Kim Michele Richardson is a native-born Kentuckian who resides in Kentucky. Her works include The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Liar’s Bench, GodPretty in the Tobacco Field, and The Sisters of Glass Ferry. The Book Woman’s Daughter is her fifth novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What inspired you to return to Troublesome Creek, Cussy Mary Lovett, and the packhorse librarians?
I actually had no intention of returning to Troublesome Creek, or for that matter ever writing again after my husband and I suffered through The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek's tumultuous journey. I spent over five years and 14 to 16-hour days writing that story and, while doing research, I was seriously injured and my husband almost died. There were too many sacrifices and losses stacking up, so I made the heartbreaking decision that my writing journey had ended.
But after publication, I began receiving hundreds of letters from all over the world—letters from folks of all ages, and from churches of every denomination, schools and universities, and more, pleading for me to continue the family's journey. Two women even wrote how they had been so inspired by the story that they started bookmobiles in underserved areas at the height of the pandemic. One day, after months of receiving these moving notes, my husband came into my office with tears in his eyes, and said, "You must write the stories to honor your Kentucky people. Lift up other women." I then began to realize it could be a heathy way for me to climb out of the personal grief I'd been wading through, and to do just that: celebrate and honor brave women. Ultimately it became a welcome diversion, as well as a catharsis, during the nightmarish pandemic that had just begun to grip the world.
As in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, The Book Woman's Daughter honors the indomitable spirit of Kentucky women in the 1950s. Honey, the Packhorse librarian, Bonnie a coalminer, Frontier Nurse, Amara, and fire tower lookout, Pearl, all who did the work of 5-star generals and more while trying to survive in a male-dominated world.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it?
About a year and a half into The Book Woman’s Daughter, it took on more depth after my husband mentioned that in the early 1980s he made a police run on what he thought was a juvenile runaway. When he approached the 15-year-old, she whipped out Emancipation papers and declared, “I’m free.” He was duly impressed and fascinated with the young girl’s intelligence.
Then I approached a friend who is a Kentucky Circuit Court judge and we began discussing archaic patriarchal laws and both fell down the rabbit hole. She dug up some fascinating old case laws in Westlaw for me which led us to a 1909 Kentucky case that I knew would fit Honey’s story perfectly in The Book Woman’s Daughter.
Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I don’t recall ever deleting a character or scene, instead, I would keep working at it and dig deeper to fully flesh it out until there was a perfect balance for me. This has also been accomplished by having the wisdom of two great editors, Shana Drehs and Margaret (MJ) Johnston.
How familiar were you with 1950s Kentucky prior to writing The Bookwoman’s Daughter? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?
I’m a native-born Kentuckian and an ol’ girl, so I do have a lot of rich Kentucky history readily available. I also have a remarkable gift for listening and a long memory, along with a great love for elderly people and their lives. When I combine these, I find it makes for exceptional writing substance.
I usually spend 14-16-hour days writing and researching, and non-stop, until the book is completed. For The Book Woman’s Daughter, I was able to interview women coal miners, and again research fire tower lookouts and explore the Frontier Nursing Services, along with studying Kentucky laws and animal behavior.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
Before the 1950s and extending beyond; these brave Kentucky women were doing the work of five-star generals and more by implementing highly successful initiatives such as the KY Moonlight Schools, the Packhorse Librarians and the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS), along with working in coal mines and other male-dominated fields such as taking on the task of fire tower lookouts. And doing so with a grace and dignity in the most impoverished area of the country, Eastern Kentucky, while suffering through the Great Depression, their own pandemics, poverty and starvation, treacherous landscapes, and violent unrests.
You make reference to a number of Kentucky authors in the novel. Do you have a favorite writer? A favorite work?
Kentucky author Harriette Arnow, The Dollmaker is my all-time favorite. For contemporary, I recommend Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone, and last year I fell in love with Abi Dare’s The Girl With The Louding Voice. They all are masterfully written, beautifully told stories that are utterly fascinating. And if you can make this ol’ Kentucky girl ugly-cry like these novels did, I’ll buy your grocery list.
You are a resident of Kentucky. In both The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek and The Bookwoman’s Daughter, you provide such vivid descriptions of Kentucky that it is almost a character in the novels. What do you wish people from outside the state knew about Kentucky?
Kentucky, especially eastern Kentucky is a land rich in folklore and steeped in tradition, and is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The people, and all my Kentucky people, are intelligent, proud and passionate, oftentimes misunderstood, sometimes persecuted, but in their lives, you’ll find a constant. You’ll find dignity.
Do you have any favorite places in the state? Hidden gems that someone visiting should not miss, but would only learn about from a resident?
The Kentucky bourbon trails are a must-do. There’s wonderful exhibits and programs at the Frazier History Museum, and traveling the backroads to see the horse farms in Lexington is always a beautiful drive. A great weekend getaway is the Cumberland Falls State Park. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can witness the rare ‘moonbow’.
And of course, if you want to experience one of the biggest parties in the country that has been attended by presidents, royalty, and celebrities, Derby week in Kentucky will not disappoint and should be on everyone’s bucket list.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
The Maid on Netflix slayed me because it was gut-wrenching and authentically rendered, both tender and brutal. It accurately portrayed how the judicial system can unfairly grip hold of the poverty-ridden only to further grind them down. It is also applied in other ways as in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek when Cussy is discussing WPA jobs with Pa and he says, offended, “You mean for me to take their (government) Paupers’ Oath?” And Cussy realized it was true and explains, ‘Anybody who wanted a job with the WPA had to swear to poverty, take the oath, and leave their pantries and cupboards opened in case a government man might happen by and snoop around to make sure you were remaining good n’ poor’.
What are you working on now?
I took a break to work on something wonderfully fun—a different book. It meant a lot to me. Because all my books have such heavy themes of historical social injustices and I haven’t had a vacation in well over a decade, it was a welcome pause and an absolute delight. Additionally, we will soon have some big news about an exceptional and amazing collaboration. Thank you, Daryl, for your thoughtful questions!