The Mayor of Maxwell Street is a work of Adult Historical Fiction where an ambitious Black debutante and aspiring journalist enlists the help of a low-level speakeasy manager to identify the head of an underground crime syndicate in the dangerous world of Prohibition-era Chicago.
HISTORICAL HAPPY HOUR
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The Mayor of Maxwell Street by Avery Cunningham
This features host Jane Healey interviewing debut author Avery Cunningham about her novel “The Mayor of Maxwell Street.” Set in 1920s Chicago, the book explores the life of Nellie Sawyer, an African American woman aspiring to be an investigative journalist. Nellie investigates the elusive leader of a powerful crime syndicate, delving into themes of race, the American Dream, and the era’s societal dynamics. Cunningham discusses her inspirations, including the desire to highlight black elite history and parallels with “The Great Gatsby.” The novel also addresses the complexities of love and the intricacies of Chicago’s segregated society. Avery shares her writing process, emphasizing historical accuracy balanced with compelling storytelling. The discussion also covers her positive publishing experience, the importance of a supportive community, and her hopes for the book’s cinematic adaptation.
In this episode, we cover:
- 00:00:00 – Introduction: Overview of “The Mayor of Maxwell Street” and Avery Cunningham’s background.
- 00:03:15 – Inspiration Behind the Novel: Discussion of Avery’s motivations and influences.
- 00:08:40 – Exploring 1920s Chicago: Insights into the novel’s setting and historical context.
- 00:15:20 – Nellie Sawyer’s Character: Analysis of the protagonist’s journey.
- 00:21:35 – Crime and Society: Examination of the crime syndicate’s societal impact.
- 00:28:50 – Love and Complexity: Approach to romance in the novel.
- 00:34:10 – Writing Process: Avery’s methods for balancing accuracy with storytelling.
- 00:39:45 – Publishing Journey: Reflections on getting the book published.
- 00:44:30 – Community and Support: The importance of a supportive author network.
- 00:50:55 – Cinematic Aspirations: Discussion on potential film adaptation.
- 00:57:10 – Closing Remarks: Final thoughts and future projects.
[00:00:00] Jane: Welcome to Historical Happy Hour, the podcast that explores new and exciting historical fiction novels. I’m your host, Jane Healy, and in today’s episode, we welcome Avery Cunningham. To discuss her amazing debut novel, The Mayor of Maxwell Street, which Publishers Weekly calls a striking debut that perfectly captures the contours of Jazz Age Chicago and the varying experiences of its citizens of color.
Readers will be eager to see what Cunningham does next. Welcome, Avery. Thank you so much for coming on. This is awesome.
[00:00:40] Avery: Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really thrilled to be here and excited to talk with you and everyone who’s joining us live. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us.
[00:00:48] Jane: and I should also mention, Avery’s book comes out a week from today, and for many of you who are long time listeners, you know that I mean, pre orders are huge for authors, so please consider pre ordering her book. I’m gonna do a brief intro bio, and then jump into questions. About Avery. Avery Cunningham is a resident of Memphis, Tennessee and a graduate of DePaul University’s Master of Arts Writing and Publishing program.
She grew up surrounded by exceptional African Americans who strive to uplift their communities while also maintaining a tenuous hold on prosperity in a starkly segregated environment. She aspires to tell the stories of complex characters fighting for the right to exist at the fringes of history. When not writing, Avery’s adventuring with her Bernie’s Mountain Dog Grizzly, well, and wading waist deep in research.
Welcome, and tell us about the premise for the Mayor of Maxwell Street and how you came up with the idea for this really fascinating novel.
[00:01:47] Avery: Yes, of course. Well, to give a supposed Greek synopsis, The Mayor of Maxwell Street is about our main character, Nellie Sawyer, who is the daughter of a very wealthy African American man in 1920s.
America, 1920s Chicago, and her aspiration is to be an investigative journalist and while she’s in Chicago, she ends up getting this assignment to find the elusive Mary Maxwell Street who’s the supposed leader of a really powerful crime syndicate and she recruits Jay Shorey who is a biracial black man who’s come out of the South and kind of reinvented himself in Chicago as a speaking superpower actor and she recruits him to try to help her find this elusive individual and along the way they face all of the different issues that come within the black elite of the time the gangsters, the dangers of prohibition era Chicago.
So it’s a really great exploration of The black elite of the time, it has all the things that we love about the 1920s. It’s lots of glitz, lots of glamor, a lot of fast cars. But also it’s a really great exploration of race relations in the city at the time and the kind of choices that people are forced to make in pursuit of an American dream that is not always created for everyone.
And your question about where the inspiration came from. The inspiration is a bit multifaceted. The initial inspiration, the really first spark, came in the ninth, in the 2020s actually. There was a lot of really great media coming out where there was a lot of great representation. To use a kind of common example Bridgerton for example, where you have this period of history, air in England that everyone really loves to.
Watch the media about, but then they diversified the cast and well, I love that show. Right. Exactly. Well, I really appreciated his representation. I was excited for it. I love to see it. I was a little bit frustrated, I should say, because what I really wanted was to see a narrative where especially the elite and, and high profile societies of black and brown communities was represented as, as the primary narrative.
