Kim Coleman Foote, COLEMAN HILL

Kim Coleman Foote, COLEMAN HILL

Zibby speaks to author Kim Coleman Foote about Coleman Hill, a remarkable, heartbreaking story of two American families whose fates become intertwined in the wake of the Great Migration, inspired by the author’s own family legend, historical record, and fervent imagination. Kim provides insights into her writing process, describing how the voices of different family members, the discovery of old photographs, and her passion for history influenced the narrative. The two also discuss themes of trauma, abuse, resilience, and the impact of migration on African-American families. Finally, Kim describes her exciting publishing journey with Zando and shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kim. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Coleman Hill: A Novel.

Kim Coleman Foote: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. A novel, we can just start with that. Let’s talk about the form of the book. Is it a novel? Is it — you talk a lot in the back — autofiction? Talk about that to start because this is a family story.

Kim: It wasn’t a novel at the beginning. It basically started with me as a little girl in the 1980s in New Jersey, which is where I grew up, and hearing my mother and her siblings and her aunts tell stories about their childhood in Vauxhall, New Jersey, so much so that I thought I was an honorary member of the town itself. I used to hear things about iceboxes and listening to radio shows, so different from my own upbringing in the eighties. I also heard about their tales of abuse. They used to laugh at some of those things. It made me curious, why are you laughing at pain? Then they also couldn’t seem to see why certain people were like they were as adults, who had gotten abused when they were little kids. I’d always been fascinated by exploring those connections and the patterns that I was seeing as a child in my family. It wasn’t until I was in my MFA program back in 2004 — I had an assignment for a creative nonfiction course to write a story based on a photograph. I chose one of my grandfather’s three sisters’ little girls, which is in the book.

Zibby: I saw it.

Kim: Yes, on page twenty-seven. I know now. The voice of the middle one literally spoke to me and said, I am afraid of that man or his camera. I was like, what? Okay. Even though it was creative nonfiction, when I’m writing, I usually see scenes like movies. Then I have to use words to describe what I’m seeing. Her voice just powered through, did not shut up. I got a pen and a notebook and wrote down — that section came out in about ten minutes. I was like, oh, my god. That was actually the beginning of the book, but it still even wasn’t a book at that point. I was thinking that, okay, I want to write about my family. This is how it’s coming out. I felt that was spiritual permission to go ahead and do it. I was also finishing my MFA thesis, which was a memoir. I had another novel on the table that I was finishing. Basically, I had all these family photographs and decided that I would build stories around them from the anecdotes that I had heard.

Also, I had done genealogical research on my family, but that was just my hobby. It wasn’t, again, for a book. When people ask, “How much research did you do? How long did it take you to write?” it’s a hard thing to answer because it’s been literally all my life that this has been percolating. The key was actually reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. When I read that novel, I saw possibilities for a book. Olive is kind of the role of my great-grandmother who, in the novel, is called Celia Coleman. She is just this force but also kind of a dark force. You don’t see Olive in every single chapter of the book, but you feel her presence. Everyone is kind of bouncing off of her. She gets one or two chapters in the book. I think that’s because her personality is just so intense and curmudgeon-y that you could not be with her for the whole thing. Then I saw my great-grandmother as that role in the family to all these stories that I had heard. That’s when I was like, oh, this is a book. This can be a book, bringing all these tales together circulating around her.

Zibby: Wow. You also talked about all the — to your point about the research, you had a dream that buildings were falling down, and that it gave you the permission to go in and get the archives and the hidden Bibles and everything.

