Interview with Cheryl A. Head - TIME'S UNDOING

Interview with Cheryl A. Head - TIME'S UNDOING

In this interview, Cheryl and I discuss Time's Undoing, basing the story on her family history, setting Time's Undoing in Birmingham and Detroit and the similarities in the cities, how the earth below a city holds its secrets and history, reviewing old newspapers from the 1920s, the American flag, and much more.

In this interview, Cheryl and I discuss Time's Undoing, basing the story on her family history, setting Time's Undoing in Birmingham and Detroit and the similarities in the cities, how the earth below a city holds its secrets and history, reviewing old newspapers from the 1920s, the American flag, and much more.

Cheryl’s recommended reads are:

  1. No Home for Killers by E. A. Aymar
  2. Shutter by Ramona Emerson

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[00:10] Cindy: Welcome to the award winning Thoughts from a Page podcast, a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network hosted by me, Cindy Burnett, a voracious reader and book columnist who provides you with casual author conversations, book recommendation episodes, and insider information on all of the newest releases that I have read and endorse, and on the publishing industry in my behind the scenes series. With so many books coming out weekly, it can be hard to decide what to read, so I find the best ones and share them with you. For more book recommendations or to find my backlist of interviews, visit my website at In 2023, I have a new segment on my Tuesday episodes called Read Alike Requests. Listeners can submit a book they loved and tell me why they loved it, and I will suggest some similar reads. There is a Google Form included in today's show notes if you would like to send in a request. If you love to read, I hope you will consider joining my Patreon group to access additional content, including bonus episodes and early reads with pre-pub author chats. For March, there are two books. Colleen Oakley's new book, The Mostly True Story of Tanner and Louise and Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl by Renee Rosen. And for April, my selection is The Comeback Summer by writing duo Ali Brady. The link to join is in the Show Notes.

Today I am chatting with Cheryl Head about her wonderful book Time’s Undoing. Cheryl is an award-winning writer, television producer, broadcast executive and media funder. When not writing fiction, she consults on a wide range of diversity issues. She is a senior associate at Livingston Associates and a member of Crime Writers of Color, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and the Bouchercon Board of Directors. She lives in Washington, D. C. with her partner and her two dogs, who provide canine supervision. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Welcome, Cheryl. How are you today?

[01:58] Cheryl: I'm doing very well. Thank you for having me Cindy.

[02:00] Cindy: I am so glad you're here because I loved your book so very much, and I can't wait to talk about it.

[02:07] Cheryl: Oh, that makes my heart sing.

[02:09] Cindy: Well, good. Well, I still feel like I'm spending time with them even though I finished it a couple of days ago. It's just still there with me. And I just keep thinking about them and your story and everything. So I can't wait to talk all about it.

[02:22] Cheryl: Excellent. Looking forward to it.

[02:24] Cindy: Well, before we do that, will you give me a quick synopsis of Time’s Undoing? For those that won't have read it.

[02:29] Cheryl: Yet, this is a story based on a family tragedy unfortunately. The book is written in two timelines, 1929 where in the voice of my grandfather, he talks about coming to Birmingham, Alabama during the Jim Crow era and then in 2019 my protagonist, Meghan is a journalist from Detroit whose great grandfather has been killed by police in Birmingham. She convinces her editorial team at the Detroit Free Press to let her travel to Birmingham and just try to pick together some of the clues that will help her understand the details of her great grandfather's murder. It's a kind of a combination historical fiction and crime fiction.

[03:15] Cindy: I think that's what appealed to me so much about it is that combination because my two favorite genres are historical fiction and mystery thriller. So you put it all together into one book?

[03:25] Cheryl: Yeah, it was daunting. I will say that I had so much fun and kind of an organic process in writing the historical sections and a lot more hard work writing the contemporary sections.

[03:38] Cindy: I can see that. And I felt like the contemporary sections took up a little bit more of the book. So that means that part was probably really kind of weighed down at times.

[03:46] Cheryl: Yeah, because that was the part where the mystery is made and unfolds. And so that's where all the logic and plotting and sequencing had to happen that you want to see in a good mystery book. The historical section, I really was just letting myself imagine and I had a lot of research to do for that particular section. But it just was hard, emotionally hard, but much more organic.

[04:14] Cindy: Well, I'm so curious because I know you involved your family story as a jumping off point for this book. Can we talk a little bit about that?

