Book of the Year Award for 2008
Cheryl Robinson, Executive Producer of the Just About Books Talk Show, one of the most popular literary radio talk shows, announces the winner of the Book Award for Best Fiction-Cheryl's Choice, The Knees of Gullah Island by Dwight Fryer, a sophomore author from the Memphis, Tennessee area. The Just About Books Talk Show focuses on the discussion of quality books for African American book lovers, and the winning book was chosen for both quality and popularity, as well as the timeless story of love, loss, hope, and rebirth.
Washington, DC January 21, 2009 – The Knees of Gullah Island by Dwight Fryer is honored as the winner of the annual Book Award for Best Fiction-Cheryl's Choice, which was announced Monday, January 19, another day of history.
Cheryl said, "Once again, I am extremely proud to announce our annual award winner and this year it is a prequel in a historical fiction series. I congratulate Dwight Fryer. He weaves another endearing story of one family's personal journey to freedom! His books always have such a wonderful theme and the theme of this book is ‘bent knees straighten crooked deeds’.”
Robinson said, "Since there are literally thousands of quality books by African American authors today, Cheryl's Choice lets the reader know that I am only going to recommend the most exceptional book of quality for the annual award. Dwight Fryer has cleverly written a story where fiction meets history and intertwines a family’s emotions with heartache, love and hope for whatever is destined to be.”
In The Knees of Gullah Island, Gillam Hale was born to free parents, and his life was untouched by slavery. Then he travels with his father to Virginia to minister to slaves, where he meets a beautiful, mulatto slave, Queen Esther. He wants desperately to purchase her. He finds that he can only financially afford to do this by distilling illicit whiskey, which is risky, illegal and against his family's wishes. Gillam finally accomplishes his goal of marrying Queen Esther and starting a family. Gillam's jealous white neighbors decide to do something about the “distilling” competition. They kidnap Gillam's family and scatter them at different plantations throughout the South. Gillam must escape from his new owners and find his lost loved ones. After many years of searching for his family, Gillam Hale realizes his many mistakes in life and that...life goes on and he now lives with his common-law wife, Rena, and their son. He refuses to marry Rena, because he is still in love with Queen Esther. A quietly strong woman, Queen Esther, finds herself in difficult circumstances—in slavery—a second time. Joseph, the youngest son of Gillam and Queen Esther, had to physically travel the south searching for his father. It has been a long, 13-year search of a family separated, and a son who longs to find his father and his past. In 1883, all of that changes when a tramp stumbles by Gillam Hale's house and the tramp turns out to be Joseph, his son by Queen Esther.
According to Robinson, "The Knees of Gullah Island is a little bit of fiction, a little bit of truth and a lot of enjoyment!"
Dwight Fryer is an ordained Christian minister and an enthusiast of history. His novels have a major crossover following among readers of varied backgrounds. He is a Tennessee native, descending from a family of farm workers, who lived on the historic twenty thousand acre Ames Plantation near Grand Junction, Tennessee. His first novel, The Legend of Quito Road, earned him a position among the five finalists for Outstanding Literary Work from a Debut Author at the 38th NAACP Image Awards in February 2007.
Dwight is currently working on his third novel, Maine Byers, whose main theme is that love and forgiveness lubricate the soul.
Cheryl's Choice Book Award is among the most eminent literary awards and is one of the few awards presented by Talk Shows that recognize quality as an increasingly important area of African American author's contributions to a book lover's world. Started in 2005, the awards are presented annually to authors for literature showcased on the Just About Books Talk Show during the year. The purpose of the awards is two-fold: it recognizes and encourages the writing and publishing of outstanding books; and it raises the cultural appreciation of great writing in America. This award will continue as part of the Just About Books Talk Show's Annual recognition of African American authors.
Just About Books Talk Show will showcase authors, book clubs and literary events. Please visit the website and listen to the show on the Internet at http://www.JustAboutBooksTalkShow.com.
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Interview with Dwight Fryer, author, The Knees of Gullah Island Cheryl’s Choice, Book of the Year Award 2008
By Cheryl Robinson, Host of Just About Books Talk Show
CR: Dwight, Please tell my listeners who you are as a writer.
DF: I tell people that I cast myself as a storyteller. You have to focus on the story and the team members who help you tell it—the characters. It's about the story and letting it unfold for the readers. Sure, the structure of a novel is fine and very important…architecting a novel is wonderful, but I also remain true to my craft by sharing a compelling story.
CR: Why do you write historical fiction novels?
DF: Historical fiction is such an interest to me because I see the way it plays out in our lives today. When I see a young woman today that may have children at too young of a age, I think of a slave girl that was required to do so when she was 13 or 14 because from the moment that child drew breath it was worth $200.00 to $250.00 on its master's balance sheet. I see that impact across those centuries today in our communities. I also see the men that, like Gillam Hale, in my book who was ripped from his family against his will, but too often if they couldn't survive being ripped away like that, they couldn't make it. “Men leaving the home” has become a bad habit because of those things that happened in that era. I like to tell these stories, because I think the modern reader needs to think about the similarities in what we're living today.
Also, historical stories are just fun. It's just wonderful to sit around and think about the old times when they were cooking in big, black pots, and making shrimp and grits, and hoppin' John, which is basically black-eyed peas with some form of hog in it served over rice to celebrate New Year’s Day. I think about the struggle and how far we've come; and yet how much farther we still need to go. We've made a great deal of progress in our society, but there's still much work that needs to be done. Much of what I write is wisdom literature steeped in the traditions of the elderly who shaped my earlier years.
