Colby Cedar Smith has been a finalist for over twenty poetry prizes including The Iowa Review Poetry Award, the New Letters Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry; and a semi-finalist for the 92Y “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her debut novel in verse, Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit (Andrews McMeel, 2021) is a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection Standard Selection; an American Booksellers Association Kids’ Indie Next Pick; a #1 Amazon August New Release in 20th Century Historical Fiction, and Teen Poetry; a Cybils Award Poetry Finalist; a 2021 Goodreads Choice Best Poetry Nominee, and a 2022 Michigan Notable Book.
How do you conduct your research?
Because Call Me Athena is loosely based on my grandmother’s life in Detroit in the 1930s, a lot of the stories in the book were passed from one generation to another.
My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller. She was funny and smart, and she loved to talk about Detroit during the Depression, the Ford Factory, and the poverty that her family faced. I grew up listening at her feet.
When I began to write the book, I knew the basic story arc, but I read many books and articles to try to find the historical background for her stories. I also contacted local experts and librarians in Detroit, talked to living relations, and I hired sensitivity readers.
The book has two different timelines (1933 and 1918) and 3 different locations (Detroit, France, and Greece), so I wanted to know as much as possible about these eras and settings. I watched movies and documentaries and read travel journals and general history texts.
I visited my great-grandfather’s village in Central Greece when I was a child. I met his sister, Violetta, and explored the hills and olive groves that are so present in the book. But I had never been to St. Malo, France, so I took my family there on a research trip. We had an amazing time exploring the Medieval walled city, finding the convent where Jeanne lived, the war-time hospital where she worked, and climbing around the rose granite rocks on the beautiful northern shore. This experience shaped a lot of her section.
I also took my family to Detroit –– we visited Belle Isle, the Institute of Art, ate moussaka and baklava in Greektown, saw the Ford Factory where my great-grandfather worked in the foundry, and paid homage to my grandmother’s neighborhood and high school in Highland Park. My children and I left silver hearts at every location. It was an emotional trip.
How long do you typically research before beginning a draft?
When I was writing Call Me Athena, I found my way into the story through the research.
I got intrigued by questions –– What kind of shoes would she have worn? What were the class differences at the time? Who would her heroes have been? What would she be reading/listening to on the radio?
I got drawn into these details, and lost in the research, and it inspired the twists and turns in the story.
What’s one of the most interesting things you learned while researching?
I was really intrigued by what was happening in Detroit during 1932-1934. The more I researched, the more I realized many of the issues present in my grandmother’s life were still present today.
It was a time of great economic despair, riots and hunger strikes, police brutality – Ford’s police gunned down a peaceful protest in what is known as the Ford Massacre. The employees were asking for better wages, healthcare, and an end to racial discrimination.
As Call Me Athena was being released, the world had plunged into the economic stress of COVID (our temporary unemployment rates were close to the unemployment rates in 1934), George Floyd was murdered, and the Black Lives Matter rallies began. Our population was still calling for the end to police brutality and racial discrimination.
During my grandmother’s lifetime there was a wall constructed in her neighborhood to keep out people of color, and “foreign born” citizens–– it’s called the Detroit Wailing Wall, or the 8-Mile Wall. While I was crafting the book, the discussion about the wall at the Mexican border was in full force.
In the early 1930s, there was great economic disparity between the citizens who had massive amounts of wealth, and the citizens who were struggling to feed their kids and make it through each day. There were discussions about universal healthcare, workers comp, social security, and how to care for the populations most at risk. These conversations are still more important than ever.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
Henry Ford is a fictionalized character in my book, and the real Henry Ford was an extremely layered person.
In real life, my grandmother Mary was Ford’s elevator girl when she was in her late teens. She convinced Ford to hire her during a conversation. I’ve always wondered what really happened during this chat. How did she convince him?!
After she got the job, she spent every day riding up and down on the elevator, asking him about business advice. She met all sorts of amazing historical people––she loved to tell the story about how she met Charles de Gaulle. In the end, she co-founded and ran a successful business because of the advice that Ford gave her.
Honestly, she worshipped him. She thought he was the most amazing, generous man.
But Ford was complicated.
He strongly believed in the melting pot theory. He believed that his employees should leave their countries of origins behind and become “true Americans.” He began the Ford English School to teach English and discourage the use of other languages. There are reports that he was paranoid, scared, controlling, and manipulative. According to the Henry Ford foundation, he used his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent to carry on an active anti-Semitic campaign.
In the novel, I wanted to not be clouded by my grandmother’s biases, but also represent her experience. I tried to create a round character, not one that was purely lauded, or hated. I show Ford’s cruelty, but I also his kindness to my grandmother.
I believe every character, and every human lives somewhere in this gray area –– and it’s our job as novelists to flesh out the nuanced character.
What is your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
It’s the closest thing to time travel that I can find!
When I write about my characters, especially from the first person, I need to place myself into the scene, and experience it with them. And when it works, when the magic is present, I can see the scene so clearly.
I often get shivers, like I’m passing through a portal into the past––I feel like I’m there.
What is your least favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I might not get it right.
Even with all the research, the travel, the fact-checking, we are still writing about something that happened to a community of people in the past. We can never know exactly what happened, or what it was like. We will always read everything through a modern lens.
I think the best we can do is try our hardest to connect with the past and find the stories that still resonate today.