The Polk County Historical Society Museum was set to have a book signing with Georgia author Ann Hite earlier this month, but due to the ongoing coronovirus epidemic we had to cancel this event. We do plan to reschedule at a future date, but thought a virtual event was in order in the meantime! This week we will be featuring Ann on our website and social media with an interview, book reviews, and a guest post Ann wrote for her Black Mountain series! Stay tuned and click the links below to purchase the book!
ROLL AWAY THE STONE is the true story that influenced the award-winning Black Mountain novel series. Ann Hite, in her storytelling mode, envisions a sack of stones poised to hang around her neck the moment she is born and added to throughout her childhood by her grandmother and mother. Each stone represents a family story that forms who Hite becomes as an adult. Generations of abuse, racism, adultery, and lies populate this sordid history. In the midst of the telling are strong, flawed women who are far from good role-models for a young Hite but show that survival and success in the worst scenarios are not always lost. Along with stories of murder and madness are the ghost tales Hite is so well-known for writing. Readers may find themselves pondering if real people aren’t scarier than any ghost could ever be. The author hopes when readers emerge on the other side of this memoir, they have a better understanding of what it takes to survive one’s history and own it without shame.
• How is this book different from your previous books, GHOST ON BLACK MOUNTAIN, THE STORYCATCHER, LOWCOUNTRY SPIRIT, SLEEPING ABOVE CHAOS, and WHERE THE SOULS GO?
Roll The Stone Away is the story of my grandmother, my mother, and me. So, while I believe my fiction holds many truths, this book tells the ‘real’ stories of how the three of us navigated life and each other.
• You have spoken before about your family’s Southern roots during the Great Depression—including ravaged cotton fields, moonshine, and near-starvation. Is this expanded upon in ROLL THE STONE AWAY?
I tell the story of my grandmother, Inas Hawkins Lord, known best by Granny to me. She lived a hardscrabble life and witnessed unimaginable events in history that I share in the book. Her father, Henry Lee Hawkins, was known for his meanness especially to his wife and family. Children always came last in all things but most notably at mealtimes, where the men went first. The women and children took what was left over. When Henry Lee lost everything in 1919, my great uncle, who was 19, saved the family by running moonshine. That money sustained them for years.
• Tell us how your genealogy research has shaped ROLL THE STONE AWAY. How have you dealt with the “ugly” parts of your family history?
Genealogy revealed many of the stories that appear in the book. Building a family tree is an art and a challenge. I spent a year researching census records, trying different variations of name spellings. Thank goodness for my local library system that provides me with free online access to the same databases used by Ancestry. Much of a person’s life can be reconstructed with documents such as: marriage, birth, and death certificates, wills, land deeds, census and military records. On these documents I found the signatures of third and fourth great grandparents. By the time I sat down to write the book, I felt like I knew these people, especially the women. Of course as with everything, I found plenty of ugly. So ugly, I wanted to stop writing the book. I found out why my great grandfather, Henry Lee, was considered to be so mean. Without spoiling the story, let’s just say when he decided he needed another wife, he took care of my great grandmother. This time in history, Forsyth County, had its own law and people didn’t always pay for what they did, and sometimes they paid for what they didn’t do. Henry Lee was involved in both scenarios. He is not a man I’m proud to call a grandfather, but I think readers can identify with having family like this. I also found out a lot about my grandmother and mother’s hidden history. As adult children, we often take our parents and grandparents at face value. We forget they had twists and turns too. One of the biggest discoveries I made was that my grandmother changed her last name and this changed my mother’s last name. That was quite a disturbing find because I had no way of knowing whether mother ever knew the reason Granny did this. Mother was seven when the name change happened. Researching family is always an adventure.
• How has your family reacted to this book? Do they embrace your truth? How do you imagine your ancestors would feel about this memoir?
Boy theses are some great questions. My children and husband read the book during galleys. Some of the stories I had told to them. Others were shocking, but they supported me in the process. My husband, who makes a few appearances in the book, learned a lot about my life as a child. He has been very supportive. I told my brother, Jeff, that I was writing the book. I wasn’t asking his permission, but I wanted him to be aware that I was committing to my story, and parts of the telling would be about him. He agreed that the book should be written because a lot of people have struggled with the abuse and neglect we faced. But, he declined to read the book in the kindest possible way. He explained that living it once was enough for him. Often I think his point is valid. Writing this book was one of the hardest things I have done in my life. Of course my grandmother, mother, and father died some years back. All of my family, who have reached out to me, embrace my stories and understand the need for them to be in a book. As for my ancestors, I think there would be differing opinions. I believe Asalee Redd Hawkins, my great grandmother, would be grateful that people, especially me, finally know her story that was hidden so long. Henry Lee Hawkins, Asalee’s husband, is probably rolling over in his grave for more than one reason. Mother would accept the writing of the book and would probably open up with more stories. Granny would hate what I’ve done. She believed in keeping all family laundry neatly folded and put away, and while she was one of the best people I knew growing up, she contributed more than she would care to admit to Mother’s downfall. Most of all, I think Mary Alice, my great aunt who died when she was nine, is smiling somewhere that she has a story in our family now. She was a hidden child for too long.
