Isabel Wilkerson doesn't want to be a novelist -- she just wants to write like one.
Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the author of the highly acclaimed history "The Warmth of Other Suns," wants to know so much about her subjects that she can portray them with the same depth and nuance as novelists do fictional characters.
"I view myself as a journalist and nonfiction writer: That's what I am at the core," she said. "But you have to get into the heart and mind of that other person you are writing about, so that you can carry that story into the heart of the reader."
Where novelists are bound by their imaginations, Wilkerson is restricted to facts. So she uses everything in her power -- especially persistence and empathy -- to bring her characters to life.
Her 1994 Pulitzer Prize was awarded for stories she wrote for the New York Times -- the human cost of floods in Mississippi, and a story about a 10-year-old Chicago boy named Nicholas who felt obligated to take care of his impoverished family. For the Nicholas story, she spent dozens of hours with the boy, in school and at home.
But that was a drop in the bucket compared to the 15 years she spent researching and writing "The Warmth of Other Suns." That book, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and just released in paperback, traces the Great Migration of 6 million American blacks who fled the lynchings and Jim Crow laws of the South to risk the uncertainty of the North, the Midwest and the West between World War I and the 1970s.
During her research, Wilkerson conducted more than 1,200 interviews, eventually settling on three protagonists of different generations and distinct journeys.
"People always ask me if I am personally affected by these stories as I do my research, and of course they do touch me deeply," Wilkerson said. "But I use that emotion as a motivating force to tell the story the best way I can."
Wilkerson will be in the Twin Cities later this week for two events. On Thursday, she will have a conversation with Stephen Smith of Minnesota Public Radio, talking about journalism and nonfiction writing. On Friday, she will speak at a fundraiser celebrating the 10th anniversary of St. Thomas' ThreeSixty Journalism program, which provides access to journalism for teens from diverse communities.
Wilkerson is an unabashed champion of the craft. "I still believe it is kind of a miracle to go into a newsroom in the morning and by the end of the day research and write the equivalent of a term paper that is read the next day by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people," she said.
"If a person sees something online or on television, that's our cue to dig in and tell the fuller story. There will always be the need to tell stories that people are interested in and don't fully understand."
The Great Migration
Wilkerson believes that one of the main reasons why the Great Migration was so under-reported at the time was because people didn't want to talk about it -- even those who had lived through it.
"My mother was one of my toughest interviews," Wilkerson said. "She kept saying, 'Why dredge that up?' and 'Who wants to think about that?'"
Still, people told her painful and intimate things they had never divulged before, things "that were incomprehensible to them, that they were still trying to figure out, decades later."
She dealt with the emotional intensity of the interviews in a simple way -- hands in the soil.
"I love to garden," Wilkerson said. "Once I got down South to write the book, I found it refreshing to alternate between distilling what I had been absorbing ... and going out to create and work on the garden."
She has been traveling the country, promoting the paperback release, but hopes soon to settle on a topic for her next book.
Some have suggested she look at the cultural and social factors behind the reverse migration that has seen blacks and other citizens moving South since the 1970s, a phenomenon Wilkerson refers to as "the return."
But whatever she tackles, Wilkerson says she's blessed to be a nonfiction storyteller. "It is a time of tremendous opportunity, if we only see it that way. I have been inspired by the readers of the book, who stayed through many thousands of words because they wanted to find out how the story ended," she said. "I come to this work believing we can still touch people by reaching inside of people for their stories and explaining those stories to [other] people in a way that illuminates and maybe even brings a smile to their faces, but makes a difference in their lives."