Author Lisa Grunwald joins Zibby to discuss THE EVOLUTION OF ANNABEL CRAIG, a sensitive and poignant novel about a young Southern woman who sets out on a journey of self-discovery after both her parents die, as the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial tests her faith and her marriage. Lisa delves into the significance of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” for her protagonist and for present-day society. She also touches on various aspects of writing historical fiction, from extensive research to authentic character development. Finally, she talks about her life with multiple sclerosis and the ways it influences her writing.


Zibby: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss the evolution of Annabelle Craig. Congrats. 

Lisa: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really, really pleased to be here. 

Zibby: Ah, it's a joy. So, tell listeners what your book is about, if you don't mind.

Lisa: It's a book about a young woman who's living in a small mountain town in East Tennessee in the 1920s. She's grown up on a strawberry farm with her parents who are devoted to each other and devoted to her and devoted to the Methodist church. And it's a very, very happy, beautiful childhood until both her parents die from the flu and she has to move to a boarding house.

She has to get a job. She's only 16 and she thinks nothing great is ever going to happen to her again. She thinks that. She will never be loved. And along comes George Craig, a lawyer from another town who's handsome and smart and wonderful and literally sweeps her off her feet into this lovely pond that is in their neighborhood.

And he marries her in three months. And again, she thinks she's going to have the life that she expected to have, she wanted to have. And then this, Extraordinary thing happens. Uh, the scopes trial, the scopes monkey trial comes to town and her husband joins the defense and she and her marriage face trials and she has to kind of figure out who she is and what she really believes and.

whether she and her marriage can sustain itself, themselves in the midst of this turmoil. It's kind of a circus that comes to town. You know, books are, you know, either a stranger comes to town or a stranger leaves town. This is lots of strangers come to town. And she has to grapple with that. 

Zibby: It's like the original celebrity trial, right? It's like the OJ of the day. 

Lisa: Exactly. And it was called the trial of the century, even though it was only 1925. So it was young. It was early to be calling it that, but one of the most famous participants, William Jennings Bryan, who was the famous three time presidential candidate and populist hero called it a duel to the death.

And what it was about was whether evolution, the theory of evolution could be taught in public schools, which is obviously something that's very current today. The question of who decides what gets taught and it became an extraordinary cause, a real flashpoint for people. Courtroom was overflowing with reporters from all over the world, and this was called a duel to the death and it played out with great drama and a lot of coverage. 

Zibby: Wow. And so why, how did you find the trial and how did you pick it for the subject of the book? 

Lisa: I'd always been fascinated in the Scopes trial, primarily because of a movie called Inherit the Wind, which was based on a play that came out in 1955.

And in the movie, it's set up as this contest between religion and science. And it's very clear. Religion's on one side, science is on the other. Clarence Darrow, who is the most famous lawyer in America at the time, is standing up for science and modernism. William Jennings Bryan is standing up for fundamentalism and for tradition.

And so it's in the movie version, very clear, black and white, right and wrong, yes and no. And in the times we're living in, things being as divisive as they are and as divided as they are, I was looking around, I've written historical novels before, and I was looking for a time in history where families and communities were as divided as they sometimes seem to be now.

So I thought the Scopes trial was the perfect metaphor for this. And of course, once I started doing research, which is just about my favorite thing to do, I discovered that of course it wasn't as simple as that and that few things are. And I wanted to create a character who could and would have to experience the complexities of the situation.

And the further I got into it and the more I understood Annabelle as a sort of average. Normal everyday person living in the midst of this epic event. I thought her questions about the complexities. would resonate with what I hope are our questions about some of the complexities that are surrounding us.

Zibby: Well, I mean, good theory. I like it.

You never know. I also, by the way, love this cover. I loved your other ones too. I was looking at all of them, but you know, I feel like with everything, there are some sort of tropes that people use for historical fiction versus contemporary fiction, and this does not fall into that. I, you know, which. I don't know.

I just thought it was, it's very cool. 

Do you love it? 

Lisa: I adore it. I noticed that with historical fiction, most heads are cut off. You never see faces. You see women from the back, you see women from the, from the neck down, you see women from the waist up, but somehow the women are always turning away from you.

Presumably so that, I mean, I guess the theory is that you can see yourself. in those women. I'd like to think that anyone reading Annabelle will be able to see themselves in this woman, male or female, young or old. She's supposed to represent the part of all of us that looks for something solid and something inside herself.

that she can really rely on in a world and a marriage that's changing all the time. So I didn't feel I needed to see her from the neck down. Also the covers based on an ad at the time for the Kodak girl who was always black and white stripes and always had a camera around her neck and Annabelle. is a photographer.

It just seemed right to try to take off a bit from Kodak. And that moment when, you know, among many other modern inventions, being able to walk around with a camera was, you know, pretty cool. 

Zibby: Yeah. Like getting a camera on your phone is now cool. So cool that I just actually went and got a regular camera.

But anyway... 

Lisa: That's funny. My son did that too. 

Zibby: One of my first internships was at an ad agency and Kodak was my client and I love photography. And so I got to do all this research on, on Kodak and the branding and all of that. And so anytime people talk about evolution of different industries, I'm always like, yeah, but like you never would have thought that Kodak wouldn't be the leader forever, right?

Lisa: Exactly. Everything. 

Zibby: Why is Kodak not like Coke? Right. Coke has evolved. 

Lisa: Exactly. And for some of us. Exactly. That little yellow package of film, which for Annabelle is so important, that box of film that she gets from the, from Robinson's Drugstore on Main Street, that first beginning, you'd think that that yellow box would have lasted the same way the Coca Cola sign has.

Yes. Funnily enough, there's a faded Coca Cola sign on a brick wall in Dayton that kind of It's almost there to say, here's the ghost of what was, but around the corner, I assume they're selling Coke. So, you know, it has lasted. 

Zibby: Wow. My mom is from Dayton, Ohio, but this is Dayton, Tennessee, right? Which I didn't even know existed.

So there you go. 

Lisa: In my research, I kept, you know, I was doing various searches for Dayton. Um, got really excited at one point that there was this flood and fire in Dayton and realized, no, Ohio, wrong state, wrong part of the country. This is East Tennessee. This is not Dayton, Ohio, and a very, very different place to, to have grown up.

Zibby: I mean, The three scholars who remember that fact probably, you could have probably slid it in that there, that it had happened, you know, in a different place. I know, but I get, I get very I'm kidding. I know historical publicist. I understand. It's like, it's like cheating or something, right? 

Lisa: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and I can get carried away.

I mean, I, I wrote a scene at one, there's a scene in the book where she and George are skating on this pond, even though it's Tennessean. usually warm, but it's an unusually cold winter and they're skating on the pond and I looked up what skates they would have been using and I had it in there as, you know, whatever, skates.

And I looked at it after I'd written it and thought, No, one fact too many. Because they really don't need to know the brand of the skate. And you gotta, I mean, it's very tempting to pull yourself back. But the people in this book, most of them are real. So, William Jennings Bryan, of course, and Clarence Darrow.

And the great but cynical journalist H. L. Mencken all make an appearance. But then most of what happens in the circus around Dayton is real. There really was a monkey that was brought to town named Joe Mendy, who was forced to play piano and wear a suit and smoke a cigar. It's horrible. And there was a guy named Voliva who believed in flat earth theory and said he could, he would give 5, 000 to anyone who disproved it.

There were preachers, there were signs saying, you know, where will you spend eternity? There were big, they were capitalizing on the craze of this. And so even at the drugstore, they were selling something called a simian soda. And one of the other main characters in the book who is a reporter is based on a real person, an amazing woman named Nellie Kenyon, who was one of the No, the first person to get a press pass to the trial because she knew, before anyone knew, what an event it was going to be.

There's a man in the book named Howard Bird who's a pastor and he leaves his church. I mean, leaves his church because his congregants don't want to have a pastor from New York come and talk about evolution. He doesn't, the congregants don't even want to hear what evolution is. And so he quits. And on that Sunday and goes away and becomes a carpenter.

It's really amazing. So I didn't have to make any of that up because it was all real. The smell of hot dogs on the street, funnel cakes, and the craziness of, of this circus that is the exact opposite of the bucolic, beautiful world that she grows up in where she says the sky is blue and the mountains are purple and the Bible's true. 

Zibby: Have you sat in on trials before? 

Lisa: No, I haven't. I mean, a long time ago, I attempted jury service and I was summarily dismissed from New York City. Now I have multiple sclerosis. And so I have, uh, unfortunately can't attend, but I actually would love to. My husband wrote a book about the jury system and I'm fascinated by it.

I'm fascinated by trials. And one of the joys of writing this book was putting people in the courtroom and seeing what that was like. I mean, there was, there was one fan in the whole courtroom and it was on the, on the judge's desk. And otherwise people were using palm leaf fans to try to cool themselves off, but everyone was sweating and people took off their jackets and it was hot and testy.

I would have loved To have been there and actually it's reenacted every year in Dayton. They have the Dayton trial reenactment. I was just invited to go down there and I would have loved to, I would love to see Dayton, but I actually sent my son as a, as a proxy at one point. And he wonderfully, I sent him with a map actually of what old Dayton was like and what Dayton's like now.

And I said, this is where Walnut street is. That's where Annabelle lives. And this is where the courthouse is. Courthouse is still there. Walnut Street's still there. And I said, please walk from this place to that place and tell me how long it would take. He has very long legs. And I said, you know, go slowly, but let me know.

So he was kind of my proxy. He took lots of photographs for me and, and it was great. I, I love, I would have loved to have seen it, but, you know, I wouldn't have been seeing it in 1925 anyway, so. 

Zibby: I mean, I could barely get my son to go to the kitchen and get me a glass of water, let alone go to Dayton, Tennessee.

I'm like, no, really, you're already getting water. Just like get me one, please. Anyway, I don't know. Maybe your son needs to coach up my, my older son. 

Lisa: Older, he was in Knoxville anyway. So, okay. But it wasn't quite like a trek from New York city, um, on my behalf, but it was lovely of him to do it anyway.

Zibby: P. S. I just did jury duty. You know, you can actually get excused now if you have kids 16 and under, this is like a new thing, but you're not missing anything with the New York city, you know, court system, as you well know. 

Lisa: No, I know. I remember, you know, sitting there and getting lots and lots of work done and thinking, Oh, please don't call me.

Please don't call me. But then, you know, Stephen, my husband did write this book quite a few years back now. And it really, it made the case that this is one of the few places where we can actually exercise our rights as citizens. And, um, The fact that we are constantly trying to find ways to get out of it is really a shame.

And I, you know, I have to be out of it. But I love the drama of a courtroom. It's rarely, I imagine, as dramatic as it's presented. Even in this case, My sense of this trial came from this movie, Inherit the Wind, where Spencer Tracy is, you know, the great hero, and he scores all these points against Brian, and Brian literally dies on the courtroom floor.

None of it happened like that. I mean, some of it happened like that, but it wasn't as dramatic. When I read the transcript, which of course I have, you know, a lot of it is just posturing and procedural and all of the things that aren't dramatic and the things that are, you know, really stand out. My sense of what a courtroom trial is like is shaped.

Largely by fiction and film and not at all by sitting there and, you know, enduring the, the reality of it. 

Zibby: That's why you can make it cinematic for the rest of us. I love, you've mentioned your husband a couple of times, and I love that you two write together and that you're both so authors and I actually have this marriage book.

Really? I was looking at your website and I was like, oh, I totally have that book. And because I sort things by color, it was very easy for me to find it. I'm holding up the marriage book, Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales from Adam and Eve to Zoloft. Which is so funny. Anyways, so you've been in this room forever.

Lisa: Oh, that's lovely. It's a great joy to, to write that, to edit that book and to, I mean, cause it's an anthology, so I can't take credit for the, for having written some of those great things about marriage, but it was an absolute joy. It's such a joy to work with him. And, um, he has had big day jobs. So getting to.

Half a little side projects are really wonderful. 

Zibby: And what is your secret to marriage here? You seem very happy. What is, what is, what are some of the secrets we might not know? 

Lisa: Well, it's, I don't know if I have a secret to marriage. I mean, I think number one is you luck out and you know, you, you have an instinct and you have no idea what life is going to throw at you and how you're going to deal with it, but there's some instinct and you get lucky.

But to the extent that I have any wisdom on the subject, it's Just, you figure out what your spouse wants, what he or she wants to become, and you help them become that, to the extent that it's humanly possible. You know, you kind of have to decide in advance that you're okay with what your aspirations are, but it's really important that you know it.

And actually, Annabelle, tries her hardest to help George become what he wants to become, but it turns out that they're not on the same page with what that might look like, and she thinks that they are equal in spirit. Which they are, but it turns out doesn't think as well of her as she does of him.

That's not exactly an answer to your question, but I think if there is a secret, it's just don't try to change who you love. Just try to help them be the best version of themselves. And by the same time, make sure that they're helping you become the best version of yourself. So far, so good. We've been incredibly lucky.

How long have you been married? It will be 36 years next April 9th. So in a very short period of time. And it blows our minds constantly because we feel like we just met. No, that's not true. We have two children. We've had two dogs. I've had a lot of health issues. He's had a lot of jobs. We didn't just meet.

