The novelist William Dean Howells once famously remarked that his friend Mark Twain was not a writer who performed so much as a performer who wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, this astute observation also holds true in Twain’s nonfiction, a form that would seem to put less of a premium on both invention and performance. To read the passages from The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi collected in this volume is to understand that Twain didn’t lose much sleep over the idiosyncratic demands of fiction versus nonfiction. Both offered numerous and varied opportunities to an inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter. To be sure, many of the set pieces that are included in the Everyman’s Library volume of The Complete Short Stories — “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “The Story of the Old Ram”—turn up in this volume as well. Classifying Twain’s work into fiction or nonfiction is something we do for our own convenience; his convenience was to ignore ours.
So, are the events chronicled in Roughing It — which details Twain’s journey by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, his stint there as a silver miner, and his apprenticeship to the newspaper trade — true? Once asked that same question about one of his own stories, David Sedaris replied, “They’re true enough,” and it’s easy to imagine Twain saying the same thing about his youthful adventures in the American West. We know he traveled to Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of what he reports in The Innocents Abroad actually happened. I suspect, however, that the literally true parts are those he wasn’t able to improve on through embellishment or outright invention. For Twain, “truth” was not just elastic but indeed designed to be stretched. He learned this lesson early on, writing for western newspapers. He explains the job to great comic effect in Roughing It, where, as a cub reporter, he wrote a story about a wagon full of immigrants attacked by Indians. At first, fearing that other reporters might recount the same story, he sticks pretty close to the facts, despite his conviction that the story could be improved upon by straying from them. Later, though, when he learns that the owner of the wagon meant to continue his journey the following morning (leaving no one to contradict Twain’s account), all bets are off . His next draft describes an Indian fight that “to this day has no parallel in history.” This is Twain we’re talking about, so it’s likely that he also exaggerated the extent of his exaggerations, but still. Buoyed by praise from the paper’s editor, he expresses a willingness to murder every immigrant on the plains with his pen if “the interests of the paper demanded it.” Thus the low bar of truth is established: true enough. For him. For his editor. For the paper’s readership.
ONCE ASKED THAT SAME QUESTION ABOUT ONE OF HIS OWN STORIES, DAVID SEDARIS REPLIED, “THEY’RE TRUE ENOUGH.”
His approach to fiction was basically the same. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that readers may have heard of him if they’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which “was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” That first assertion, it’s worth remembering, was both the truth and a lie. The book was actually “made” by Samuel Clemens, and the parts Mr. Clemens “stretched” were the parts that needed stretching, beginning with his own identity as Mark Twain. Again, Twain is not so much a writer, at least as the term is used today, as a storyteller whose primary duties are to the narrative and its audience. No story is likely to be instructive if it isn’t entertaining, and the best way to gauge whether it’s working or not is to watch it land with an actual audience, a lesson Twain learned long before he gave his first public lecture.
In A Tramp Abroad he recounts his first ride on a Mississippi steamboat as a ten-year-old boy. Falling asleep, he has a terrifying dream that the boat is ablaze, and he rushes into the ladies’ salon, still under the nightmare’s influence, screaming “Fire!” The ladies there knew better, of course, and they advised him to return to his cabin and dress, lest he catch cold. It’s a revealing memory. The humiliation of his story playing so badly, his audience rejecting both the tale and the teller, is still fresh in Twain’s mind twenty-five years later as he’s writing Tramp. Just as telling is the reason he recalls the episode in the first place. He’s in Germany watching a production of King Lear, where the actor playing the title role “raged and wept and howled” across the stage. Twain admires the performance but feels sorry for the actor, who has to wait until the end of the act for his applause.
