Freshwater Road

Freshwater Road


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I tried to catch every documentary that dealt with the movement

to keep my spirits up during the long lonely process of writing the book



  Freshwater Road

By Denise Nicholas

Reviews & Interview of author Denise Nichols


Freshwater Road is the debut novel by Denise Nicholas. Ms. Nicholas is probably best known to you as the pioneering actress who starred in the TV series Room 222 and In the Heat of the Night (for which she also wrote several episodes), as well as a great many other TV shows and films. But with Freshwater Road, she embarks on a stunning second act as a brilliant writer of fiction. the book has already been highly praised by pre-pub media such as PW (which gave it a coveted “starred” review) and Booklist, and is sure to garner even more such accolades.

Freshwater Road tells the story of 19-year-old Celeste Tyree, who in the summer of 1964 journeys to the small town of Pineyville, Mississippi, to help the organization One Man, one Vote register local “Negroes” to vote. Like Celeste, Ms. Nicholas also grew up in Detroit and attended the University of Michigan, and like Celeste she took part in the movement; as a young member of the Free Southern Theater, she performed throughout the South, often in small churches, from 1964 to 1966. Drawing on this intensely personal foundation, as well as razor-sharp skills for inhabiting characters and a gift for expressive prose, Ms. Nicholas’s new book is certain to be recognized as one of the first novels of the year, and ultimately as one of the most important novels ever written about the civil rights movement.

And Freshwater Road couldn’t be appearing at a more important time: this summer saw the conviction in Mississippi of reputed ex-Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 abduction and murder of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, which The New York Times called “the most infamous unresolved case from America’s civil rights struggles.”

Freshwater Road brings that time alive in ways that underscores its relative relevance today. It tells a powerful, universal story of a young woman’s coming of age that’s made even more resonant by its setting during this flashpoint in recent history.

Freshwater Road is Agate’s lead title for 2005 and we are doing everything in our power to bring it to wider attention. Ms. Nicholas will kick off her ten-city tour in late August in Los Angeles, where she’s lived for years, and then travel to New York, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta, and her hometown of Detroit, among others, for live appearances, readings, and signings.

The book has already drawn significant pre-press attention–featured pieces are already set in People, ebony, Essence, and Black Issues Book Review magazines. Ms. Nicholas has a broad following from her TV and film work (for which she’s been recognized with multiple Emmy and NAACP Image awards, among others) that will be eager to read and enjoy her first book.

–Note from the Publisher

What a wonderful surprise Denise Nicholas’s first novel is. Her textured characters unfold against the background of an historic encounter that was destined to change America’s forever.

— Sidney Poitier

In Freshwater Road , Denise Nicholas brings alive all the colors and emotions of the civil rights movement during the perilous adventure that was Freedom Summer.

–Janet Fitch, White Oleander

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Book Description

Freshwater Road is the story of one young woman’s journey into adulthood via the political and social upheavals of the civil rights movement. A young black collegian, Celeste Tyree, leaves Ann Arbor to go to Poplarville, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964 to help found a Freedom School and a voter registration project as part of Freedom Summer. As the summer unfolds, she confronts not only the political -realities of race and poverty in this tiny town, but also truths about herself and her own family.

As Celeste gets to know her fellow activists and the people of Poplarville, she grapples with her father’s disapproval of her decision to go to Mississippi. A numbers-playing bar owner in Detroit, Shuck is proud of his daughter and proud of the opportunities he’s provided for her; Celeste’s risking what he’s provided by going to the violent South is not what he had planned for her. Long estranged from her mother, Celeste is rocked by revelations of wrenching details of her past, while at the same time, she develops a deep relationship with the woman hosting her in Mississippi, Odessa Robbins, who helps Celeste learn more about what it means to be an adult woman and a “person of substance” in the world.

Before her career as a TV star, Denise Nicholas herself was a Freedom Rider in 1964, and in Freshwater Road, she reaches back to bring that summer alive in this unforgettable first novel.

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Denise on the Writing of Freshwater Road

Has writing always been something you’ve been interested in?

