A specialist in twentieth-century American literature, he has also published award-winning short stories, poems, and literary criticism. His stories have appeared in commercial and literary magazines, including Shenandoah, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Sport Fishing, and Salt Water Sportsman. His scholarly articles cover a wide range of major American authors including Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Raymond Carver, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Dickey, and Anthony Hecht.
You can also find him on Facebook.
He’s here today to tell us about his third book, A Savage Wisdom, his research and the trail that led him to write the book. Plus, he has a special purchase price for his book for Straight From Hel readers, so be sure you check the end of the post.
Welcome, Dr. German.
“The Detective Work of a Writer” by Norman German
Put to death in 1942 for the 1940 Valentine’s Day murder of a Houston businessman, Toni Jo Henry is still the only woman ever executed in Louisiana’s electric chair.
Toni Jo’s story has intrigued me since childhood, when I would read about her in special features in the Lake Charles American Press, which tantalized readers with reproductions of her leggy portrait as a coddled death-row inmate.
When I decided to “novelize” her life, my four-year research led me to the newspaper archive room, legal documents, and Toni Jo’s gravesite.
First, I read dozens of newspaper articles on the murder, capture, trial, and execution. To create the dense, “textured” world of a novel, I immersed myself in magazines and popular histories from World War I to 1963 (JFK’s assassination).
From antique stores, I bought ten copies of magazines from the period, including Life, Look, Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post. I read every article and studied every ad in order to realistically recreate the clothing, slang, and pop-culture icons of the era.
Two indispensable histories were Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s and Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America, both by Frederick Lewis Allen. However, my most valuable source was written by a hobbyist historian. New Orleans in the Thirties, by Mary Lou Widmer, includes hundreds of photographs chronicling the interior décor, men’s and women’s clothing styles, cuisine, and social customs reproduced in the novel.
For the 1950s, I ordered legendary journalist David Halberstam’s The Fifties. From Time magazine’s special issue “Time Capsule: 1950, The Year in Review,” I became familiar with everything from automobile models and colors to whiskey brands.
The authoritative source for the trial was the Southern Reporter, a series containing summaries of regional court cases—dull reading, indeed, but it led me back to the newspaper accounts describing the various parties in the courtroom. For example, during Toni Jo’s three trials, members of the courtroom audience often made slitting motions across their throats.
For years, I had heard the rumor that Toni Jo’s grave was not marked by a headstone for fear of vandalism. I went on my scavenger hunt in the Orange Grove-Graceland Cemetery on Broad Street, thinking to walk in concentric squares until I found her tombstone or proved the rumor valid.
I had two surprises. The first was coming upon the headstone within five minutes. The other was discovering that the name of Louisiana’s most notorious murderess had been misspelled. Annie Beatrice McQuiston, carved as “Anna,” adopted the name “Toni Jo” as a prostitute and became Toni Jo Henry upon marrying Claude “Cowboy” Henry, himself a murderer on the lam when he met Toni Jo.
From my research what I ultimately discovered was that Toni Jo was not a sympathetic character I could build a true-crime novel around, so I became interested in the idea of “rewinding” her life and recreating her as an ingénue deceived into a type of high-class prostitution. A Savage Wisdom thus became a study in deception and an exploration of identity development.
Thank you, Dr. Norman. So many years of research, and it seems as though what you discovered changed your entire approach to her story.
If you’re interested in getting A Savage Wisdom for yourself or to give as a Christmas gift, I have good news. This month, to commemorate the gruesome anniversary, Dr. Norman is offering free shipping plus a discount on his book for orders placed at http://www.asavagewisdom.com through November. So instead of $14 plus shipping, paperback purchase is a flat $10.
Dr. German will be stopping by during the day to answer questions or say hi. You can also chat with him on Library Thing from now until November 26.
How about you? Have you done research that, in the end, changed your thinking or even your entire approach to the book?