Writers, by contrast, are used to silence. Their applause, if they’re lucky enough to get any, comes long after their “performance” has concluded, in the form of reviews. True, authors who publish serially may to some degree interact with their audience. When readers loved Sam Weller in an early installment of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was happy to expand his role as the novel progressed, but that’s hardly akin to telling the same stories on stage night after night, as Twain did on his public speaking tours. Each audience provided him with valuable insight into what worked and why, allowing him to revise the material accordingly. His first public lecture triumph near the end of Roughing It is described almost completely in terms of the crowd’s appreciation. The audience is with him from the start, he tells us, even the jokes he’d judged to be inferior faring “royally.” Near the end, though, the material grows more somber and serious, and Twain tells us that the “absorbed hush” that fell over the audience “gratified me more than any applause.” Indeed, he’s so pleased by the reaction that he can’t help but smile, which the crowd took as a cue to laugh, thus ruining the moment.
Later in life, Twain’s relationship with his audience would grow more complex. In Life on the Mississippi, he admits that being a river pilot was the best job he ever had, because the steamboat pilot has no master, whereas writers were “manacled servants of the public.” That said, no writer ever courted his audience more assiduously nor drew more confidence and pleasure from public adulation (Twain courted honorary degrees, too, and shamelessly.) Indeed, one suspects that it was from his audience, as much as the work itself, that Twain derived his sense of accomplishment and well-being.
WRITERS, BY CONTRAST, ARE USED TO SILENCE. THEIR APPLAUSE, IF THEY’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET ANY, COMES LONG AFTER THEIR “PERFORMANCE” HAS CONCLUDED, IN THE FORM OF REVIEWS.
It’s worth pointing out that the world has changed since Twain left it, and our attitudes towards “truth” and “fiction” have become more rigorous and stern. Mislabel your novel as a memoir (or allow your publisher to do so) and you’ll likely find yourself in a world of hurt. Twain was no great fan of fraud and deception, but like Melville he understood that the world was steeped in both, and moreover he harbored more than a little admiration and affection for its charlatans. Reading Huckleberry Finn I often wonder if I judge the King and the Duke more harshly than their creator intended. At the very least Twain would’ve understood that people who get conned are often complicit in their own deception. Just as important, he would have recognized the paradox inherent in labeling some stories “made up” ( fiction) and others “true” (nonfiction). Interestingly, audience often plays a role here, too. When you claim that a story is invented — especially one as elaborate as Twain’s were — people will naturally suspect you of telling the truth (Come on! You couldn’t have made that up!). Conversely, when you claim to be telling the truth, those same folks shift gears and suspect you of lying (Surely you embellished this!). Storytelling thrives in this fundamental para- dox and often resists any attempts at clarification.
“Mark Twain’s Nonfiction” first appeared as the introduction to Mark Twain’s Collected Nonfiction: Volume 2 (Everyman’s Library, 2016)
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Who better to give book recommendations than the bookish experts? Penguin Random House employees are sharing their favorite reads every month. Browse below!
Here’s what Robert, a designer, had to say:
Photography, music, design and illustration. That pretty much sums me up. I love going out to eat, especially here in the city, and I love to read. I’m more keen to read a book about a specific topic but I also learn a lot from fictional characters.
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I’m an author. And an editor. But never at the same time.
I’ve traveled a lot — all over North America and to Europe as well — to talk to writers about the craft of writing. I’ve given talks about plot, about character, about voice, about emotion, and have had wonderful conversations about stories with tons of booklovers. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, someone asks me how my editorial brain coexists with my writer brain — whether I’m always editing what I write. And the answer, of course, is yes, I do edit what I write, but I don’t edit it — I couldn’t possibly edit it — in the same way I edit someone else’s work. And I never edit it until I’ve finished a complete first draft.
In the first book I wrote, The Nina, The Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, which is a mystery for elementary schoolers, I edited and edited the first chapter until I felt like it was as close to perfect as I could make it before I moved on. And then I did the same with the second chapter. And the third. The book — which is only about 20,000 words — took me nearly a year to draft, and then when I got to the end, I realized that I’d constructed the plot all wrong, and all of that painstaking editing was, while perhaps not a waste of time, extraordinarily inefficient, because now I had to rewrite half of those chapters and revise the rest so that they made sense with the new plot structure. So over the next couple of years, I devised a plan, a way to turn off my internal editor and write more efficiently. These are my writing commandments.