I, I became a little bit frustrated that. You know, slotting individuals into a society or a social group that took very serious measures to never have diversity of representation within society groups. And so I wanted to do more research. I wanted to find out what does the history of the black elite really look like in this country.
I wanted to learn more about that side of our American history. And That was kind of the initial spark of the story I wanted to tell, an exploration of this new side of what the Black experience was. The secondary inspiration was, of course, the 1920s. When we were, when this idea first came to me at the start of 2020 that was the time where everyone was wondering, well, is the 2020s, is that going to mirror the 1920s?
There were a lot of think pieces of comparing the two the two decades. And, like, me, like everyone else, I was reading The Good Gatsby. at the time, and I noticed a kind of parallel how the story of the Great Gatsby is really about the illusion of the American Dream, how much you’ll have to sacrifice, the choices you have to make to be accepted into a certain group of people, and I really thought that experience mirrored a lot of the Black experience very well.
And also at the time, I, I, had stumbled upon these really interesting literary theories brought about by a lot of African American scholars that Jay Gatsby could actually be read as a black man passing for white depending on, on your individual interpretation of the novel. And I loved that interpretation, it really changed my entire view of what the great Gatsby could be talking about if viewed through that lens.
And the two ideas really did, did meld together. I, I think I initially wanted to do a more straightforward Gatsby retelling, but as I went through the drafting process and the research. The Mary Maxwell Street really became much more than a Gatsby retelling. It became about the Great Migration, about the diversity within Chicago, the corruption within Chicago, and really what this era in American history looked like for for, for all Americans, but most especially African Americans and Americans with diverse backgrounds.
[00:05:47] Jane: Excellent. So it’s such a fascinating premise, and I was, I, the Gatsby question is one of my, one of my questions later on. I never heard the theory that he was a Black man passing as white, but when you think about it, now I have to like go back and read the book again, because that’s, I mean, it’s certainly plausible.
Yeah, I love that. And so you have, the characters are really well drawn in this story and let’s start by talking about Nellie, who’s the protagonist. You know, she’s, talk about the development. She’s you know, racially economically straddling two worlds. She’s trying to pursue a career in journalism.
And how did you come up with Nellie as, as the main character?
[00:06:30] Avery: Yeah, so I, what I really wanted was a character, like you said, who could straddle both worlds. I wanted someone who was an outsider in, in both areas. And I think that came from a particular line from The Great Gatsby that I was simultaneously within and without, repelled and I think fascinated by the variety of life and I wanted a character that could really represent that With Nellie Sawyer, even though she comes from this incredible wealth this unprecedented wealth as a young black woman She is also new wealth very nouveau riche and as she and her family realized that’s not always Accepted within you know circles of a black elite where it’s more about your legacy D or Prestige, how long you’ve existed in this position.
A society that’s very kind of suspicious of newcomers and outsiders, so she’s not easily accepted into that community, but she also, you know, has aspirations of, of, as you said, becoming a journalist and, and doing all of this great. Good. And she’s not very much accepted there because she’s also a, a black woman and, and she.
Is prone to viewing different situations, not only from a place of righteousness, as in every young person who wants to do good does, but also from a place of privilege. And that skews a lot of her, her understanding of the world around her. So I really wanted a character who could kind of stand at a distance from, from both worlds and kind of discover how, how each reflects each other, mirrors each other, but how each could change in their own individual ways.
And also. I will say she was inspired in part by a friend of mine, her name is Rachel Hinton. She was the youngest chief political reporter for the Chicago Sun Times when she started, I believe, back in maybe 2018, 2019, and she’s also a young black woman, a dear friend of mine, and I was just blown away by her, her skill and her knowledge and her Her expertise as a journalist, and this character is in part an homage to the strides that my dear friend made.
So part of that is an inspiration to her.
[00:08:24] Jane: Oh, I love that. How does she feel about this? That’s amazing.
[00:08:28] Avery: I think she, I, I admit that was about halfway through the book when I told her, it’s like, Hey, you know, don’t, don’t panic, but you’re kind of the inspiration for my main character. She’s been my inspiration for, for many years and I’m just so very proud of her.
So I wanted to present a character who embodied that, that identity of being not only a journalist, but a black journalist and a black female journalist in an industry that, Especially at this time was very reluctant to view black women in any kind of sphere outside of a really formatted box. And I think Nellie as a character, she gives a really great window into both of these worlds.
She’s apart from it, but she’s also thrust head first into it. So we can experience all the highs, all the lows, all the danger, all the excitement as she does with new and fresh eyes. But she’s also capable and competent enough to understand what she’s saying. And give a lot of insight and perspective as well.
[00:09:23] Jane: Yeah, absolutely. So interesting. Another character that I loved was Is it Sequoia? Am I pronouncing it correctly? Yes, exactly. I wanted to make sure. So she’s a member of Chicago’s upper class who takes Nellie under her wing. introduces her to the right people, and she has, like, the most amazing fashion and some of the best dialogue in the book, in my opinion.
And and how did you come up with her? I was thinking of Janelle Monae, frankly, like, the whole time I was, like, that’s who I thought of when I was reading it. How did you come up with her as a character?
