Originally published 18 Oct 2016
Author Susan Carol McCarthy grew up in a tiny town in central Florida, a postcard world of yellow grapefruit, red azaleas and sunny days. On Sundays she sang in the Baptist church choir; on hot days she served fresh orange juice to tourists at her family’s roadside fruit stand.
But it was never a paradise, at least not for some.
In 1951—the year McCarthy was born—a group of white men beat, stabbed and shot a young black man on a clay road near her home. The murder of Melvin Womack, 27, was just the beginning. That year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed Catholic churches, a Jewish community center and a black housing project. NAACP activist Harry T. Moore and his wife died in a bomb blast on Christmas night. Newspapers called it “The Florida Terror.”
“Geography aside; when you study the historical records as well as current statistics, Florida is the most southern of the southern states,” McCarthy says.
Troubled by Florida’s small town racism, McCarthy moved on. She studied literature and speech communications at the University of South Florida, wrote advertising copy for Walt Disney World and Coca Cola, moved to Atlanta, lived in San Francisco and finally settled in San Diego with her second husband.
But Florida was never far away. In 1991, she received an eight-page letter from her aging father. The envelope included news clipping about the 1951 bombings and murders. Details of the FBI’s investigation into the crimes—part of a grand jury hearing sealed for 40 years—had just been released. McCarthy’s father had been a part of it. With the FBI’s blessing, he had stolen records from the Klan’s central Florida headquarters—a fishing camp on a lake. To avoid detection, he waded across the lake on a moonless night. He never told his children.
“Everybody in town knew the local Klan was involved, but nobody was willing to do anything about it. I want you to hear, from the horse's mouth, what I did and why,” he wrote. In a corner, he added: “You're the writer. Write this.”
McCarthy spent four years working on a fictionalized version of that terror-filled year. Her novel, Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands, published by Bantam Books in 2002, caused a stir in Orlando, won awards and became required reading in dozens of Florida high schools and colleges. McCarthy invented a precocious 12-year-old girl to tell the story of the Florida Klan; she based the central characters on her own family. Critics were impressed. “McCarthy weaves the stormy history of the Florida KKK with a coming-of-age tale about a girl and the changing community in which she lives,” wrote The Miami Herald. The Tampa Tribune compared McCarthy to Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
McCarthy wrote two more novels, both set in Florida. Her second, True Fires, was inspired by racism and corruption in Lake County in 1954. Kirkus Reviews called it “a vivid portrait” of the time.
Her third book, A Place We Knew Well, revisited the Cuban Missile Crisis. As an 11-year-old, McCarthy had seen jet fighters in the Florida sky in 1962. It was an unsettling time; many Floridians, fearing a nuclear war, built bomb shelters in their back yards.
McCarthy’s interest in the period, however, was triggered by a more recent event: the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. Nearly 40 years after the Florida bomb scare, McCarthy started having nightmares about the end of the world. She was grown, with children of her own, but in her dreams she was a little girl back in Florida. She explained the title of her book to an interviewer. “I called it A Place We Knew Well because I believe 9-11 took us back to that time, a place of primal fear, where things were spinning out of control.”
Reviewers praised the book. “Riveting,” said Kirkus Reviews. “Powerful,” added Booklist. “McCarthy vividly evokes a turbulent time in her state’s recent past …”
In addition to three novels, McCarthy has written travel guides and a nonfiction work, Boomers 101: The Definitive Collection. She writes early in the morning at her home office, breaks for coffee and breakfast, and knocks off at noon. In the afternoon she edits her work and conducts research. It’s easy to get lost in the research, she admits. “The goal is to get in as much time as you need, not as much time as you want. You have to stop yourself. You have to say, it’s time to write.”
Racism, corruption, nuclear nightmares: McCarthy’s world can be dark. As a writer, she’s interested in how people react to those challenges.
“I'm drawn to the stories of ordinary people who, when backed into a moral corner, choose, often at great risk, to do the right thing,” she said once. “Where do they get such extraordinary courage? How do they achieve that level of grace?”
McCarthy—her favorite Southern writers include Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Harper Lee—is working on a fourth novel set in 1930s Florida. “I write about Florida because I know the setting so well, and my memories of ‘the way it was’ are unclouded by all the changes that have occurred since I left there in 1976.”
In August, McCarthy spoke at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her advice to beginning novelists? Use historical details sparingly.
“My editor once told me, historical details give authenticity, but too many details can kill momentum.” That goes for accents too. “There’s a difference between the character showing up and the character showing off.” Establish one idiosyncratic verbal tick, two at most. “So don’t go crazy. As my editor said, a little goes a long way.”
HWA Board Member Paul Davis features profiles of the presenters from HWA Conferences. Paul, a 30+ year veteran journalist, attended the HWA Conference and is in the midst of planning for the next one.