Kim: It actually didn’t give me the permission. I wanted to go in the house. I didn’t care about the — it was my family who didn’t want to go. I kept having these dreams. That was just reinforcing it. I kept calling my family because I was living in Washington, DC, at the time, so I couldn’t easily access the house. I had to call my family and be like, “Please go in the house. There’s something in there. Your aunt told you that there are pictures and Bibles.” They’re like, “Oh, don’t believe her. She lies about everything.” Then my family calls me up one day, and they’re like, “Guess what? We went into the house.” I’m like, “Yes? Yes?” “Guess what we found?” I’m like, “What? What? What?” “We found pictures.” “Oh, my god, yes!” I was, luckily, able to make a visit to New Jersey and go in the house weeks before it was torn down. No one had found the Bibles. My aunt said that they were in her bedroom on her bedpost. I went straight to the bedroom. The Bibles were there. I grabbed them. All of the stuff would’ve been lost, thrown away, trashed. We had these beautiful painted photographs of my great-great-grandparents, these huge photographs which would’ve been lost. One actually appears in the book. For me, those were valuable. Other relatives might have been searching for, oh, I want something to sell, some coins or gold or whatever, jewelry. For me, the heirlooms for the family, those were really valuable and important.

Zibby: It’s just amazing to think how much gets lost all the time.

Kim: Yes, all the time.

Zibby: About ourselves, about other people. It’s a miracle to even capture anything.

Kim: Because people don’t think that certain things are important. I’m someone, I’ve always had this avid interest in history. Maybe it’s because as a little girl, again, I heard all these stories about a different time period. For me, it was always just fascinating being able to step back in time and touch artifacts that people from a bygone era had — like shoes and everything. That was just always fascinating. I know not everyone has that same passion or interest. When they see these old photographs, oh, we don’t know who this is. This doesn’t matter to me anymore. We just get rid of it.

Zibby: When my grandmother passed away, my cousins were like, “Does anybody want all these pictures and boxes?” I was like, “Yes. Yes, I do. I want everything.” They’re all scattered in any extra place I can find, even recipe cards from my other grandmother. I want it all, the handwriting, all of it.

Kim: Exactly.

Zibby: You also mentioned that your mom was surprised at how well you captured her life. You were like, did you not think I was listening? Tell me about that.

Kim: I was actually writing another novel at a certain point, when I entered my MFA program. It was set in 1932, which is significant because one of the datebooks that I actually found in my aunt’s house was a calendar year for 1932.

Zibby: Crazy.

Kim: It was actually based on some of the stories that I heard. I didn’t even do research, technically, because I was just building in all the facts that I heard growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I love historical research. I wanted to be a professional historian at some point and really deep dive into archives and interview people and all that kind of stuff. For that, I just used my mother’s recollections. I was just like, “Did you think I was ignoring?” I think the thing is sometimes with children, we don’t think that they’re listening, even though they were children once themselves. I talk about my family members as children snooping in “grown folks'” business. I guess people forget you’re a child, and you absorb. You listen to things. You’re also trying to make sense of different things. Even today, she’s like, “How did you know these things?” I’m like, “You told the same stories over and over again at every single holiday gathering.”

Zibby: You were like, what did she think I was doing? Where is the credit? So funny. It’s not too late, by the way, if you want to be a historian.

Kim: Oh, I know. I know. I definitely know that. I worked in academic student services for many years with college students. One of my favorite stories that I would tell them was about this professor that I met when I was probably about twenty-two, twenty-three. I was in DC. This was when I was debating if I was going to be a historian or pursue creative writing. I was applying for the Fulbright Fellowship to go to Ghana. That was research for the other novel I was doing, hardcore research for that. I met this PhD. She’s very accomplished in her field. She’s an anthropologist. She’s traveled all around the world. I wanted to do what she did and interview people and learn about cultures. I remember telling her, “I don’t know what I want to do with my life.” She just looked at me and smiled. She was probably in her fifties at that point. She smiled and said, “I don’t either.” I was like, oh, you can change things. You don’t have to stick with one thing. For me, that freed me up, actually, to pursue the creative writing because I realized that all my interests in history — I was looking at the African diaspora. I wanted to especially look at Latin America and African connections there with slavery. I realized that all of my research interests were feeding into my fiction. Then I won the Fulbright Fellowship to go to Ghana for the year to do research. Since I had gotten that, I was like, let me devote more time to the creative writing because if I do a history program, I know that I won’t have time to write creatively, and that’s more important.