God bless the late Carroll O’Connor. he gave me a shot to write on the show and shepherded me through the process. What I learned was that I wasn’t supposed to write scripts. Don’t get me wrong–I love movies and what the camera does to paint pictorial images on screen. I’m still a kid when I’m watching the way Michael Mann shoots Los Angeles in heat and Collateral. Takes my breath away. But I love words, phrases, and the images conjured by words.

There’s no doubt I’ve always had writing in the back of my mind, perhaps as a fantasy based on literary treatments of the lives of writers, or even from watching movies and reading romantic novels. I don’t think that it was based on reality. I wrote papers in my English classes and fumbled around with poetry. Bad poetry. writing was a romantic girl’s dream, and for me that dream drew energy from reading the Brontes, Hardy, Dickens, and then in college discovering the work of T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Baldwin, and others. I think in those days (the 60s) we always had a book in our hands and read and read and read. What we retained is another story.

Freshwater Road draws on your own experiences in Mississippi in 1964. Can you tell us a little more about that experience.

That summer, I left the University of Michigan to join the Free Southern Theater; I wanted to work in some area of the arts but with a political bent. that theater provided the outlet. The primary action of the story stems from that place and time. I had no idea, when I began writing Freshwater Road, just how many things stayed in my mind, incidents that I pulled into the text of the book, things that really did happen, though I’ve fictionalized many of them.

For example, there’s a scene in my book where a sheriff holds a gun tot he lead character’s head and threatens her while she’s helping some folks from the town to register to vote. In my real-life experience, it happened on a street in new Orleans–a cop put a gun to my head. He (the cop) had been watching the Free Southern Theater’s apartment in New Orleans and knew that a number of civil rights people, including some photographers, stopped there for food and rest. He threatened to kill me right there on the street. He then confiscated the film and cameras of the photographers, who were also on the scene at the time. It was quite a moment.

My experience with the Free Southern Theater was exciting, eventful, and scary. We definitely were a part of the civil rights movement. The main character in my book is assigned to a town where she must live the entire summer to run a voting project. I saw many people doing it, reflected on it, and saved it in my mind because I thought it was such remarkable work.

With the theater, we would arrive in a town, set up in the local church, perform, and get out of there. This was more challenging than it sounds now, 40 years later. A bomb was thrown at the stage where we performed in McComb, Mississippi. Houses we bivouacked in were shot into and we sometimes slept on the floor; cars were impounded, members arrested. the most indelible aspect of those experiences was terror, and I definitely tried to capture as much of that as possible in the book. I hope it speaks for itself.

What inspired you to write this story now?

I read a number of books on the civil rights movement, especially In Struggle by Clayborne Carson, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement by Aldon D. Morris, and Free at Last? by Fred Powledge, among many others. I studied photographs (I was even in some of those photographs, with an innocence in my face that I can barely comprehend today.) I listened to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Bob Dylan, and the rest of the music of the early 60s. I tried to catch every documentary that dealt with the movement to keep my spirits up during the long lonely process of writing the book. There are wonderful things out there, including Spike Lee’s film on the Birmingham church bombing, Four Little Girls; the PBS series Eyes on the prize; and the HBO film Boycott, which is set earlier but is inspirational.

At first I was unsure about where to set my story, so I went down to new Orleans, rented a car, and drove into Mississippi to Hattiesburg, then drove a different route back to new Orleans. Southern Mississippi is not the Delta (which I was more familiar with). The area that used to be called the Piney Woods is the area I was after . . . and so I named my town Pineyville.

What do you hope your readers will experience by reading the novel?

I hope they enjoy the story and the characters and that they get a good sense of that place and time. I don’t want the beauty–or the horror–of that to disappear. for the young people who read it, I’d like to encourage them to take meaningful risks, to reach out to people, to open their hearts and minds to those less fortunate all over the world.

What authors have influenced your own writing?

I’m still such a novice at this. I wouldn’t want to drag any heavyweight folks into my little cart just yet. I want to be influenced by people whose work I admire–subtly. And then, my own voice is what I’m really after, to make it deeper, freer, better. But, the writers I’ve totally enjoyed most recently are Jack Fitch, Pete Dexter, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Marianne Wiggens, Joyce Carol Oates (loved The Falls), Ian McEwan, Edward P. Jones . . .

posted 30 July 2005

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update 19 December 2011




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