CR: Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
DF: My ideas come from so many angles. Often they begin with a story today and I look to the past to see where the tangled roots lead. For example, my first novel about a boy whose religious father showed him how to make whiskey came from a Graduate school Economics paper about a crack dealer. Isn’t it a very similar enterprise with many of the same social problems?
Also, my ideas come from rural life and the natural flora and fauna in the locales where my stories occur. I also like to explore the socio-economics of an era and we always examine the favorite foods. I often include the recipes in my books as life lessons. Examples include my favorite barbecue recipe, “Low-country swimp and grits”, or a family stew my grandmother used to make called Cuzghat. I tell the stories I love and that I think will interest people. The book I am writing now is about the Arkansas oil boom in El Dorado, Arkansas.
Book clubs often prepare the food when they gather to discuss my work. Three clubs even brought moonshine and those were the most-lively meetings ever for me!
CR: Where do you write in your office or a library?
DF: I write at home, but it is usually in my sitting room or outside on my deck or parking pad. I love to write in a natural setting and my sitting room has a great view of the outdoors. Many of the nature ideas in my stories come from there or memories of childhood in rural West Tennessee, a place I call “Tennisippi” because of its similarities to Mississippi in its history and socio-economics.
CR: What is the best time for you to write?
DF: I do my best work in the morning before the day pollutes me. The words flow out then faster than I can write. I love being up early and celebrating life and another day to do what I love, listening to the birds and other sounds bringing the day awake.
CR: What type of writers or writing influences you?
DF: I read a lot of the classics and love Dickens, Jack London, and the sayings of Mark Twain. John Edgar Wideman is my favorite author. I also love a great deal of non-fiction and am reading a great book, Oil Anatomy of an Industry, by Matthew Yeomans. I also love the work of Dr. John Hope Franklin. Every house in America should have his book, From Slavery To Freedom, and his autobiography. He is one of the greatest historians of the past sixty years! I had the opportunity to speak to him by telephone; it was a wonderful and humbling experience. Dr. Franklin is a wise and very determined man.
CR: How do you revise your work?
DF: First of all, I work from an outline that is a map to my story. I also use a story board to help me visualize my books unfolding—like I want my reader to experience them. These tools help me stay true to my intent during the first and future tellings. I also allow the story to expand and morph as I add flesh to the bones of the story outline. This is an organic process that I keep reigned in so as not to lose my original intent and structure, but I am flexible enough to allow the wonderful golden nuggets that creative writing mines.
In rewrites, I step away from the work for a time. Perhaps, I even work on something else to cleanse my writing palette. Then, I dive back into the book and look for ways to improve the pace, change / improve storylines, deepen characters and ensure their traits are consistent throughout the book not withstanding planned changes / growth in their personalities. I also look for inconsistencies in the story and timeframes and make sure I understand the goals, motivations and conflict of every character. I also consider my location’s character. For example, historic Charleston, with its decadent past, haughty social structure, beautiful flora and fauna, rich food and rigid society codes was a character in my novel, The Knees of Gullah Island. She could go from prostitute, to grand dame, to slave holder, to Southern belle in a heart beat…for the right price, reason or whim.
CR: How do you do research for these magnificent novels?
DF: I usually need to visit the place where the book takes place. So far, I have been blessed to do that with both my novels. I even made it to Cumberland, Maryland, the home of Gillam Hale. I also interview people from those places in person and on the phone to add local flavor and custom. I also read a lot of old newspapers, periodicals and visit museums in the places where my novels unfold. I keep a lot of notes on index cards and find great places to add these anecdotes to action.
CR: What advice do you have for other writers?
DF: Writers need to work on improving their abilities. I recommend attending workshops at reputable places like the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the Napa Valley Writing Festival, the Hurston-Wright Foundation, the Oxford Conference for the Book and Sewanee. There are many others out there. Also, writers should do what our professional title implies: write. We are too often more creative at reasons on why we should not or do not have time to write. That energy should be used instead to develop and share stories readers want to experience.
CR: What makes you stand out from other authors?
DF: It is rare for a writer that happens to be African American to have their work studies at a mainstream university. My work has received great reviews and The University of Memphis has ordered The Legend of Quito Road as a required text for the Forms of Fiction class in the school’s Masters of Fine Arts program Graduate School class for historical fiction. Other required texts include Jordan County by Shelby Foote; The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman, Fever by John Edgar Wideman, and other novels.
My goal, as a story teller and writer, is to take you to the places and times where my books happen to feel and experience what the characters do in their lives. I like for my readers to feel and see the tales I share unfold in front of them. We witness American Apartheid—Jim Crow laws—and explore the socio-economics of rural 1932 West Tennessee in my first novel, The Legend of Quito Road (pronounced Kwi-tow like the locals still say today in the actual Quito Road community just north of Memphis near the Mississippi River bluffs). We examine the life of a religious man, Gill Erby, a member of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (as the CME Church was called at that time). Papa Gill taught his only boy, Son Erby, to make white lightning whiskey. Son takes to making moonshine like a duck does the pond and the book’s main theme is “the worst things wrong with most of us were planted by those who love us the best.”
In The Knees of Gullah Island, we visit historic 1883 Charleston to witness a family reconnect twenty-five years after they were separated by being kidnapped and sold illegally into slavery. It happened in 1858, shortly before the Civil War, and the patriarch of the Gullah Island family, Gillam Hale, could not find them in the years after the war, so he started a new life. Gillam Hale is also the grandfather of Son Erby from The Legend of Quito Road by his second family. In this prequel to The Legend of Quito Road, Gillam Hale leaves his second family to search for the first. The novel’s main theme is “bent knees straighten crooked deeds.”