Monday, October 01, 2007

Welcome Kim Reid!

I finished No Place Safe yesterday, turning the pages as quick as I could. It's a great memoir about a young girl, her little sister and her mother (more about her in a minute), and about a city in crisis...only parts of the city didn't notice. For those who don't know, the crisis is the Atlanta Child Murders. Twenty-nine African Americans, most of them boys, were killed between 1979-1981. Kim's mother, the first black woman investigator in the Fulton County DA's office*, gets assigned to the case. To give you a feel for the book, a few excerpts:

Ma wanted me to watch her clean her gun so I'd learn. I was the oldest, and she'd already given me my first shooting lesson with her personal revolver, which consisted of shooting cans off tree stumps on some family land out in the country. First, I had to get used to the gun's weight, how to steady it when holding it out in front of me. Then, Ma taught me how to use the site on top of the .38's barrel to line up my target. She stood behind me and braced me the first time I experienced the gun's kick from a fired round, and I remember smelling Chanel No 5 and gunpowder, a nauseating mix of sweet and acrid, like burned brown sugar.

Ok, so about "Ma." If ever a woman was born to inhabit a book, it's her! She's tough as hell, yet all girl too. In fact, when Kim moves out and gets her first apartment, her mother gives her ".38 and her first set of crystal wine glasses because 'two things a woman needs to know how to do is protect herself and entertain well.'"

As you can see, there's humor here and heartbreak too:

Soon after the boy's body was found, someone-maybe his mother, an angry and powerless grandfather, or a weeping aunt-placed a white wooden cross on the side of the road, marking the spot. I rode my bike up there, wanted to see if there was any clue that would tell me the boy had not died painfully, that his last place on earth was a good one. I didn't want the kind of clues that cops look for, physical things that told secrets of the flesh. I wanted to feel something move through me in that place, maybe God's presence, or something bigger than me, or the boy, or all of the people whose hearts were broken when his body was found.

I can't say it strongly enough: Read this book. And for a fictionalized exploration of the subject, read Tayari Jone's Leaving Atlanta. It'll break your heart. In a good way.

Now...on to our chat with Kim Reid (if you have questions for Kim, leave them in the comments):

Pajama Gardener. What was it like to write such a personal story? What were your mother's and the rest of your family's reactions?

Kim Reid: Some memoirists find writing their story cathartic, but I didn’t go through that, maybe because it happened 25 years ago and I had some distance from it. It was more like going home after being away a long while, a mostly enjoyable experience.

After the investigation ended, a writer approached my mother about collaborating on a true-crime book. She was interested, but didn’t connect with the writer. Years later, when I told her I wanted to write the story, she was really open to it. Other family members have cameos, but I kept the story focused on me, my sister and mother, and they both let me tell the story the way I wanted to. They wouldn’t read it until it was sold, though I told them I’d take anything out they didn’t want to share. They didn’t ask for any changes.

PG: A lot of people have family stories that they think about writing, but don't go on to actually pursue them. I applaud you for following through! When did you decide you wanted to write about these experiences? And what made you go from thinking about it to actually doing it?

KR: I grew up wanting to be a writer and wanting to tell my mother’s story in particular, but I didn’t actually start until I read an excerpt from a book about the investigation. It painted cops on the case as unsympathetic, but I knew a different story. I decided to tell it the way I remembered it. It started out as my mother’s story, but as I wrote, it turned into my story and how those two years shaped my coming-of-age.

PG: What was the hardest part of the story to tell?

KR: Though it has true-crime elements, I didn’t write this as true-crime, so I didn’t include the details of the homicides though I read about them during research. That was hard. I used the investigation as my timeline and recalling each case was the most difficult part. Remembering how it was to be a kid during that time – being afraid of watching the news, no more after-dark basketball games in someone’s yard, having your parents freak out if you got home five minutes late because they were scared you’d been snatched – recalling all of that was tough.

PG: What kind of research did this book take? Did you interview your mom? Did you look at old newspaper clips? Read your old journals?

KR: All of the above. I interviewed my mother, plus went through case notes, newspaper clips, and TV interview tapes that she saved. By the time I began writing in 2004, the Freedom of Information Act had made previously closed case files accessible to the public. I read through hundreds of pages of FBI files. My ninth grade English teacher made us keep a personal journal, and luckily I’ve always saved my writing. That helped me recall some of the personal stories in the memoir. I interviewed other members of my family, and of course, relied on my memory for descriptions of places and personal events.

PG: What has surprised you most about getting published?

KR: Getting published! Selling a memoir when you aren’t famous is a long shot. I had something of a platform because it’s about a well-known case, but barely. No Place Safe is my first writing credit – I hadn’t published any short stories or anything. My agent had the manuscript on submission for a year before it sold, and we came close so many times, including revising on spec and meeting editors in New York who eventually passed because they thought the story was too dated. It was a long year, but it was a great experience in learning about this business, and it is a business the minute you decide to publish. Your ‘baby’ becomes a commodity, and I think that’s an important thing for new writers to know.

I was also surprised by how uncomfortable I became as my publication date drew near. I’m a fairly private person. I know – so I go and write a memoir. Good thing I didn’t think about that while I was writing or I never would have finished it. But I wouldn’t have told the story I wanted to if I’d novelized it.

PG: What's next for you? Will you stick with nonfiction? If you're switching to fiction, will you stay with the same kind of family-drama story?

