Last Saturday, Carolyn Newton Curry, founder of Women Alone Together and author of Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas 1834-1907, welcomed me into her lovely home for an interview.
After wandering lost in their building for a few moments, I finally arrived at their door. Carolyn invited me inside, and her husband, Bill, who has also republished a book with us (Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle), asked to take my coat. I felt as though I was being greeted as an old friend arriving the hundredth time for coffee and nice conversation. In her office, we sat surrounded by bookshelves, and outside the window, Downtown’s skyscrapers rose above Atlanta’s vast autumnal forest. We settled ourselves into the bright room, I gathered my thoughts, and we spoke for a little over an hour.
Elizabeth (E): Do you see reflections of yourself in Gertrude in any way?
Carolyn (C): Absolutely. I think one reason I enjoyed [writing] the book so much is because Gertrude was a strong woman. She loved to read and loved to write, and I love to read and write. She loved to examine things and not just accept what people told her. She grew up in a slave-holding society, and everyone said slavery was condoned by the Bible. But she began to question it and say, “I don’t know if this is moral.” And by the time the Civil War was over, she was glad the slaves were free. [Gertrude] also began to question the position of women and thought there was a double standard where men and women were concerned. She was able to think for herself and say, “I don’t think that’s right.” I admire that about her, and I try to do the same in my own life.
E: In your opinion, what do you think are the biggest differences and similarities between Gertrude and the fictional Scarlett O’Hara?
C: Pat Conroy made a reference to Scarlett O’Hara on the back of the book, which thrilled me to death. When I speak [at events], they ask me to compare [Ella Gertrude] to Scarlett, and I say, “There was a lot similar to Scarlett, but Ella Gertrude had a conscience.” You know, Scarlett would just do anything to survive. But Ella Gertrude wanted to do the right thing.
One of my pet peeves about history and writing history is that historians want to put everything in there. You should make it interesting; you should write it like a novel. Readers aren’t going to want to read every minute detail.