1. THOU SHALT OUTLINE:
Before I start writing, I go through the entire story, chapter by chapter, and decide what important plot and emotional events will happen in each one. That way, I always know where the story’s going and will feel compelled to move forward instead of working on the same chapter for months.
2. THOU SHALT NOT RE-READ EARLIER SECTIONS
With my first book, I would start every writing session by rereading everything I’d already written, revising all of that, and only then start on new material. That meant that the longer the book got, the more time I needed to set aside each day to write. I realized afterward that this made no sense, so now I don’t read over what I’ve written until I have a whole draft done.
3. THOU SHALT HAVE GOALS
I break down my writing goals into manageable tasks that I must complete. When I’m drafting, my goals are all quantity based: 1,000 words today, 1,500 words this weekend, etc. And then once I have a draft done, I give myself chapter goals: Revise four chapters this weekend, one chapter after dinner. When I have that target in my mind, I push through to get things done.
4. THOU SHALT NOT SHARE YOUR WORK UNTIL IT’S COMPLETE
I have an amazingly generous, perceptive writing group, but I try not to share pages with them while I’m mid-draft. I want their thoughts on the whole book at once, otherwise it’s quite likely I’d begin inputting their edits into early pages and work so hard on those that it would take me forever to get through a complete draft.
5. THOU SHALT ACCEPT THAT SOME THINGS CAN BE FILLED IN LATER
Sometimes I’ll be going along and a thought will strike me about a section I’ve already written. Instead of going back and revising that scene right then, I scroll back to that scene and make myself a note that says something like [REMEMBER TO ADD IN THE THING ABOUT THE PASTA POT]. And then when I’m up to the revising stage, I add that part in.
6. THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT THIS MANUSCRIPT IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE
I think the true key to turning off any internal editing is to remember that every book goes through multiple revisions in its lifetime. The words and phrases and sentences don’t have to be perfect right away — I spent four years writing and revising The Light We Lost. Some lines are the same as they were in the first draft, but many are not. In the end, understanding that I’d eventually be letting go of so much that I’d written is what made it easiest for me to turn off that internal editor and enjoy the act of creation inherent in writing.
Long before I became a doctor, I was a writer. At the age of seven I wrote my first suspense novel, about a blue zebra named Mickey who was warned never to go into the jungle. Naturally, Mickey went into the jungle. I bound the pages together with needle and thread and proudly announced to my father that I had found my future career. I was going to write books!
My father said that was no way to make a living. And that’s how I ended up in medical school in- stead.
Although it delayed my childhood dream of becoming a novelist, I never once regretted studying medicine. I’m fascinated by science. I enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life — doctors treat every- one, from bankers to the homeless. But my passion to write never left me, and when I went on maternity leave and finally had a chance to complete my first novel, I realized that writing was what I was really meant to do. Even though I’d made an occupational detour, those eleven years of medical training turned out to be the best education a writer could hope for.
I finally used my medical knowledge in my tenth novel, the medical thriller Harvest. To my surprise, Harvest hit the New York Times bestseller list. Up till then, I had assumed that readers didn’t care if medical scenes were realistic, but Harvest taught me that, yes, readers are interested in what doctors do and think. My literary agent told me: “Readers want to know secrets.” They want to peek behind the O.R. and autopsy room doors. They want to know what doctors won’t tell them. All the years I’d spent learning to be a doctor meant I could write with the level of authenticity readers are searching for.
Since then, I’ve tried to provide just those details. Have you ever wanted to know the physics be- hind why a plane or car crash kills you? I revealed that secret in Gravity. Ever wondered if you could buy your way to a higher spot on the organ transplant list? In Harvest, I revealed how it’s possible. In The Bone Garden I described how to amputate a limb without anesthesia; in Ice Cold, I described death by nerve gas; and in Playing With Fire, I explored the baffling behavior of patients with partial complex seizures.