[00:09:58] Avery: Yeah, no, Sequoia is definitely a fan She was wonderful to, to write and to Observe her journey through throughout the story.
And what I wanted for her was to one be a kind of guide and introduction for Specifically the world of the black elite for for Nelly But I also wanted to present someone who was not fully a part of that of that world as readers find out with Sequoia She’s always talking about you mentioned her great fashion.
Most of her fashion is something that she’s borrowed. It’s something that she’s won It’s something that she’s bartered for and She’s a representation of how not everyone can be fully a part of the inner circle, that appearances are so very important, and the moment that you, you drop that appearance, you step out of line, you’re an outsider again.
And Sequoyah is a really great representation of that. So I thought that she would be a great kind of guide and window for Nellie into this new society that she’s entering into, but she also has enough presence of mind to criticize that society. Yes. So in a way that, that, that. Connection between her and Nellie can feel more genuine because they both can see the flaws, but Sequoyah is more that, that you need to accept the flaws, work with them, not against them in order to get to where you want to be.
So that, that’s kind of where the inspiration for Sequoyah came from. And as I said, as I, as I went through the process of writing her, she became such a strong character and more than, you know, the, the stereotypical quintessential best friend character that you see a lot of times in. And novels and media, but more of a more subtle criticism of the world that Nelly was trying to try to enter into.
[00:11:37] Jane: Yeah, I like that. She was not in, you know, just a yes woman, like, you know, she definitely, like, pushed back and, and, and gave it right back to Nellie, and I, I liked that dynamic for sure. I, so I love learning about lesser known parts of history, and I found, like, the time period and the characters in the setting so fascinating because I didn’t know much about upper class Black society in 1921 in Chicago, and And so talk about your research.
What were some of your most impactful and interesting sources for the story?
[00:12:10] Avery: Yeah, definitely. And there are some key, I, I suppose, left over from my time in, in graduate school primary sources that, that I really leaned on when doing the research for this novel. And the first one has got to be The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
For those who aren’t familiar, The Warmth of Other Suns is a Pretty much complete, as complete as can be, accounting of the Great Migration in this country, where Black Americans were moving out of the South and pursuing what they thought would be better, more prosperous, safer opportunities in other parts of the country.
And her accounting of that period in history is just so thorough, and the narratives are so personal, that it made this time very intimate and, and very present and her research, I tried to work into so many different aspects of, of the novel and it really, I feel, breathed a new life into my understanding of this era outside of what, you know, I learned in school, what I learned from my parents, what I learned from my family.
So she was an incredible primary source. And if anyone hasn’t already, I highly recommend reading the book or listening to the audio book, which was narrated by Robin Miles. It’s a really wonderful education. Another great source was Our Kind of People by the late Otis Otis Lawrence Graham. And it is a, Again, as complete as can be, exploration and accounting of the history of the Black elite in this country, talking about the key cities where the Black elite kind of thrive and prosper our traditions, our culture our societies and institutions our practices, and the past, but also how the Black elite has tried to form and change and adapt to be more prepared for the future, and that was another incredible source, and for me, even as a black woman, a black woman who grew up in a relatively prominent upper middle class black community.
So much of this was unknown to me. So it was a great way to become more connected with my own history. But I, it also is a great reflection of different periods in American history and how this really small insular community has tried to adapt and change to survive all of the oppression that, that surrounds.
You know, the black experience in general in this country and then the original black elite by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor was another great exploration. She focuses more on a specific era of the black elite, and that’s from maybe 1860s to early 1900s, so kind of the reconstruction era and specifically in D.
C. And just another great accounting of this history the individuals who built this society, who determined the fashion, who determined the, the institutions who made these incredible strides in government and policies and, and entrepreneurship. And that was another really, really prominent source.
And then I, I have to shout out a couple of other books. Ira Berkow’s Survival in the Bazaar is, and Accounting with Very personal narratives about Maxwell Street and the Maxwell Street market, which becomes a bit of a essential setting for the book. Anything Goes, which is a really great and fun history of the 1920s and the the fashion, the politics.
It’s the technological advancements. So those were really my, some of my best primary sources and those are books that I recommend to everyone. Even if you’re not a history buff, even if you’re not researching the 1920s, they’re just a really great way to learn more about our, our world and our culture and our history.
[00:15:29] Jane: Yeah, that’s excellent. I will put those in the show notes when we put out the podcast, too, because I love, I love hearing about people’s sources, and those are all, I think, worth exploring. I want to get to the, the love story or love triangle and aspect of the story. This book is getting a lot of buzz.
You know, we have a lot of historical fiction fans. I think, was it, is it like a most anticipated on Goodreads? Did I see? Is that?
[00:15:53] Avery: Yes, it’s on, it’s on a most anticipated 2024 Goodreads list. So great. Those are on Goodreads. Thank you. Yeah, so, so great.
[00:16:01] Jane: Yeah, that’s so, and so, you know, I’ve been reading, like, what people are saying on Goodreads and, and different places.
And so it’s often, you know, thought of as a love triangle between Nellie and Jay Shorey, who you mentioned, who’s kind of this, manages a speakeasy, mysterious figure, connections to kind of Chicago’s underworld. And Tomás, who’s this incredibly wealthy European with royal blood. And so when you were writing it, did you think of it as this love story, love triangle?
