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… the Duchess was an “experience”—a poorly lit hole with pounding music and thick clouds of smoke. “Our clothes will reek,” Ada said.

From a rickety table in the corner, they watched women half their age dancing and flirting, dressed in everything from tight T-shirts to oversized flannel that resembled Ada’s daddy’s pajamas. The booming beat of a younger generation turned any conversation into a shouting match. The lyrics—the ones Ada could understand—were baffling. “‘Come on, baby, make it hurt so good’? What kind of song is that?” She still preferred the music of her youth—Johnny Mathis, Patsy Cline. Cam just smiled.

In 1982, as middle-aged women, the main characters in my novel, The Ada Decades, make a once-in-a-lifetime journey to New York City for the Gay Pride March. Ada, the protagonist, has never been more than a three-hour drive from Charlotte, N.C., and the two are not “out” in their hometown. Her partner, Cam, plans the trip because, as she says, “I’m fifty years old, and I have never been to a real-life gay event.” After some sightseeing at Macy’s and the New York Public Library, the women head for Greenwich Village and a big dose of queer culture.

It was great fun for me to write this chapter, which is called “The Language of New York.” I lived in NYC for twenty years, and still have a fondness for it. Many of the queer sites Ada and Cam visit in the chapter—like the sleazy, long-defunct women’s bar, the Duchess (101 Seventh Avenue South)—were places I frequented as a young lesbian. The Duchess was the first lesbian bar I ever went to, and my friends and I would often hang out there after volunteering at the feminist newspaper, WomaNews.

Because Ada and Cam are a librarian and a school teacher, respectively, they also hit the lesbian and gay bookstores.

They made a stop at Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop—“Twig won’t believe this!” Ada said, snapping a picture with her Kodak—then found their way to Djuna Books, a lesbian-owned shop where they spent a good hour perusing books even Ada had never heard of. Cam bought a baseball cap emblazoned with the word DYKE and put it on immediately. “When in Rome,” she said. Ada picked out a button that read: We Are Everywhere, but she was afraid it would leave holes in her blouse, so she attached it to her canvas purse instead.

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Djuna Barnes and her lover, Thelma Wood

Even though I bought many a book there back in the day, I only vaguely remember the interior of Djuna Books, a cozy store close to where the author Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) lived at 5 Patchin Place. Barnes—a journalist, illustrator, and author of the classic Modernist novel Nightwood—did not identify as lesbian even though her primary relationships were all with women. She reportedly called her namesake “a terrible little lesbian bookshop,” even phoning to demand the owners change the name.

To read about Ada and Cam’s Manhattan trip and about their other adventures through life, you can now pick up a copy of The Ada Decades at your favorite bookstore or online retailer.

 

 

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They’d gotten off on the wrong foot, and if Cam found out, there would be hell to pay. Ada needed this young man to know she wasn’t like other whites, the ones who touted their Confederate ancestors or acted like Jim Crow was still in force. She could have used the example of Miss Ruthie to explain away her cautious behavior, but it seemed like too elaborate a story, offered too late. Or she could have told him about the early days of integration at Central, but she had done so little—just interrupted one bullying incident.

So instead, she said, “I . . . I’ve read Mr. Baldwin,” just before he reached the library door. Cam had brought the novel Giovanni’s Room home from her trip to Washington, D.C. for the March. “It’s about two men who have an affair,” Cam had explained excitedly. “One white and one black.” The volume had made the rounds in their gay circle before ending up, tattered and well-read, on a high shelf in the bedroom closet.

“He’s a fine writer,” Ada said.

“One of the best,” Mr. Browne said, with a thin smile that suggested he might not hold a grudge.

In this excerpt from my historical novel, The Ada Decades, Ada Shook, a white school librarian in Charlotte, N.C. in 1970, has a run-in with a new teacher, Robert Browne – one of only two black faculty members in the school – about a book order. She worries that some of his choices, including books by Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Baldwin, will play badly with the conservative white parents in the school. Mr. Browne calls her on it, and she retracts her concern – but then wants him to know she’s not like “other whites.” A closeted lesbian, she’s read James Baldwin’s novel about an affair between two men in Paris.

