Friday, September 08, 2023

Interview with Trish MacEnulty, author of Cinnamon Girl, a 15-year-old girl's picaresque journey through the tumultuous early '70s

Trish MacEnulty's Cinnamon Girl takes its heroine, 15-year-old Eli Burnes, on a wild, wide-ranging ride through the social and political atmosphere of her era. The story opens in Augusta, Georgia in 1970. After her step-grandmother Mattie dies, Eli hops a ride north with her best friend's brother, who's running away from the Vietnam War draft. Her adventures continue from there. Eli's father Billy, a DJ in St. Louis, had remarried and has another family but eventually re-enters the picture; he comes to serve as a role model in ways Eli doesn't expect. The book is a fantastic read: fast-moving, full of smoothly woven historical detail and rich characterizations, all told in Eli's appealing voice. I know Trish through the Historical Novel Society and was glad for the opportunity to speak with her about her latest release, which is out today from Livingston Press of the Univ. of West Alabama.

You’ve written other works of historical fiction, but did you find the process any different for this one, since the era is more recent? Did your own memories from having lived through the early ‘70s help as far as researching the historical backdrop to Cinnamon Girl?

Also, you’d mentioned in an interview with the HNS that Cinnamon Girl is a rewritten version of an earlier novel of yours. What did the rewriting process involve, as far as what you felt needed updating?

I've combined your two questions. I wrote a version of this book at least ten years before I wrote my historical fiction. And so it was a very different process. Much of Eli's life is rooted in my own experiences—first love, running away from home, going to rock festivals and concerts, hanging out in headshops.

In my earlier version of the book, I didn't set the historical context as well as I could have. But after writing several historical mysteries and learning how important history is to the narrative, I went back and did the research—searching out news stories about the Weathermen, Vietnam, and racial oppression. I also learned a lot about the advent of FM radio! I actually looked up the set lists and venues for various rock concerts that are in the book. And yes, having lived through the era definitely informed my choices as to which historical events to include. For example, I remembered the Kent State killings, which became an important event in the background of Eli's story. The killing of those four students by the National Guard was so emblematic of what the counterculture faced at the time.

Eli’s narrative voice is really appealing. She’s adventurous and spirited but still naïve in some ways, and she has an infectious sense of humor. How did her voice come to you?

I used to teach creative writing at a summer arts camp in Rock Hill, South Carolina. And each year as I wrote the book, I would read chapters to the kids. I think being surrounded by teenagers and raising one while I was writing the book helped me get in the right mindset. Eli also embodies a lot of my own naiveté from that age. It was a more innocent era, for sure.

I do like to include a thread of humor in all of my writing.

You’ve included a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to introduce the novel, and the book itself makes some appearances—plus, Eli spends a good amount of time on the road herself in early '70s America. How have Kerouac and his novel influenced your work?

(At first I had a quote from Neil Young's song "Cinnamon Girl" as an epigraph but then I found out how much the rights would cost so I changed it.) But yes, Kerouac was the perfect choice because On the Road is almost quintessentially picaresquea sort of plotless, episodic story of the adventures of ne'er-do-wells. I think of this book as a picaresque as well.

I'll never forget when I first read On the Road. I was in college, and my life wasn't exactly going smoothly. I was living the darker side of the 1970s by then. My future didn't look all bright and shiny. I had this vague idea of being a writer, and then reading that book ignited the internal catalyst. I knew that I had to be a writer after that. It didn't matter if my life wasn't pretty and perfect because someday I'd write my stories. I just had to survive long enough to get there.

So when Eli is on the road herself, of course someone comes along and gives her a copy. In a way, it will be her talisman.

Eli gets a front-and-center view of many important cultural moments during a key year in her life. What were some of the most memorable parts of the research process along these lines?

The most memorable part of the research was when I learned about the riots in Augusta that occurred in 1970. I actually grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and I remember several riots. I never witnessed a killing but I heard about them and I knew they happened. I set Eli's early story in Augusta because I wanted that smaller city feel and because it has a river. (Rivers seem to show up in everything I write.) It was only after I had chosen that locale, that I learned about the riot, in which six Black men were gunned down by law enforcement. I knew that event would have to inform the rest of the book. It would make an impression.

Some research came about by happenstance. Several years ago I got the chance to interview a woman who had been in the Weather Underground, and her experiences helped me understand — and sympathize with—their motivations. That led me to read about the Days of Rage and other actions during the anti-war protests. Another episode I learned about years ago was the murder of Freddy Hampton in Chicago, again by law enforcement, while his pregnant wife lay in bed next to him. The killing of that brilliant young leader haunts me.

I loved the character of Billy, who’s an atypical father figure in many ways, but he and Eli come to develop a natural rapport. Is he based on anyone? How did you develop his character?

Billy is very loosely based on my older brother, who was a symphony musician in St. Louis, Missouri. I lived with him and his wife and two kids (a boy and a girl) for a year. He was adamantly opposed to the war in Vietnam, and his wife was a proponent of La Leche League, an organization that promotes breastfeeding. He wasn't involved with the Weatherman organization, but he did attend protests and worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). Some of my other brother's experiences are also part of Billy's past. I didn't have a good relationship with my own father, so both of my brothers fulfilled that role in my life.

If Cinnamon Girl had an accompanying soundtrack, which songs would be on it?

This answer almost writes itself. Of course, Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl," and Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin," Elton John's "Your Song" as well as the Dead and the Allman Brothers, and B.B. King. When I was that age, most of the concerts we attended were those in which the band members were all young guys, and it's too bad that I don't have any concerts with women performers in the book. But Grace Slick's "White Rabbit" would have to be one of the major songs on the soundtrack and also Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee." Now, there would also have to be some opera. Definitely Mimi. Maybe something from Carmen as well.

Thanks very much, Trish!

Visit Trish MacEnulty's website for more information on all of her books, which include standalone novels, short stories, a memoir, and a four-book historical mystery series set in early 20th-century Manhattan.

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