KR: I won’t say never to nonfiction, but I doubt it. It’s great knowing how the story goes, but I don’t find much freedom in it. The novel I’m working on now does have family drama involved, and I didn’t think about it until you asked the question, but I guess I do like to write family drama. The story explores marriage, infidelity and the violence that can come of it. I’m a cop’s kid, my stepfather is a criminal lawyer, and my husband has worked in a police department or a court system for years. That may be why I’m fascinated by crime and the emotions that drive people to it. Those two elements will likely always flavor my stories.
PG: Thanks Kim!
*A correction.


Sustenance Scout said...

Hi Carleen and Kim, THANK YOU for this interview! I just posted a link to it on my blog and look forward to reading NO PLACE SAFE as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

Kim, have you considered doing a book tour or presenting anywhere (radio talk shows immediately come to mind but personal appearances would be wonderful, too) with your mother? I'd love to attend and hear both your perspectives on the events of 1979. Congratulations on the publication of your book! K.

Sherry Smyth said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and will be seeking a copy of "No Place Safe".

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Carleen for letting me talk about my story here! One thing I'd better clarify is this line "Kim's mother, Atlanta's first black woman police officer, gets assigned to the case" before I have whoever that woman is calling me, because she has my full respect for achieving that milestone. My mother was the first black female investigator in the Fulton County DA's office.

Sustenance, I don't have a tour scheduled, but I'll probably be in Atlanta doing a couple of talks soon.

Thanks Sherry!

I guess I'd better find my Blogger login so I don't have to keep posting as anonymous.


Carleen Brice said...

Sorry about that, Kim! I've corrected.

Ello said...

What a great interview! I will definitely be buying this book. Thanks to both of you for posting this. I will link to my blog also!

Kim, how long did it take you to land your agent? (By the way it's been great to read about you and your book on your agent's site also. She is such a supportive agent!) And also, a year is such a long time to wait for your submission process. How did you handle it? did you start writing something else? What did Kristin say to you during the year?

Thanks so much for this great interview.

Lisa said...

Great interview and a memoir I'll be reading too. I hope to make one of the Denver book signings!

Lafreya said...

I have been waiting for this book ever since I first read about it on her agents website a month or so ago. The cover art stuck in my memory and the story hit me as being something I really wanted to read because it's important. I'll be looking for it or ordering it in my local bookstore and pushing it to my book groups.

Trish Ryan said...

What a great interview! I've seen this book, and the cover captivated me, but now that I know the backstory it is going on my TBR pile, effective immediately!

kim said...


Thanks for supporting my book! I'd say a year to land an gent, but it wasn't a normal 'landing.' The first manuscript I shopped around never landed an agent, but Kristin asked to see any future work after she liked the full but thought it was too quiet to sell(queriers - don't burn bridges). I did something I don't recommend - pitched her the idea of my memoir at a conference, before I'd written anything. Agents will tell you this is a bad idea and I agree, but because we already had a rapport and she'd read my work, she heard me out. Still, don't try this at home.

She liked the idea and told me to contact her when I'd written it. I submitted it 8 months later, but she wanted revisions before offering rep. That was another 4 months. So a year to land a specific agent, because I felt she really got my story and I wanted to work with her. But I had my query letter ready to go if it didn't work out.

I think I hold Kristin's record for longest submission before a sale. This is where having an agent who "loves your work" comes into play, as much as that line is loathed in a rejection letter. She was determined to stick with me because she loved this book. The first six months I didn't write. No writers block, I was just really busy checking my e-mail every five minutes.:) And lazy. During this time, I did an on-spec revision for an editor who eventually passed. I didn't say no to the on-spec because the suggestions made sense and made for a tighter manuscript for the next editor (I needed to cut several thousand words). The next six months, I was over the e-mail checking, and started a manuscript. It's really the best thing to keep you focused on the part you can control in this process, the writing.

Kristin was great at keeping me updated on editor responses, and encouraging me that we weren't done yet after each NO came in. But really it was my job to occupy myself and to let her just do her thing, so that encouragement was icing, not expected or required.


kim said...

Wow, that last message was long. I have this problem in my manuscripts, too.

Lisa, I hope to see you at a signing!

Lafreya, thank you - and if you get any clubs interested, I'll join the group by phone. They can stop by my site to learn more.

Trish, thank you. I love the cover, too.

Carleen Brice said...

Kim, 2 things: Where/when are your local events? And this is the 2nd time in 12 hours I've read about a book being "too quiet" to sell. In your case does it mean it didn't have a strong hook?

kim said...

Hey Carleen,

My local events are at:
Borders, 29th Street Mall in Boulder, Oct. 6 at 1:00 pm
Borders, Flatiron Crossing in Broomfield, Oct. 13 at 2:00 pm

I'm not totally sure what 'quiet' means - I think I slipped into agent/editor-speak. But in my case, I think you nailed it, not enough hook, especially for an unknown with no readership. But I still like that story; maybe later I can revise and try again.

Ello said...

Kim, Thanks so much for your answers! That was amazing! You have great patience and persistence and I'm so glad you have a happy ending for your book. I don't know if I could be that patient. I think I would have torn all my hair out!

Congratulations again! Here is hoping for it to be a bestseller! I can't wait to read it!

Sustenance Scout said...

Ello, I started No Place Safe yesterday and it certainly deserves to be a bestseller. I was driving down Colorado Blvd. today holding my page in place so I could flip the book open and read a little more at each stoplight (you'd understand if you've ever driven down Colorado Blvd. in Denver during lunch hour!). K.

The Writers' Group said...

Carleen, thanks so much for bringing this to us. Kim, I can't wait to read your book. It's a fascinating on so many levels. Best of luck to you.


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