Or did you think of it more as Nelly’s story or a little bit of both?
[00:16:35] Avery: I think the best answer would be a little bit of both. It’s certainly not a romance. It’s a love story in In a sense that these are all young people who are feeling seen and understood for the first time. And that can create a lot of feelings very similar to love.
All of these characters, Toma, Nelly, Jay, they’re all individuals that even though they’ve always been surrounded by people, surrounded by a sense of community, they’re still isolated. They’re still ignored or looked over or underestimated. And each of them in turn sees the other and acknowledges their potential and their expertise.
One of the reasons that Nelly is so drawn to Jay is that he takes her seriously. He questions her and, and confronts her and challenges her, but he believes in her. And that’s something that she’s not accustomed to. And then the same goes for, for Jay. He sees a Nelly, someone who has all of the ambition and, and determination that he’s been criticized for his entire life.
And with Toma, he’s someone who has been born into this really great wealth and privilege. He’s Spanish American, Spanish Mexican, Spanish Mexican connected to aristocracy, but he also has this history of colorism and racism in his own background. So they’re all characters who do connect with each other, but I, I don’t want people to go into it thinking that it’s a traditional romance.
It is a love story, but it’s not so much a happy ending. These characters do discover along the way that that connection and simply acknowledging and seeing and recognizing each other may not be enough to overcome some of the barriers that are in their way. So I did envision this always as Nellie’s story, but I did want her, I admit as a black woman, we’re so often Depicted with partners or relationships who don’t represent the best of us.
And what I wanted Nelly to, to face is this Decision between two individuals who do deeply care about her, but also two individuals that bring a lot to the table, and are really caring and supportive, and especially with Choma. I wanted her options to, to seem, to seem good. Or at least one of them, too.
I won’t spoil anything. No, no
[00:18:39] Jane: spoilers. Yeah, but I, I, I like the, I like the way it ended up. I won’t, that’s all I’ll say. So, I, of course when I, before I do these interviews, I go down like Google rabbit holes and stuff. So the, the book is called The Mayor of Maxwell Street. And so how does the actual history of Maxwell Street, which I looked up and the Maxwell Street Market, which also plays a role in the story, how did that, how does that impact the narrative?
[00:19:04] Avery: Right, so So much of Maxwell Street and what I meant, what I wanted, what I’d hoped to accomplish is to make Maxwell Street more of a character in the story, but Chicago is such a broad city with so many different communities and neighborhoods, I wasn’t able to give Maxwell Street what I felt was the full run of the story, would have been a thousand pages long and it’s already long enough but the Maxwell Street, it represents the story in more thematic ways or incorporated into the story in more thematic ways.
So many individuals who study Maxwell Street or who We’re a part of that community going back, you know, 100 years. Talk about how diverse Maxwell Street was and how if you were able to participate in commerce, then you could have any opportunities that you’d like. That it really, at the day, didn’t fully matter, you know, if you were black or Eastern European or Jewish, if you had something to sell, then you had a place on Maxwell Street in the Maxwell Street market.
And I think that a lot of our characters kind of represent that. determination and that willingness to make a place for themselves in the wider community. But also the thing about Maxwell Street is that it’s this great pocket of diversity and in a way equality in the midst of one of the most segregated cities in America.
So that kind of really mimics what our characters are going through. They’re trying to carve out a place for themselves and these institutions and these systems that are incredibly segregated and with systemic issues that enforce certain caste systems or certain places for them. So Maxwell Street becomes really a theme in the novel of individuals who have the will and the capability and the competency but are forced to make a, make all those changes and make all those strides surrounded by these Incredibly oppressive barriers.
[00:20:55] Jane: and that that leads me to my next question. One of the things that was interesting is you know, there were scenes of upper class social events, the nightlife on Maxwell Street, Maxwell Street market, where, you know, they were very diverse blacks and whites mingling. But often you, you know, you did a good job kind of showing the underlying tension in those scenes, sometimes between different groups.
So talk to me about what segregation looked like in Chicago in the 1920s and to give people some context for, for this story. You’ve talked about it a little bit already, obviously, but do you want to go into a little more detail? Yeah,
[00:21:33] Avery: of course. Segregation in Chicago. It was incredibly stark, and I think it’s easy for people to forget that or not recognize that because they may see Chicago as, you know, this really great, progressive beacon of a city, but in truth, the The type of segregation that you see in Chicago was incredibly subtle, was incredible, but still very much enforced.
The South Side of Bronzeville and even in some circles, it’s kind of a derogatory term now, but in some circles it was called the Black Belt of Chicago, was where a lot of Black Americans congregated, especially in the midst of the Great Migration, when you had hundreds of thousands of people flooding into the city.
And Another great source that I didn’t mention, it’s a document called The Negro in Chicago. And it’s a, I think, 1, 000 page report commissioned by the city of Chicago after the violence of the 1919 race riots, where the city wanted to get to the bottom of, okay, what is the Black condition in Chicago? How did we get to the point where we had a race riot in our city?