[04:21] Cheryl: Sure. Growing up, my mother and her mother often spoke of the murder of my grandfather by Birmingham, Alabama police back in the 1920s. He and his and my grandmother had gone to Birmingham. He was a carpenter. He'd gone there to work. After his death, it came back to my grandmother came back to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they lived. We had very little details about that, as you might imagine in 1929. Negroes, as they were called then, didn't take on the police. They didn't demand investigations. They didn't do too much arguing or fussing about things that happened in their lives because the clan was ubiquitous in all the institutions and the Jim Crow South. And so often the stories about my grandfather were whispered. They sometimes talked away from the kids. You know, how family members will the adults will talk in one room and you can only hear snippets of conversation. But over the decades, my mother talked to me about it in particular because she thought she would one day write about it to get some answers about her father's death. I often thought about writing the story, but I had so few details. And I'm a kind of writer who likes to plot so I like to have some facts and I like to have some resource materials and didn't have that. But when George Floyd died in 2020 and we were just beginning our COVID stay at home protocols I thought, this is the time to write the story. And so I set off on that process. It was an emotional process. I was able, in doing my research for the book, however, to find a couple of documents that were important to my family. We never had my grandfather's death certificate, and I was able to find that. And I also came across an article in the St. Petersburg Times where his family and my grandmother's family lived that had a headline that said, “Local Negro Killed by Birmingham Police”. And that was my grandfather.

[06:27] Cindy: So you include those details in the book. And I was so curious how much of it was actually what had happened with you and how much you had to fill in because of what you just mentioned. How little detail there would have been, because I'm sure people living in that time period that were Black also really feared retribution, which you talk a little bit about in the story. But you don't want to make too big a stink because you don't want to harm everybody else around you as well. Sadly. I mean, it's a terrible state of things, but that's how it was then.

[06:53] Cheryl: That's exactly right. And I tried to use as much detail as I had about my grandfather's death in the book. There are some things I left out. There are some things for legal reasons we didn't name, some names, that kind of thing. But it was a good melding of what I knew and what I imagined. And it's fiction, and so we call it crime fiction, but it's filled with the details of the memories and the stories that I've heard about my grandfather over the nine decades he lived. He was killed.

[07:29] Cindy: I love that. And I think that's why the book did resonate so much with me, because I could feel that it was personal to you.

[07:37] Cheryl: There were times, Cindy, when I was in the process of doing research, I was looking through For instance, I must have looked through, I don't know, 100 hours of archival newspapers. And when I came across the article about his death, I remember just sitting there, just stunned, just stunned. I was in my dining room writing that day, and I sat there for half an hour and eventually cried and then eventually called my siblings and told my partner, and it was just a shocking moment. And then I realized I was mirroring what was happening with my protagonist, which just kind of made it otherworldly a few times, definitely.

[08:18] Cindy: And I guess, again, that was where I could feel that this was a personal story and what Meghan was going through was probably some of what you had gone through, and I just thought it was so well done.

[08:28] Cheryl: Oh, thank you very much. I will say that there are times when I thought maybe my grandfather was helping me and pointing me in the right directions, because there were times when I was looking through those newspapers thinking, oh my God, there are a lot of things in here. There are a lot of Robert Harringtons in the world, that kind of thing.

[08:44] Cindy: Well, and I don't want to have any spoilers but you're mentioning your grandfather makes me think about another aspect of the book I really liked as the story progressed. So I will say that I thought that was very clever and I enjoyed it, but I don't want to ruin it.

[08:57] Cheryl: That's a tease.

[08:59] Cindy: I want to make sure people really want to pick up your book.

[09:03] Cheryl: That's sweet of you, thank you.

[09:05] Cindy: Well, obviously the connection to Birmingham is apparent. How did you decide to set Meghan living in Detroit and coming down to Birmingham?

[09:13] Cheryl: That was my conceit. I'm from Detroit, born and raised there. I write the Charlie Mac Motown Mysteries they're set in Detroit in the mid two thousands. And I have an affinity for Detroit. I've lived in Washington DC. now going on probably 30 years. But I think Detroit is one of those bellwether cities where over the course of American history it shows its head around social issues and political issues and artistic issues. So I set a lot of my books in Detroit. I felt natural I always grew up reading the Detroit Free Press. I thought it was a mighty fine newspaper and it just felt natural to set my young protagonist as a journalist there.

[09:56] Cindy: Cheryl, a couple of times you mentioned a similarity between Birmingham and Detroit.

