“Up Close” article: Writing Chain Gang, Brambleman, & The Way It Was

My favorite place: the arbor bench at Evansdale Elementary

This article was originally pubished in Up Close and Personal in Tucker as “Ex-Evansdale PTA President’s Writing is Rooted in History”

by Jonathan Grant

My favorite place is a bench that sits beneath an arbor just a short walk from my home. Years ago, when I had a spare moment, I’d sit on it—the middle bench, exactly—because its powers were restorative for me. If you’ve been to EvansdaleElementary School and noticed the school’s courtyard, you’ve seen it.

The arbor and benches were built in October 2000. The construction permit was issued September 29; I know because I signed it. Not that I built them by myself, mind you. No, a hundred of my best friends helped.

That wonderful courtyard wasn’t even my idea. As a new PTA co-president (along with Jennifer Oliver), I wanted to do something grand to improve the school even though Evansdale, a math and science magnet, had just been named a “School of Excellence” and was competing for national Blue Ribbon recognition.

Evansdale Principal “Sam” Wyrosdick, seeking to channel my megalomania and seeing an opportunity to properly employ a Home Depot guy, approached Jennifer and me in the school’s front hallway soon after our election. Smiling brightly, she said, “I think campus beautification should be our theme next year.” She was very cunning.

Soon after that, my successor, Angie Hawthorne snuck up behind Jennifer and me in that very same hallway and said, “I think we should turn the courtyard into a garden.”  At the time, it was home to weathered, broken down picnic tables, weeds, and a huge, ugly, and unused satellite dish. Then local landscaping guru Susan Avent handed me plans for the arbor, and teacher extraordinaire Stephanie Coke urged me to apply for a Hands On Atlanta project for Evansdale.

That project came together October 7, 2000, when the campus was abuzz with 350 worker bees—parents, teachers, students, neighbors, and business volunteers. Nearly 2,000 hours of labor flowed into the school that day: painting, landscaping, cleaning, restoring, and building that arbor.

Still, it would take another year, under Angie’s leadership, to landscape the courtyard. I was there for that, too, and put the final touch of stain on that bench.

It’s been my favorite place ever since.

* * *

            You could say that I build places in my day job as well, since I’m a writer. Last year, I published a novel entitled Chain Gang Elementary, a tale of war between the PTO president and the principal ofMallifordElementary School.  It is NOT autobiographical, and when people ask if Malliford is based on a real school, I say, “It’s everywhere and nowhere.”

The book started as something else. Originally, I wanted to write a non-fiction book—a how-to guide for parent leaders. During my research, I came across this phrase: “Every good school is fundamentally the same, but every bad school is unique.”

Which got me thinking: Unique is more interesting. So, I tackled the subject differently, as a fictional “how-not-to” guide on parent-educator relationships. (PTO Today dubbed Chain Gang Elementary “Required Reading.”)

It’s funny. It’s not so funny. Think of it as a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for our times. I tell people that writing Chain Gang Elementary is my revenge for having to read Lord of the Flies in high school.

My kids were in second and third grade when I started writing Chain Gang. They both were in college when it was published. My wife, Judy, an advertising pro, has loyally endured my exploits as I struggled to finish the book, coach TYSA soccer (12 seasons in all), renovate the master bathroom (you do NOT want to know how long that took), and write three other novels. Our son, Nathan, is now a sophomore atOxfordCollege. Our daughter, Laurel, is anAgnesScottCollege junior and will travel toAustralia this winter to study anthropology and archeology.

My second novel, Brambleman, was published this year. While Chain Gang Elementary looks at efforts to raise the next generation, Brambleman looks to the past, even though its setting is contemporary. It’s not so much a historical novel as a novel about history—how it is hidden and revealed. It’s no coincidence that Brambleman is the outgrowth of my work on a history book.

My late father, Dr. Donald L. Grant, was a history professor at Fort Valley State College (now University). When not teaching, he spent much of his time during the last fifteen years of his life writing a comprehensive history of black Georgians. On November 6, 1988, he died, leaving an incredibly large (yet ironically incomplete) manuscript behind. That, to me, was his life’s great tragedy.

My mother would have none of that, however, and she vowed to get the book published. That meant enlisting me, her youngest son, to finish the job. I’ll admit I was dubious, but I’d never seen the manuscript, so I agreed to take a look.

One winter day in 1989, a UPS driver dropped a box containing the 1,500-page manuscript on my front porch with a resounding thump. When I took it into my study and looked at the first few pages of The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, I was intrigued.

Going into the project, I had two things going for me: 1) I’d been the state news editor at The Macon Telegraph, so I had a good knowledge ofGeorgia; and 2) I could read Dad’s handwriting. This turned out to be a crucial ability, since I needed to read his notes —which were either typewritten or scrawled out on 20,000 index cards.

It took two years of full-time effort to edit and update the book. A dozen publishers were interested in it, and I ended up signing a contract with a New Yorkfirm.  I rushed to get the finished manuscript off to the publisher just a few days before Laurelwas born. Nearly two years later, I was sitting in a hospital delivery room marking up page proofs for a chapter on the early 20th century when Judy’s situation suddenly required my complete attention. I tell people that while Nathan may look young, he was born during World War I. Dad would like that.

The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia was published in late 1993. It was called “a tour de force” in the Journal of American History. It also was named Editor’s Choice of American Heritage magazine. As several reviewers noted, there was (and is) nothing else like it in terms of breadth and scope.

Six years to the day after my father died, I stood at a podium in a GeorgiaPerimeterCollegeauditorium and accepted Georgia’s “Book of the Year” award on his behalf. The Way It Was has stood the test of time and is still in print, available from The University of Georgia Press.

The book is filled with stories, some of which I decided to follow up on. Most importantly, there was a single paragraph on page 170 describing horrible events 100 years ago just north ofAtlanta, and I decided to write a novel about them.

Brambleman tells the story of down-and-out writer Charlie Sherman, who is tricked by a mysterious stranger into finishing a dead man’s book about one of America’s most infamous acts of ethnic cleansing. While working on this account of white mobs’ expulsion of more than 1,000 blacks fromForsyth County,Georgia in 1912, Charlie uncovers a more recent crime that has enriched a Forsyth family. He becomes convinced that he’s been chosen by a Higher Power to wreak justice and vengeance on those who profit from wrongdoing, and that’s when things go horribly wrong.

Brambleman took me ten years to finish, but if you know a writer, you know about the constant interruptions, which for me included writing other books.

I keep on writing and have another book coming out early next year, Party to a Crime, loosely based on my experience as a jury foreman in a crack-fueled serial carjacking case. For a change of pace, I’m currently writing The Unhappy History of Higgston, Missouri, the sad tale of a small town that must contend with the twin perils of our time, zombies and meth.

***

            It’s been a while since I’ve been to my favorite place. The last time I checked, the entrance to it was locked—which made it more like a terrarium, if you ask me. Principal Joseph D’Ambra once told me they’d started locking the door after they found a drunken county employee passed out there one night.

That’s not the way I wanted to end this story, so I just paid another visit. I’m happy to report that not only was the door unlocked, but Principal Daniel McGuire gave me a tour. The courtyard is now home to a trout hatchery, and Evansdale students will eventually release the fingerlings into the ChattahoocheeRiver.

I’m glad to see that my favorite place is even better than I left it, even if it’s a little fishy.

 

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