Not only am I delighted to shine the spotlight on Jeannie Mobley’s new book, I am insanely jealous of its title! It cries out “read me,” so it’s moved to the top of my TBR pile. Thanks, Jeannie, for being with us today and we can’t wait to learn more about Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element (Holiday House).
BOBBY LEE CLAREMONT AND THE TURNING WHEEL OF HISTORY
There’s no doubt about it—these are strange times in which we live—and write. I suppose, however, that all times are strange in their own way, much like Tolstoy’s unhappy families. This is part of what has always drawn me to historical fiction. As a reader, I crave the chance to lose myself in that strangeness—to get a taste of the “otherness” of the past.
As a writer, it is both the strangeness and the familiarity of the past that fills it with interest and opportunity. For me, the initial inspiration for a story is often in a theme or idea I want to explore. The great beauty of history is that there is always a moment in time that can make the exploration more poignant or rich. For my first book, I wanted to explore the immigrant experience, but apart from the modern immigration debate with its entrenched arguments and points of view. By setting Katarina’s Wish in the coal fields of southern Colorado in 1900, I was able to present the hardships, stigmas, exploitation, and perseverance of immigrants in a politically neutral space. The distances and strangeness of history was there, but the sameness was there too, because so many issues with immigration today are the same ones we’ve played out a century earlier. Strange, but familiar, in ways that I hope allows the issues to be discussed in a less politically charged way.
In my second book, Searching for Silverheels, I wanted to explore all the ways women show strength, whether in traditional roles or more modern ones. I set out to find a historical moment that could accentuate those ideas. I found many, but the one I chose was 1917, the beginning of World War I. Mothers and wives were running businesses, growing victory gardens, raising money, and chopping the wood to keep the home fires burning, but were also fighting for the vote. With a setting like that, this stuff practically writes itself.
My current novel also addresses some of the big, recurring themes of life in America, through a historical lens that feels all too modern. At its heart, Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element is a fast paced mystery, set in the glamorous world of the 1920s, with its jazz music, gangsters, and a steady flow of bootleg. But running through the story, which begins deep in the American south in 1923, are issues of race and segregation. I wanted to show the arbitrary nature of race laws in America and the often rationalized irrationality of ideas about race, where even the definition of Black and White varied from state to state. What better way to experience that variability than on a mobile setting, and so most of the story takes place aboard the Illinois Central Railroad as it makes its way from New Orleans to Chicago in just under 24 hours.
When I first drafted Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element five years ago, the exploration of race seemed fairly academic. Not that race has EVER gone away as a relevant issue in America. But five years ago, it seemed to be one of those strange but familiar issues of the pre-civil rights years. A topic where we still needed to make progress, but we could also admire the progress we had made since the days when people wore white supremacy like a proud badge.
But if history teaches us anything at all, it is perhaps that we can’t seem to learn what it teaches us. The wheel turns, history repeats, and we find ourselves struggling again and again against the same social demons.
I had no idea and certainly no expectation five years ago, that Bobby Lee would release into a world where white supremacy would be crawling out of its slimy holes to bask proudly in the sun once again. I did not write Bobby Lee to combat the criminal elements of 2017, but if he does—if he shines a light on the foolishness and harm of racism and helps the next generation turn the wheel again away from this ugliness, I’ll be a proud mother indeed. Because history can teach us something, if we will listen.
Jeannie Mobley is a Colorado native who has spent much of her life daydreaming herself into other centuries. This tendency has led her to multiple degrees in history and anthropology, and a passion for writing fiction. She is currently a professor of anthropology in northern Colorado as well as a two-time winner of the Colorado Book Award. Her books have received critical acclaim, including starred reviews, awards, and both state and national notables lists. BOBBY LEE CLAREMONT AND THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT is her most recent novel. For more on Jeannie and her work, visit her at www.JeannieMobley.com