Elizabeth “Betsy” Emerson and her family lived in Dalton from 1994 to 2001. Emerson is also an artist and has exhibited for many years at the Creative Arts Guild’s Festival.
She was also the original director of Whitfield Family Connection, then called Children and Families First.
Emerson moved from Dalton to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but she was excited to come back to Dalton this week as an author. She was thrilled to share her book “Letters From Red Farm: The Untold Story of the Friendship Between Helen Keller and Journalist Joseph Edgar Chamberlin” with Dalton readers. She did three speaking engagements in Dalton at Dalton State College's Roberts Library, Dave & Pauli’s Art Emporium and The Yellow Bird.
“Letters From Red Farm” was a labor of love. Emerson heard stories about her great-great-grandfather, Chamberlin, and his long friendship with Keller.
Question: Tell us about your writing process and the way you brainstorm story ideas.
Emerson: Well, this is my first published book, but I have been writing for many years, first as a grant writer for nonprofits serving children and families, and then as a member of a women's memoir writing group.
My recently released book, "Letters From Red Farm: The Untold Story of the Friendship Between Helen Keller and Journalist Joseph Edgar Chamberlin," has been nine years in the writing and research. I love the process of research to answer a question and I was fortunate that so many of the archives I needed for my book were accessible online. I also traveled to various locations for research and had some wonderful experiences as I did that.
I love the process of brainstorming. I come up with a lot of story ideas while I am walking for exercise. The story idea for “Letters From Red Farm” came from just wondering what kind of man Ed Chamberlin was. I asked myself, "What kind of man back in the late 1800s would befriend a little, deaf/blind girl and bring her home to his family?”
I generally like to write in the afternoons and evenings, after I've gotten errands and commitments out of the way for the day. I have a wonderful desk in my family room, with a view of hayfields out the window, and I put a little music on in the background and I am good to go!
Q: Do you believe in writer’s block?
Emerson: I don't really call it writer's block, but I believe that ideas need to incubate, and no one knows how long that creative process will take. If I find myself "stuck" I take a break and trust that I will return to work when things have worked themselves out subconsciously and/or I am more psychologically ready.
Q: How did you celebrate the publishing of your first book?
Emerson: I am still very much celebrating! This is a wonderful time in my life: the culmination of years of research and writing that has yielded a wonderful story that I am very excited to be able to share. I also feel very grateful to my great-great-grandfather, Ed Chamberlin, who was a lovely man that I know I would have loved if I had known him.
I'm also grateful to Helen Keller for being such a prolific writer and leaving behind so much of the material that illuminated her friendship with Chamberlin — and thus, my family — so vividly. This story lay dormant in multiple archives for almost 100 years and I am privileged to have found it and to be the one who pulled it together.
Q: What other authors are you friends with, how do they help you become a better writer?
Emerson: In the process of writing “Letters From Red Farm” I reached out to some wonderful women authors who were very generous with their time and enthusiasm and also steered me toward archives that really helped me by filling in gaps in information.
Some that come to mind are Patricia Fanning at Bridgewater State University; Linda Waggoner, who wrote a beautiful book about the Winnebago artist Angel DeCora; and local authors in the Chapel Hill area where I live. I also became friends with Haben Girma, the first deaf/blind graduate of Harvard Law School, who very generously read my manuscript in late stages and gave me invaluable feedback.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to my literary agent, Susan Schulman ("The English Patient," "The Queen's Gambit"), who is famous in her own right and who fell in love with “Letters From Red Farm” years ago and has been a wonderful partner in this book journey.
Q: If you were given the opportunity to form a book club with your favorite authors of all time, which legends or contemporary writers would you want to become a part of the club?
Emerson: I would gather other women who are currently writing historical nonfiction: Jill Lepore, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Sally Mott Freeman and others like them.
Q: How do you think concepts such as Kindle and ebooks have changed the present or future of reading?
Emerson: These tools have enhanced reading for many of us. In particular, I will say that people with disabilities benefit greatly from the accessibility they offer.
Q: What marketing strategies do you find most helpful?
Emerson: I read an article a few years ago that listed "the four major ways that readers find new books": 1) Recommendations from friends, 2) Familiarity with the author, 3) Recommendations from family, and 4) Recommendations on social media. I am employing all of those strategies in getting the word out about my book, and I appreciate so much when my readers help spread the word. Every reader matters to me, and I especially love it when they tell me how they responded to the story.
Q: Can you tell us about your current projects?
Emerson: I have one memoir in the works about my year living in Ireland in 1988, during which time I had a baby. It was a horrible experience. I am also beginning to conduct research on my grandfather's time in the Navy during World War II. He was gunnery officer and then executive officer on the USS San Diego, one of the most decorated ships of the Navy.
Q: Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?
Emerson: I never dreamed I would write a book, but here I am. My best advice is find something that fascinates you to write about. Writing then becomes effortless and fun. Also, don't give up your day job if you can help it. Publishing can take years. But don't give up!
• Emerson’s “Letters From Red Farm” is available locally at Dave & Pauli’s Art Emporium and The Yellow Bird. Also, you can get it from the University of Massachusetts Press, Amazon and Barnes and Nobel.
The Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 6 p.m. Curbside service also remains available during those hours. Come visit us to read local!
Brandy Wyatt is the administrator of the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library.