Where Fact & Fiction Meet: Digging through History for Under the Tulip Tree

September 1, 2020


Where Fact & Fiction Meet: Digging through History for UNder the Tulip Tree

In Under the Tulip Tree by Michelle Shocklee, Lorena Leland takes a position with the Federal Writers Project. If you’ve read Under the Tulip Tree, you may be wondering about the history of the FWP and how it inspired the novel. In this post, learn more from Michelle Shocklee about the FWP and a photo that inspired the character of Frankie in Under the Tulip Tree.

As an author of historical fiction, I enjoy digging into history, unearthing interesting nuggets that fire up my imagination. Such was the case when I learned about the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). In 1935, with the Great Depression raging, millions of people were unemployed, including writers, teachers, and others with an interest in the written word. As part of his New Deal initiatives, President Roosevelt created the FWP, a program under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration.

In my new novel, Under the Tulip Tree, Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter in need of a job. She accepts a position with the FWP interviewing former slaves for a body of work that would eventually become known as the slave narratives. There she meets Frankie, a remarkable 101-year-old woman whose telling of her life story challenges and ultimately changes Rena.

In the mid-1930s, FWP writers fanned out across seventeen states to collect the oral histories of former slaves. Photographers were also hired, capturing over 500 black-and-white photographs of the interviewees. In my book, the character Alden Norwood takes Frankie’s picture. The description I use of her position sitting on her front porch is based on the real picture of an unnamed former slave woman who was a sharecropper in Mississippi at the time an FWP employee snapped her photograph. This woman—her hand, to be specific—played a huge role in the writing of Frankie’s character.

Many of the people who found employment with the Federal Writers’ Project went on to become famous, award-winning novelists, poets, and radio hosts. Alden Norwood is inspired by Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel, who used the techniques he learned working for the FWP in his books.

The best-known project of the FWP is the American Guide series. These detailed books are still in use today, with guides from every state as well as Washington DC, New York City, and other major cities and regions. Author John Steinbeck once wrote, “If there had been room in Rocinante (his truck), I would have packed the W.P.A. Guides to the States, all forty-eight volumes of them. The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has approached it.”

The Folklore Project, like the slave narratives, documented life in America in the 1930s. While most of the stories were what you would expect, one interviewee told of meeting the famous outlaw Billy the Kid, while another told of escaping the Great Chicago Fire.

By the time the FWP was disbanded in 1943, an estimated 10,000 people had found employment through the program. Thousands of fascinating stories of life in America had been preserved, so that one day history nerds like me could discover them and write a novel.

I hope after reading Under the Tulip Tree, readers will be inspired to do their own digging into the history of the Federal Writers’ Project and learn more about the brave people who shared their stories and the people who collected them.

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