Calvin Ramsey: playwright and author, is interviewed by the Weekly Cad team in preparation for his visit to campus on February 5th.
Our first question is what about your work do find is most accessible to college students of today?
Well, I went to a lot of schools. I go to colleges. I go to junior high schools and even middle schools. I think sharing the history of The Green Book the most of those learning years of school that really were exposed to that history and you know I really like sharing it and reading their responses and then hearing about some of the things they’re working on- some of the social causes that are important to them. So, it’s kind of like a give and take. It’s not just all one way.
On your website’s biography it says that you are adamant about researching each of the topics that you discuss in your writing. How do you go about your research and what about getting close to people who have experienced these things do you find valuable in your writing?
Well, you know I’ve lived in Atlanta for a long time and I was associated with Emory University. I was on the advisory board-wrap ups and manuscripts. So, a lot of the depositories there had actual papers on people, their writings, and manuscripts, and oral histories. - And by doing the research I am able to dig deeper into some of these subjects that I was exposed to on a real intellectual level- just things I heard, maybe scanned briefly. But once I started doing the research it leads me to other directions. When I was doing research for The Green Book I had no idea that I would end up writing a character in my Green Book play that was opening in two weeks and two days in Kentucky that I would eventually have a holocaust survivor character in the play from (3:18). The papers that were in Emory’s special collection allowed me to research and get oral histories of the survivors of concentration camps. So, as I go down this road looking at one thing, it takes me into another direction. The Green Book- I guess just 20 years ago- I knew very little about- even though I grew up in part of the Jim Crow era- we didn’t have a copy and I wasn’t exposed to people I thought had copies. So, when I discovered that and I wasn’t just writing, and reading, stumbling and bumming around I wouldn’t have crossed paths with people who had copies of the The Green Book and had experiences with The Green Book. So, my research went in one direction, but I’m also walking and listening to the sounds of the people around me. That’s kinda like how I do my research. I look at one thing and it leads me somewhere else.
Did you talk to anyone face to face who was particularly interesting when writing the play?
Oh, sure. I talked to people who owned The Green Book- used The Green Book in their travels. I’ve spoken with people whose family printed The Green Book - Jewish gentleman here in New York City. I talked to people who were frightened as a young child in a car with their parents who were African American and being chased by the police because they had a nice car and they were driving in the south. So, I talked to a lot of people who had real life experiences. I’ve met families. I’ve met some of Mr. Green’s family that still live in Harlem. So, the research has not just been through books and papers but has also been about talking to real live people.
I can also imagine that that would add a certain authenticity to your writing that if it wasn’t there it wouldn’t allow you to write what you have today too.
Exactly. It really confirms what you think it may have felt like or what they may have been experiencing. I mean you can only imagine yourself in those situations but when you talk to someone who’s home was listed in The Green Book- and they would always have guests coming in at different times of night, different times of the season and they never knew when they were showing up because there were no phone numbers listed in The Green Book. There were just addresses. So, if you were listed in The Green Book then you just know that the possibility of that happening is very real. I was looking at the Massachusetts book today (6:28) and all the listings in Great Barrington- I think it was Pittsfield and a few other places. And in my play The Green Book I mentioned Du Bois. Du Bois doesn’t appear in the play, but he is talked about a lot and he is coming into this town in Missouri- Jefferson, Missouri- where there is a black college- it’s still there, Lincoln University. He’s going out there to give a speech and he’s traveling by train. He actually went there. So, I tried to blend history and creative forces together. I think it’s really special that I am coming next week to Du Bois’ birth home- pretty special for me I think.
What is your greatest motive for constantly writing about known or overlooked topics in history?
Well, it educates me. I wrote a play some years ago about a doctor who is father (8:00) of modern day gynecology- Dr. J Marion Sims. His statue was in Central Park when I moved here 5 years ago and then he statue was gone. And my play was done in the Village two years ago. It was done in the Atlanta. It was done a few other places. When I got up here 5 years ago there was an uproar about his statue coming down. He was a very prominent Southern white doctor and he operated on women who were enslaved in various plantations around Montgomery, Alabama. And each one of the women he wrote about- that’s the (8:38). He carried out 34 surgeries without any kind of pain killer, but he kept writing good records of these ladies. So, when I stumbled across this story and researched it I wrote about it. The play in itself touched me very deeply and it touched the audience. Even though I’m a guy- I’m a man writing about subjects like this it was very special to me. It was a very tough play. It was very hard on the audience. And I was able to blend spirituals throughout the play with one of the characters actually singing spirituals. That made the impact of the play I think stronger, but also I think it put the story in that light- it had people accept it a little easier because it is a very harsh play. So, I stumbled across that history. I kinda write about what pulls me in. Everything doesn’t pull me in but the things that do just will not let go of me
And that tends to be the more overlooked topics as far as we can tell
Yes, exactly. Because a lot of folks know about Harriet Tubman or the underground railroad. I mean there are always things there to explore because no one knows it all. It’s just about finding ways to present a different storyline or a different emotion but the stories that seem to grab me are the stories that are new to me- that I know nothing about. Then, I can fill up on that research and then once I fill up on it I kind of attempt to try to present it in a way that hopefully is entertaining and educational at the same time. Last spring I went up to John Brown's farm up in Lake Placid- my first time. I didn’t know he was buried up there. Now I am working on a play on John Brown.
