I have the great pleasure of introducing Kristin Bailey Murphy as part of the Seven Questions series.
Kristin’s life-in-letters book about her great-aunt is so fascinating that I decided to feature her work in two posts. If you haven’t already, pop over to Monday’s post on Annie Laurie Williams before reading this interview.
1. Tell us about your book, AFFECTIONATELY, DEVOTEDLY, AS EVER. What’s it about? What is the significance of the title?
It’s a book about Annie Laurie Williams and her relationship with four of her clients, John Steinbeck, Margaret Mitchell, Lloyd C. Douglas, and Nelle Harper Lee, as told through their correspondence. Annie Laurie closed many of her letters with Affectionately, Devotedly, or As Ever, so, tentatively, that’s the title we’ve chosen. Although around here, we just refer to it as the ALW Project.
2. I imagine you grew up with legendary stories about your great aunt and great uncle. What inspired you to write a book about Annie Laurie?
The stories about Annie Laurie have certainly inspired me, but aside from that it was Nelle who gave us the nudge to move ahead. My mother reconnected with her years ago, and it was she who suggested that Annie Laurie and Maurice’s story would be interesting to a wider audience. When my mother told us about that conversation, we thought, Wow, why don’t we write about them?
But then there was the issue of collecting their correspondence at Columbia University. My mother and sister went there to get a feel for the material and realized it would take months to go through. They didn’t have the time, nor did I, living in California and raising small children. But then in 2009 things happened that made the project possible: Two of my nieces graduated college and were looking for jobs; I was about to have my third baby, something that would delay my returning to work several years; and my oldest sister came into a large sum of money. She was able to rent an apartment for our nieces in Manhattan and pay them to photograph Annie Laurie’s correspondence at Columbia (it took six months!). Once that roadblock was removed, I was able to take over and continue with the research and writing.
Without my sister’s financial backing, I’d still be thinking of ALW instead of writing about her.
3. Were you always planning this as a life-in-letters nonfiction book, or did it take a while to discover how to organize all this rich material?
When I first started this project, I wasn’t sure what form ALW’s story should take–all I knew was that her story was an interesting one. I’d always heard of her antics and eccentricities, and about the famous authors she handled who’d spent weekends at the Stone House, our family home in Connecticut (the guest book is full of their inscriptions, as was the inside of a particular cabinet where my sisters and cousin and I hid as children).
Columbia has more than 100,000 items of Annie Laurie’s correspondence and personal effects, so we had to weed through a lot–such as contracts and financial statements–to get to the good stuff. Even then–too much! How could we take so much information and condense it into a book? A biography seemed impossible because there are so few alive that knew her personally. So I looked at what I had: letters. The correspondence itself told an interesting story, and what information it didn’t provide, I could–with the help of other sources, including my mother who was there during much of it (and who has letters from many of these authors in her personal collection).
Of all the authors’ letters in ALW’s files, the four we chose were the most colorful. Each day as I was going through them I’d e-mail my family and say “Wait’ll you read this. . . .” There are some fascinating things in them that reveal both sides of human nature, the beautiful and the base. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to go through it.
4. Kristin, you undertook an amazing amount of research before beginning the first draft. What was it like learning more about your relatives? Did you rely on family photos and archives, or did you also use libraries?
I’ve often wished I’d been born earlier so I could have known my grandmother and great aunts better, particularly Annie Laurie. This project has, in a way, done that for me. I could hear Annie Laurie’s voice and see her mannerisms as I was reading her words, so it has been like getting to know her, and the authors, without having personally spent time with them.
Aside from the sources I’ve mentioned, my mother kept a box of letters and personal mementoes from ALW’s early life. Annie Laurie was a packrat. She saved EVERYTHING. Ticket stubs, photos, calling cards, letter-less envelopes, scrapbooks, calendars, pencil stubs, article ideas (she was a feature writer for the New York Morning Telegraph before she was an agent), manuscripts, press clippings, poetry, invitations, vocabulary words, lists of French conjugation, short stories she’d written, journals, and her unfinished autobiography, started after her retirement. The kinds of things she held on to–pencil stubs? Really? But it shaped a life.
I was an infant when Maurice died, and seven when Annie Laurie passed. I would fall into their letters and land at 18 E. 41st Street, their offices in New York City. I would become completely immersed in their world and forget my own. It was a good way to spend a day, as long as I didn’t forget to eat.
5. What was the most surprising—or exciting—thing you discovered during your research?
With each author’s letters, the four we chose in particular, we found at least one exciting or shocking thing. We’d heard certain rumors, and these letters confirmed a few of them. But sometimes I had to dig to find things, especially through some of the handwritten letters. John Steinbeck, for instance, had horrible handwriting (to borrow a phrase from Maurice, it looked as if a cockroach had liberated itself from a bottle of ink and done the Charleston over a bunch of paper) and I dreaded coming across another to transcribe. But I uncovered some interesting information simply by persevering. Thank goodness most of them were typewritten!
There are still some things we’ll never know for sure, and in those cases the letters will speak for themselves. I can’t give away too much, but one interesting find was that two of these authors ended up disliking Annie Laurie. She was very successful and she worked hard to maintain a reputation of honesty, but she didn’t always have the gift of tact. She could rub people the wrong way.
6. Have other members of your family assisted you with this project? If so, who and how? What has that collaboration been like?
My mother is the only person alive, aside from Nelle, who knew Annie Laurie well. I’ve consistently relied on her memories to help fill in areas that no other source could. As well, I relied on my niece, Amy (she loved NYC so much she stayed, after helping collect the letters at Columbia) to pop back into the Butler Library or the NYPL to research any additional information I needed. Both of them, as well as my oldest sister, Kerry, have been helpful in deciding the direction of this book. I’m so glad I’ve had them, because, as all writers know, writing can sometimes be isolating.
7. Once you compiled the necessary documents and facts, how did you go about turning the pieces into a cohesive narrative? Do you have tons of file folders and computer documents? Any advice for other writers who are trying to get their hands around an immense amount of family material?
Once I finished transcribing the letters I’d chosen for the book, I gathered my sources and began to weave in what I knew or could find about Annie Laurie and each of the authors. For example, when I came to a letter from Nelle written while she was researching the Clutter murders with Truman Capote, I was able to supply backstory on that from several other places. My mother remembers Nelle receiving the call from Truman (another of ALW’s clients), asking her to accompany him to Kansas as his research assistant, and my grandmother encouraging her to go. Nelle had been at the Stone House, as she so frequently was in those days. So, I continued that way, a letter at a time, until I had completed a first draft (an enormous one that I am now in the process of condensing). And yes, my computer desktop is full of folders relating to this project!
To anyone trying to wrangle a lot of family material, my advice is to stay organized. Beedocs.com has a timeline software that helps keep chapters, notes and events in order, and Box.net is a great way to store large amounts of material for access online. Also, as you’re researching, pay attention to those thoughts that bubble up from your subconscious. I kept a log of them that I frequently revisited during the writing process. And one more thing: if you have aging members of your family, interview them before they get too old! What I wouldn’t give to have had that foresight.
Thank you so much for participating, Kristin, and for sharing your thoughts and process with us. As Kristin’s blog isn’t up and running yet, you can contact her by emailing me, laurastanfill at hotmail dot com, and I’ll pass your note along to her. Or just leave a comment below.