Monday, June 07, 2021

When the Past Begins To Sing, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of What a Wonderful World This Could Be

Yes, new novels set in the 1960s are considered historical fiction these days. I'm welcoming back Lee Zacharias to the blog; she has an essay about researching What a Wonderful World This Could Be, which involved visiting sites that imprint their memories on people's lives today.


When the Past Begins To Sing
Lee Zacharias

We live in history. Today becomes yesterday, last week, last year, and then, before you know it, half a century has passed. There is a challenge to writing about events that have happened in your lifetime. When are they day-old news? When do they become history?

I began What a Wonderful World This Could Be in 1981, the year after Cathy Wilkerson turned herself in. The headline caught my eye. My life had changed so much in the decade since she'd escaped the accidental bombing of her family's Greenwich Village townhouse and disappeared into the Weather Underground. I'd spent the late 1960s working in an office to support my student husband. Instead of participating in the story of my generation, I felt as if I watched it on the nightly TV news. But by the time she surrendered, I had left my first husband, earned two graduate degrees, published a book of stories, had a novel coming out, and was directing a graduate writing program. During the years I spent writing What a Wonderful World, I married my second husband and had a baby. I didn't finish a first draft until January, 1990, and after the media blitz of the '60s revisited in 1988 and 1989, the "twenty years ago today" during which much of my book took place had circled back from history to yesterday's news.

I read about the events I'd missed in that momentous decade, from journalistic reports, to histories of the New Left, to analyses, to more subjective accounts. I kept researching even after I'd finished several drafts, as more and more memoirs by participants came out. If the novel—and the creation of the main character, Alex—came from my sense of having missed out, the other characters and events required an inside feel for the seismic political and cultural changes that took place over the late 1960s. It's an over-simplification to say that the townhouse explosion on March 6, 1970 and massacre of student protestors at Kent State University less than two months later marked the end of an era; yet in a symbolic way they did. By the time I began to write the era felt long past.

Lee Zacharias, 1970
In college I'd briefly had a boyfriend who went to the 1965 Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. I couldn't join him. You had to have money—you had to be able to make bail. (Later it would become an inside joke that your father had to be a millionaire for you to join Weatherman, the radical offspring of the New Left's Students for a Democratic Society.) It wasn't until 2002 that I went to Selma. I visited Brown's Chapel, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and retraced the route of the march. In Montgomery I visited Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, at the foot of the Capitol. Every day that George Wallace served as Governor of Alabama, he looked out his window at Martin Luther King's church, a fact I might have discovered from a city map, but a map lacks the impact that standing there imparts. Just across the Pettus Bridge from Selma, I discovered a brand new Voting Rights Park. As I descended the steps, the names of the martyrs I knew so well from news I'd lived through and relived in research seemed to float up out of the darkness. 

Jimmy Lee Jackson under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)

It could have been a frightening experience—a lone woman who has left her car in an empty parking lot walking by herself beneath a bridge at dusk, but I felt no alarm. The plaques nailed to the trees and stuck into the ground hadn't had time to weather. They were a pale blond, the names burned so deep into the wood it felt as if the spirits they evoked were rising from their graves. That is the other side of research, when the past begins to speak. It's no longer information, but a feeling, no longer yesterday, fifty, or one hundred years ago, but now. The past becomes a chorus, lifting its voice in an everlasting song.

Fannie Lou Hamer under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)

About the Book:
What Alex, illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic novelist and an artist, has always wanted is family. At 15, she falls in love with a 27-year-old photographer, whom she will leave when she comes under the spell of Ted Neal, a charismatic activist on his way to Mississippi for 1964’s Freedom Summer. That fall Ted organizes a collective that turns to the growing antiwar movement. Ultimately the radical group Weatherman destroys the “family” Alex and Ted have created, and in 1971 Ted disappears while under FBI investigation. When Ted surfaces eleven years later, Alex must put her life back together in order to discover what true family means.

About the author:
Lee Zacharias is the author of four novels, a collection of essays, and a collection of short stories. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, has twice won the North Carolina Sir Walter Raleigh Award for a book of fiction, and has received many other prizes, including two silver medals from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Phillip H. McMath Book Award. Her previous novel Across the Great Lake was named a 2019 Notable Michigan Book, and her essays, which have appeared in numerous journals, have been cited and reprinted in The Best American Essays. She co-edited an anthology of short fiction titled Runaway and has taught at Princeton University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English. A native of the Midwest, she lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Learn more at

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