Author interview with Janis Kearney
Janis F. Kearney, publisher, author, oral historian and literacy advocate, is one of 19 children born to Arkansas Delta sharecroppers, and cotton farmers. She graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a B.A. in Journalism, and completed 30 graduate level hours at UA Fayetteville, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, in public administration, and Journalism.
Kearney went to work for Civil Rights legend Daisy Gatson Bates’ award-winning Arkansas State Press in 1987, as Managing Editor. In 1988, she became Publisher/Owner of the Newspaper. In 1993, she took a sabbatical from the newspaper to work with the Clinton Administration in Washington, DC, where she served in the roles of: White House Media Specialist, the White House; Communications Director, US Small Business Administration, and Personal Diarist to President William Jefferson Clinton, the White House Oval Office Staff.
She was selected in 2001, for a two-year W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for African and African American Studies; in 2003, for a two-year appointment as Chancellor’s Lecturer at Chicago City Colleges; In 2005, for a two-year appointment as Humanities Fellow at Chicago’s DePaul University Center for the Humanities; and in 2007, a one-year Visiting Humanities and Political Science Professorship at Arkansas State University (ASU).
Kearney and her husband Bob J. Nash have three children and three grandchildren. They co-founded, Writing our World Publishing (WOW! Press), a micropublishing company, in 2004. WOW! Press publications include: Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir; Quiet Guys Do Great Things, Too – as told by Frank Ross; Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton…from Hope to Harlem: Once Upon a Time there was a Girl: a Murder at Mobile Bay; Something to Write Home About: Memories from a Presidential Diarist; Black Classical Musicians in Philadelphia, by Elaine Mack; and Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, a biography of civil rights leader Daisy Lee Bates. Kearney’s most recent memoir, Sundays with TJ: 100 Years of Memories on Varner Road, features the late TJ Kearney, 107-year old Kearney patriarch, and debuts Spring 2014.
Stephanie: Thank you for chatting with me today and welcome, Janis. It is an honor and I am delighted to hear you are a B.R.A.G. Honoree. I was thrilled to see that you won the medallion for the biography you write about a civil rights leader, Daisy Lee Gatson. Not only do I like reading biographies but about strong females in history. Please tell me a little about your book, Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
Janis:Thank you! It’s a wonderful honor.My books will wear the B.R.A.G. medallion with pride! Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place is a biography of a great American who happened to be black, and female – which is not how America’s civil rights leaders are most often seen. She was someone who contributed so much to America’s civil rights effort, but was not given the credit or recognition she deserved. In writing this book, I wanted to “toot Daisy’s horn,” since so few people have done it before. I began researching this book some 10 years ago, but decided I wanted to write her story far back as 20 years earlier. Even after her own memoir, “Long Shadow over Little Rock,” received the National Book Award in the mid-eighties.
Stephanie: It is truly wonderful you are giving the recognition she deserves. Not only for the America’s civil rights effort but for honoring her memory.
What do you think, Daisy was most proud of in her life?
Janis: It would be hard to point to any one of Daisy’s achievements with any definitive knowledge – especially given her long life; but I do believe she was extremely proud of her role in the 1957 Central High Integration efforts, more commonly known as the Little Rock Central High Crisis. As a woman, and a southerner, and African American…this was unheard of. Yet, she found the courage and steadfastness in her beliefs that allowed her to do what no other person in Arkansas dared do. She stepped out on faith when the NAACP asked her to lead the integration effort of Arkansas’ most prominent all-white high school; going against the status quo; and against what good and not-so good white Arkansans thought was right for their children, and what many blacks believed could have waited until another time.
Stephanie: What a courageous and admirable woman she was.
What was the most profound accomplishment of Daisy’s you were moved by?
Janis: I do think Daisy’s role in the 1957 Integration Crisis would be one of her most profound accomplishments. This beautiful, petite woman who dared buck the establishment – black and white – by leading, questioning, demanding what was only just and right is certainly something she could be proud of. But, then, something just as profound – and, something that she, nor anyone else wouldhave expected to happen was Daisy Bates’ role during the 1963 March on Washington. Daisy was the only woman to speak on that history-changing day! This small woman from a mill town in Arkansas, spoke before hundreds of thousands of people about her role in the civil rights effort. Even though it was a last minute decision, it was a profound change for the civil rights effort. Even when I share this tidbit of history with audiences around the country, absolutely no one seems to have realized that Daisy Bates played a role in that historic day. When I look at the scope of what happened that day, I think this had to be one of her most profound accomplishments.
Stephanie: Can you please give me an example of a hardship she endured? And how we today in society can learn from?
Janis: There isn’t enough space to name the many hardships she endured as an African American in southwest Arkansas. Imagine the time – she was born in 1914. Imagine the racial climate at that time – legal segregation, racial oppression, sub-quality education (poorly maintained physical buildings, second-hand books, and little opportunities to go further than 8th grade). Where she went, where she shopped, where she ate were all restrictive. She writes poignantly of the most obtrusive example of racism, when she went to purchase meat for her mother to cook her father’s favourite meal and the white butcher told her that ‘niggers have a place and it was at the back of the line, never in front of a white person.’
