I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story and was riveted by the life of this musical prodigy and by Cal’s storytelling. She is a double doctoral candidate at Pepperdine University, an accomplished journalist, television writer, film producer, and can now add novelist to her repertoire. You can read my full review of Eighth Wonder here. Cal agreed to answer a few questions about her writing and research, as well as the process of turning a true story into a novel.
Congratulations on the book launch. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you chose this story to write about?
I’m a former journalist. I covered education for the Greenwich Times in Connecticut and covered general assignment, education, and police for the Los Angeles Times. I transitioned to graduate school, studied film and screenplay writing, and became a professional TV writer and independent film producer. I discovered Thomas Bethune, known as Blind Tom throughout the world, while researching prodigies for my thesis in graduate school. He was in a book of prodigies, his picture and story amid Beethoven, Mozart, and Stevie Wonder. I was mesmerized by that photo, a well-dressed slave boy standing next to his master and a fancy grand piano.
Why a novel vs. a biography? What was the research process like?
I’m a creative, fictional storyteller. I love drama, dramatic plot, the journey of a protagonist and overcoming obstacles. I wanted this bigger-than-life, almost mystical slave prodigy to endure in a theatrical, literary manner.
The research was extremely intense and spanned several years. My journalistic background spurred me to explore every piece of information I could find, from news articles to photos, to personal testimonies, medical journals, poems, concert flyers, and Civil War journals, anything I could find about the slave prodigy.
There are varying accounts of Colonel Bethune and his treatment of Thomas Wiggins. Did you specifically set out to make him a sympathetic character? If so, why?
Good question. Slavery is a hot-button topic, still emotional to this day, and even in slave narratives there are wide-ranging accounts of treatment from masters, from horrific to paternalistic, even kind masters. To that end, while workshopping the screenplay version of this book, I received passionate, earnest feedback across cultures in writing classes: please don’t make the Colonel a devil, please don’t make the Colonel an angel. I strove to paint the closest shade of truth I could from my years of research. The facts are, the Colonel saved a blind, autistic, slave child who was seemingly useless, seemingly worthless, and I concluded only a man with a decent heart would do such a thing. I always went back to that day he rescued Thomas, weighing the Colonel’s initial actions in the smokehouse against his more calculating actions, like declaring Thomas insane so he could maintain control of him.
At the end of the day, the goal of a creative historical fiction writer is to entertain. Conversely while entertaining, we strive to so by sharing historical facts, while consciously blurring those facts with fiction in order to enthrall, engage, and captivate readers. In making my creative choices, I took into consideration the middle America pleas of workshop writers that a one-sided, unsympathetic Colonel would ultimately not serve the story well in terms of audience. Ultimately, though, based on the Colonel saving Thomas with nothing to gain, provided the underpinnings of a nuanced man, with both great qualities and questionable issues of character.
You based this on historical facts but have altered some events in Thomas’s life. Was this a conscious choice?
Yes. For the purposes of story, some fabrications were made and that is one of the delicious differences between biography and historical fiction.
Throughout the novel, morality is not black and white, but shades of grey. For example, outsiders judge Col. Bethune harshly, but he steadfastly defends his love for Thomas and the reader sympathizes with him. Was this intentional? If so, why?
Imagine my shock the first time I learned some truths about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, all arguably great men with blurred morality or specious social views. Humanity is flawed, heroes are flawed, and often in life there isn’t that clear cut perfection that we crave in man, but a delicate balance between goodness and treacherous.
What discovery about Blind Tom most intrigued you? Was it more difficult writing a story that has a factual origin?
The process was excruciatingly difficult at times. I struggled with finding Thomas’s voice, sifting through the biases of the reporters at the time, taking into consideration the socio-cultural milieu was a constant battle. What most intrigued me about Thomas was the amount of privilege he was allowed because of his immense talent and his insistence that he could hear angels sing.
Why did you choose to self-publish vs. traditional, especially considering you already have an agent for other creative pursuits?
Great question. Initially, I considered an agent and received more than 50 rejections. The book wasn’t ready. Actually, the book is with a few big agencies right now, but the more I thought about it, I didn’t want to wait for some outside force to judge whether my work was worthy to share with the public and then change what I’d written—if they deemed it worthy. I didn’t want the pushback from publishers and/or their editors. Let the people, the readers decide. I did my best to write the novel as if a big publisher were backing it. It feels great that SELF-e Library Journal of U.S. librarians recently honored the ebook as a highlighted book for November.
Do you outline or are you a “pantser?” What is your routine? Do you set daily word goals?
I’m an outliner who also likes to write in the moment, while taking into consideration plot, and the desire of the reader to want to know what’s coming next. I try and write daily, but I don’t have word goals. I write, rewrite, and polish all in the same sitting, then move forward, and repeat the process.
What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Don’t be afraid to write bad, because for me, it just comes out bad. I think, a better way to phrase that piece of advice is “don’t be afraid to just write.”
What is your future project? Will you return to novels, TV, etc.?
I’m moving towards writing more novels.
My next book project is also historical, or as I like to say, biographical novel. There is a difference to me. The next novel centers around a phenomenal fashion designing figure who rose to the top of the design world in the 1950s-60s, an African-American woman only known in the elite circles in which she designed. I’m working on polishing episodes for a series entitled, Beacon Hill, a 1970s family t.v. drama with some name talent already attached. It’s a passion project with great friends and seasoned stars.
For those attempting their first full-length novel, do you have any advice? Best tip for emerging writers?
Take a class or join a workshop! I wasted the first two and a half years because I had no clue. It’s essential to share, learn, and explore with other writer’s under the tutelage of an instructor who’s been where you want to go.
Get to Know the Author:
Best book you’ve read so far this year or book you’re looking forward to?
Favorite book or author growing up?
Favorite place and tools for writing?
The couch and preferably my old Macbook.
Favorite sport or leisure activity?
Love watching NFL football, college, and pro basketball. Seahawks, UW Huskies, and the Lakers during the Jerry Buss years.
Something you wish others knew about your life as a writer?
It’s not a choice, it’s who I am.
Thank you for taking an interest in learning more about me and my debut book.