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March1999
Passing for Black
by Wade Hall

Chat with Author Wade Hall

Log file opened at: 3/24/99 9:27:59 PM>

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<chelak> How is everyone tonight? Our guest is getting ready to join us.

<jc> Still haven't gotten over the Cats losing ...:-(

<chelak> :-(... i understand jc

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<chelak> we will wait a few more minutes to see if we get more chatters. Mr. Hall is here... we're trying to get ready now.

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<chelak> He is talking.. coming to the computer now.

<chelak> Our guest tonight is oral historian Wade Hall. Dr. Hall is professor emeritus of English at Bellarmine College in Louisville. In addition to his biography, "Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd," Dr. Hall wrote "Hell-Bent for Music: The Life of Pee Wee King."

<chelak> Does anyone have a question?

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<Wade_Hall> Hello, does anyone have a question for me about "Passing for Black" or how I write oral biographies or anything else?

<jessamine> hello, Wade, I have lots of questions for you, but first I want to know about Pee Wee King

<jc> What kind of tape recorder did you use when interviewing Mae Street Kidd? Did you operate it yourself?

<Wade_Hall> What do you want to know about Pee Wee? I talked with his wife Lydia a week or so ago in Louisville, and he's not doing too well.

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<Frog> Mr. Hall, Besides you're wonderful oral biographies, what other writing styles have you explored?

<Wade_Hall> He looks good but has Alzheimer's disease and doesn't always know people who visit him.

<Wade_Hall> Hey Frog, well, my dissertation at the University of Illinois was on humor and was published in the 1960s as "The Smiling Phoenix." In that book I tried to do an historical study to show how the South survived defeat partly through a great sense of humor.

<Wade_Hall> I also write poetry from time to time, and for the last 30 years have written a log of book reviews for The Courier-Journal and The (Lexington) Herald-Leader, as well as for scholarly and historical publications.

<Wade_Hall> Hey JC, I used a portable tape recorder and I talked with her in her kitchen at her home on Chestnut Street in downtown Louisville.

<chelak> Dr. Hall, did you know Mae Street Kidd before working with her on the biography?

<Wade_Hall> Well, Chelak, I knew who she was, of course, but I didn't know much about her personally. I knew the outlines of her creer as a businesswoman and state legislator but I didn't really know her as well as I've know other people that I've done oral biographies on, sch as Wilson Wyatt, Harlan Hubbard, Lyman Johnson and a large number of people.

<jessamine> Are there other Kentukians you would like to do oral histories on?

<Wade_Hall> from my home community in Alabama, where I grew up.

<Henry> At her advanced age, was it difficult doing the interviews with her?

<Wade_Hall> Well, Jessamine, the answer is yes; but they are very time-consuming

<Wade_Hall> and I have several other projects I'm committed to--such as an anthology

<Dave> Is it easier to write about someone you know fairly well, or someone such as Ms. Kidd who you didn't really know going into it?

<Wade_Hall> of Kentucky writing which will be published by the University Press of Kentucky here in Lexington.

<jc> I asked a friend of mine in Louisville about Mae Street Kidd, and he said "Don't believe a word that woman has to say." Do you think she was telling the truth -- the whole truth -- in her interviews with you?

<Wade_Hall> No, Henry, I don't think it was any more difficult that it would have been when she was younger because she was/is a spirited woman, an independent woman who speaks her mind. But actually that's part of what attracted me to her as a subject.

<Wade_Hall> Dave, That's a very good question. The oral history I've done on my home community in Alabama is about people--now mostly dead--whom I have known all my life. It was kind of hard to interview, say, my mother. After all, I was asking her about intimatedetails of her life; but I must say she answered them truthfully--or so it seemed to me.

<DancesWith> I'm curious about the process of writing oral bios. Do you do all the interviews, then all the editing/shaping, or do you go back and do more interviews to flesh things out as you write?

<Wade_Hall> On the other hand, there are advantages to starting with a clean

<Dave> I can see where that could be a bit uncomfortable -- for each of you!

<Wade_Hall> sheet and doing a book on someone you know little about.

<Henry> Of all the genres you've tried, where does the oral history fall...and what is your favorite style of writing?

<Wade_Hall> details of her life; but I must say she answered them truthfully--or so it seemed to me.

<Wade_Hall> JC, I know the stories about Mrs. Kidd, but I think I got the truth from her. I would, for example, ask her the same or similar questions several days apart; and it served as a check to see if she were trying to tell something that was untrue.