 

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Baldwin on the streets of Harlem/AP photo

The work of James Baldwin (1924-1987) figures prominently in this chapter of my book; it becomes the subject of attempted censorship by parents at Ada’s school. I won’t give away what happens, but things get tense at the fictional Central Charlotte Junior High.

I re-read a lot of Baldwin’s nonfiction work as my novel was unfolding, especially Nobody Knows My Name, and I took one of the epigraphs for the book from him: “Love is a growing up.” I felt that so aptly summarized what I had learned about long-term relationships. There’s the tender romance in the early stages of “girl meets girl,” but a relationship over the long haul is so much more than that. It’s about working through problems and plowing through bad times as well as celebrating the joyous moments. I call The Ada Decades a love story for that reason – it’s about two women enduring together and building a life over time, despite the odds.

And more about Baldwin, whose writing is rightfully enjoying a revival: Efforts are underway to save the house in St.-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he lived for the last seventeen years of his life, and turn it into a retreat for writers and artists. As Shannon Cain wrote with regret in July 2016, “There exists no trace of James Baldwin in the village … His half-demolished house bears no plaque… Here in the place he considered home, it appears that this great American literary and civil rights icon has disappeared from history.”

If you haven’t seen the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, please run out and do so. I’ve seen it twice, and I will undoubtedly watch it again. James Baldwin has been gone for thirty years, but his wisdom speaks directly to this moment in American history.

Today is The Ada Decades’s official pub date, and it’s now available everywhere! Pick up a copy at your favorite bookseller.

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They had walked silently for one long block when Auggie broke into a happy trot and pointed with excitement. “There it is!” A sprawling frame bungalow, set back from the street and guarded by a majestic oak, came into view. With its modest height and lack of trim, it was not the peer of its neighbors, but Ada recognized its charm even if she didn’t understand Auggie’s excitement.

“It’s pretty,” she said.

“That, dear librarian, is where Carson McCullers lived, oh, twenty years ago,” Auggie said with a sigh. “She started writing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter right there in that house.”

This scene takes place in the third chapter of my new historical novel, The Ada Decades. It’s 1958, and Ada Shook’s friendship with Cam Lively has been progressing since they bonded over the integration of the public school where they both work. But Cam would like it to go … well, further. She creates a book club that will get Ada to her apartment in the Dilworth neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C. – because, as their mutual friend Auggie, puts it when he spells it out for Ada: “How else do you get a librarian to come over and meet your friends? She would have preferred a softball team, that’s for sure.”

Everyone at the book club, it turns out, is queer – which both intrigues Ada and makes her nervous, because she hasn’t figured out what her feelings for Cam mean. Cam and her friends have created a social network in which they support each other – “family,” to use the code for LGBT people.

The Carson McCullers house is a real thing that still stands at 311 East Boulevard in Charlotte; it’s now a restaurant where a writer can have excellent Indian food while channeling her inner Carson. The Georgia-born author (1917-1967) and her husband, Reeves, a poet, lived there when they got married and moved to Charlotte in 1937, and it is, in fact, where she wrote the first chapters of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Carson’s biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, offers a detailed description of the large, furnished flat in her excellent book, The Lonely Hunter.

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The house where Carson McCullers and her husband first rented an apartment in Charlotte is now a restaurant

The rent was too high, though, and within a few months they moved to an apartment at 806 Central Avenue, which is unfortunately no longer standing. Carr writes that Carson found that place too cold to work in and preferred to write at the Charlotte Public Library.

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806 Central Avenue in Charlotte no longer exists

Carson was conflicted about her sexuality; she was enamored with several women, but likely never consummated the relationships. Her strongest ties were with gay writers and artists, and her identification with social and sexual outcasts figures prominently her fiction. “Carson has such a deep appreciation for freaks,” Auggie says to Ada in my novel.