And that document really does demonstrate how subversive some of the Segregation practices were talking to bank lenders who were telling, you know, reporters and telling city officials that they simply did not want to lend to black Americans they had they based on these stereotypes that had really no backing and how that affords a lot of the redlining that kept black Americans a certain part of the city.
But there’s also incredible some moments of violence, such as especially in the Hyde Park area. When Black Americans started to move into Hyde Park, there were threats, there were how to say gatherings that criticized the Black Americans moving into the neighborhood. There were even bombings occasionally of homes.
So the city did try to segregate itself. And then, of course, the different Neighborhoods of different ethnicities, you visit the Greek Delta in Chicago, they visit the Polish Pinch in Chicago, Italian Americans are kind of quarantined in this specific area so again, it’s not, it’s not the type of segregation that you might See, or expect to see in places like the South, the deep South, like Alabama or Georgia.
But it was very much in force and very much present, where these ethnic lines were not crossed. And when they were, as with the 1919 race riots, you see kind of this explosive confrontation and violence.
[00:23:55] Jane: Fascinating. Thank you for that. That I have another question now, and this one’s kind of a two part question.
This is one of those stories, when I was reading it, I felt very cinematic, like you write in a very cinematic way, and I’m just wondering, we were talking about agents, do you have any movie interest yet, or anything you can talk about?
[00:24:17] Avery: Nothing I can talk about. My, my greatest hope and dream is that this, This project could have a series adaptation.
I think, I think we would make a wonderful mini series. But, that, right now, those are all just hopes and dreams. Right, right. Nothing, nothing that I can announce right now.
[00:24:35] Jane: Do you have anyone in mind who would play Nellie or Jay or Tamar? Oh, wow.
[00:24:40] Avery: Oh, wow. Oh, wow. I do. I do. Denae Benton, who a lot of people, especially historical fiction fans, may know from The Gilded Age on HBO, and if you’re a musical theatre fan, she was also a lead in the original Broadway cast of Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
[00:24:59] Jane: Yes. Oh,
[00:25:00] Avery: yes. Yeah. Yes. Yes. She’s a marvelous actor. Of course, a beautiful singing voice. But when I was writing Nellie, she was the person I envisioned the entire time. If you go to the Pinterest board that’s public and that I made for the book, she’s all over there. Oh, she’d be excellent. She would. She would.
And I think she just represents the character perfectly. So if I had to do an ideal casting for Nellie’s story would be Denae Benton. Now, Jay is a little bit more difficult because my ideal casting for Jay, he, he’s an actor who has aged from the person that I would cast him as. To be specific, his name is Mark Taylor.
If you were a Disney Channel fan growing up as I was, then you might recognize him from the movie 17 Again with Tia and Tamera Lowry. And, Young Mark Taylor would be an exceptional day, so if you can just move time and space around. There you go. We could put together a really ideal cast. And then I, I, for Tomas there’s also a specific actor that I’ve had in mind.
I only just discovered him recently when I watched the movie Babylon. And he plays one of the lead characters in that movie and I, I won’t miss, try to attempt his name and mispronounce it, but if you look at the main cast of Babylon, he’s, he’s the kind of titular character and with Digging of Tamar, he fits the, the image and description of that character perfectly, but I only just really learned of his existence a few months ago and he’s, he’s traditionally a Mexican actor.
So this was, I think Babylon was his first experience in an English language film. So, again, if you could just move around time and space, I swear I could put together the most ideal casting.
[00:26:33] Jane: Well, you never know. Well, you know, keep us all posted, because I think it would make a great series as well. Oh, thank you.
I hope so. The next questions I ask are all more writing based and not specific to your story, and I ask them on every podcast. And then if, after I ask these questions, as everyone who’s, who’s been on the podcast and webinar before know. put questions in the chat or in the Q& A and I will ask them of Avery.
So how did you balance strike a balance between fact and fiction in your storytelling and were there any strict rules you adhered to?
[00:27:12] Avery: So that’s an interesting question and that’s I think the great triumph and the great struggle of historical fiction is to tell a convincing historical narrative but also You know, adhere to, to the storytelling aspects that, that are important in fiction.
And I think when I tried to strike that balance, it really came down to making sure I, I filled out the world as much as possible. You know, I’m, I’m a theater kid at heart. So when, when setting up the scene, I think of it very much like a set. What are the characters hearing? What are they smelling?
What are they touching and feeling? What are they seeing? And I tried to make sure that all of those elements were reflective and accurate to the time period. And I think by filling in the set, it allowed the characters who fit into more fictional tropes to Experiment a little bit more to be a little bit more creative and to step a little bit out of that realm of the exact historical accuracy and kind of be themselves as characters because the set really filled that in for them.
You might, you might compare it to, like, say a production of Macbeth set in like 1960s Russia or something like that where The world around the characters is very specific to a time period, but the characters themselves couldn’t adapt to any time period because of the issues that they’re going through.
So that’s one of the ways where I really try to capture a balance, was making sure the world was as vibrant, as fleshed out, and fleshed out as possible. But also, as I’m sure you know, and any historical fiction writer will tell you, it’s, it’s, Impossible to have perfect historical accuracy on top of, you know, compelling fictional story.
