BookView Interview with Author Terry Lee Caruthers

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed author Terry Lee Caruthers about her writing and her book, The Big Day, a children’s picture book that brings the historical day of September 6, 1919 in Knoxville, Tennessee alive as the first Black woman casts her vote for the first time.(Read the review here.) She’s a special projects librarian with the Knox County Library System.

Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Terry Lee Caruthers is a special projects librarian with the Knox County Library System. She grew up surrounded by strong, female role models who nurtured her imagination and imbued her with a love of reading, writing, and storytelling. Terry continues to reside in South Knoxville where she shares her life with her three rescue cats: Blackberry, Clover, and Rumblewick.

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How long on average does it take you to write a book? 

For most picture books, the initial draft takes anywhere from two to three weeks. Middle grade and YA novels, of course, take much longer.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

As a professional librarian, research is second nature to me. The time varies as to the task at hand.

Picture books generally don’t require much research, unless there are historical or cultural elements and aspects involved.  

With The Big Day, I was well-aware of the fact that I am a white woman writing about a Black household. Despite my late husband of almost 38 years being Black, and having lived with his family for a time in Rand, West Virginia, I was conscious of the fact that my personal interactions and experiences weren’t enough! I needed and wanted input from ‘Black eyes.’

As a result, I reached out to our local history expert and writer on the subject, as well as civil rights leader, Robert ‘Bob’ Booker. He was kind enough to read The Big Day and give his approval.

When I later shared this information with Renee Kesler, the director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center—Knoxville’s Black history museum, she asked what Mr. Booker knew about being ‘a little black girl?’ Of course, I had to chuckle and say, “Absolutely nothing.” She, then, read, reviewed, and signed off on my manuscript as well.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to get this type of feedback when you’re sharing the stories of those outside your experiences.

How often do you read?

Every day. It’s how you become a better writer.

Do you read your book reviews? Do you think you can learn a lot from reading criticism about your work? 

Yes, I do read my reviews, and I do believe a writer can learn from them, having become better myself as a result.

What are your favorite books?  

As a lifetime reader and a librarian, I’ve read a lot over the years. To snag a place on my bookshelves, it has to be a book that I’ve connected with emotionally and want to have with me for the remainder of my life.

To Kill a Mockingbird, which I first read in 9th grade and have read yearly ever since.

View From Delphi -Jonathan O’Dell’s prose leaves me breathless

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, a most delightful coming-of-age story

What is your favorite childhood book? 

That’s difficult to say. I guess The Happiest Christmas by Jessie Home Fairweather because of the special place it has held in my heart. As I grew older, Mom gave away many of my childhood books, this being one of them. While the story stayed with me, the title did not. I searched for it for years, as did many of my family members. Then on my 33rd Christmas, my aunt found a copy! Told in verse, this precious story of Santa’s sleigh hitting a rock in the woods and the forest animals assisting him remains a treasured favorite.

Is writers block real? 

Definitely. After my husband’s death, I could not write for about four months. Then, one night I was in bed reading and the idea for a picture book began forming in my head.

There are also occasions I’ve been stuck on a plot point. A walk at the neighborhood park often provides clarity.

How do you begin a book? 

A word, a news story, something I see, etc. triggers an idea or concept. It’s like flipping on a light switch.

That’s exactly what happened with The Big Day. I saw Agnes Sadler’s name in that September 6, 1919 newspaper article and wanted to share her story in some way.

How did you decide on this title?

While driving home that evening, all I could think of was ‘what a big day’ that had to have been for Agnes Sadler. Being able to vote and have her say for the first time in her life.

Tell us some more about your book. What inspired the premise of your book? 

The Big Day was inspired by my discovery of the first Black woman to vote in my hometown. A historical fact that had lain dormant since 1919. In retrospect, I don’t even know that Agnes Sadler was aware of her achievement. If she was, it was not something she shared. For I was able to locate her great-grandson, and neither he nor the rest of the family were aware of her historic role here in Knoxville.

Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why? 

Tansy’s ‘hair time’ with Big Mama in the bathroom.

Which scene was most difficult to write? Why? 

Big Mama explaining why voting was important in the context of slavery. Introducing and explaining the concept of a person being bought and sold to a child in terms they could comprehend—thus the furniture reference.

What makes this book important right now?

The attempt in some locations to suppress voting turnout or reduce voting rights.

What sort of a relationship exists between you and the characters you created in this book? 

I pulled elements from my husband’s family and incorporated them into the interactions between Tansy and Big Mama, like in the ‘hair time’ scene.

Then, I included a reference to Cal Johnson, when Tansy’s eating breakfast. He was a local Black leader, one of the wealthiest during that time, and he owned a local mercantile that the community frequented.

I also included my great grandfather, John Samuel Whitaker, in the story. He was an actual streetcar driver in Knoxville during this period.

Whats next for you?

In the picture book realm, Star Bright Books will be publishing my picture book biography, Raphael Lemkin: Citizen of The World in 2023.

I also have some middle grade novels scheduled for publication. The Faithful Dog releases from Black Rose Writing in July of 2022 and Star Bright Books will be publishing Red and Me sometime in 2024.

In the meantime, I continue to write and submit new stories to these publishers, as well as others, in the hope of sharing more of my stories with the world.


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