Maxine Thompson

Maxine Thompson
The Ebony Tree

Interviewed by: Lauretta Pierce
December 3, 2005

Q.    Maxine, how did you come about the idea to write The Ebony Tree?

A.    I had this image—that of a worried pregnant woman walking down the street with her five children in tow—which haunted me. I wrote the original draft by longhand in my phone book while I was working as a Child Protective Services Worker in 1992. In December 1994, exactly twelve months after my mother’s death, I sat down and finished the book in three months. I borrowed a key to my friend’s apartment, borrowed the use of her computer, then typed the book in the evenings.

The first edition was printed by a telephone book print company. I used a cardboard cover, which I had laminated at a placemat place. I laugh when I think back at how proud I was of the first prototype of The Ebony Tree. (My family bought this book like it was a treasure.)

But the point is to do the best you can, with what you have, and to get started. This was my first novel, so it’s like my firstborn.

I like historical fiction because it tells people where they have been, which can help people with where they are going. It is important for the spiritual enlightenment and liberation of my people.

Q.    How did you come about the title?

A.    It is taken from my poem, “The Ebony Tree,” which I penned in 1989. In this poem I posed the question to the world for Black women.

“Why does no one ever laud me, whose sable hands calmed troubled seas?

My roots wrenched from the earth’s dark bowels, daughters of song perched on my leaves.”

At the time, (1989), as a race of women, we were pretty much invisible in movies, in TV, and in books. Of course, things have improved since then, but we still have a long way to go to have equity in the arts and in business.

Anyhow, I compared African American women’s strength to that of an ebony tree. Ebony is said to be one of the most durable and strongest pieces of wood. It originates in Africa and Asia.

After all, think about it. How many women have survived a history such as that of the Middle Passage, gone through four hundred years of bondage, years of segregation and discrimination, yet are making the strides that we are in the world today? (Oprah, Condoleeza, Toni Morrison, just to name a few.)

Q.    Who are the people on the cover of your book?

A.    The graphic artist used a photo of my late mother, Artie Mae Jackson Vann, my maternal grandmother, Lucille Cato West, and my maternal great-grandmother, Virginia Cato, who was born a slave in about 1859. I had him place these photos on a tree. The tree is symbolic of the family tree—and a metaphor for the tree of life.

Looking back, the cover has such a spiritual feel to it, I cried when I first saw it, because the pain that these women had endured was almost palpable. The specter of their lives just leaped from the cover at me.

I think this cover was my way of doing homage to the ancestors. These are the women whom I once heard it said of, “You are walking on floors you didn’t scrub and through doors you didn’t open.” I’m giving a voice to the stories they were unable to write for themselves.

Q.    How did you come about Jewel’s character?

A.    Jewel, whose character is loosely based on my mother, is the consummate mother. All I can say now is they don’t make mothers like they used to back in those days. As Alice Walker said of these women, “They made a way out of no way.”

Each section of the novel, The Ebony Tree, is divided into three parts: Bondage, (Jewel’s childbearing years), The Wilderness (her childrearing years), and the Promised Land (her later years of freedom), which also represent the 3 phases of the Israelites’ Biblical journey from slavery, to the 40 years in the wilderness, to the Promised Land.

Q.    Why did you choose Delray as the city from which Jewel wants her family to escape?

A.    The first exodus of African Americans was from the South to the North. Unfortunately, many people found themselves, disillusioned in the North. In fact, they often found themselves in more restricted financial and isolated circumstances, such as Jewel did.

Delray represented small ambitions, and Jewel’s dreams were large—larger than life. She wanted to see her children make something out of their lives, and in a small river town faced with a high rate of alcoholism, a 1950s recession, and a racist society, through her hard work and prayers, she lived to see this day before she died.

Q.    Why did you choose not to have more of Imani’s character in the story?

A.    Page (which is a name symbolic of a biblical scribe) is the narrative voice in the story. She is relating the unwritten story of her mother Jewel as she relates to her daughters, who are also second-class citizens within the racist, patriarchal system.

Imani was the child born during Jewel’s season of freedom—after all the other children were grown. Imani is as separated from the family of origin as African Americans are from the homeland in that she was raised when the parents were middle-aged and the other children were grown. She did not play a role in the family’s young life.

This is why, as a world-traveled journalist, she is trying to get the story out of her mother, but her mother only sugarcoats the truth and tells the pretty parts of the story. It is Page who writes down the real parts of the story that were too painful to talk about.

Q.    How long did it take you to write The Ebony Tree?

A.    Three months in actual writing time. I did the subconscious writing two years before. I also researched Black family systems in slavery and interviewed elderly relatives in the family.

Q.    Are you currently working on another novel?

A.   Yes, FINALLY. I’ve been stuck on a novel for the past several years, but it’s finally moving. Not to use this as an excuse, but my writing has gotten slowed up by other business opportunities in my second career in life, (Internet radio shows, ghostwriting, story editing, literary agency ). However, I have written quite a bit in a new genre, non-fiction, over the past 5 years, which has brought a lot of advertisement for my businesses and my books. Many people contact me from the articles and columns I write. I’m also working on two new novellas. I have a novella coming out in June 2006. This is in an anthology, called Secret Lovers, penned with romance author, Patricia Phillips and prolific writer, Michelle McGriff. It will be under Urban Books. My story is called Second Chances.

In addition, I’m working on my first screenplay. I am to attend the Book to Film Festival in Dallas, Texas on 2-23-05, as a panelist.

As you see, I work on several projects at once. Although I try to focus on one thing at a time, when I run out of steam, I work on the other projects. It keeps me challenged to grow.

Q.    How would you describe your writing style?

A.    I used to write in a more poetic voice as I started out as a poet. I think I write in more of a narrative voice now.

But what I’ve noticed in the past several years is a change in tone in my writing style. It comes from the bottom of my heart and from the pit of my soul.

I’ve found my own voice now, one earned from living on this planet for over half a century. My writing style used to imitate some of my favorite female writers, but I notice it’s taken on a new nuance. One that says, “I’m a Black woman. I have survived and I can still laugh. I still have hope. Life is good.”

Q.    What message would you like readers to receive from reading The Ebony Tree?

A.    The story ended on a note of hope. At the end, Jewel goes through a sort of quiet metamorphosis, wherein she realizes she is the creator of her own reality. There is a death of the deadness inside of her soul and a rebirth in that she comes alive again.

At the same time, in spite of President Kennedy’s assassination at the end of the book, which I have coincide with the onset of Page’s menstrual cycle, (which symbolizes both the loss of innocence in this country and the loss of childhood in Page,) Jewel ends the story on a line of hope. “I guess we’ll have to go on and just not give up.”

I hope readers take away the message that you can be born into a bad situation, but if you hold on, dream big, things can get better.