<Wade_Hall> Of course, everyone wants himself or herself to look good, especially in print because we know that a book is about as permanent memorial as any of us are likely to get.

<Wade_Hall> Dances: I try to cover all bases when I do my series of interviews, but I sometimes go back and ask for.

<jc> What about your book, 'American Letters'? Is it still in the works?

<Wade_Hall> clarification and extensions of comments on certain sections.

<Wade_Hall> An important part of the process I use is that I read the completed manuscript back to the subject and he or she

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<Wade_Hall> has the opportunity to correct, modify or extend anything in the book.

<Wade_Hall> Henry, I like all the genres because each one has its own unique way of providing a form for the truth as I see it-- whether it is poetry or essay or short story or biography

<jessamine> Would you tell us what books you are reading right now -- for pleasure.

<Wade_Hall> or oral biography, which I see as a new kind of life-writing made possible by the tape recorder.

<Wade_Hall> JC, I collect American letters and diaries, and one of my

<jc> Do you think you could do an oral history on video? How much editing skill would the producer need, do you think?

<Wade_Hall> later projects is to do a collection selected from those manuscript items and show how they reflect American history and heritage. But that project will have to wait a while. The letters and diaries will eventually be in a library where other historicans and biographers and creative writers can use them.

<Wade_Hall> jessamine, The book I'm now reading is a new book by Dianne

<Henry> Is the oral biography a learned skill? Or is it simply a transcribed interview into a book?

<Wade_Hall> Aprile, a Courier-Journal columnist, about the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown. I will review it for The Courier-Journal in a week or so. I read a lot of articles and books of recent vintage about the Civil War, which is my favorite period of American history.

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<Wade_Hall> JC, Yes, I think it could be done, but it would be more difficult. The author couldn't be as "creative" in putting such a biography together. You would be more bound by what the subject actually said. I think a video biography is a more viable type--in which you interview several people and put their comments in with the subject's.

<Wade_Hall> Henry, As I have said frequently, no one speaks a book, regardless of how eloquent he/she is. That's why I say that the life is Mrs. Kidd's or Mr. Johnson's or Mr. King's but the book is mine. I put it together in the voice of the subject, using most, but not all, of the subject's words.

<DancesWith> How long does the writing (as opposed to the interviewing) take?

<Wade_Hall> So a transcribed interview would be a very bad book. It would be filled with false starts, endless repetitions and irrelevancies.

<Wade_Hall> Dances: The writing and rewriting and rewriting takes much, much longer than the making of the tapes. I usually spend at least

<jc> What about the people you interviewed on your show with Channel 15 in Louisville? Will any of those shows be rebroadcast on the statewide network?

<Wade_Hall> 30 or 40 hours making tapes with my subjects for a full-length book, but the actual composing of the book may take a year or more.

<Wade_Hall> JC, Glad you asked. Call KET and tell them they should!! Just kidding. I think those inteviews will become more valuable in the future. I plan to have copies deposited in the library at the University of Kentucky.

<jessamine> Do you have techniques (which you'd like to share) to get people talking?

<Wade_Hall> Jess: I haven't found that I have to prod people to talk about themselves!

<Wade_Hall> I have yet to meet a person--regardless of how shy he/she is--who can't

<jc> Do you still consider yourself a Kentucky Author, but an Alabama writer?

<Wade_Hall> talk about himself until the cows come home.....

<Wade_Hall> Well, JC, I have a split personality. Most of my writing has been about Kentucky, except for my poetry. Most of my poems deal in some way with my formative years growing up in Alabama. I think that's perhaps natural because poetry is a much more personal genre, and the first years of a person's life are the most important. They make you really who you are--and that's what poetry gets at....

<jc> Do you think the 'electronic community' offers the potential for the kind of 'place' that has been so important in the work of regional authors? Can the Internet create 'regions' in that sense?

<Wade_Hall> JC, I don't think anyone "lives" on the Internet. You live in E'town or Bowling Green or Louisville or Paris (Kentucky, that is), even though you may be wired to the world. So I think one's sense of place will continue to be what he sees when he gets up from his computer and walks into the kitchen and out the back door into the yard or down the street or drives out to Winn-Dixie. These, to me, are the real things still.

<jc> Are young people these days interested in such geographic identification?

<Wade_Hall> Hey Slug, do you have a question?