And with writing about such tough topics what inspired you to begin writing for children?
Well, you know I have three children. They are all grown. The youngest is twenty five. And I am from a very large family of five sisters and two brothers. So, books were always around- children books were always around. Even though I wasn’t big into that I was mostly into I guess- not even comic books. I guess I was into adventure stories growing up called The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Charles Dickens...So, those types of things. I wasn’t sure about the children book. I went to PBS one night and a lady was on there talking about the world of children books and books for young readers, chapter books and I just thought, well, maybe there is a story here. So, I contacted the publisher and the publisher was reluctant. They said we don’t take unsolicited material. So I told them about the story and my Green Book. They never knew that The Green Book even existed. They never heard of it. As we kept talking they said send me some proof that the book actually existed. So I sent them some articles that were published years ago and also my play that had a reading in Atlanta. So, then I think it peaked their interest. They decided to take a chance on it. I told them it was a very interesting thing because you're talking about 2,000 words, maybe 32 pages of illustrations. I know illustrators but I started going to the library looking at the work of this one guy that I really like from Oklahoma and he won a Coretta Scott King award. I said it would be great to get him. I said it was impossible. You know he’s always busy. I’m just not going to get him. Somehow another my manuscript got to him and he wanted to do it. So, it really was just- I’d use the word luck. So, it really was just that all the forces came together at the right time. I was able to do that book and then I was able to do a second children's book about the two mules that pulled out the King’s casket during his funeral. One of the gentlemen that was with Dr. King when he was killed told me the story one day how they went out to (14:20) for the funeral. I thought it was a fascinating story and I shopped that story with the same agent and she sold it. That was with Candlewick which is out of Boston but then distributed by Random House publishing. I’ve only done two children books. I don’t know if I will do anymore unless something really grabs me. It’s a whole ‘nother market. But what I have done is I had a reading- workshop production last year at a unitarian church in New York and I was doing something with Ruth, probably in June in Harlem at the Marcus Garvey Park. With the children’s books, I’d love to do another one I think but so far nothing really has crossed my path that I could sink my teeth in.
Are you the lyricist for the musicals?
The lyricist, exactly, because I don't read or write music or play an instrument but the play I did with Dr. King, The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend, it was done acapella. And just like the women were, and the people were out in the fields, working, they didn’t have any musical instruments with them so I kinda did the play like that. Just let them make them their own music, clapping their hands, and doing things like that. Maybe a tambourine, but for Ruth musical I had to get real musicians. I’m going to interview- that’s what you have to do, you have to interview composers to see if they have your vision or if they bring something new to the table that you don’t see that can enhance what you’re doing. You have to find people you can work with. I have to see how people are getting along, y’know, you don’t want to be really stressed out when you’re doing something you really love doing. I tell people, I tried to write many, many years ago and it didn’t work out. I worked in the insurance industry for about 25, close to 30 years, insurance and advertising, and I didn’t start writing until after 9/11. I said, let me give this thing one more try (17.03 ????) -- and then three or four days later, 9/11 happened and the whole world was shook up. Or, at least America was shook up, and I was shook up. So I said, you never know whats gonna happen next. I’ve gotta give this one more try. I felt like I gave up on myself, y’know, I tried, it didn’t work out, I walked away from it, I felt like it maybe just wasn’t meant for me. All your dreams can’t come true, or maybe, none of your dreams can come true. But I gave it just one more try and I think by making history with my writing, it was the foundation that I needed.
Right, yeah that’s an interesting angle to tackle things from. On a similar note, also, I’ve heard before that writing for children is harder than writing for adults even. What are your experiences with adapting such harsh topics for children?
