Kim Michele Richardson spend an insightful hour with us answering our questions in the Behind the Pages Goodreads group. We learned so much more about this story and after our discussion we appreciated and love THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK even more.
Brenda Welcome, Kim Michele! Thank you so much for joining us. I have not heard of “blue-skinned people” or the Pack Horse Project before reading your story. I love when I read about something I haven’t. Your story was such an eye-opening.
What inspired you to write about both?
Kim Michele Hi, Brenda! For 80 years these brave, heroic Kentucky packhorse librarians were ignored and only given a nod in a couple of amazing children’s books—the women’s historic legacy, but a small footnote in history. Their courage and dedication for spreading literacy to the poorest pocket of the United States—the hills of eastern Kentucky and during its most violent era, deserved more in literary history. I felt it would be a privilege to tell their story. And when I learned of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky who suffered from congenital Methemoglobinemia, I was determined to give them a voice they’d long been denied.
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t feel a tremendous honor for the opportunity to finally introduce these fierce, female packhorse librarians, and the blue people from my home state of Kentucky.
Brenda What research did you do?
Kim Michele I spent 5 years on this book with many 12-16 hour days.
Thousands of hours went into exploring everything from fauna to flora to folklore to food, and longtime traditions indigenous to Appalachia. I’m also able to live in that landscape and spend time with native Appalachians who have taught me the lyrics and language of their people and ancestors. Other research took me to coal-mining towns and their history, visiting doctors, speaking with a hematologist to learn about congenital Methemoglobinemia, and exploring fire tower look-outs and their history. There was the fun and interesting research on mules.
And last, during this remarkable and sometimes crazy and dangerous journey of living full time for a year in Appalachia for research and writing, I clumsily fell off a mountain. Alas, I can’t claim a cool story like a ‘bear or snake chased me’. I was simply toting a stack of Pyrex dishes down crooked mountain steps for an elderly mountain woman when I stumbled. The Pyrex flew out of my hands and went bouncing off concrete. I received seven breaks to my arm, but nary a nick or scratch on any of the Pyrex.
A week later, my husband caught Lyme’s disease, which forced us back home to our Kentucky city to seek medical care.
Norma Hi, Kim Michele! Thank you so much for joining us! I am a reader that chooses my books by covers and how intrigued I am by them. The cover design definitely intrigued me and it is one that I knew that I had to read. Did you have a vision of what you wanted the cover to look like? Are you happy with the finished product? Would you mind sharing with us a little insight into how the cover came about.
P.S. – Looks like there are a few different versions of covers out there. I bought my copy in the States and was published by Sourcebooks Landmark.
Kim Michele Hi, Norma, thanks for the question. There are several versions, one for foreign which is Harper Collins Canada, and the U.S. version as well as the ARC.
Publishers create and control covers, and although they will often ask for the author’s input, the publisher has the final decision. This is due to the marketing and art teams that are deemed professional and more skilled than the writer.
On this book we had several designs. Originally, the art team created one of the covers with a vivid blue filter. But sometimes a buyer like Barnes & Noble will come in and ask for changes. In this case, B & N wanted the blue filter removed. After much discussion and input from many, the publisher ended up with this cover.
The design was more of a literal metaphor, both beautiful and sad—the whole concept of being smeared because of color. Sort of like how the gaze of Troublesome’s townsfolk reduces Cussy Mary to a color. . . The U.S. publisher as well as Harper Collins Canada adopted this metaphor for their covers.
DeAnn I really loved this book! I found it interesting that few men were part of the Pack Horse Project. Were you more drawn to this because so many women were involved?
Kim Michele Good evening, DeAnn, and thanks for your question.
The project alone was a fascinating, unknown part of history, but having it mostly women-driven, made it more unique. It showed fierce, courageous women in a unforgiving landscape, accomplishing what many never could, and battling everything from inclement weather, mistrust, treacherous landscapes and extreme poverty, and again, doing it all in Kentucky’s most violent era—the bloody coal mine wars.
Also, women who defy the odds, achieve great measures, both in the past and present, should be recognized as more than a blip in history, and should be lifted up and shown for the true heroes they are.
Brenda My heart went out to the people in your story and I felt the power of words with each. I loved the positive effects the Pack Horse Project had to the people in times of heartbreak. What inspired or motivated you to write about the impact that the books had on the people in your story?
Kim Michele Great question! As a foster child, I remember going to my first library one lonely summer and checking out a book. The librarian sized me up and then quietly said, “Only one? You look smarter than a one-book read, and I bet we can find you more than just one.” She reached under her counter, snapped open a folded, brown paper sack, handed it to me, and then marched me over to shelves filled with glorious books. I was shocked that I could even get more than one book, much less a bag full of precious books, and I was moved by her compassion, kindness, and wisdom.
Librarians are lifelines for so many, giving us powerful resources to help us become empowered.
Mary Beth How did you select the names of your characters? I loved Cully!
Kim Michele Thank you for the question. On selecting names, I chose Cussy because I wanted to have her family come from the tiny village in Cussy, France. Generally, I research old Kentucky social security indexes, and birth rolls and death indexes of my state for names. A few times I’ve used my ancestors, like Mudas (Muddy) Summers in LIAR’S BENCH which was indeed plucked from my great-grandparents.
Brenda Do you have any feel strong emotions for your characters? Is there one that stands out more for you?
Kim Michele Yes, I grew up under the grinding heels of poverty, spending my first decade in a rural Kentucky orphanage and then on to foster care, and beyond, to finding myself homeless at age fourteen. So I can relate to marginalized people, and have much empathy for Cussy and her family, anyone who faces prejudices and hardships. It’s easy to feel pain deeply, particularly if you’ve gone through hardships in your own life.
They are all so dear: Young, innocent Angeline, fire-tower lookout RC, ol’ weak-eyed Loretta— there’s too many to choose just one. We have Junia, Cussy Mary’s protector.
It was important for the packhorse librarians to have trusted mounts. So I gave Cussy a mule since they are stronger and can outlive horses and donkeys. When you think of a mule you think of it being stubborn. But not so, mules are wise and won’t do anything to bring harm to themselves. They are the greatest preservationists. Surprisingly, I’m finding so many are endeared to that ol’ feisty mule, and I receive many sweet and funny letters about her.
Brenda Is there anything you would like readers to get out of your story?
Kim Michele The novel won’t change the world, but if I’ve dropped seeds of courage, empathy and kindness into this sometimes tumultuous and charged world as we know it today, that’s all I could ever hope. Another is that poverty and marginalization are not so much economics or politics or societal issues as much as human issues which are best grappled with by reaching deep into the lives of those suffering them.
What Kim Michele had to say about us The Traveling Sisters group was such a delight—these amazing women are the smart, fierce readers I love to write for
For more Q & A with Kim Michele Richardson and other author Q & A, you can find the group here