Yes. So, we try our best to, to walk that line, but I think each Each author and each reader decides for themselves which aspect is more important to them when it comes to how much they enjoy a story. And so, for me, I try to be as close to the middle as possible, but telling a compelling story, I feel like, always is more important than fiction, even than, you know, absolute historical accuracy.
[00:29:15] Jane: absolutely. I feel the same but it is a hard balance. I wanted to, I said this to you before we, we came on I can’t believe this is your debut because it’s so beautifully written and it’s really a sweeping story over 500 pages long. How, what was your writing process like? Like, what, how do you write?
Are you a plotter or are you a pantser? Like, do you write by the seat of your pants or do you plot things out or a little bit of both? I love hearing about people’s
[00:29:41] Avery: process. No, of course, of course. Well, when I was, when I was younger, I was most certainly a pantser. I was someone who believed in the muse, and that if I just had a general idea, I could just sit down, and and it would all come to me, and a beautiful narrative would present itself on page without any kind of planning whatsoever.
And I learned very quickly, especially as I took on more professional roles. Became associated with more professional writing spaces that for me, at least panting is not the most efficient, you know, use of my time. So I definitely became a plotter. I outlined as much as I could this entire story pretty much chapter by chapter before I began actually drafting.
Now, of course, some chapters removed, some chapters had to be X’d out or changed a little bit. So some of the minutiae of the story did change, but the overall narrative did stay very much in line with that original outline. So I think I wouldn’t have been able to tell such a sweeping story if I hadn’t taken the time to plot it out first.
And also I will say in full transparency, this is a novel that I sold on proposal, which I didn’t realize was an auction until it happened to me.
[00:30:48] Jane: That’s amazing. Thank you.
[00:30:50] Avery: Thank you. It was a great experience. So that meant I, I had a deadline. So. I essentially had to plot it out. I had to know where I was going, how I was going to get there, and how long it would take me to get there in order to, you know, have a completed and satisfactory work by the end of the process.
And that was very stressful for me. I’m someone in the past, you know, I took four years working on my last manuscript, which is still only about 75 percent done. So, so working on that kind of a deadline for this type of story was a bit strenuous, but it also Was cathartic in a way it forced me to really sit down and and give my full attention to the story and these characters and the work that it required and I’m grateful for that experience because now it has proven to me that I can still match that same energy that I can do this in the future, that I don’t have to feel like I need four or five years to write a book that I can kind of lean on my, my education and my experience a little bit more.
So that, that was a huge, huge benefit, but also a bit of a barrier for me personally as well, but I think it turned out pretty well.
[00:32:00] Jane: Awesome. Yeah, I, I’m a big fan of deadlines. I feel like you use the time you use the time you have. I feel like especially with research and not everything like I’d be doing that for years if someone didn’t tell me I have to turn something in by a certain exactly.
Yeah. Yeah. So this is your debut. And it’s officially out one week from today. How does it feel? And is there anything that has surprised you about this whole experience from like standing in the draft to now?
[00:32:29] Avery: Oh, wow. It’s been a whirlwind experience. Sure. The truth is, I don’t think anyone can ever truly prepare you for what it means to be a debut author.
It’s so specific to each person’s experience, specific to your publisher, specific to the book, specific to the month and week and day that your book is coming out. So, so, it’s an experience that you can Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for it, but I think nothing can really prepare you for the intricacies of what it means to be a debut author, but it’s been a wonderful experience and I really owe a lot to my publishing team.
You know, I went to Grad school and undergrad to be a writer and I have these wonderful professors and what everybody tells you in your school Classes and your workshops and your writers groups is that you know, it’s going to be difficult with your publishers Your editor is going to have ulterior motives.
They’re not going to tell you what’s going on the book you submit It’s not going to be the book. That’s finally printed and all these these Warnings that you really take into these meetings that you think okay I’m really gonna stand up for myself and really advocate for my own for my own book, but In truth, my publishers at Hyperion Avenue have been nothing but supportive and enthusiastic, and they champion this book at every opportunity.
And if not for their willingness to collaborate with me, and support me, and make sure this novel reached its audience to the best of its ability, I think my debut experience would have been entirely different. So I do truly owe a lot to them and their support and just how marvelous of a team they are.
I also have to shout out our 2024 debut group. Oh, nice. Yes, it’s a great group. And for those who aren’t familiar, most debut groups, if they can, form a kind of chat group where we can all support each other, encourage each other, vent to each other. And After going through this past year with that kind of support system, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go through it alone without that type of support system of other authors going through the similar thing.
And of course also to shout out my family. Every author, I think, has their own individual situation of what their family life is like, what their work life is like. And I think without my family constantly reminding me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, that this energy and this time that I’m putting towards becoming a published author is worthwhile, that this debut year is going to be an exceptional year, I think I would have become discouraged or disheartened at different points in the experience.
But I think making sure you have different support systems. You know, at home in your, in your everyday life, but also supports some other authors is really important because otherwise you can really stress yourself
[00:35:04] Jane: out. I completely agree. Yeah, I, I, and that’s excellent. I’m glad you’ve had such a positive experience with your editorial team too.
I think that’s huge. We have aspiring authors, writers in the audience. What is the best advice you can give them about writing and getting published?