Over the years, as I’ve described autopsies, E.R.s, crime scenes, and even resuscitation in space, I’ve exhibited the doctor’s point of view. I know how panicked a doctor feels as a life drains away beneath his hands, and the thrill of hearing a silent monitor suddenly start to beep with a renewed heart- beat. I also understand the logical manner in which doctors approach problems, how they must sift the subjective from the objective, and try to tease out the facts from the emotions.
In my Rizzoli and Isles crime series, medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles gives us the doctor’s point of view. When she and Jane investigate a murder, no matter how disturbing the crime scene may be, Maura thinks like a doctor. Like a surgeon faced with an exsanguinating patient, Maura must suppress her horror and get to work. Others may think she’s cold- blooded or robotic, but that’s how Maura stays in control: by staying focused and doing her job.
I no longer practice medicine, but when I sit down to write a novel I sometimes imagine I’m once again donning a doctor’s gloves and white coat, this time as Maura Isles, my alter ego. Over the course of eleven books, I’ve grafted much of my own personality onto Maura. She and I are fascinated by science, we graduated from the same universities, and shared the same major. We both play the piano, drive the same car, even favor the same wine. In a world that’s far too chaotic and unpredictable, we both search for logical explanations.
In fiction, at least, Maura can find them.
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25 years ago, Julia Alvarez wrote In the Time of the Butterflies, the story of four young women from a pious Catholic family that were assassinated in 1960 in the Dominican Republic after visiting their husbands who had been jailed as suspected rebel leaders. The Mirabal sisters became mythical figures in their country, where they were known as Las Mariposas (the butterflies).
This extraordinary story of love, courage, resistance, and family has since inspired other works of fiction, movies, plays, and dances and become an American Library Association Notable Book and a 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee. To celebrate both Julia, a National Medal of Arts recipient, and the anniversary of her bestselling classic, Algonquin Books, Penguin Random House, and Repertorio Español have teamed up to offer one winner the “Ultimate Julia Alvarez Gift Package.” This gift bundle includes some of the author’s bestselling titles, both in English and Spanish signed by the author, as well as two tickets to an upcoming feature of the adapted play En el Tiempo de las Mariposas (In the Time of the Butterflies) at the Repertorio Español in New York City.
Enter for a chance to win here!
Food is one of my top five favorite things in the world. Maybe even the top three. But if I have to be honest, it’s probably in the top two. That says a lot about me. Likewise, food can be used to say a lot about your characters.
What’s for Dinner?
Do you know what your characters eat? Does the reader know?
Food can be more than sustenance. It can be used as a tool, a prop, something to show instead of tell. The main characters in my first novel, My Lovely Wife, live in a gated community, eat organic food, and use almond milk instead of the real thing. When one of them chooses to eat something like a hot dog, there’s a reason for it. Food can be used not only to show a person’s character, but also their state of mind.
Do they eat when they’re stressed, or not eat at all? Or do they eat different foods? All of this can say a lot about a character.
Something to Do
Funny thing about characters … they have to do things. Eating can be a big part of that, but it doesn’t have to be fluff.
Imagine two characters meet at a coffee shop to discuss a topic integral to your story. Maybe one lost a job, or their spouse is having an affair, or maybe they’re having an all-out war with a neighbor. The dialogue may be the most important part of this scene, but it doesn’t have to be the only important part.
For example, if both characters order the same thing — say, medium lattes — that’s hardly notable. Or if what they order isn’t mentioned at all, it becomes irrelevant.
But what if one character orders a plain black coffee, and the other orders a jumbo cinnamon roll with an extra-large salted caramel mocha? And which ordered which? Does the one with the problem order the food, or is it the one who has to listen? Either way, the scene just became a lot more interesting.
Cook or Burn
The preparation of food is as important as the consumption of it … or so my friends tell me. I do not cook, not ever, and anyone who knows me is grateful for that.
If I said the same thing about character, it would tell you something. The same applies to characters who cook all their food from scratch, using only ingredients from the farmer’s market. Or maybe your character’s idea of cooking involves pre-made sauces and pre-cooked meat, because they don’t have the time to make homemade marinara sauce.