Well, y’know, there are things you can’t really say. You can’t talk about religion, you have editors, you write something and they come back and say, well, let’s look at it from another point of view, especially if they’re editors from the publisher. They know more about this than I do, I didn’t really know what you could say and what you couldn’t say, because you gotta get past, first of all, get past your own in house people. They know what works and what doesn’t work. So, it’s a lot of rewriting. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered that, at all, because you write from your heart, from your gut. Then, when someone else comes by and says well you can’t really say it like that, say it like this. Then you have to trust your people around you, I mean, you could fight it, and say no, I’m going to do it like this, but I don’t know that field I wouldn’t try to challenge the experts, in the world of children's books. I’ve written twelve plays, I’ve seen eight produced, but I’ve only written two children’s books. But, the children’s books are special because I’m dealing with people from the second grade up to the fifth grade. A lot of them are writers, painters, imaginative young people, y’know, Picasso always said, all children start off drawing, and as they get older things happen and they stop drawing. So, I tried to say things that if you have an urge or a talent or are on a journey to do something creative don’t let go of it.Do it for life. If it is never shown in a gallery or it’s never presented on stage or in the movie theatre...as long as you enjoy it. You know...you can do this for the rest of your life. And I think so many people whose flame has been doused out. So, I’ll just say do it for yourself. Is my play worth being produced or being published? Even though I stopped for a long time- I had to work and do all of these other things, but once I got to a certain age- you know that yearning is always there. It won’t leave me alone. And you have to stay true to yourself. And your stuff may not be any good to other people, but you enjoy it. That’s what matters because I’ve written stuff that people liked that I didn’t think wasn’t my best, but you know it touches people. So, you never know how it’s going to affect people. You just don’t know. I think that’s with any art form not just writing. This was going with me for a long time. Even when I wasn’t writing I always thought that I was a writer. I told myself I was a writer. So, it’s something I tell people- It’s never too late.
That’s actually a perfect segway onto our next question. Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to pursue a career in writing.
Well, I would say you know when I started off I went to California and I wanted to sell things to the movies. I was pursuing fame and fortune at an early age so that I could just live the life. It didn’t work. I just didn’t have the chops for that. I’m thankful it did happen. I probably wouldn’t have been here today. I would have self destructed. I would tell people to do the right things that are of interest to you- things that are… I mean most of my stories came to me. You know I didn’t really sit down and think about The Green Book or Dr. Sims or anything else I’ve written, and, I don't mean people brought me stories, I mean that I have been out and something’s happened. I saw something, experienced something, or read something. I would say to young people, to be a young writer, I think you have to read a lot. I would suggest that they read a lot, just read. Y’know just, read. You can’t experience everything in the world on your own or you just won't get anything done. Read, read. And you have to do it, you have to find time to do it, like anything else, y’know they said word worker, working with wood, y’know, he works on this piece of wood, he rubs it, just with that, or he does that with this, you have to keep working at it. It’s selfish, writing is a very selfish profession, while other people go out and have fun and this and that, you’re thinking about, gee, I could be doing some work on my project. Writing is a very jealous mistress.
It’s a solitary kind of thing. So I think, you have to realize that.If you’re okay with that, then I think its- its not for everybody, but those who crave it, who need to do it, you just have to do it. But, it is something you do have to carve time out to do. You have to listen to your own voice and you have to do that by yourself. I’m trying to think of the name of this writer I met at Martha’s (?? 25,17) Vineyard years ago, a famous guy, he’s written about a lot of famous historical figures and whatnot, but he’s not a historian- David McCullough. He went to Brooklyn bridge and he does some other things, worked with (25.30 ?) and some PBS things and he had a shed in his backyard, and he just went out to that shed. Y’know, and spend from 8 o’clock to 5 o’clock just like if he was working in a mill or a factory. He did that, and it takes that. There’s no shortcuts to that.
What experiences have you had that have shaped you the most as a writer so far in your career?
I think people, and being in a theater, that brings me, y’know not in an ego thing, but that brings me some kind of joy. Or, seeing actors rehearsing and they’re trying to get it right, and they’re asking me questions for their characters, and they bring me things I’d never even thought about. Even though I’m the author of it, they see things in it that I didn’t see, because they’ve gotta portray this character. Maybe the character’s thinking this when that happened, and it’s very fascinating to hear them say, it’s like they’re taking it on themselves to do what they have to do to make it come alive to them. That’s very fascinating to me, very humbling, and just a great thing.
On to our final question, how did you feel about Michelle Obama recently sending you a letter thanking you for writing Ruth and the Green Book?
Well, y’know, I’m glad you guys thought that. That actually wasn’t an accident, a friend of mine’s girlfriend’s daughter was dating this young secret service guy. He was very young and new in the field of being a secret service guy. So, he didn’t travel with the president he just stayed in the warehouse the whole time. So, they said, Calvin why don’t you give us the book and we’ll send the book the Michelle. I said, well, I’d rather not do that. I’d rather send the book to Michelle’s mother, Mrs. Robinson. Because, Mrs. Robinson is old enough to have real stories about traveling during the Jim Crow period, because she’s older, and she’s from Georgia, her husband’s from South Carolina. They must’ve had a lot of stories from traveling with Michelle when her brother was small and they weren’t aware of what was going on. I said, I’m gonna send a book to her. I autographed a book to Mrs. Robinson and I gave it to my friend’s girlfriend, she sent it to her boyfriend in D.C. and he gave the book to Mrs. Robinson. I heard later that e said, he can’t promise anything, but he could promise he would put the book in her hand. Then, one day, I go to my P.O. box in Atlanta and there’s a letter from the White House. I still didn’t know what it was, then it was a letter from Michelle Obama. So it wasn’t something that, I mean, I sent it to her mother.
Khalila Asaka, Ani Laing, Angus Finn MacLeod, Winnie Marion
A Weekly Cad absolute dream team.