The black predawn air was filled with movement. Its thin coolness rushed through the streets of South Philly, encircling the tight, sturdy row houses. In 1940 the blocks were clean and close. The people who lived here scrubbed their steps every morning until the sand in the concrete sparkled like diamond pins. Then some went to work mopping floors and cooking meals for rich folks, or cleaning fish at the dock, or stitching fine leather shoes or pinch-pleated draperies at the factories on the north side. Some answered phones or crumpled paper for the government. Some tended house and nursed babies. A few were really nurses. One or two taught school. Unless it was the weekend. On the weekend the blocks came to life....the music flowed like bubbly. And brown faces laughed for real, not the mannered tee-hees of the workday, but booming laughs. And Sunday they shouted in church and felt the sweet release where grand hats rocked, and high heels stomped or went clickety-clack depending on how the spirit hit.Diane McKinney-Whetstone (CW'75) has recently lived a story that would warm any writer's heart. A busy wife, mother of teen-age twins, and public affairs officer for the USDA Forest Service, she still found time - between 5 and 7 am - to work on her first novel. A Philadelphia writers' group gave her helpful advice and criticism. The Pennsylvania Council of the Arts gave her a grant that allowed her to take a temporary leave from her job. When the novel was finished, an agent snapped it up, got the dazed author a six-figure contract from a major publisher, and sent her out on a book tour. She's still touring, still writing (her second book now), and still somewhat dazed by it all.
From Tumbling, by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
(William Morrow and Company, 1996)
Though the sudden onset of success caught her by surprise, McKinney-Whetstone has always known that she wanted to be a writer. Since childhood, she had listened to her parents' vibrant stories of life in south Philadelphia when they were young. She enjoyed and remembered them: "My father especially was a great storyteller." But her own impulse was to write stories down, to capture them in a more permanent form. She began to write at an early age, and by the time she came to Penn, it seemed natural to major in English.
Did her Penn education help her become a writer? "Oh, yes. I didn't write any fiction at Penn; it was the reading that was the most instructive. Also the bouncing around of ideas." She still remembers vividly a course with Nina Auerbach who introduced her to the poetry of William Blake. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell especially has stayed with me. The whole notion of good and evil, with evil being cloaked under the pretense of being good - those ideas were very provocative to me. That course and others at Penn stayed a part of me. The ideas were still working and coming together and in some ways culminated in Tumbling."
After Penn, marriage, and motherhood, McKinney-Whetstone worked at a day job that made heavy use of her writing skills. Much of her time at the Forest Service, for example, was spent turning scientific research into readable prose for lay audiences. But the early mornings and some evenings went into more imaginative efforts. In 1992, she began attending the Rittenhouse Writers' Group, founded several years before by a Penn writing instructor named James Rahn. "Rahn does 8-week cycles, 2 nights per week. Fifteen writers read each others' work and offer critiques. It's an intense experience, and people give it a lot of time and attention. The purpose is always to improve the work." In addition to helpful comments, McKinney-Whetstone got a suggestion from someone in the group about an agent who might be interested in her work. She submitted 80 pages and received a favorable response, along with an invitation to send the whole manuscript when it was finished. That took another year of work. Once the completed manscript was in the agent's hands, the sequence of events picked up speed. "It was dizzying - how fast it went."
The novel that everyone got so excited about is a densely textured story set in south Philadelphia during the 1940s and '50s. It is focused on the marriage of Noon and Herbie, a loving but troubled couple who have never consummated their union. They wind up rearing two adoptive daughters who are literally left on their doorstep. Herbie strays occasionally, especially in the direction of a glamorous jazz singer named Ethel. Noon devotes herself to her family and her church. That devotion is sorely tested: by Herbie's infidelity; by the wilfulness and misery of her daughter Liz; by a city project to build an expressway through the neighborhood, threatening the church and the cohesion of its black congregation. But Noon proves more of a fighter than anyone might have expected, when places and people she loves are at stake.
