Interview with Kristina R. Gaddy: “I do find that being deeply focused when I am writing helps.”

Kristina R. Gaddy, author of Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History​ and Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis, is a Baltimore-based writer and fiddler.

She has received the Parsons Award from the Library of Congress, Logan Nonfiction Fellowship and a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Rubys artist award. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College and her work has appeared in The Washington PostBaltimore magazine, Washington City PaperBaltimore SunBitch MagazineNarratively, Proximity, Atlas Obscura, OZY, Shore Monthly and other smaller history and music publications. 

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Hi Kristina! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?

Hi! Thanks so much for inviting me to reflect on my writing routine. I live and write in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up outside of D.C. I’m not one of those people who always wanted to grow up to be a writer. I went to the University of Maryland – Baltimore County thinking I wanted to be a lawyer or work in government, but I quickly found that I loved history classes more than anything else.

What’s always drawn me to history is the stories of people, and so then I thought I wanted to work in museums to tell people those stories. When it came down to it, I really wanted to tell those stories through writing, so I decided to get my MFA in Nonfiction at Goucher College. 

Your bio mentions your interest in uncovering forgotten and marginalized histories in your writing. Can you tell us more about your process for researching and discovering these stories?

That’s exactly right: I wanted to get my MFA so that I could tell these amazing stories from history in a compelling way, in a way that people want to read. The process for discovering the stories can be surprisingly easy at times. I wonder, “How has no one else written this before?” And the answer is often because enough research hasn’t been done or because different parts of a story haven’t been connected. 

Researching these stories can be where the tricky part comes in. We often hear “History is written by the victors,” but the reality is more like, history is written by the people who have the means to record their experiences. That means that often forgotten or marginalized histories don’t have as many primary sources, or you have to triangulate the story from multiple places. 

Flowers in the Gutter, your debut nonfiction book, delves into the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates who fought against the Nazis. How did you come across this story and what drew you to it?

When I was thinking of a project to work on during my MFA, my partner Pete mentioned the Edelweiss Pirates and said he thought that would make a good book. But as I like to point out, a good subject doesn’t necessarily make a good nonfiction book. You need characters, you need a story, and you need primary sources to tell the story.

After working on another project for a while (that’s now slowly coming back to the front burner), I returned to the story of the Pirates and realized that it had all these parts. And not only that, but the Pirates were total badasses and their story had never been told. In addition to a degree in history at UMBC, I did a B.A. in Languages. I had studied German since high school, been to Germany to study multiple times, and my mom was a German professor–yet I’d never heard of the Pirates. 

Your new book, Well of Souls, explores the hidden history of the banjo and its role in Black spirituality and rebellion. Can you tell us more about this project and the research you conducted for it? 

Well of Souls really came out of research that I was doing for myself, to piece together something I didn’t understand. Pete and I came across a diorama at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that had a dance scene almost identical to a painting from South Carolina from around 1785 that is also the earliest image of a banjo in North America, and one of the most famous of enslaved people.

I thought that maybe the dance in the diorama could shed more light on the dance in the South Carolina painting. I say in the book that I went down a research rabbit hole, and that is the truth. At first I was just reading old books and letters via and library archives online, then I went to libraries and museums trying to piece together a story that hadn’t been told. Namely, how the banjo was part of religious music and dance rituals among people of African descent from the Caribbean through New York. 

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Can you share with us a bit about your writing routine and creative process? How do you balance research and writing in your work?

The best is if I can do all the research and then all the writing. That way I can see all of the stories and patterns and put them together into a cohesive whole. Unfortunately when editors want to see something in progress, you don’t always have time to do it all. And, to be fair, I can definitely get stuck in a research vortex if I don’t make an effort to get out, which comes through the writing.

I once heard Rebecca Skloot answer the question, how did she know when to stop researching for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Her answer was simple (and I’m probably messing the answer up a bit), but basically, when she knew more than her sources. She’d ask someone something, and she was getting a second-hand answer.

When I have enough to build my story, to answer all the questions that I have about what is happening in the story, to make sure it feels rich to the reader, then I know (or think) I’m done. It is a tricky balance and I almost always feel like I have to go back and read more, which is why deadlines are nice. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

This is so variable! When I was working on Flowers, I was on such a deadline that it was all I was doing. There were a few months where I could just research, but then the research and writing had to overlap. So I would read and research during the day and then stay up late writing, and then edit what I’d written in the morning.

With Well of Souls, I was balancing other work with the researching and writing, so I don’t think I could adhere to my late-night writing as much as I would have liked. Because each chapter is set in a different time and place, I also wanted to research and write each chapter separately.

I wanted to be fully immersed in the world of 1687 Jamaica, for example, and then put the reader there. I do find that being deeply focused when I am writing helps. In research and in writing, when I can capture a moment of productivity, I want to stay there as long as possible. 

You’ve been recognized with several awards for your writing, including the Parsons Award from the Library of Congress and the Logan Nonfiction Fellowship. How have these moments impacted your writing career? 

It is really nice to be recognized by others as doing important work. The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Rubys Artist Award actually gave me the first boost to write Well of Souls, when it was still just obsessive research that I knew I wanted to turn into a book. And, because dedicated time and space are so important for me to be able to sit down and write, the Logan Nonfiction Fellowship and the Inner Loop Lit/ Woodlawn Pope-Leighey Writers in Residence were practically helpful, as was the William Reese Company Fellowship at the James Ford Bell Library. And my one piece of advice for writers looking at fellowships is to always apply again if you are rejected! 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Well, I cleaned it up to take a photo for you! I live in a small row house in Baltimore, and my office has my desk and my books, but it also has my rather large weaving loom, my sewing machine, and all of my fiber craft supplies. When I’m working on a project, I have various things taped on the walls–from timelines to quotes to photos and images for inspiration. I also have two shelves that are dedicated to research books so I can grab them easily while writing. The only thing it needs is more shelves for more books…

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