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Author Interview: Cynthia J. Bogard

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Cynthia J. Bogard, author of A History of Silence (Book One of the Heartland Trilogy).

FQ: What a fantastic body of work you have written, and it is an honor to speak with you today. I’m going to jump right in because there are so many moving parts to this phenomenal read! There is believable life you have given to each of your characters. If you had to choose one who resonated most with you who would it be (and why)?

BOGARD: I wrote the first draft of this novel when I was 26. At that age, Jane reflected my emotions, my love of nature, and my aspirations (I hadn’t yet gone to graduate school, but like Jane, education was always a main interest of mine). When I returned to the manuscript at the end of my academic career 35 years later, it was Maddie that I related to most naturally, particularly her questions about how to be in the world and how to do the right thing. These two are united by their love of university life. When I wasn’t crying in frustration, I loved graduate school. When I wasn’t too busy to see straight, I loved being a professor.

FQ: With reference to your bio, I enjoyed your statement of "...reinventing yourself as a novelist after a successful career as a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Hofstra University in New York..." What was your defining moment to choose this path?

BOGARD: The beginning of the pandemic lockdown. With the transition to Zoom classes, I suddenly didn’t have an hour and a half commute each way. I couldn’t travel abroad. I moved up my retirement by a year. So, I had the gift of time. I took out the manuscript I had written in the 1980s and began to revise it. In doing so, I remembered how much I liked writing fiction. I have many stories in me needing to get out. So, lots of pleasurable hours ahead!

FQ: In line with my previous question, there are deep layers to each of your characters. Without too much of a spoiler, how difficult was it to develop characters Jenny and Jane given the horrors of their respective and tragic childhood experiences?

BOGARD: Sadly, it wasn’t difficult at all. Both young women’s lives were based on friends I knew in college and their childhood experiences. For additional explication of their inner lives, I relied on detailed and lengthy interviews I conducted during my sociology career. I have interviewed many homeless women. The extent of trauma and grief that defined their lives was a notable finding of my studies. Their stories helped me immensely to get at the feelings of my characters. I owe a profound debt to both groups of women for trusting me with their stories. I hope this novel does honor to their struggles.

FQ: I was fascinated to learn about General Order Number Three and its tie-in to Juneteenth and how history ‘got it wrong’ as it were. I had never learned anything about General Order Number Three when I was in school. What is your view on public education and how accurately do you think the subject of history is being taught in today’s climate?

BOGARD: I love and hugely support public education. I was trained in educator John Dewey’s methodology of a “community education to serve democracy.” As an undergrad, I studied education as an institution at one of the best teaching colleges in the nation in the 1970s, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. My character Jenny goes to college at my first alma mater.

We have fallen so very far away from Dewey’s ideas for a well-educated citizenry. Twenty years ago, the “test prep” model of the second Bush administration debased education’s complexities. More recently, we’ve witnessed a growing effort to delete the hard topics, like our nation’s full history and gender studies. Ignorance is NOT bliss. Instead, it is a recipe for continuing to repeat our mistakes and for undermining our collective rights and freedoms.

I believe that students are stronger and more capable than some give them credit for. They can handle and grow from examining our nation’s longstanding involvement with enslavement or how gender shapes our lives. People trained in critical thinking and informed by a detailed and transparent education become citizens well equipped to take action to preserve democracy. Protecting the progress we’ve made and continuing to move toward a more just society requires grappling with our history. Some students do get that kind of education in our public schools. But a majority, especially impoverished kids, and students of color, do not. That is unconscionable in any society that aspires to remain a democracy.

FQ: In line with my previous question, I had never heard a reference toward ‘planter families’ and again, was surprised to learn its definition. While the Wharton family is your fictitious ‘planter family’ in this book, how deep did your research go and did you fashion this family after an actual ‘planter family’? If so, are you able to elaborate?

BOGARD: I’ve lived in Texas and visited former plantation mansions-turned-museums in several Southern states. Some of these museums of slavery times include the stories of the Black people that forcibly labored there. The euphemism “planter family” is probably more common in the old Confederacy states than it is elsewhere in the U.S. I heard it used somewhere along the way, possibly from a former landlady I had in Texas who may have been a descendant of a planter family. The term came up recently in the trial of Alex Murdaugh. He was described as coming from a planter family. He lived on and still owned much of the property that was once used to grow crops planted, tended, harvested, and processed by people his ancestors enslaved. Alex Murdaugh was convicted of murdering his wife and son and will spend the rest of his life in prison. I was amazed at how similar his background, if not his life’s trajectory was, to that of my fictitious Johnny Wharton.

FQ: You reference Miss Grace’s (Roz’s mother) admiration toward First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and " she was for us colored folks, how she saw, like few white people in them days, that we were all God’s children and should all be treated with dignity..." What a beautiful sentiment. With the utmost respect to you, what is your view on the blatant division that is rampant in our country today? What do you think the ‘end-game’ is and if you were given the opportunity to make a positive impact toward unity, what would you do and how successful do you think your plan would be?