[00:35:24] Avery: No, no, I, I, the best advice is the advice that we all get. And it may sound like a broken record, but this year or the past two years has proven it to be, you know, the truly, truly the, the standard just keep writing. Yeah. To, to tell a bit of a personal anecdote about five or so years ago, I, you know, it was working full time and dedicating a lot of time and energy to my full time work.
And I. I had a conversation with myself and I said, you know, you’re really not putting a lot of time into your writing and your energy into your writing, you know, if you’re not published by 30, then, you know, you need to Commit yourself to something else, and really put that energy and that drive into some other form of work so you can essentially get on to your life, so to speak.
And so I doubled down. I stayed writing consistently. I tried to practice and improve my craft constantly. I took on every opportunity to write, whether that be ghostwriting, or editing, or working with other authors. And I think that consistency and that determination really did carry me through this moment because if I had stopped five, or four years ago, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that led to me becoming a debut author.
And I turned 31 exactly a week after my launch. So, so we’re right on schedule. And so that, that’s the biggest. The, the biggest piece of advice I can give every writing instructor, instructor and author and professor and mentor that you meet will tell you, you know, the only way to become a writer is to write.
And I think that that is the truth for all of us. Even if it’s just a couple of words a day, even if it’s only a couple of words a week, the, the key to becoming a professional published author is to stay consistently writing and to follow through with the process and know that if you. Continue to put in the time and the effort that you will reach your ultimate goal, and you will reach your audience.
[00:37:11] Jane: Yes. I always say that publishing is persistence. You got to stay in the game. Yeah. And keep working at it. Excellent. Okay. So we have some questions from the audience and then we’ll talk about how to stay in touch with you. One of them, I, it was one of my questions from Denise. I love the cover as do I what talk to me about the cover and did you have much input into the gorgeous design?
[00:37:35] Avery: the cover is gorgeous. I absolutely love it. It’s, it’s. Drop dead iconic. The designer, if anyone’s interested in looking her up, is Amanda Hudson. She’s an award winning cover designer, has created some truly beautiful work. And so I’m honored to, to have her creative and brilliant hands, you know, be a part of this entire process of, of producing the book.
[00:37:55] Jane: Oh, can you hold up the book? Because I don’t have, I only have it on Necky Alley. So Yes, sorry, I meant to I know. Thank you, Carolyn. I should have said that from the start. Isn’t it beautiful, the color palette? I love it. That whole vibe. Yeah,
[00:38:10] Avery: it’s very nice. It’s very gorgeous. I was trying to think if I could hold it up, but I’ll put it down for now, and I’ll hold it back up a little bit later.
So yes, Amanda Hudson was behind the cover, and Face Out Studio was the studio behind the cover. Oh yeah, they’re great. They are. They’re absolutely wonderful. I loved even though I wasn’t able To work with them directly they, my publisher really trusted Amanda and, and knew that her work and her creativity would, would shine through.
So they pretty much just let her loose on the project and this is the cover she came back with and it was absolutely gorgeous. Nailed it. A plus right off the bat. Right, right. And what I really love about the cover is, talking about the subtleties of it, I’ll hold it back up again. One of my concerns, and I think this was just me having very specific dreams about what I wanted my cover to be, I didn’t think it represented the time or the place very well.
I had, you know, these thoughts of like a photograph with, you know, a scene of the Chicago skyline in the 20s, something like that. And it took a friend of mine, Ashton Lattimore, she’s another day to be author. She has a incredible book called All We Were Promised coming out in April. And it took her insight to really show me how subtle the details were of this book.
The the jewel tones really do represent and capture thematically the wealth of the main character and kind of the luxuriousness you can expect in the novel. Subtle hints to the Chicago skyline. So where if you’re familiar with Chicago, you can kind of see the elements incorporated there. And of course, the entire Art Deco vibe with the border here.
And Really what they prioritize and what I’m personally grateful for is making sure that a Black woman is front and center. This was always a priority. It was there was never an attempt to to hide the fact that this This novel was viewed through her perspective, that she is the primary force that drives the entire book.
And so, this beautiful model, who I actually connected with on social media in 2000, I’m great friends with her now having her be the central focus of the entire novel, I think, does capture the essence of what the story is truly about outside of the setting or the time period or the aesthetic or anything like that.
So yeah, it’s a, it’s a fantastic cover. And, and my deepest hope is that in future books, I can have Amanda Hudson work with me again because she, she does incredible work.
[00:40:22] Jane: Oh, lovely. Yeah. And there’s lots of you know, people say in the comments things, what a beautiful cover it is. And someone, someone’s asking, well, Will there be signed copies available anywhere that they could order, probably, and and do you have a book tour lined up?
[00:40:38] Avery: Yeah, so to address the first question you can order signed and personalized copies from Novel Bookstore. It’s a bookstore, an indie bookstore based here in Memphis, Tennessee and they’re doing an exclusive pre order campaign for signed and personalized copies, and I think they’re going to just be doing those through the rest of the week, so if you would like to go ahead and Order your your own or order for someone a signed personalized copy Please just look up novel bookstore and you can type in novel bookstore Avery Cunningham Or if you go to my social media Then I have a link that’ll take you directly to the site where you can pre order your book And then they’ll have it signed and personalized by me and sent out Within a couple of days of the actual launch on January 30th.
