Eileen Harrison Sanchez, author — An Interview
Just as I believe certain movies should be required viewing by everyone (12 Years a Slave, comes to mind), I think certain books like the award-winning Freedom Lessons (She Writes Press, 2019) by Eileen Harrison Sanchez should be on everyone’s to be read pile, or the list at least.
I had the good fortune to meet Eileen just as Freedom Lessons was about to hit the shelves in the Fall of 2019, and she shared with me the ins and outs of her publishing journey just as mine was just beginning. Very recently, Eileen agreed to share her experiences as part of my research project focusing on nine writers who published their first books after the age of 60. Since I could only include a snippet from each of those interviews in Better Later than Never, the full interview below provides insight as to why I believe Freedom Lessons is an important read.
Picture this. It’s 1969. Colleen, a white teacher from the North moves to a small rural town in Louisiana. The culture is unfamiliar to her, as are the unwritten rules she must learn as the town surrenders to mandated school integration. Enter Frank, a black high school football player, determined to protect his family and their secret. And then there’s Evelyn, an experienced black teacher and a prized member of the community who must decide whether to put aside her distrust of Colleen and value her unproven efforts.
Told alternately by these three characters as their lives intersect, Freedom Lessons is a heartfelt, unflinching novel about the unexpected effects of school integration in 1960s Louisiana. Undoubtedly, this story has striking resonances with the issues our nation currently faces regarding race, unity, and identity.
Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced in creating your first novel at that age?
A. Despite writing hundreds of reports during my career as an evaluator for students and a supervisor of teachers, I didn’t know how to write a novel. Learning to show, not tell, was a challenge. Trusting my voice is still a struggle. Now writing feels like the easy part. Marketing is the biggest challenge.
Q. Why did it take you until age 60+ to write your book?
A. Family life, juggling a career, helping my husband change his career, didn’t leave room for writing. When I retired at 63, I decided to write and joined a writers’ workshop with a plan to write a memoir.
Q. What in your personal experience/career made its way into your story?
A. My book is based on my personal experience as a teacher during mandated school integration in the deep South. It was an experience that had a profound impact on my life. When I realized that I was a witness to a piece of Civil Rights history not experienced by many people, I felt an obligation to share it at first with our daughters and grandchildren, and then it became a novel.
Q. If you could change anything about your writing life (writing career), what would it be and why?
A. I wish that I had kept a journal. I always thought I would and bought blank books to write in. But I didn’t want to write a diary revealing inner thoughts (bad high school experience). I should have just written – poems, short stories, travel journals. I did write a travel journal during a trip to Spain about the people we met and the places we visited.
Q. What advice would you give to those who come behind us?
A. Just write. Don’t edit. The greatest skill I consider a gift is being a touch typist with spellcheck on a laptop. I’m not a good speller and anything I wrote needed to be perfect. Give that up. Just write.
Q. Any thoughts you have about the topic of writers publishing for the first time later in life?
A. Before my book was published, I would walk into a bookstore or a library and look around thinking about the thousands of books in that place. I dreamed of having mine on a shelf. I would think – why not me? Our writing workshop group took a “class trip” to a bookstore to find the shelf our books would be on. That made it really click for me. “Why not!” Just do it. Many late in life writers have the resources of time and money. If that is you, invest in yourself. Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself why should anyone else?
Freedom Lessons is available as an eBook, audiobook, and in paperback. Here’s one link. My review of the book is here.
You can also follow Eileen at: