I’d like to introduce today’s featured debut author: Alison Pratt is a native of Delaware and came to New York, where she currently resides, to go to graduate school. She has been a clinical psychologist for over 20 years, is an adjunct assistant professor at Queensborough Community College, and is a board member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. She is married with one grown stepson and, she says, a teenaged son who has one foot out the door. Alison’s book, A Murder Before Eden, tells the story of her great-grandfather, who was murdered at age 81.
Name of book: A Murder Before Eden
Book genre: True crime/history mystery/nonfiction novel
Date published: 2010
What is your book about? The events take place in a small, segregated North Carolina town in 1947. This is the true story of my great-grandfather, Tom Pratt, his new young wife, and his murder at age 81. His wife claimed to have seen the attack that killed him, and blamed a 17-year old black neighbor for the crime. But Tom’s sons (my grandfather and great-uncle) did not think the boy was guilty and hired the best defense attorney money could buy to represent him. The trial made history, though few noted it at the time. This book looks into people and what they might have been thinking in the midst of a series of events that spiraled out of control to change them, and history, forever.
Why did you want to write this book? It was an incredible family story. No one had ever researched it fully or written it down. The more I looked into the story, the more fascinating details emerged; for example, this trial was the first capital case trial in North Carolina with women on the jury. Women had just been awarded that right in North Carolina earlier that same year. Women had served on juries for lesser crimes, but this was the first murder case.
What would you say was the most challenging part of writing this book? First of all, as a North Carolina story, I really had to go there to look up the newspaper articles on microfilm from the little weekly town papers in their public libraries and use their county court records. That research could only have been done in person. There were few people left who remembered the events first hand, but I was able to interview several people. My dad was with me for some of it; as a native of that town he was able to smooth the way for productive conversation. I don’t think people would have opened up to me so readily as an out-of-towner—and a New Yorker, to boot.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? People who remembered the crime still loved to talk about it and conjecture about the killer. I loved when a new piece of information would pop up about one of the main characters. I loved speaking with people who remembered my grandparents, who died in the 1970s. I met relatives I didn’t know I had and had wonderful conversations with them about their lives. It connected me to this story, but also connected me with my own personal history.
There was a surprising amount of information available on the internet, but I did go to North Carolina several times to use their local libraries and courts (for example, the Registry of Marriages). I was able to obtain some of the trial information through the Freedom of Information Act, and death certificate from the State of North Carolina. Plus, there is nothing like being there to see the terrain, get a feel for the place, see the tobacco barns and houses built by Tom Pratt, see the courthouse where the trial took place, walk the streets of his hometown and wander in the church and graveyards. It was a great experience.
Did you experience writer’s block? Yes, partially because I was writing the book “on the side” of everything else that goes on in a person’s life–job, marriage, a child, family obligations, etc. Sometimes you just run out of steam. But eventually someone would say, “Hey, how’s that book coming along?” I’d start talking about it and get energized again. If you know of anyone who’s writing a book, the encouragement and questions really help!
How long did it take you to write this book? I hate to say this: 7 years.
Tell me about the publishing process. Why did you decide to self-publish? I tried to find a publisher on my own and/or an agent. After several rejections I decided to look at a different business model. Traditional publishing houses make money by selling thousands of copies of books by a limited number of authors, and they don’t take risks on unknown authors, for the most part. Self-publishing companies make money by selling a few copies of books– sometimes only one copy– by hundreds and hundreds of authors. I liked that this book is “print-on-demand”— there is not a warehouse somewhere filled with books. I liked the control over the book that I had, and I can take it to a traditional publishing house if I want to. Doubleday, are you listening?