Writespace Houston member Karen Summers-Murray is a writer of fiction and poetry. Currently, she’s working on her debut historical fiction novel Blackland Prairie. Blackland Prairie is set during the Jim Crow era and explores friendship, race relations, and social justice. In 2021, her poem “Bloodline” won the Ekphrastic Poetry Contest held by Gemini Ink as part of National Poetry Month. This fall, she enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of St. Thomas and plans to continue working on her novel, setting her sights on finishing it next year.
Tell us about the book you’re working on. Where does the title of your book come from?
The title is a double entendre. The setting of the book is in Northeast Texas. And that region is, geologically speaking, called the Blackland Prairie. The soil up there is very crumbly. Friable. You can grow anything in it. But it hides secrets, too. And that's where Blackland Prairie, the working title, came from.
The book begins with three children who become friends and remain friends into adulthood. One of them is a young Black boy. The other two are girls–his younger sister and a white, deaf girl. She's the daughter of the owner of the cotton farm where they all live. The time is some of the worst years of the Jim Crow era.
Where did the idea come from?
I was born and spent most of my childhood in Northeast Texas, although my book is in no sense a memoir. My elderly relations used to talk about “the old days” on the farms where they were raised. Some of their stories were difficult to hear because it was obvious that many of them still harbored significant racism and beliefs about white supremacy.
These stories that I had heard since my earliest memories always bothered me. I would ask questions about their attitudes and largely run into stone walls.
Their stories simmered at the back of my mind.
What sources are you using for your research?
The University of Houston library is a huge one. I was able to work hours and days at the library before the pandemic! Then and now, I also do a lot of online research, review academic writings, and use Google Scholar.
In historical fiction, it’s important to get the story right. A reader may be well versed in the history of the time, in the history of various movements, or the depredations of the Jim Crow era, just to name a few.
I, too, felt, and continue to feel, a responsibility to get it right. Too many of the people hurt during Jim Crow never made it into our history books–never had a voice. And too many deaf people in that era had no voice either. Insofar as discovery is possible, I try to discover and write truth into my fiction.
Did you interview people for the book?
Definitely! I did interviews about deafness and talked with black people whose elderly relatives might remember those times.
Have you found it easy to find resources?
I have. There are entire stacks, for instance, in the library that are just full of the history of the period. Another thing I do is to read as much as I can in literary sources. I read about white people writing about Black people and Black people writing about Black and white people. The Harlem Renaissance, what happened during WWI, and what happened during the pandemic of 1918 – all these things are a wealth of resources.
What is the most unexpected resource for research that you came across?
Probably some of the online publications produced under the rubric of Black Lives Matter. And Black religion, too. Black religion is a distinct thing from white religion in many respects. As just one small example, the services generally are more interactive in Black churches. People often respond to the pastor out loud with amens or other affirmations. That has its roots in a very old tradition of response called “call and answer.”
How many hours have you spent writing your novel? Do you have a schedule or routine?
I try not to think about the total number of hours! Yes, I do have a schedule and a routine. It doesn’t vary too much. Usually, I get up really early every morning, work out, and head to my desk after breakfast. I try to be here no later than 9 am and get going. I generally do my writing in the morning, and in the afternoon, I read and research what I’m writing about.
As I get further into my MFA program, my routine will probably change. We’ll see how it works out!
Have you tried imitating the routine of famous writers?
I do everything according to what works for me.
Are there any books or writers inspiring you through the writing process?
I read a lot of craft books. I read about fiction writing and poetry writing.
I read somewhere that if you're a fiction writer, you should try to write poetry to help you with your writing.
I took a poetry class, and it turned out I had a facility for it.
When did you first call yourself a writer?
That’s a really good question! In retrospect, I now understand that I've been writing since childhood. I think every writer believes that.
But in terms of actually calling myself a writer…Somewhere once upon a time, I read that if you're writing– whether you've been published or not–if you're engaged in the act of writing, you're a writer. Own it. After that, I referred to myself as a writer.
How did it feel to win the Ekphrastic poetry contest?
Shocking! I remember I had just sat down on the sofa. My husband and I were gonna flip the TV on one night. And my phone rang, and I didn't recognize the number. Like most people, I almost didn't pick up, but I did. I answered the phone, and it was someone from Gemini Ink. She congratulated me because I was one of the winners of the contest. The poem would be published online on the museum's website and associated with the work of art to which I had responded in my poem. Astonishment. Surprise. And maybe some more confirmation that, indeed, I'm a writer.
What made you enter the contest?
Almost toward the end of either my first or second poetry class, the person teaching the class threw it out there and said, “There's this contest coming up.” I looked into it, and it seemed like a good idea to put my work out there.
There were four or five different artworks, and one named “Apache Pitch-Lined Basket” really spoke to me.
Tell us about your experience during the pandemic. How have you held onto hope since it started?
Like everyone else, by my fingernails. Everybody had a lot to be worried and frightened about, especially in the first year when there were no vaccines, and everyone was vulnerable to this. Not that they aren't still with omicron's BA.5 variant. Everyone still is.
Especially during those first months, it was just terrifying. I remember videos on the news of morgue trucks backed up to hospitals because the hospitals no longer had sufficient morgue space. I think that was seared in my brain, and I'll never be able to let go of that image.
The fact that people had to die alone because their loved ones weren't allowed to be at their side. And that those loved ones had to know that their person was dying or dead and they couldn't even be with them. It was horrifying to a level with which it was difficult to cope, not just for me but for everyone.
I think starting to take classes again through Writespace, Inprint, and Grackle & Grackle showed me that I could have human contact, at least on Zoom. That contact could be stimulating and fun and brilliant. Amazing writers are out there. It was a real saving grace for me.
Writing has been a saving grace for me.
Tell us about your favorite Writespace workshop. Why was it your favorite?
I don’t have a favorite workshop anymore than I have a favorite workshop teacher. It would be unfair to all the wonderful folks I've studied within that context to start naming any favorites. Justin Jannise, Brenden Oliva, Mark Haber, Georgina Key. Other beautiful writers. They've all been amazing, and every one of these workshops has been something that I'll hold in my heart forever.
How did you join Writespace Houston?
I first heard about Writespace Houston through Brazos Bookstore. I looked into it, and I saw the variety of workshops that were coming up and available. I signed up.
How has the organization helped you with your writing?
In all the ways we have covered. I have become friends with Jamie Portwood, who's the Programming Director. She’s an amazing program director and an even better human being. I couldn't ask for a better situation there.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?
The two most useful pieces of advice have been 1) whether you think you're gonna be able to write anything or not, just fix a desk chair, put your butt there, and do it and 2) as Anne Lamott says, write a s****y first draft. By which she means to write and write. And write. And write. And write. Let the ideas come out. Then go back and fix them later.
What is the worst piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?
If you’re not published, and I mean by one of the big five (soon to be four, I think) publishers, you’re not a real writer. I think any piece of advice that makes a writer more self-conscious than they already are is bad advice.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer?
Put your butt in the chair every day and write. Try not to edit as you go along. Whether you're at the end of a chapter, at the end of your book, or at the end of your poem, let it marinate. Put it aside and go back to it because you will see it with new eyes. Develop a thick skin because there will be critics who will tell you that you’re not worth the electrons (or ink, or pencil lead) you write with. It’s a skill I’m still developing. In addition, find your writing community. More than anything else, I think it's important to find your writing community. And as a last piece of advice, be generous. Offer to read the writings of other writers and give thoughtful advice. It'll come back to you a thousandfold.