Today’s Michigan author is Betty DeRamus. An award-winning journalist, DeRamus was the jury’s pick and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. She has been awarded a Michigan Press Association Award. She was one of an international group of journalists who toured Central African refugee camps under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Regugees and one of a small group of journalists outside Voerster prison in 1990 when Nelson Mandela left his cell and she makes her home right here in Michigan!
You have an impressive biography. You’ve won a number of journalism awards. You were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary. You’ve toured refugee camps in Central Africa and you covered Nelson Mandela’s release from prison for the Detroit News. What career highlights stand out most for you?
Being outside Victor Verster prison the day Nelson Mandela walked out was my most memorable career experience. I will never forget the six-hour wait, the 104-degree heat, the quietly jubilant crowd and the moment Mandela finally emerged and jumped into the silver BMW sedan that whisked him to his appointment with destiny. There were other memorable stories, too. I visited Ground Zero while the fires of 911 still burned, journeyed to Los Angeles after the 1992 riots and interviewed singer Roberta Flack for a 1983 Essence Magazine article. Roberta talked about everything from men to her weight to the suicide of singer Donny Hathaway. For that story, I won an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Roberta showed up at the awards ceremony and joked that people subjected to interviews ought to receive awards, too.
Did you have any mentors or special teachers who encouraged you to be a journalist and writer?
None of my teachers encouraged me to write, but one did suggest I become a secretary. (After all, I could type 90 words a minute.) Fortunately, I was a voracious reader and scribbled daily entries in my diary. In high school I won a city-wide essay contest sponsored by the Archdiocese of Detroit. I also wrote a letter to the editor published by the Detroit News. But nobody ever told me I should become a creative writer or journalist. I decided that for myself. By the time I acquired mentors, I was a working journalist.
Has growing up in Detroit has influenced you as a writer?
Growing up in Detroit gave me a lot of gritty, quirky and inspiring stories to tell. I lived in neighborhoods all over the city and took long walks every day. I learned to stop, look and listen to whatever caught my eye. I also grew up listening to the sometimes hilarious, sometimes troubling stories my parents and their friends told about their lives in the South. The neighborhoods I knew were full of vivid, hard-working people who could make a meal from turkey feet, home-made dumplings and determination. When I was in high school, my father became ill but could not immediately qualify for disability payments from Social Security. My parents didn’t want welfare because that would require getting rid of everything of value, including my beloved piano. So daddy and mama turned our attic into a boarding house. Most of our tenants were musicians, and they were all eccentrics. Ah, what a sit-com that would have made.
With all of your international experience, it is interesting that Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad grew out of a conversation at a kitchen table in Adrian, Michigan. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to write that book?
I never planned to write two non-fiction books about black couples (and a few interracial ones) who did extraordinary things to avoid being separated during the slavery era. My life changed after I interviewed an Adrian, Michigan educator who was an expert on the Underground Railroad and lived in a house that had been part of the anti-slavery network. Kimberley Davis filled my head with tales I’d never before heard–including the saga of Southern blacks who found their way to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the 1850s. I wound up writing a four-part Detroit News series on untold underground railroad stories. It won first prize from the Michigan Press Association in 2000. Eventually I wrote a book proposal based on my Detroit News series. About one-fourth of the stories were set in Michigan or Canada. I circulated it at a writers’ conference and wound up with an agent and, later, a publisher. Atria Books (a Simon and Schuster imprint) published Forbidden Fruit in February of 2005 and Freedom by Any Means in 2009. Forbidden Fruit spent 9 months on Essence Magazine’s best seller list.
What were your biggest challenges researching Forbidden Fruit?
Researching stories about slavery-era black couples poses some special challenges Enslaved people on the run didn’t jot down their experiences. Once free, former fugitives often changed their names or adopted last names for the first time. So I had to piece together these stories from census data, interviews with descendants, 19th century newspapers, slave owners’ wills, former slaves’ marriage licenses, unpublished memoirs of their descendants, slave schedules and other sources. To research the story of Isaac Berry, an enslaved man who traveled from Missouri to Michigan. I also attended reunions of his descendants and found records of his marriage to Lucy Millard, who followed Isaac to Canada. I also read their daughter, Katy’s, account of her father’s escape Two Berry descendants were old enough to remember spending time with Lucy, who lived to be nearly 100. The pension records of Stephen Todd were another important source Stephen Todd was Isaac Berry’s best friend and a Civil War veteran. His pension file contains information about Isaac and Lucy’s presence at his wedding in Canada.
I also visited many of the small towns and villages where the couples I profiled once lived. Small town libraries and historical societies are often the only sources of information about local heroes. The final story in Forbidden Fruit is about an escaped slave and Civil War soldier named Samuel Ballton who sneaked across enemy lines to visit his wife, Rebecca, during wartime. The Balltons are hardly household names, but there was plenty of information about them in Greenlawn, New York, where they moved after he war. Greenlawn library staffers even arranged for me to meet a Ballton descendant living in the area.Samuel Ballton’s sword was still there, too, along with some of the houses he built.
Freedom by Any Means tells the stories of some of the extraordinary lengths African-Americans had to go through to maintain their personal relationships in the antebellum period. Was there particular story that set you off on that journey?
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
If you’re writing a book, I think it’s important to write at least a paragraph or two every day. Don’t wait for a burst of inspiration. The best remedy for so-called writers block is sitting down and writing a sentence or two. Writing begets writing.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
I’m currently writing a novel set in Detroit in the early 1980s. It’s the story of people brought together and transformed by the murder of a 14-year-old girl. I don’t know if anyone will publish it, but I’m enjoying writing it. First sentence: “Raycee stroked the gun as if it were his pet, the kind of guard dog that barked bullets.” Favorite sentence: “Never trust a man who draws a fierce black mustache above his lips with an eyebrow pencil, Bertha Townsend thought, staring at a cracked and faded wallet photo of Jesse Dugrande.”