A Chat with Claire Hartfield:
1. What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
Watching the news of racial tensions flaring up around the country called up a memory of a story my grandmother told me when I was just a little girl. In the summer of 1919, my Grammie was twenty years old and had just moved from New Orleans to Chicago. She was excited to have gotten a factory job. Every day she rode the streetcar (the bus of her time) from home to work and back. One day, instead of opening the doors to let her out near home, the streetcar driver kept right on going. Outside, crowds of people pushed and shoved and threw rocks at the streetcar. My grandmother was scared out of her mind. It turned out she got caught in the middle of a race riot.
Flash forward to news footage of police clashing with protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. I wanted to know: What was the same? What was different? How can we do better? I got inspired! I know a lot of teenagers. If anyone can make a difference, it’s you.
2. Who is your favorite character in the book?
These were all real people and I would love to meet any of them. Just going on personality, I particularly enjoyed Irish butcher Johnny Joyce. He was a young guy, just starting out, and he had so much enthusiasm for the world. He was proud of his skills and he loved the guys he worked with—he called them his brotherhood. He was cocky and impulsive and full of life.
3. Which came first, the title or the novel?
The book came first. In fact, I initially chose a different title. But toward the end of writing, I read a poem by Carl Sandburg that summed it all up. “I Am the People, The Mob” is about ordinary people who are the backbone of this country but struggle so hard to make ends meet. Most of the time, the people bear their burdens quietly. But, the poem says, “Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember.” I knew I had my perfect title.
4. What scene in the book are you most proud of, and why?
The scene that was hardest and also the most fun was about the Great Migration of black families from the South to Chicago. I was working from a series of short interviews about individual experiences. I had to weave them together into a story to give you a vivid picture of a movement—whole communities leaving everything they had ever known. I hope when you read it you will feel what it was like for them—their worry, their sadness, mixed with their excitement, cautious but hopeful for a better life in a new place.
5. What do you like most about the cover of the book?
Wow! I love this cover. The colors—red sky over a black city skyline—and the spatters of red blood dripping from the title are vivid, strong, and ominous. It really makes you feel the dread and rage hanging over the city.
A little behind-the-scenes info for you: We tried to find an old photograph to use as the cover but none of them captured the big picture. So, we went back to the drawing board (literally!) and came up with this image that says it all. Even with book covers, you sometimes need to revise.
6. Which was the most difficult or emotional scene to narrate?
There are several. The event that sparked the riot—the murder of a black teen who was just out for fun at the beach—is heartbreaking. Another tough one is the scene of European immigrants starving and standing in line for food, only to be turned away with nothing, unable to feed their children.
7. Which part of the writing process do you enjoy more: Drafting or Revising?
I actually like both for different reasons. Writing is a creative process. For me, it’s imagining a scene in my head—something like watching a movie. I feel the ebb and flow of the characters emotions, I find myself caring deeply about what happened to them.
Revising is more like a crossword puzzle. Searching for just the right word or sentence or group of sentences. Rolling various words around in my head, sometimes, saying them out loud, until I find just the right one.
8. What would you say is your superpower?
Time travel. I love going from my present life to spend time among people and places of the past—1919 Chicago in the meatpacking district, 16th Century England ruled by Queen Elizabeth, 1920s Harlem Renaissance, home to great artists and musicians. And all sorts of other places and times. I think of history as you and me if we had been born earlier. What would we have done if we lived then?
9. Is there an organization or cause that is close to your heart?
I work with a school in one of Chicago’s poorest communities where the families struggle to put food on the table and keep their kids safe. This school is such a wonderful place. Teachers take the time to talk to students about problems or great ideas or just to share a joke. Students are full of big plans and they work hard but also are funny as heck and have great stories to tell. I knew some of them when they were just starting kindergarten and now they are college graduates. So proud!