<Wade_Hall> JC, I think young people are still aware of where they live or

<Frog> Will you be involved in the opening of the new history center in any way?

<Wade_Hall> the importance of regionalisms. My nieces and nephews in Alabama still

<DancesWith> I saw in the online interview here that Mae Street Kidd thinks your book should be a movie. So who would you cast as her? :)

<Wade_Hall> have an accent, even though they go to movies, watch TV or are wired to the Internet.

<Wade_Hall> Frog, Yes, I plan to attend one of the openings. I've been invited to go to the black tie opening, but I don't know whether I want to spend that kind of money for 3 hours of wear! I have written a short script for the opening weeks, based on the memoirs of an Adair County pioneer named Daniel Trabue. I have also given the history center a number of items for their exhibits.

<Wade_Hall> It will be state-of-the-art, a museum that all Kentuckians can be proud of. You must go.

<jessamine> Dr. Hall, where do you find all the letters, diaries, folk art, quilts -- can you recommend some really great places for yard sales, or antique malls?

<Wade_Hall> Dances: WEll, Mae would have liked herself; but, alas, she's too sick.

<Wade_Hall> We would have to have several actors playing her at different ages. The actress would have to be very attractive and strong.

<Wade_Hall> Whom do you suggest?

<jc> Did you ever meet Thomas Merton? If so, what did/do you think of him?

<Wade_Hall> Jess: I find stuff for my collections everywhere--yard sales, estate sales, flea markets, stamp shows. I even have friends who bring me stuff from trash cans. One friend used to live in Santa Monica, CA and he would raid the trash cans of the

<Henry> Are you currently working on an oral history, and if not, who would you like your next subject to be?

<Wade_Hall> stars and he obtained incredible things--from letters by Presidents to those from famous movie stars.

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<Wade_Hall> JC, Unfortunately, I came to Bellarmine a few months after Merton died, but I do know a number of monks who studied under him as novices at Gethsemani; and a couple of years ago I chaired a "Monks Panel" at Bellarmine of some of these people who shared their memories of him. Many of the Bellarmine faculty--the oldtimers--knew him personally. I have also spent a weekend at Gethsemani--and I'm not even Catholic! Still it was a blessing to me.

<Wade_Hall> Henry, I'm completing a short (about 60-70 pp.) oral biography based on interviews I did with a young man who died of AIDS last fall. I got to

<Frog> I can't think of her name, but the actress who played Tina Turner whould play Mae well.

<Wade_Hall> know him through a "Buddy System" and he asked me "to tell his story" after he died. So that's what I'm doing.

<Wade_Hall> Frog, I can't think of her, but what about Tina Turner herself?

<Wade_Hall> Whitney Houston?

<DancesWith> Angela Bassett, yeah. Or maybe Faye Dunaway. Or Lena Horne.

<jc> What about Jesse Stuart? What was it about him that made you two get along so well?

<Wade_Hall> Lena Horne would be great to play her at an old age.

<Wade_Hall> JC, Jesse Stuart was my favorite Kentucky writer. That doesn't mean that I think he was Kentucky's best (Robert Penn Warren would take those laurels) but he was the best man I've known who was also a writer.

<jc> If 'Passing' were the first book of yours I'd read, which one would you recommend I read next?

<Wade_Hall> By the way, I met Jesse when I was a young instructor at the University of Florida, and he had come down to do a reading and a talk to the students. I drove over to Jacksonville to pick him up. We bonded immediately, and we were friends until his death.

<Wade_Hall> JC, It depends upon your interests. If you like American popular music, especially country, you might like the Pee Wee King book.

<Wade_Hall> The book I did on Harlan Hubbard is short, but one of my favorites.

<jc> Thanks, Dr. Hall. It's been a treat!

<DancesWith> Yes, thank you!

<Wade_Hall> Thanks to all of you. You've been a great chat group! Now read all my books!!!!

<jessamine> Dr. Hall, thanks so much for sharing your ideas with us tonight. I really appreciate the way you value your subjects and repect their words and lives.

<Wade_Hall> Jess: I would never do a book on a person I didn't like.

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<chelak> Thank you Dr. Hall. Good night everyone.

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<Wade_Hall> Slug: Do you have a final comment?

<Wade_Hall> What about you Dave and Jerry and Frog?

<Frog> Thanks so much, this was great fun.

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Log file closed at: 3/24/99 10:40:24 PM

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