Bookworm: Racism on the road; becoming an author
“Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America”
- By Candacy Taylor
- c. 2020, Abrams Press
- $35, $44 Canada; 360 pages
Your tickets have been purchased. Reservations were made in your name and all that’s left is packing. Yep, you’re heading out for the weekend, a week, a month, gone on the trip of a lifetime and as you’ll see in “Overground Railroad” by Candacy Taylor, it’s a trip your grandparents might’ve been denied.
Ron was just 7 years old when he was told to sit still and be quiet in the backseat of his parents car, where he listened as a police officer questioned his father by a country road. Even when he was an old man and stepdad to Candacy Taylor, he remembered the tension coming from the front seat of that car.
Her stepfather’s stories helped Taylor understand many things, including why he and Black folks his age preferred to travel at night, on side roads. At about this same time, Taylor’s white friends began expressing outrage over white supremacists and she replied with facts about incarceration of black men. To her, the three histories were one: Black people have always been denied equality.
In the 20th century, that inequality largely resulted from Jim Crow laws which, among other humiliations, allowed restaurants, hotels, and gas stations to refuse service to Black travelers. On the road, brave or desperate African Americans risked violence or even death by testing the laws; in years following the Depression, those laws gave Victor Green an idea.
Green lived in Harlem, worked as a mailman, and saw a future where Black people owned cars (rare, in the 1930s) they could insure (also rare). With help from other mailmen, information on Black-owned businesses that Black travelers could visit was gathered and published in a book that was initially Harlem-centric. Subsequent editions of The Green Book led African American travelers to safe restaurants, hotels, and gas stations across the country.
Says Taylor, Green never made much money from his project, but “his reward was much more valuable… for every business he listed, he may have saved a life.”
As a history of African American travel in the Twentieth Century, “Overground Railroad” is incredible, filled with great continuity and plenty of side-stories to make it come alive. Author Candacy Taylor makes it exquisitely personal with tales from her stepfather and her deep appreciation for all he’d endured, leading to other stories of DWB; how the travel industry foolishly thwarted African American travel and its buying power; how things changed; and the constant reassurance of The Green Book.
That history makes this book incredibly fascinating.
It could’ve been even better, had Taylor stuck with the topic.
Instead, occasionally and from the beginning, mass incarceration and institutional racism are inserted into this narrative on travel. One could perhaps argue that they’re peripherally relevant but, though it’s not overwhelming, that feels like a discussion for a different book.
Still, ignore the distraction. Don’t let it chase you away from this stellar tale, told with detail and an abundance of photos. If you’re looking for a lively, well-rounded history book, “Overground Railroad” is just the ticket.
“Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different”
- By Chuck Palahniuk
- c. 2020, Grand Central Publishing
- $27, $34 Canada; 256 pages
You’ve got a tale to tell. Everybody does, but people believe that yours would sell. Write a book, they say, your story is interesting, funny, exciting. And so, you start to imagine the crowds at your book signing. You think about the money you’ll make. You picture the life of a writer. You should read “Consider This” by Chuck Palahniuk before you go any further.
Long before he was an author of novels, Chuck Palahniuk was a truck assembly line worker with a journalism degree, struggling to be a better writer through a series of expensive, ineffective workshops. Then he met Tom Spanbauer, who offered “less a class than a dialogue.”
That, says Palahniuk, is what he hopes this book will be.
“If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you,” Palahniuk cautions. “But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one.”
If you were Palahniuk’s student, though, he would tell you to pay attention to the “textures” in your characters’ conversations. Use textures as you would in normal conversation; they’ll help your readers know who said what, they’ll bridge conversational gaps, and they help indicate time passed.
“Establish … authority” to make your characters relatable. Offer real-world context; never, ever ignore fine details; and don’t worry about making people likable. Some of literature’s best-loved characters were despicable.
If you were Palahniuk’s student, he’d tell you to “plant a gun” and an object that quietly returns again and again. He’d instruct you to surprise your readers and raise tension, both correctly, and to avoid ping-pong conversations. You’d start to listen to other people’s stories because that’s where your novel lies. You’d know how to rescue a boring character and how to write dialogue that sounds authentic. And if Palahniuk were your teacher, you’d learn this: “Don’t overthink your creative process.”
Great writers are not born that way. They are molded from a mixture of sweat, rejection, odd hours, tiny pieces of notepaper, antacids, and books like “Consider This.”
Your readers have a short list of things they hate in a novel, and author Chuck Palahniuk shows you how not to do those things when writing your future bestseller. Replacing bad behavior with good is part of this book, including advice that makes so much sense that you wonder why you never thought of it before. (Hint: you didn’t because you’re not his student).
On that note, Palahniuk will delight you as he instructs, by subtly using his own advice scattered throughout this book amid stories of his struggle to become a novelist and tales of book signings that were held on his behalf. There are shout-outs to other authors that serve as a kind of reading list for prospective writers, and yes, you’ll find a few head-scratchers that may not make sense until you’re there.
Writers who are readers will enjoy this book for its anecdotes. Readers who are writers will love it for the chance to watch a master in action. If you are both, “Consider This” tells the tale.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.