Kitchens are places where people gather in life and in books, so use the location to your advantage.
To Drink or Not to Drink
Alcohol has at least as many uses as food, if not more. Going out for a drink is another thing for your characters to do. Bars are also where people meet, flirt, and — as often happens in fiction — decide and plan to commit crimes. How much or how little a character drinks, and what they drink, can tell the reader a lot.
But that’s not all alcohol can do. Characters can change when they’re drunk. The shy become bold, the calm become angry, and the happy start to cry. Some drink to the point of blacking out, only to find themselves in a mess the next morning.
Or picture this scenario: A group of colleagues go out drinking after work. As the night wears on, and the group becomes more intoxicated, people start to flirt. They start to say things they shouldn’t. Maybe they gossip about their boss and other co-workers. Secrets are revealed, embellished, repeated.
One of the characters — let’s say a man — goes to the bar to get another drink. He orders a club soda with lime. Unlike his colleagues, he hasn’t been drinking at all. He’s just pretending to be as intoxicated as they are.
Now it’s not just a night out, it’s something deceitful — maybe even sinister. Alcohol can do all of that, if used properly.
Enough is Enough
This is not to say food can be used to show everything, nor should it. While I’d like to spend the majority of my time eating bonbons and bacon cheeseburgers, I don’t. Neither should your characters.
Food is one example of how everyday activities and needs can be effectively used in fiction. It’s not the only thing. It may not even be the most interesting thing. It’s just one of the many tools available to tell your story.
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Who better to give book recommendations than the bookish experts? Penguin Random House employees are sharing their favorite reads every month. Browse below!
This month, we’re featuring Stella Spiegel, Associate Email Marketing Manager at Penguin Random House. Stella loves to travel and is always looking for a great book, or five, to bring on her next adventure.
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The fascinating tale of a fictional ‘70s rock band is chronicled in Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid‘s riveting new novel written as an oral history – a literary roller-coaster ride marked by sex, drugs and rock & roll, with fly-on-the-wall glimpses of life in the recording studio, on the road and backstage. #1 on the March Indie Next list and the Penguin Random House Spring Title Wave pick, this Ballantine book has already earned many fans, including actress Reese Witherspoon, who raved, “I devoured Daisy Jones & The Six in a day, falling head over heels for it. Taylor Jenkins Reid transported me into the magic of the ’70s music scene in a way I’ll never forget. The characters are beautifully layered and complex. Daisy and the band captured my heart, and they’re sure to capture yours, too.”
Daisy Jones is a young woman coming of age in L.A. in the late ‘60s, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed. Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road. Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to success is to put the two together.
Jennifer Hershey, SVP, Editor in Chief, Associate Publisher, Ballantine Bantam Dell, pulls back the curtain, offering glimpses into this book’s creation and special magic. Hershey shares her impressions of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s unique writing style, the book’s “oral history” format, and why DAISY JONES readers will be inspired to revisit their favorite ‘70s rock albums.
How did you discover Taylor Jenkins Reid and what were your initial impressions of her writing voice?
To say that I “discovered” Taylor would be a little like saying that Columbus “discovered” America! Before I had the huge pleasure of making the acquaintance of Daisy Jones, Taylor had written five terrific novels and won herself a devoted following. I loved the book right away—and read it in one sitting; it has a very addictive quality. I was struck by the freshness of the milieu and conceit of the book—a bit like the movie Almost Famous or A Star is Born, but the first time I’d seen that in book form—and the “as told to” narrative structure for a novel was so distinctive.
How would you describe the editor/author process as this manuscript became a book and why do you think the “oral history” structure works so well?
The novel was already in great shape when I acquired it, so we just had fun fine-tuning and tightening. We talked a lot about how to make the voices feel convincingly as if they had been spoken aloud, without going too far down that road. Taylor has said that the “oral history” format forced her to up her game as a writer, because everything she wanted to convey had to be done completely through the voices of the characters. I particularly love the way various characters remember the same event differently, and contradict each other in the telling.