Zibby: Now you’re just showing off.

Kim: That’s not even showing off.

Zibby: I’m kidding. I’m totally kidding. I’m totally kidding.

Kim: I know. I know. When people say these things, it’s like, it’s something I love. I have a burning passion. Especially for PhD programs, the messages that I was getting is like, if you’re not totally invested in this thing, you should not do it because PhD programs are, average, a couple of years. You’re spending a couple years in schoolwork, working on a dissertation. You need the longevity and all of that to really carry through. This was something, I’m like, I’d happily sit in some dusty old archives. I’d be just totally happy in a dusty archive looking up documents and getting a headache from trying to look at old script. With my family even, the fact that I was interviewing people, I was already incorporating some of that informally on my own because it was just exciting and fascinating to me.

Zibby: One thing that you did through the retelling of all the stories is capturing the voice in which the narrator, perhaps, was speaking. Your style sort of progresses throughout narrative of how the voice itself is developing. Talk about that.

Kim: It was almost accidental because that very first narrative came out in the first-person I. Then when I started the other stories, they were in third person, but then this “you” voice came in. There’s three sections that are narrated from the second-person you. I don’t even remember how I chose that, but it just felt really natural. Originally, they all started with the same refrain and ended with the same summary wrap-up. It’s looking at three generations of alcoholism in the family. For me, it was almost like the same person was just kind of repeating. Even though they lived at the same time, all three women, it was like the same person was just repeating and recreating that thing. The “you” voice felt really natural for that. Through the years, I have been reading various novels with these voices for the first time realizing you can write a whole novel using the second person. Then I was exposed to a novel written in the collective first person, we. After reading that book, I actually wrote the first section of Coleman Hill, which is from the “we” perspective. I was like, oh, you can do that? That’s so cool. I didn’t know that. Those pushed me to experiment and explore.

Then there’s one other section that’s from the I, the first person. It’s another one of my great-aunts. The reason is because — I feel like the first person is really overused, especially in contemporary fiction. I pick up these books, and the voice is not really right, I feel. Sometimes it’s like, it sounds like someone with an MFA in poetry. How is that when your narrator is twelve years old? You say that they haven’t even read a book. They’re not very literate. They don’t hang out in literary circles, but they’re talking about dewdrops on leaves. I’m just like, how is that? There’s alliteration and all this. How is that possible? For me, I was very careful with the first-person voice. Unless I had that person’s voice in my head — the first one that just came to me, it was a little girl. She was speaking in dialect. It was interesting. That other novel that I was writing in 1932, I had two main characters. One was working-class, poor, and Black. The other one was middle/upper class and Black. My working-class poor, again, who probably didn’t really read books, whose family didn’t read books — they weren’t educated. I was writing from the first person. She’s speaking with howevers and thus and therefores. Then later, I looked at it. I was like, why was she speaking like that? Oh, yeah, because I was writing this through college when I was writing academic papers, and so that language had slipped into the writing. I was like, this is totally the wrong voice for this character.

When The Pose, the first part of Coleman Hill, came out, I was like, this is the voice that I should’ve been writing in. Maybe at that point, I was like, well, this voice is not sophisticated enough because this is considered “bad English,” but it’s an English that these people spoke, that I myself spoke when I was a little girl growing up at home, that my friends spoke at school — I grew up in a predominantly Black town in Jersey — that we spoke on the playground. There’s poetry in this way that we speak. I wanted to honor that and respect that. For the other section, my great-aunt — she was a comedian. She always had everybody laughing. Her voice was really, really strong in my head, especially because I got a chance to interview her not long before she died, maybe a couple months before she passed away. Her voice, her jokes, all of that were really, really strongly in my head. I wanted to honor the way that she spoke. Again, she was not someone who — she didn’t even finish high school. She was not someone who was well-read, all the stuff. She had a way of talking, of stringing together words that could make you laugh and telling stories that could really engage you. That’s why I chose that first person.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. How did the voice and the writing inform the treatment of trauma in the book and how you wrote about that?