We've had, we have a lot of history, but It is wild how time passes and it is extraordinary to find ourselves at this point in our lives with two grown children and, you know, dealing with the, the things we're dealing with. Yeah, we're at one point very, very early on. I, I talk in my sleep and at one point very early on, I said in my sleep, I think we'll go the distance. He's been sort of holding me to that for, for a long time. 

Zibby: Oh, well thank God that's what you said. I mean. 

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. At least I didn't call him by another name. I want to say something completely different. I've spent 36 years hoping that I don't stumble in my sleep. Um, but to bring it back to Annabelle, she, she, I think she would love to have thought that she would be so lucky and this epic event puts her and her marriage in peril and there was nothing to prepare her for what was going to happen.

She's loved living in this little town and The nature and beauty and proliferation of strawberries and tomatoes and flowers. And she's never had to stop and think, how did they get to be this way? She's never had to think about evolution and everything changes. And her marriage is one of the things that changes.

Zibby: I read your article about COVID and how when people in the Atlantic, how when people said, Oh, we can't wait to go back or things like that. You were like, well, now you know what it's like. I have MS and this is what it's like to be inside and how you met people on zoom. And you're like, yeah, this is great.

I can like hang out in my living room and now everybody's doing this. Yeah. It was a beautiful piece and gave such a window into your life. And, and what it's like sort of navigating the world with MS and all of that. Talk a little, just tell me a little more about that and how it is now and since then and everything.

Lisa: Well, thanks for saying that about the Atlantic piece. It certainly came from the heart. It was extraordinary that at that moment, you know, A horrible moment in our time when people were dying and everyone was afraid. I was more connected to the world than I had ever been. I'm not, I'm sorry, not that I'd ever been because I was only diagnosed about 16 years ago and my ability to navigate outside this little apartment has diminished as time has gone by.

But, Don't get me wrong, I will still be doing a reading of the evolution book and I will, I will do my best to get out there and I try. But for the many, many people who are living with disability and especially now with so many people with long COVID, which is not dissimilar from some of the symptoms I have, it's hard not to be forgotten, not to feel invisible.

And it's essential. I think to do everything you can to participate in the world. In my case, I get to participate in the world by imagining it. Not just the party that's, you know, in the village, but Tennessee in 1925. I'm deeply lucky that the work I do would be at this desk. Anyway, and I'm deeply lucky that the internet for all the awful stuff it's brought, and it has brought an awful lot of stuff, has allowed me to journey outside of this place.

Nevertheless, when the pandemic was raging, and people were saying, oh, let's meet up and we'll have a party, and it was just on screen, and I didn't have to get dressed for it, and I didn't have to I didn't have to use up energy getting someplace, which is You know, 80 percent of it, it was extraordinary.

And I felt guilty about the fact that I would miss it, but I knew that I would, I knew that people would get back to their normal lives and they would go to parties and they would go to museums and they would go to the theater. And I do get to the theater. Sometimes I go to matinees, but you know, a lot of this marvelous city I live in is not something I get to experience while.

Everyone has gone back. Not everyone, because there are a lot of us still in this spot, are still in a situation where we wish for that connection. And I don't think it's entirely about having a disability. I think that people are lonely. I mean, I've read this a lot, and that they yearn for connection, and that we're all in our little silos of, belief and ideas.

But for people with disabilities, I think it's a particularly, it can be a particularly narrow world. And I'm lucky to be able to break out of that world, at least in my imagination, with writing. So that's pretty much how it works. how it's been. My last novel was about a woman who was essentially, well not essentially, she was stuck in one place in Grand Central Terminal.

And I didn't realize until about halfway through writing it that I was writing about myself and that I was writing about, you know, being what it's like to be stuck in one place and how you make a life if you really can't be out and about. So this one's not about that, but it did require some imagination.

Zibby: Well, I deeply appreciate, and I'm sure everybody else reading your work does, that while you are inside, you are taking us to all sorts of different places and giving us all of these experiences. And it's like, It's like magic, what you're doing, catching fire, like all over, you know, just like transmitting us.

It's, it's really miraculous. So thank you for that. 

Lisa: That is so incredibly touching to hear and, and I'm so grateful for that. Thank you. Um, certainly it's what I try to do. It doesn't always work, but I try. 

Zibby: It works. It's working. Lisa, thank you. It was a delight to meet you. Congratulations on the evolution of Annabelle Craig and all of your work and I hope to stay in touch.

Lisa: Thank you so much. It was really a delight. 

Zibby: Me too. Okay. Have a great day. 

Lisa: You too. 

Zibby: Okay. Bye bye. 


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