What aspects of DAISY JONES & THE SIX do you feel will resonate most strongly with readers?
There is so much here: not just one, but two great love stories, a lot of ’70s and classic rock nostalgia (I guarantee you’ll pull out Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors for a fresh listen when you are done!), and some great moments for the feminists in all of us. Reading the novel makes you feel like you are just hanging out backstage with your favorite band. It’s just such a fun and fresh read—the kind of novel that, despite its layers, almost reads itself to you, it is so effortless.
“It’s so fine, yet so terrible, to stare in front of a blank canvas.” — Paul Cezanne
Every morning, an empty white page appears on my computer screen, waiting to be filled in with sentences that will eventually become a novel. This blankness can be both intimidating and exciting, a paradox I wrestle with each time I sit down to write.
I always enjoy speaking with other writers about their own processes of creation. It differs so widely amongst novelists. Some writers work on an outline first, and then write out scene by scene, scratching off each chapter that they’ve already loosely plotted in their head. Others speak of writing from a stream of consciousness, where they work until they’ve reached the end of their story and then circle back to edit and revise the rough draft into something that will become their finished manuscript.
My mother, an artist, taught me to see the world as though it were a painting, and I draw upon the same techniques she used to create her finished canvases when I’m writing my novels. The views outside the windows of our childhood home were miniature paintings to my mother, ones which had their own color and texture that changed with every season. She encouraged me to consider both the light and shadow in an artist’s charcoal drawings as well as the backstory of the artist’s personal history. When we went to museums, she taught me first to look at each painting up close and then from a few steps away, thus training me to gaze at the canvas from all directions to see how certain things were revealed when one looked at it from a different angle. She was quick to point out that the artist never over-saturated the canvas, and that leaving part of the canvas bare was sometimes just as important as the areas that had pigment. Years later, when I sit down to write, I hear my mother’s words in my head and they continue to guide me.
For me, each chapter is a blank canvas. I begin to craft each scene sentence by sentence, as if they are brushstrokes moving my reader through the story. I write from a visual perspective, so each scene is an artistic composition that I see inside my head and strive to then share with my readers. Painters have their own language, often drawn from nature’s rich palette. A sky can be cornflower blue or the deep hue of hyacinth. Characters should never be black and white, but rather filled with varying shades of gray. Contrast is what makes a painting interesting, my mother would tell me. So, I channel these painterly ideals whenever I think about placing one character against the other; I reflect on what emerges when strength is contrasted against weakness, joy against sadness, or life against tragedy.
In the end, my advice to writers is really about encouraging more than one way to approach storytelling. Books are like any other art form, and can be created in just as many ways. For me, it is about closing my eyes and writing what I see. Once that armature is put down on paper, I build layer upon layer onto it until the world and the people who populate the story are just as I imagined them. I mentally construct the architecture of the rooms my characters inhabit, then set out to recreate them for my reader. I feel the texture of the clothes they wear just as much as I feel the weight of their emotions. Then, sentence by sentence, the novel becomes its own universe, hopefully filled with everything my mother used to tell me made a painting interesting. Rich in emotion and filled with contrast. A work that, in the end, conveys a new and original portrait from the artist’s own eye.
Written by Alyson Richman
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To highlight some great moments and voices during Black History Month, we’re teaming up with StoryCorps. If you’re not already familiar, StoryCorps is a wonderful organization focused on capturing the wisdom of humanity through interviews and stories in order to create a more just and compassionate world. Learn more about their mission, history, and impact here.
In late August 1963, the March on Washington led hundreds of thousands of Americans to the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lawrence Cumberbatch (right), then 16 years old, walked from New York City to Washington, D.C., with Brooklyn’s chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
At StoryCorps, Lawrence, 66, tells his son Simeon, 39, about the difficulty of convincing his parents to let him go, and what it was like to be present on the podium behind Dr. King as he spoke.
Inspired to learn more? We’ve got themed lists to help you find your next read – from fresh new authors, to canonical greats.
Head over to StoryCorps to find more oral history and amazing storytelling.