Kim: I think it really hit me when my grandfather came into the book. Originally, it was supposed to be all from the women’s perspective. Then he just barged his way in one day. I was just like, okay, Grandpa. I didn’t want to go there because I had to talk about him, part of his life, as an abuser towards my grandmother. That was something that I didn’t learn until later in life, that that happened. It really sickened me and disappointed me because as a little girl, I would’ve never thought that about my grandfather. He seemed very, almost, timid. He was very tall but very quiet and just kind of mellow. To hear that, what? He did what to my grandmother? When I started writing about him, I realized that, again, I had to honor who he was with all his flaws and also be true to how he would’ve interpreted what he did. I realized that my writing was having this matter-of-fact quality. It wasn’t like I’m coming in as me, the author or the narrator, or the author as opposed to the narrator. I realized that I couldn’t come in and judge because I couldn’t write about who they were if I was judging.

At the same time, the way that I set up the book, there are so many different family members who narrate, who tell their stories. You get to see one person as, let’s say, committing abuse, but you get to see someone else who’s a recipient of abuse. You get to see someone else who stops the abuse. To see all these stories play out from different angles, it’s like, yes, the trauma happens, but I don’t let people get away with the trauma that they’re putting out there. It’s not necessarily judgement, but again, just showing you these different angles of people who resisted, people who didn’t think that that was right, and then showing that it’s left up to the reader to make a decision. I don’t even think judgement is a thing. It’s just being able to see more clearly the dynamics that are going on that make people do the things that they do, that make people put certain labels on other people, like evil or mean or whatever the term is, so that you can see, okay, well, no one was born evil or mean. Where did this behavior come from? Really looking at the roots of that.

Zibby: What do you most want people to know about your family?

Kim: I want them to know just how they lived, how the North was to them especially. Coming up from the South, the North was presented as kind of a promised land, just as it was for immigrants coming from Europe at the time with the whole image of the streets paved with gold. Especially for Black folks escaping the South, there are very dangers to your personhood living in the South at the time under segregation. They were so excited about the North and the economic opportunities, the educational opportunities. When they came, there were so many disappointments. A lot of the women were still domestics like they were in the South. The men were getting factory work. They got paid more, but there was still discrimination. There was still racism. They were still held back in ways.

Also, for me to go down South and meet relatives who’d never left and to see that they had advanced further than my family in terms of home ownership and education, it was infuriating, actually. My family, they’re the ones that got out of the South for better opportunities and ended up not really advancing more than the folks who stayed. Conversely, the folks who stayed, they quickly told me that, the reason why we were able to do these things is because the people left. If all the people hadn’t left — then the schools became emptier. The student-teacher ratio went down. Our teachers were invested in us. They had more attention that they could focus on us. That’s the paradox. That’s the thing that I want to hopefully get across to people through my family. Of course, there were so many other families that left the South. The North also had these kind of complications.

Zibby: Tell me just a little more about your whole publication journey at Zando and everything. Very exciting. How did that all happen? What’s that been like?

Kim: It’s so exciting. It happened very, very quickly. I have been trying to be published for many, many years. I got my MFA back in 2005 with a memoir. That was my official search for an agent. I’d also sent my first query letter when I was twelve years old.

Zibby: Aw, I love that.

Kim: I was writing manuscripts back then. I wanted to actually be the youngest person to publish a novel in this country.

Zibby: Wait, that’s what I wanted.

Kim: Oh, really?

Zibby: No, seriously. I was ten years old. I would go in front of the mirror. I was like, I’m going to be the youngest person ever. I would give acceptance speeches.

Kim: Exactly. Hey, you’re the first person I’m talking to that shares that.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I know. Me too.