• What has been your favorite family history find or hidden story—whether or not it is featured in the book?
I have several, but I want to talk about only three. Finding out that Asalee was killed was quite a shocking way to begin this book. Granny always told a long involved story that covered this fact. She was six when her mother died in 1915 and went along on the fateful trip. While researching the genealogy of my family branches, I found that my father—who was a lifer in the Air Force, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam vet—wasn’t the only person in his family to fight wars. Every grandfather back to the Revolutionary War fought, including my grandfather, John Louie, in WWI. The Swafford men, who fought in the Revolutionary War, were on different sides. Yet, they agreed to meet up in Raburn County, Georgia when the war was over. They did this and all had survived. After their meeting, they spilt going their own ways, some going to Tennessee, some to South Carolina. And the final story is how I came to find my Cherokee roots. Like a lot of families, the Swafford claimed to have Cherokee roots on my paternal grandmother, Annie Vaughn Swafford’s, side of the family. She even tried to rub the organs of a rabbit on my bare gums when I was baby to help with teething, claiming her mother who was half Cherokee taught her this. But I honestly didn’t expect to find any connection. My DNA did not show any mention of Native American blood. A good friend who is half Cherokee told me to keep looking that the Cherokee didn’t like giving blood samples for DNA. I checked this out with Ancestry and found out this was true. While Roll The Stone Away was in the process of being edited by my publisher, I found my connection to the Cherokee. Polly Murphy was my second great grandmother. She was full-blooded Cherokee. Her father was a chief in Kentucky, and her first husband was Whiplash Murphy. Polly Murphy walked the Trail of Tears with two sons. I found them on the roll. She would later marry my second grandfather, who was white. They would have a daughter, who was Annie Vaughn Swafford’s mother. In the 1870 census, Polly Murphy—she only shows up once with her second husband’s surname—is living on the Cherokee Reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina with her two sons.
• What genealogy tool has been most useful for your research? Do you have any family heirlooms, records, or other memorabilia that has aided you in your writing and research?
The internet was my saving grace. I have copies of handwritten research done by a cousin in the sixties. She traveled to the Library of Congress to get much of her facts for my paternal side. It was her lifetime work, and I can see how this endeavor could be all consuming, especially when you had to travel to each state when you needed to review records. My most important tool was the databases offered to me by my local library. They are vast and take a lot of work to narrow down what you are searching for. Familysearch.org helped me get digital copies of marriage and death certificates at no cost. They also connected me to other family members who had old photos and military records. The whole site is free. Early on I was given a eight page memoir written by my mother’s best friend, who happened to be Mother’s first cousin. They were the same age and raised together. This was huge in seeing what life was like on the farm, where mother spent her first six years. I have old photos I put all over my desk while writing. These are the items that allow me to know the relatives I never met.
• Will there be more Black Mountain books or short stories?
Haints on Black Mountain, a short story collection, will be published by Mercer University Press in fall of 2021. This collection started as prompts furnished by readers and posted on Facebook. Each story has the prompt and the reader’s name listed on the story’s title page. All the stories are set or begin on Black Mountain. A new, and maybe the final, Black Mountain novel is in progress. It will be Maude Tuggle’s story. I have had more requests for her story than any other character. “Going To The Water” is the first novel in a trilogy set in Nantahala Gorge, North Carolina and will be published in November of 2021. I’m hard at work on a new series that is set in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta. This series was inspired by Jeff Clemmons’s book “Atlanta’s Historic Westview Cemetery.” The stories are so rich, characters began to speak to me. I’m having a lot of fun with this book.
• You have mentioned writing a story about the Leo Frank case. Is this topic still on your radar, and would it be in the form of fact or fiction?
I am writing a nonfiction narrative about Lucille Selig Frank, Leo Frank’s wife. Leo Frank was lynched in 1915 for the murder of Mary Phagan. The story of the lynching was told to me from the age of ten. While writing Roll The Stone Away, I discovered Granny was taken to see Leo Frank hanging from the tree by her father, Henry Lee, less than ten days after her mother, Asalee, was buried. I’ve always been interested in Lucille. Her life was radically changed with the lynching of her husband. This is one of those stories that takes a lot of research, but the writing began last fall. I have a contract on this book with Mercer University Press and hope to turn the manuscript in to them by fall of 2021.