And then in terms of a book tour I do have a lot of locations where I’ll be visiting We’ll be adding to those throughout the year, but I can definitely go ahead and announce that I will be in Chicago, Illinois on February 22nd, speaking at my alma mater, DePaul University. It’s an event free and open to the public.
So if you’re in Chicago, in the Chicago area, if you’d like to come down and talk about the book, hear more about the book it’ll be an exciting event. And of course, I should say, if anyone’s local here in Memphis, Tennessee, 30th, featuring Tara Stringfellow, who’s another incredible historical fiction author and then we’ll be in the Nashville area March 23rd through March 24th, and then we’ll be in Atlanta in April and we’ll be in Tuscaloosa in, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, excuse me, in, in March, and so we’re adding to these dates as we go for those who are interested in seeing where I’ll be, Throughout the summer and throughout the rest of the year.
Just be sure to follow my social media. I’m sure we’ll, we’ll be sharing handles and all of that a little bit later, but I try to stay up to date and announce, you know, all of my different locations, you know, a good couple of months in advance. You’re going to be
[00:42:23] Jane: busy. That’s exciting. That’s great.
Thank you. I’m glad to be
[00:42:27] Avery: busy. It’s good
[00:42:28] Jane: busy. Busy is good. Yeah. Oh, Cheryl Hagman asked, Is there a hardback edition? So do you have trade paperback and hardcover or is it just coming out in a hardcover? There will
[00:42:38] Avery: be trade paperback and hardcover. The trade paperback is what you’ll mostly probably be seeing in stores.
But you can still order the hardback, which is what I have right here. You can still order that through all of the stores. All of the retailers. You can order this through Barnes and Noble through Amazon, through your local indie stores as well Penguin Random House side of course. So if you do want a hardcover, and I highly recommend it because it’s gorgeous and shiny and has this pretty, pretty red here.
Book jacket, yep. Yes, yes. So, so if you do prefer a hardcover, then there are ways to get a hold of it. But of course the trade paperback will definitely be available everywhere books are sold.
[00:43:17] Jane: Awesome. Mary Worthington has commented in the comments in the Q& A, she wants to tell you that she’s a longtime Memphian and she can’t wait to see you at Novel Bookstore in Memphis.
Bravo to you and congratulations. She’s been such sweet notes in both places, so I have to make sure I give a shout out. No, thank you.
[00:43:35] Avery: Hi. Love
[00:43:37] Jane: to see Memphis people here. And there’s people from all over. If you see the comments, it’s really great. And Canada, Maryland, California, LA and some of our long time webinar attendees, which is awesome.
Thank you, everyone. One more question before we go. What’s the best way for readers to stay in touch with you? And do you Zoom with book clubs? So I guess that’s two questions, but. Yeah.
[00:44:01] Avery: So I’ll start with the, the book club question. I am more than willing to zoom or do virtual meetings with book clubs.
If you’re a book club that’s close to Memphis. So by that, I mean driving distance within one or two hours, I’d be more than happy to travel and meet with you all in person. I know I’m meeting with a book club in Atlanta in June, and I’m meeting with a book club in. Nashville in March. So that’s just kind of an example of the places that I’d be happy to travel, in the distance I’d be happy to travel to meet with the book club, but then of course I’d be more than happy to meet with you all virtually.
It would be an honor to, to talk with those who’ve read the book and are interested in discussing. And in terms of how to get in touch with me, I am most active on Instagram. You can follow me at averywritesbigbooks there. I also have that same handle on TikTok where I do a lot of great videos about the history featured in the Maxwell Street.
I am also on Twitter or X or whatever iteration you prefer. Whatever it is called. Exactly. At eight, at AA underscore Cunningham. And then I’m also on Facebook. At Avery Cunningham Author, but I’m most active on Instagram, so that’s, you know, the place where you’d like to get the most information about upcoming tour dates, or the book, or just fun pictures of, of my dog doing really beautiful and gorgeous things and that’s a great place to start.
[00:45:18] Jane: Excellent. Avery, this was lovely. Thank you so much for coming on. I’m very excited for your debut, and I will, I will try to get this recording out a week from today. On your launch day. Congratulations again, and I’m so excited for all the buzz it’s getting to. I mean, it’s just so nice to see when debuts are supported the way yours is being supported.
And I can’t wait to see what it does. And so I just want to remind everyone to, to sign up for the next couple, we have all the registrations for his upcoming historical happy hours are on my website. Next month is our third anniversary historical happy hour, and we’re, I’m having Kristen Hanna on New York Times bestseller, Kristen Hanna with her latest release, The Women, so please register for that.
And, and if you could, Like and leave a review on Apple podcasts. This is all the marketing stuff I have to say at the end. That would be tremendously helpful also on YouTube, if you like, or subscribe. And thank you again for everyone for their support. Congratulations, Avery. I’m so happy for you.
Have a great week, everyone. Yes, you all too. Thank you so much for having me. Thanks. Take care. Bye bye.
HISTORICAL HAPPY HOUR
Hosted by Jane Healey, Historical Happy Hour is a live interview and podcast featuring premiere historical fiction authors and their latest novels.