McKinney-Whetstone chose a period milieu because "as a writer I needed a distance from everything that is contemporary. This is just my experience as a writer. It's more difficult for me to write fiction in a contemporary setting because I risk its being underfictionalized. I risk not drawing enough on my imagination. I had to create the world in Tumbling since I didn't live in it. It's purely imagined." This technique sounds like the reverse of Hemingway's advice to "Write what you know." McKinney-Whetstone smiles gently: "That's it."
In her mind, the novel grew from two characters - young women in their twenties named Fannie and Liz. They shared a house. They were "close and connected but not blood sisters." Writing about them, McKinney-Whetstone wondered how they were raised, by whom, and why, since they were not related. "Answering these questions became the novel. Then the task was ordering things chronologically, with some flashbacks." As she wrote, she realized that she was pulling details from the 1940s and '50s to provide texture for the story. That spurred the final choice of a setting: "I needed to get the action firmly placed." She originally wanted to title the book, The Walls Came Tumbling Down. Unfortunately, that name was already in use. When her husband suggested Tumbling, the writer at first thought, "He doesn't read fiction! Why should he title my novel?" But the shorter title seemed to fit: "There's a lot of literal and metaphoric tumbling going on in the book." It had resonance. It stuck.
The novel can be dazzlingly specific and concrete; it can also be indirect, glancing, suggestive. This is especially true of a formative experience in Noon's life, a childhood trauma that has left her terrified of sex. This experience, which serves as the emotional engine of the book, haunts Noon's memory, but only in fragments. The reader is never given a single, clear scene that explains the lingering horror and shame. McKinney-Whetstone says this indirect approach was deliberate. "I thought that it would have more power if it wasn't crystal clear." Were Noon's violators "devil worshippers," as the girl's mother claimed? Were they black or white? All the reader is sure of are the effects on the heroine: injury, an inability to bear children, a shuddering away even from her loved husband's touch. Whether and how Noon can be healed account for much of the suspense of the novel.
Details are vivid, giving the book a surging vitality. Some of these came from parental stories - "The business about the step scrubbing, for example, is something we heard over and over from our mother when it was time for us to do our chores." Some were gleaned from hours of research, scanning relevant copies of sources like The Philadelphia Tribune, so that the author could be accurate if she said that a musician saw Dizzy Gillespie in Philadelphia in a given year. And some things are so convincing they seem to be based on direct observation. Did McKinney-Whetstone ever know a child who chewed wall plaster to comfort herself, for example?
As a matter of fact, she did. A childhood friend of hers had the affliction. "It's called 'pica,' where people crave non-food substances. It's a variation of a condition among black women in parts of the South who eat, or once ate, red clay. Also women in south Philadelphia, and probably other places, ate Argo starch out of the box. My mother said you could always tell from the white rings around their mouths. The craving may be based on a nutritional deficiency. In the case of the character, Liz, chewing plaster expresses an emotional as well as a physical need." Liz carries a childhood habit well into her adult life, with devastating results. The obsession is especially haunting since food - cooking it, sharing it, eating it - is such an important element in the book.
Between book tours for Tumbling, McKinney-Whetstone is working on a new novel, this one set in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. She has been on a series of extended leaves from her day job and will probably resign at the end of her current leave. A two-book contract from William Morrow has made it possible to fulfill the writer's dream of working full-time at home. Though writers, once freed from other people's offices, have been known to impose fairly rigorous schedules on themselves. McKinney-Whetstone, for example, has grown accustomed to working in the very early morning hours. The house is quiet, and she can focus on her fiction. "I never considered myself a morning person, but I've fallen in love with that time of day."
She also finds time to read since reading is important to her growth as a writer. Asked what advice she would give to aspiring novelists, she says simply, "Read, read! It becomes a part of you." She doesn't say what to read but an aspiring novelist, or anyone else looking for imaginative worlds to inhabit, could hardly do better than Tumbling.