An Interview with George Rollie Adams

by Celeste Schantz

George Rollie Adams is a writer, educator, historian, and storyteller. He grew up in southern Arkansas and taught there for a time after college. 

At the Strong National Museum of Play, Adams led the development of the world’s most comprehensive collection of historical artifacts and documents related to the critical role of play in learning and human development. As part of that process, he acquired the National Toy Hall of Fame, founded the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, and launched the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He also established the American Journal of Play and received national recognition for innovative museum leadership. He has served on numerous local, state, and national boards and committees related to museums, historic preservation, tourism, economic development, and social services.

Adams continues to live in New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes region. He now writes fiction, and because he comes from a family of quilters, quilting figures prominently in his work.
We recently sat down with the author to discuss his latest novel, South of Little Rock, which our library is proud to feature as a part of our new WARE collection.*

MSR: You grew up in Arkansas in the 1950s. How much of your own personal biography became a part of South of Little Rock?

GRA: Other than my father and I practicing baseball a few times with black adults, as twelve-year-old Billy Tate does in the opening pages of the novel, I didn’t draw as much on my own personal experiences as on my observations of other people. Billy is not me, and his family members are not mine, although like Billy’s “Gran,” my maternal grandmother was a woman of slight statue who lived with us.

The fictional town of Unionville is similar to my hometown geographically, demographically, and culturally, and the beliefs and activities of many of the fictional characters are informed in part by things I saw and heard as a boy. In the one other significant way I was like Billy, I spent a lot of time working in, and simply hanging around, my father’s combination auto parts, appliance, sporting goods, and hardware store, and I was able to hear first-hand how adults regarded and talked with each other about sports, politics, race, religion, and community affairs. But my imaginary characters’ beliefs and activities are informed just as much by what, as a historian, I know to be true about the era. The same applies to the popular culture described in the book. It comes chiefly from what I recollect from the era—you don’t forget swamp coolers, Grapette sodas, Chesterfields, and ’57 Chevys. But it is also informed by what I know about the period as a historian and a long-time history museum director. And when I wasn’t sure about a recollection or about something I had come across subsequently, I researched it. It’s what I was trained to do.

I guess this approach must have worked, because so far, feedback from readers, including ones who share my background in that region as well as a number of PhD historians and American studies scholars, black and white, suggests that I conveyed the look, feel, attitudes, and manner of speech of the place and time authentically.

MSR: You managed to work a significant amount of political history and media coverage of real events into your story without bogging it down. Did you do that mostly from memory as well?

GRA: No. I recalled the events generally but not specifically enough to write about them the way I wanted. So, I read numerous secondary historical sources, such as biographies and monographs, and I read the back issues of two of the major newspapers that covered them over the six-month timeframe of the novel.

MSR: You presented your story of racism and social change in the South almost exclusively from a white person’s perspective. Why? Also, why did you convey the thoughts and emotions of the white characters in detail but not those of the black characters?

GRA: The answers to those two questions are intertwined. I wrote the novel primarily from a white perspective because I wanted to tell a story about a white man wrestling with himself over his beliefs and values, as well as struggling with history and tradition, while pressure for social change mounted around him. I believed that this approach to exploring the racial issues of that period would prove valuable, but before I headed down that path, I looked broadly at existing literature and talked with others—black and white—who experienced the era. I also read and touched base with one of the nation’s foremost authorities on race-mixing fiction. All encouraged me to forge ahead. And of course, the white perspective is the one I knew best, and the one that I felt, being white myself, I was most entitled to present. If it were not for giving away too much of the plot for those who have yet to read the book, I would also argue that there is one black character whose thoughts and emotions I convey in considerable detail. Okay if I stop there and let readers find out about that for themselves?

MSR: Yes, let’s not play spoiler. When you were growing up, what level of awareness did you have of the Jim Crow laws and discrimination all around you? And how did you feel about it? Are your present beliefs a reflection of your upbringing, or did you undergo something similar to your male protagonist, Billy’s father?

GRA: I think that up to a certain age nearly all kids accept or at least go along with the prevailing values of those around them. I was no exception. Like most kids in my hometown, I didn’t question the way things were, or white adults’ arguments about why things should stay that way. I saw the social and educational segregation, but I didn’t give it much thought, I regret to say, until the Civil Rights movement made headlines. The thing that finally got my full attention and led to different thinking was reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the true story of a white man who chemically changed the color of his skin and traveled through the South to try to see and experience it through the eyes of a black man.

MSR: We enjoyed your book very much and look forward to more of your work. What’s next for you as an author? Any new book ideas on the table that you can share?

GRA: My second novel, Found in Pieces, will be out sometime early this summer. It is set in the same fictional locale a year later and deals with similar issues through a different lens, plus it also deals with gender-related issues. Some characters from South of Little Rock populate this story, too, but with larger roles. The chief protagonists are different, and women business owners loom large. Also this time, much more of the story is conveyed through the thoughts and emotions of black characters. Positive feedback from the first novel and from black beta readers made me more comfortable doing that this time around. Meanwhile, I’ve done preliminary thinking and research for two other novels, and right now I’m trying to decide which to complete first. I’m leaning toward one about the rowdy 1920’s oil boom in southern Arkansas and the attending environmental issues. Like my two novels set in fictional Unionville, it will also be relevant to the present day.∎

Read an excerpt from South of Little Rock.

WARE (Wayne Action for Racial Equality) is dedicated to ending racism and promoting racial equality for all members of our community through Direct Action, Community Education and Engagement, and Advocacy. The WARE Collection of books at our library consists of titles which reflect these values, representing marginalized and disenfranchised authors as well as others who support their voices.