Kim: Then when I was fourteen, I read in a magazine that someone had published — or I was fifteen. I never thought it would take this long to get a book published because I was writing all throughout high school and all of that. Like I said, I had the novel in college and everything. My first manuscript was a memoir. At that time, everyone was like, who are you? Yeah, the writing is good, but who are you? You’re not anybody. We can’t sell this book. Then realizing the politics and economics of the publishing world. Then I wrote another novel, which is the one that I went to Ghana for, to do research for. Zando, I’m so grateful that they purchased that book as well. That’ll be my second book that’s published. It was years and years and years. Then Coleman Hill I was actually writing in the interim between drafts of other manuscripts. There’s a whole other novel that I started. There’s a screenplay. There’s so many things that I’ve been working on all these years. At some point, everyone kept telling me, finish Coleman Hill, finish Coleman Hill. Years before that, it was, finish Saltwater Sister, which was my current novel when I was working on the one from 1932. I was like, okay, here we go again, here we go again. This is I don’t even know how many manuscripts in we have.

When I did finish it and I was like, here’s my agent search again — I can’t even tell you, maybe the fifth major agent search that I had done. It happened so quickly. In a blink, I had an agent. Then literally in a couple of months, my agent is sending it out to editors. When I was working with my agent, the consensus was, it’s almost done. This is, again, a novel that kind of snuck up on me. I didn’t even know it was a book. Then all of a sudden, people were telling me, finish this book. I finished it. They were like, it’s clean and done. I’m like, oh, okay, cool. Basically, she sent it out to lots of editors. Zando happened to be one of the publishing houses that was interested. I had no idea that Sarah Jessica was a book person. My agent mentioned the name. I was like, oh, there must be an editor named Sarah Jessica. That’s so cool. Someone named their daughter after — . When we Zoomed, I was like, oh, no, it’s her. It’s the real Sarah Jessica. It was mind-blowing. Then the deal happened so quickly also.

Like I said, Zando bought Coleman Hill, but they also bought Saltwater Sister. After so many years of trying to get that one published, I’m so happy and grateful that it’ll finally be out in the world. It’s just been a really, really beautiful experience. Over the years, I’ve accumulated so many stories from different authors about their publishing experience, all the horror stories and ways that things can go wrong in publishing. It’s like, I took ten years to get an agent. Then right before the agent submitted, they died. I’m like, oh, god. Then they’re like, they put a wrong picture on my cover. All this kind of stuff. I have to say that my experience has just been so smooth. The team at Zando has been so supportive and so passionate. Everyone brings their passion and enthusiasm. I’ve been telling everyone it’s beyond wildest dreams, honestly, at this point. I had dreams. I’ve obviously had dreams since I was a little girl about how to have my books out. It’s been, actually, beyond wildest dreams. I’m really, really grateful for all of this.

Zibby: I’m so excited. That’s such a great story. That’s really great. When is Saltwater Sister coming out?

Kim: It’s anticipated 2025. I need to really get to writing and finishing for real, finishing that for real now.

Zibby: What is your advice for aspiring authors?

Kim: Write. Write. Tell your stories. If there’s something that you’re burning to tell, tell it. Do it. Don’t let anything stop you. Publishing can be very, very difficult. Some people, it seems like it’s so easy. You have the twenty-three-year-old. This is their first book. They get published. By twenty-four, their book is out. They’ve had the string of best-sellers ever since. It doesn’t work out that way for everyone. I would say, again, just like with the PhD, if you’re not passionate about that story, if you don’t have the commitment to it, it might not happen. Figure out a story that you really just can’t let go of because that is what will keep you through. Build community as well, a community of writers, friends who believe in you. I could not have done it for so many years if I didn’t have that community around me.

Zibby: Love that. Amazing. Thank you, Kim. This is so great.

Kim: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks for sharing the story so we can all cheer along with you, and sharing your family’s story and all of that. Congratulations.

Kim: Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Kim: You too. Take care. Thanks again.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.

COLEMAN HILL by Kim Coleman Foote

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