Right now, you can get a copy of The Ada Decades at the Bywater Books website; after March 14, it will be available in paperback and e-book formats through bookstores and other online vendors.

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“… I still think Lillian Smith is the one to read on the topic of segregation,” Cam said. “You know Lillian Smith? Author of Strange Fruit? Now that would make some movie! No benevolent planters or happy darkies singing spirituals on the riverbank!”

Ada nodded, but once again had nothing to add. “I have heard of Miss Smith, of course,” she said, “but I haven’t read her work.”

“Aha! Something I’ve read that Madam Librarian hasn’t! You’d like her, I think. She’s a truly independent woman. Never married. She wrote a nonfiction book that I highly recommend—Killers of the Dream. She talks about how fiercely folks will hold onto something they just take for granted. Like segregation.”

That’s an excerpt from the second chapter of my new novel, The Ada Decades. It’s September 1957, and Ada Shook, a school librarian, has been making friends with her school’s English teacher, Cam Lively. A white woman like Ada, Cam is outspoken on “Negro” rights, especially school integration, and she wants to engage Ada in a discussion of the issue. A young African-American girl has become the first student of color at their Charlotte, NC junior high, and tensions are brewing that will eventually erupt in bullying and violence Ada will have to take a stand on.

What readers don’t know for sure yet but start to suspect is that Cam is also a lesbian. She’s been trying ever so subtly to send signals to Ada – here, she drops code words like “independent woman” and “never married” (wink, wink) for the venerable Southern author Lillian Smith (1897-1966), who shared her life with her female partner, Paula Snelling. Among their many projects, the couple ran a girls’ camp together on Screamer Mountain in Georgia from 1925 to 1948; the property is now part of Piedmont College. In the 1930s, they founded a magazine designed to give writers – including black writers – a forum for discussing civil rights.

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Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Although Ada doesn’t immediately get the hints Cam throws out, she knows there’s something different about her new friend. And she’ll be clued in soon enough – stay tuned!

Right now, you can get a copy of The Ada Decades at the Bywater Books website; after March 14, it will be available in paperback and e-book formats through bookstores and other online vendors.

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Available from Bywater Books

My fourth novel, The Ada Decades, will be hitting bookstores in a few weeks, and to say I’m excited is an understatement. Not only is it my first published novel in 20 years, but it’s also a love letter to lesbian history of the not-so-distant past – one that has been brewing in me for quite a while.

Years ago, I attended a queer history workshop with the great gay historian Allan Berube (Coming Out Under Fire), in which he asked participants to imagine how we would have met lovers if we lived in a different, more closeted era. The gay men said they would have gone to parks or other public spaces; the lesbians among us mentioned schools, colleges, and libraries. It made sense to me – lesbians love books, right?

Since then, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the question of how lesbians found friends and lovers in the past. Some famous couples you may know met in decidedly literary ways: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of Daughters of Bilitis, met working at a publishing house; Willa Cather and Edith Lewis crossed paths after they both published stories in the same women’s magazine; and Sylvia Beach admired Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in Paris and wandered in to introduce herself. In a similar vein, I decided to make my protagonist in The Ada Decades a librarian in North Carolina, and the woman she falls in love with is a junior high school English teacher with a penchant for the work of Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and Lillian Smith (Strange Fruit).

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Lorraine Hansberry

Over the next few weeks on this site, I’m going to roll out some of the real places associated with the characters in my book – like the mill community where Ada grew up, one of the first schools in Charlotte  to be integrated, and the picturesque town of Davidson, N.C. You might even get to see the pickup truck that Ada and Cam’s gay friend Twig drives. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

In the meantime, The Ada Decades is available exclusively on the Bywater Books website until March 14, when it becomes available everywhere.

 

 

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I have a new LGBT-themed historical novel, The Ada Decades, coming out in March 2017, which takes place in North Carolina against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Check out the press release from my publisher, Bywater Books.

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If you follow this site, head on over to my newly redesigned author website, paulamartinac.com, for news about my historical fiction and events where I’ll be appearing. That site also features a blog about all things literary. Hope to see you there!

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