BOGARD: Maybe surprisingly, I’m optimistic about the US overcoming its racial divisions, though it will take so much longer than is good for any of us. The reason is the reality of our growing diversity. Many young people in our nation grew up with much more racial/ethnic diversity than previous generations. I have seen a huge rise in racial/ethnic mixing in friendship groups and romantic partners over the 25 years I was a university professor. We old people and our ignorant and stupid grievances are stalling progress. Yes, there will always be fearful people hating what they don’t know or understand. But I have confidence that the reality of the emerging generations will bring all of us toward a more unified position on the inherent humanity in each of us.

Whatever educators, politicians, and interested others can do to make daycare centers, schools, and neighborhoods more diverse so kids are able to easily form cross-racial bonds with one another is the ticket to us healing from these longstanding divisions. That’s why I support public education and decry using public funds for private, segregated schools like the one Jenny attended. When we work, learn, and live with people who are not like us, we are more likely to get to know each other as individuals, not stereotypes. We also, as a group, have access to more ideas, more creativity, than if we only interact with people similar to ourselves. This is why universities don’t want to give up on racial/ethnic diversity efforts. Diversity leads to superior outcomes, for individuals, for institutions, for nations, and for the world.

FQ: In your profession as Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, what is one of your most memorable teaching moments and why does this memory stand out?

BOGARD: There were so many memorable moments, as is true for every dedicated teacher. But one was very unusual as well as memorable.

An anthropology colleague of mine, Prof. Cheryl Mwaria, and I twice took Hofstra students to Togo, West Africa and twice had university students from Togo spend some time with us in New York. In New York, we visited New York City and a site, now a museum, near our university where people from West Africa were once enslaved. In Togo, we were hosted by Plan International, a non-profit development group that I have supported for several decades. We visited schools Plan had built, wells they provided to communities with no local source of fresh water, and even a radio station started by Plan, and run by kids that broadcast to the local community. We studied how microcredit programs use trust and community norms to pool funds so that impoverished rural villagers can start their own businesses. Our students learned about capacity building and the improvements it could make on village and individual lives.

The second year we also visited Ghana. Togo, a nation long run by corrupt authoritarians, had almost no paved roads and many people lived in abject poverty. When we crossed the border into democratically run Ghana, the development differences were starkly visible. Paved roads, streetlights, decent housing, and signs of relative prosperity were everywhere. Our students had a big epiphany, seeing firsthand what difference good governance could make. We ended our travels in Ghana with a visit to Cape Coast Castle, the place people were held before they embarked on the Middle Passage to become enslaved in the U.S. That was a poignant visit for all of us, Americans and Africans alike. Experiential learning is best when it can happen, because it has so many dimensions, so many senses are involved, that it sticks with you, sometimes for all your life. I thought we created that for our students on those two exchanges.

FQ: You state mid-20th century jazz is close to your heart. You are a woman after my own heart! I learned a lot about this era of music from my father and loved driving with him to one of his jobsites (he was a contractor) when I was growing up and listening to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, to name a few. If you had to pick one, who would be your number one and why?

BOGARD: I can’t answer with one – part of the reason I love jazz is the collaborative nature of it! It’s also a context where lots of productive interaction between Black and white musicians took place, and friendships were forged, even during bleak times in our country’s race relations. That’s why jazz plays a role in A History of Silence — I used jazz a as a space of productive interracial creativity and harmony. This is what the Black trumpeter Harry says to Chuck in the novel after Chuck asks if Harry would mind if the pianist he needs to hire was white. “If he can lay out some good riffs, he can be green if he wants. You know somebody?” Chuck (a white pianist) auditions and becomes a part of the group. Jazz is about inventive acumen and playing well with others. That’s it.

When I write, I mostly listen to jazz pianists (vocals are a distraction and sometimes too much complexity is, too). My favorite pianists include Red Garland, Bill Evans, and Erroll Garner. If I need cheering up, there’s no one better than Beegie Adair. But perhaps my favorite instrumentalist in all of jazz is Ben Webster, with his incredible style of tenor saxophone playing. He awes me every time I listen to him.

FQ: Thank you again for the pleasure of reading your book and your time today. When something is good, it’s great! You should be incredibly proud of your accomplishment of writing a most captivating read. I cannot wait for the next in this Heartland Trilogy and want to know if you’re working on it now. If so, are you able to give us a sneak peek of what we can expect to receive?

BOGARD: I’m actually not working on Beach of the Dead, the second book of the Heartland Trilogy. It’s already finished and back with Atmosphere Press for their wonderful cover and interior design services. I probably won’t publish it until early 2024, however, just to provide plenty of time for reviewers like Feathered Quill to weigh in sufficiently.

The second novel follows the person who murdered Johnny. Pretty much everyone in A History of Silence wanted him dead, so I’m not giving away too much by admitting that! Ironically, committing murder and becoming a fugitive is the reason why the main character ends up in paradise.

Beach of the Dead is about discovering love and self-forgiveness, about the ability of outsiders to see truths in us that we may not be able to see in ourselves. It explores the meanings of community. One of the new characters in Beach of the Dead (she’s barely mentioned in A History of Silence) becomes a central figure in Part 3, Longing for Winter. My characters have taken on such life for me that they seem to be demanding that the story go on.

These were such wonderful, thought-provoking questions. They honored me. Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to reflect on my life and work.

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