Launch: Mim Eichmann’s Muskrat Ramble

INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH

 

Mim Eichmann‘s new novel, Muskrat Ramble, is set in early 20th century New Orleans and Chicago and engages with a passion for music during the “Jim Crow” era of racial discrimination.

A graduate from the Jordan College of Music at Butler University, in Indianapolis, Indiana (USA), Chicago, Illinois-based author Mim Eichmann has found that her creative journey has taken her down many exciting, interwoven pathways as an award-winning published lyricist, short story author and songwriter, professional folk musician, choreographer, by-lined journalist, and now, historical fiction author. Her debut historical novel, A Sparrow Alone, published by Living Springs Publishers in 2020, met with enthusiastic reviews and was a semi-finalist in the 2020 Illinois Library Association’s Soon-to-be-Famous Project. Muskrat Ramble  is the much-anticipated sequel and is published on 23 March 2021.

You have no doubt heard of the elevator pitch. How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

I know you were going to ask me this! I guess the two primary themes are the driving passion and influence of music, and the unwavering devotion to family despite the harsh circumstances that often surround that love. It’s historical fiction set in New Orleans and Chicago, and the story covers six decades in the first half of the 20th century, so it’s a huge timeline of what is going on in American music and these characters’ lives.

This is a sequel to A Sparrow Alone. What are the difficulties you found writing a sequel, and did you set out to write two books?

In answer to the last part of your question, no, I didn’t! My bucket list for 2017 was just to write A Sparrow Alone, which I did. By the end of it, there are three babies and then I realized I personally needed to know what happened to those kids—needed to know the end of the story. Now we are talking about a sequel and that jumped me into writing the second as soon as I finished the first. At the same time I was trying to find an agent, etc. etc. There was another factor in unexpectedly writing a second book in that you need to know the end before beginning it. Even though it is not the “end” ending of Muskrat Ramble, there is the end of one character, and that I based on my fascination for a movie from 1990, Awakenings,  which I used as a central plot piece. If you remember, it’s about a hospital ward full of frozen-in-time people from the 1920s after they had contracted encephalitis lethargica—brain swelling after contracting Spanish Flu. (That other pandemic has now become familiar to us, hasn’t it?) To answer the first part of your question, I would say the only difficult part was getting my timelines for Kid Ory and Hannah to align over a six-decade period. Then there were the vocabulary changes—making sure words I was using were correct for the time. An example was the word “gig” [to indicate a band booking or engagement], which didn’t come into play until the mid to late 1920s and it was from Chicago, where my story ends up. One of the good things about the internet is that it made it so much easier to locate details like that.

One of your main characters is Kid Ory, a well-known New Orleans jazz musician through whom we see the rampant racial discrimination. But as your story is written in first-person, why is it so important to your White protagonist Hannah?

Racial discrimination throughout the Jim Crow years of “Separate but Equal” laws based on the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine passed in 1896 and finally rescinded in 1954 is definitely a major theme, yes. Without giving anything away, there is a bi-racial character, Emma, who carries over from the first book, and our protagonist—a widow, Hannah—is intimately involved in the young girl’s life and so I felt she had a perspective on the Black experience that was very real. At the end of the first book and beginning of the second, Hannah is running a soon-to-be closed schoolroom for disadvantaged Black kids that included Emma. We follow her down to New Orleans as she seeks to be close to this girl and her mother, Hannah’s long-time Black friend Zuma. It is there she meets Kid Ory.

How did he become a central character for you rather than choosing to create a fictional musician?

Oh, I didn’t want a fictional musician. When I looked for my character, Kid Ory’s timeline and history dovetailed perfectly with Hannah’s. Hannah’s passion for music and Emma’s burgeoning singing voice led Hannah to meet Kid Ory and to learn about New Orleans jazz and its underworld. (He was also bi-racial, having a white father.) I made several trips to the city and raided an excellent record store where I obtained almost all of Ory’s recordings from 1922-28 and 1944-56. I was really able to listen to his music and observe the changes in it.

Tell us about your publishing process.

I never found an agent—I queried a bazillion, and I did have some requests for partials—but this book isn’t easy to sell you know: it wasn’t in WWI or in Paris. By coincidence, the publisher, Living Springs Publishers, is based 30 miles from Cripple Creek CO, the location I set my first book in. Because I also write short stories, I had come across them while looking for an outlet for those. I saw on their website they were looking for one more novel for 2019 and I thought, what the heck, and sent off A Sparrow Alone. I was finding it very isolating trying to get published in COVID, and I was shocked when they accepted the manuscript. It’s a family-run firm, and they were also finding their way in the publishing business. I thought “they are never going to accept something about Cripple Creek from someone from Chicago,” but they loved it. I am so grateful, but as you know, it is hard for new authors marketing in this environment—no launches, no book fests, no readings—so I am happy to have this chance to talk about Muskrat Ramble!


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