'd advise finding a publisher if you can. I think self-publishing is good for specialty books. For example, I edited a book for a pastor who was publishing a daily workbook for his congregation. Well, that makes sense. He has a set audience and knows how many he’ll sell. My brother-in-law was diagnosed as terminally ill, and he was writing a reference work at the time. So we rushed it through self-publishing, and he LOVED that. He signed all 110 copies before he passed, and I know it meant a lot to him to see it done at last. However, if at all possible, authors should find a publisher, because the publisher has contacts for publicity. My publisher arranges opportunities for me to speak or perform about my books. It’s so much fun! I sell a lot more books that way than by bookstores. And what a blast to make club ladies or history groups happy with a presentation!

a. Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they located?

I publish with NewSouth Books of Montgomery, Alabama, a highly regarded regional publisher. A bookstore in Raleigh, NC, told me that because I had published with NewSouth, they knew the book would be good.

6. Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

I know we’re in an e-book world, and my books are available that way. However, you can’t sign an e-book. There’s something special about speaking or performing about a book and then selling signed copies. There’s also something special about seeing your book on a shelf. I’m glad there are e-copies for those who won’t buy a physical copy, but I love my conventional copies. If you’re a reader who could go either way, be aware that the author gets more royalties for a conventional book. It sure helps me out!

7. Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?

I wish I did. There are a zillion publishers out there, and they each have their own niche. You have to find a publisher that publishes in your niche. Also, don’t be afraid to ask a publisher directly about publishing. Be sure to make your book sound enticing. One publisher I know of says on its website it isn’t accepting manuscripts due to overload, but it does accept them. You just have to persist. You may not be able to get in the door of a big publishing house, but maybe someone else is interested. I know publishers are looking for topics that are fresh or have a fresh angle but also are of broad interest.

8. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?

I don’t have an agent and often wonder if I would have gotten into bigger publishers with one. However, I started with NewSouth because they were located in Montgomery and had recently published a book about the Tuskegee Airmen, and I was writing about the Wright Brothers in Montgomery. It seemed like an obvious fit. They accepted Wings of Opportunity. The idea for A Rare Titanic family came up so fast and so close to the 100th anniversary of the Titanic that only a publisher who knew me would have agreed to do it, so I was grateful to go with NewSouth. And then NewSouth itself asked for Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes. In other words, I haven’t had occasion to think about other publishers or an agent.

9. Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?

It has been hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that many people think it’s hard to write. It’s so natural to me to tell a story. If you have that talent, be aware that you have something special and develop it into a book (or short story or the like). I always tell my students that writing is nothing more than speaking written down – if you can say it, you can write it. To that end, I often read my work out loud to myself. Sometimes I “hear” that it’s hard to say a passage, and if that’s the case, you can be sure it will be hard for the reader to follow. Sometimes you’ll “hear” a more natural way to say it. The more natural, the better! I tell my students: “How would you tell this to your roommate (or mother or brother or best friend)? Write it that way.”

10. What was one of the most surprising things you learned with your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating? I’ve written under every possible circumstance, it seems. I wrote Wings of Opportunity when I had small children and was working, and it took forever. I wrote A Rare Titanic Family all in one summer while I was out of school (thank goodness my children were older and more self-sufficient), and it was the most fun summer ever. Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes came about by fits and starts over some time (both while I was working and on school breaks), and when I finally got my feet under me, I was glad I had. I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt about that one, as people have forgotten Joseph Addison, no one knows Joseph Addison Turner, and Joel Chandler Harris is no longer popular, but I did work through that self-doubt and am pleased with the outcome. I guess I learned this: don’t let life circumstances or momentary blips of doubt keep you from writing your book. There’s a way! Otherwise, a very surprising thing I learned was that I could perform a one-woman show. Florida Chautauqua asked me to perform, and I gulped and said OK, even though I never had done such a thing. And I love it so much! Don’t pass up opportunities like that!

11. How many books have you written?

I’ve written three for the popular market: Wings of Opportunity; A Rare Titanic Family; and Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes. I’ve written or co-written several for the academic market: The Great Reporters: An Anthology of News Writing at its best (with Wm. David Sloan, Patricia C. Place, and Kevin Stoker); The Early American Press, 1690-1783 (with Wm. David Sloan); and The Significance of the Printed Word in Early America: Colonists’ Thoughts on the Role of the Press. Two of these won awards: The Early American Press won a Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award in the field of communication, and A Rare Titanic Family won the Ella Dickey Literacy Award for Books that Preserve History.

12. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?

Since I write history, I’ll give tips along that line: Remember that your subjects were living, breathing people, so bring ’em back to life! Put the sparkle back in their eyes and the pink back in their cheeks! Quote your subjects when you can! That is, history should be the real story that it is, full of conversation and real-life details. Work as much as you can from primary sources – first person accounts, diaries, letters, newspapers of the era. Listen in your own thought for connections between seemingly disparate parts of the story. You’d be surprised how often things fit together. Don’t think you have to follow what other writers have said on your subject – maybe they didn't make the connections you did or see the primary sources that you did. What do YOU see and hear from these real-life people? And make use of your friendly local archivist for help in finding them!

13. Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story?

My stories, being historic, provide their own twists. I’d say keep your mind open for twists and turns. If you go into a project to write a certain outcome, that’s all you’ll see. Instead if you go in with the attitude “What can I find out here?”, you’ll see things you weren’t expecting and plot twists that amaze you. Let the people of the day tell the story.

14. What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?

People often comment on my books reading “like a novel.” As I mentioned before, all history should be that way. However, I’m glad that stands out to people.

15. What are some ways in which you promote your work?

NewSouth has a publicist and publisher that make me feel as though I’m the only book they’re publicizing. Wonderful! They maintain a database of groups that ask for authors to speak. I’ve spoken at women’s clubs, history groups, church groups, senior centers, schools, you name it. After awhile, you start getting word-of-mouth referrals. Give out your phone number and e-mail liberally, plus your social media contacts. You never know who is looking for a speaker. As to promoting, I find book signings are often a big flop. No one wants to make eye contact, because they don’t want to buy a book. I do much better when I speak to groups who have booked a speaker. People come for that, and sometimes they will buy a book either because they planned to or because they liked the presentation.

16. What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?

That’s a tough question. It would be nice to be published by a huge publishing house (with all the assumed reverence for those books), but as I said above, I fell in with NewSouth in the most natural way, and it has been a great publisher. Monetarily, I think I would charge for my mileage sooner than I did. It’s hard to know how to handle pay for speaking engagements. Some groups offer to pay. If they ask, I name a price and negotiate sometimes. If they’re out of town, I now ask for mileage at the IRS rate. Some don’t offer to pay and won’t, and depending on the circumstance, I’ll go ahead and do it. Sometimes I have to turn them down. Interestingly, places that pay get a bigger audience turnout, because people don’t feel they HAVE to buy the book. They can come enjoy the program and not feel guilty. So if you’re hosting an event, find a way to pay the speaker!

17. What saying or mantra do you live by?

This isn’t quite the same, but I used to be terrified to speak and had never performed before. Yet now I wish I could do both every day. If you’re starting out on the author path, remember that people are there to hear something interesting, and don’t be afraid to share what you know. You know more about your subject than they do! Take advantage of every type of opportunity to share.

18. Anything else you would like to say?

My web page for A Rare Titanic Family is: https://sites.google.com/site/raretitanicfamily/

I am sure I’ll make a separate web page for Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes when it comes out in June. I need to make one for Wings of Opportunity and in fact one for all my books combined. Stay tuned!

If anyone has a question, they may contact me on Facebook at “Julie Hedgepeth Williams” or at joldnews@bellsouth.net. My mass-market books are available at http://www.newsouthbooks.com, through bookstores, or on-line retailers. You can plug that name into Amazon to find links to my books, although one iteration of the Titanic book has the wrong title. Alas, I’m not active on Goodreads at present, because Goodreads got the wrong subtitle to A Rare Titanic Family and couldn’t seem to correct it. Maybe next book….

When you type my name into Amazon, you’ll also come up with Women of the Titanic Disaster, a booklet written by my great-uncle’s Titanic wife. The booklet is so rare that, as far as I can tell, I have one of only two copies known to exist. When my publisher realized it was so rare, she put it on line as an e-book. I wrote a brief introduction to it.