Interview with Carole Boston Weatherford
We interview author Carole Boston Weatherford about her fascinating book about jazz music legend, Bille Holiday. Becoming Bille Holiday is her latest book in a collection of several jazz biographies she has written.
How did you decide to write a book about Billie Holiday?
I believe that Billie, who is my muse, enlisted me to write her memoir. When I was a girl, my father introduced me to her music, and when I was a teenager, he took me to see the movie Lady Sings the Blues. Both her music and her biography resonated with me. Nevertheless, I was reluctant to write this book until a chance encounter with a teenage fan in front of the singer’s likeness at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum convinced me to proceed.
How did you do the research for this book? What were your sources?
I listened to Billie Holiday’s early music and read numerous biographies about her. I also considered her discography and decided to title the poems after her songs.
You have been quoted as saying that “Poetry makes music with words.” Was that part of your reason for writing this book about a musical legend in verse?
That is why I write poetry, period. Billie’s life was full of highs and lows. What better medium to convey that than poetry.
Did Holiday’s vocal style influence the way you wrote the poems?
I wanted the poems to be as intimate as her singing style. That’s partially why I wrote the poems in first person. The process of writing the poems was quite magical—almost as if Billie were singing her story in my ear.
Why did you decide to end up using the 1st person?
I wanted to conjure Billie and let her speak through me. Her story had been told many times. Yet, her legend has been sensationalized and mythologized. In her voice, her story rings true.
How did you end up working with Floyd Cooper on this book? What was it like to work together? Was it more of a collaborative process or did you write the poems and then he illustrated?
The publisher chose Floyd Cooper, whose work I have long admired. We worked separately, though; as has been the case with all of my illustrators.
You are known as an author of books for young readers, but it seems that this book could really be for any age. Was that your intent?
I intended this as a book for teens that would also appeal to adults. You’re right it could be for any age. I hope adults will discover the book, especially jazz fans.
You have said that a fictional verse memoir “combines elements of the novel, biography, oral history, persona poem, and one-woman show into a unique genre.” Given the way they are written, I could definitely see them actually performed as a one-woman show. Ever thought of producing something like that?
I would love to see this work adapted for the stage. But I will probably leave that to others. In the meantime, I present a program called Lady Day’s Literary Lounge which incorporates poems from the book, Billie’s music and film clips. I’ve presented it at several schools and libraries. Reading groups can even host their own Lady Day’s Literary Lounge. See my website for details: www.becomingbillieholiday.com/LadyDaysLiterarySalon2.pdf
You’ve written other books about Jazz such as Jazz Baby, Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane, and The Sound That Jazz Makes. What is it about Jazz that inspires you?
I just love jazz, especially female vocalists. Jazz is so sensuous. And, like Billie Holiday, it never ceases to be hip.
What do you hope your readers will take away from the experience of reading the book? What can we learn from Billie Holiday’s life?
I want readers to see Billie Holiday as a sensitive soul who, despite her failings, produced songs that endure. I encourage readers to listen to her music while reading my book. They can view clips of her performances on youtube.