Stephanie: If I was in that butchers line and heard him say that to her, I would have….well. There is so much I would have said to the man, if he could be called a man…
Janis, I read in your book description that Daisy was an orphan. Did she ever discover who her parents were? Can you tell me a little about her childhood?
Janis: Yes, Daisy did learn who her parents were – in the worst way that a child can learn such a thing – from another child. She was unaware that she was an orphan until she was 8 or nine years old. A classmate at school told her that her father had run away and left her with the Smith family after Daisy’s mother was allegedly raped and killed by white men. This realization greatly impacted her childhood, and her decision to become a civil rights advocate and leader. While she had been a happy child up until she experienced the discrimination from the butcher, and learned the truth of her parents; those two experiences were life-changing for her. During most of her pre-teen years, she would hate whiteswith the same intensity that she would eventually fight for justice, equality, equal education for children, and civil rights for the disenfranchised.
Stephanie: How much research was involved for your book and did you make any new discoveries about the south you didn’t know before hand?
Janis: My research includes both personal documents collected during the years I worked for and with Daisy Bates; and documents secured from public archives. I spent roughly six months visiting two Institutions that own the majority of the Bates papers. I did a great deal of research at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s Special Collection; and the Wisconsin Historical Museum, which holds a large archive of Daisy and L.C. Bates’ earliest papers. There was little new that I learned about the south except that Mississippi, L.C. Bates native home; was far more racially discriminatory than Arkansas.
Stephanie: What are the challenges to writing biographies?
Janis: The challenge to writing a biography about someone you know, or someone who the general public holds in high esteem, is remaining objective; writing the truth whether it paints a less rosy picture than some might want to read. To balance the not-so-rosy truths, it is always good to offer readers contextual information that allows them to see a broader picture of why things may have been as they were; why this great person acted in a not-so upright way at one point in their lives.
Stephanie: What advice can you give to someone who wants to write a biography?
Janis: Even when you think you know enough about a person you’re writing about, do more research. There is always more you can learn. I always strive to find information that no one has shared with readers before. There are a handful of other books about Daisy Bates published. I made it a point to read them first, so that I was not merely repeating what they had written. I really do think the key in writing about a person who has been written about one, five or many times before; is to write your story in a slant no one has thought of,before. Allow yourreaders to see another side to this person they thought they knew everything about!
Stephanie: Are you working on another book right now?
Janis: Actually, we just published my next book. It is “Sundays with TJ: 100 Years of Memories of Varner Road.” It is a memoir/biography. I am writing about my father’s amazing life – his early years as a drifter who chose to see the country before settling down to become a sharecropper, husband and father to 19 children. He would become a well-respected church and community leader. He died in December, just three months before my book was published, at 107-years old. It debuts this month (April, 2014)
Stephanie: That is wonderful! Congratulations on your latest book. How rewarding and neat to write about your father’s life.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Janis: I was no more than nine years old when I decided I wanted to be a writer. (I’m told that at the age of nine, I told my parents I was an adult, and commenced to make decisions about my future). My love for stories as well as my reverence for books came from my father.
He loved telling his children stories, and was the world’s best storyteller. I fell in love with storytelling at his knee, as a child.
Stephanie: What do you like most about writing?
Janis: The fact that it allows me to go to places inside myself that I find it impossible to go, otherwise. While the books, once published, takes me outside myself, and actually talk to people about the story; the actual writing of them forces me to go inside, and learn more about who I am. That’s nonfiction. Fiction is different. Doesn’t demand a lot of me. I love it because it is simple, unadulterated FUN. You’re not so much getting inside or outside yourself when you write novels; you’re creating something out of nothing – pulling a rabbit from your hat. I love creating stories, characters, plots…I love it all!
Stephanie: How did you discover indieBRAG?
Janis: I think I discovered indieBRAG from one of the authors’ sites I visit regularly. Unfortunately, I can’t say which, but I was intrigued enough to go to the site and send in a book for review. My luck! I love the fact that there are organizations such as IndieBRAG that care enough about the work that we Indie writers do, to actually recognize us individually.
Stephanie: Is there a message you would like to give to your readers?
Janis: My message is that as a writer, my stories come from my heart…whether they’re nonfiction or fiction. I am issues-driven, and have to feel passionate about an issue to include it in my story line. I am also very drawn to strong, interesting characters. I don’t have to necessarily like a character I create, but I have to find them extremely captivating before I place them front and center in my story. I can’t speak for all writers, but I also think most of us work hard to offer readers quality work, stories worth spending your money on, and worth spending part of your day or night, reading. So, keep reading. You make what we do worthy. But, also tell us when you read our books and either like them, or think we should have done something a little different. Writers love feedback from readers.
Stephanie: Where can readers but your books?
Janis: If you go to our publishing company’s website – Writing our World Press – you can purchase my books from our e-store
Most of my books can also be purchased – even if they’re not readily in stock, they can be ordered – at most local and independent bookstores, as well as mainstream bookstores.
Thank you, Janis for a deeply moving and wonderful talk with you today. Words cannot express how much your story and thoughts has impacted me. Please come and talk with me again soon!
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Janis Kearney who is the author of Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, one of our medallion at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. MedallionTM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.