[10:00] Cheryl: They both have Woodward avenues, which I discovered in writing about Birmingham, Alabama. They both were cities that in their heyday, Birmingham's was called the Magic City in the because of its preeminence in the steel industry. And Detroit, as you know, was the auto industry capital of the world from the 40s through the late sixties. And so they have that manufacturing environment. It's a place that has, I think, really strong communities, lots of single families change around race over the course of the decades. And so I did see a lot of similarities in the city. And I think Birmingham is a fine city and I really like the people there. They're just very kind. That Southern hospitality really shows through if you go there. Now. I was there to visit last year again and I marveled at how sweet like, the young people are in helping older people.

[11:01] Cindy: I'm in Houston. So that whole Southern mentality where everybody's so friendly all the time. But sometimes, as you talk about in Birmingham in your book, that can mask some things. And it definitely was masking some things in Birmingham, I think.

[11:15] Cheryl: So. I do also think that cities must live with their legacy, good or bad. And because Birmingham has been so complicit in institutional racism over its decades I'm talking about post-Civil War and during Jim Crow and Reconstruction up through the Civil Rights era in the 60s that still permeates. I talk about the soul of a city and how the earth kind of holds those secrets there intact. And I'm sure Birmingham wants to rewrite that history in some ways to be seen as a different kind of south. And I think it's there and I think it's on its way. I just think it doesn't shake off easy. Not when you've had decades and decades and decades of being at the heart of some of the pain for African Americans in this country.

[12:11] Cindy: Well, in the whole state of Alabama. I mean, one of the places that definitely it was difficult to be black or travel through there being Black in that window of time.

[12:20] Cheryl: Birmingham was a clan stronghold. It's in a lot of books how much the clan had permeated all the institutions of Birmingham. We know about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. So yes, Alabama has been at the forefront of our struggles around race. And I hope it's part of the solutions around race.

[12:45] Cindy: Absolutely. And the Freedom Rides, when they came through Alabama didn't go well. So, I mean, there's just a variety of things that they do need to come to terms with and it sounds like they are. And that is progress. And it's slow, but you hope they get there eventually.

[12:58] Cheryl: That's exactly right. And then Detroit has its own battles to fight around public image. It certainly was a place where in the late eighty s and ninety s, they really focused on demonizing auto manufacturers, Asian auto manufacturers. And that was a terrible time for Detroit. There were people who were killed around that kind of hate talk. You see it again around COVID. I'd like to pay attention to the things that happened in our history that have changed somewhat or morphed someone somewhat in our current times. But it's so important to remember where we came from and how we got to where we are now.

[13:44] Cindy: And I think it's difficult for cities like Detroit. They filed bankruptcy at one point. There was so much news around the city and how it was falling apart. And I think it's hard to rehab that image because I'm sure Detroit is wonderful now, but I think it sticks in a lot of people's minds. All the things you just talked about, plus the bankruptcy and the white flight or all flight, and just the fact that the city was struggling.

[14:06] Cheryl: Yeah. It's why Cindy. I set my Charlie Mac Motown mysteries in the mid 2000s. That was kind of one of the low points for Detroit. The mayor was under investigation by the FBI. It was on the brink of bankruptcy. The auto industry was not doing well. It's a perfect kind of environment for murder and mayhem and so therefore very good for a crime series. But Detroit is trying to regroup. It has rebuild its downtown. It's very lovely. They put all their sports teams downtown. So they're doing kind of this downtown outward revitalization. However, they have a lot to do with the neighborhoods and the neighborhoods have been so important to Detroit's legacy.

[14:47] Cindy: Absolutely. Well, you referenced earlier, looking back through a lot older newspapers, was that just so fascinating? Not just for the things you discovered, but also just such a glimpse into a specific window in time?

[15:00] Cheryl: Well, you put your finger right on it. It was so helpful to have access to the digital archives of both the mainstream newspapers in Birmingham and a couple of the black newspapers. It did more for me than any other book I read or any article I read because it gives you a glimpse of the day to day life people. I looked at the one ads and the advertisements for clothing and cars and piano lessons and all those kinds of things. I looked at the society pages and the sports pages and it really gave you a glimpse of what the kind of vitality there was in black life in the 20s in Birmingham. At the same time, it was very segregated. There were these Jim Crow laws that Birmingham dubbed black codes. Blacks and whites weren't, for instance, allowed to even play checkers together. So there was deep, deep segregation, deep prejudice. At the same time, black families and black communities were finding joy and finding ways to not only live but thrive in that environment.

[16:08] Cindy: Doesn't that just seem so crazy to you that a white person and a black person couldn't play chess together? I mean, who's going to enforce that?

[16:17] Cheryl: And they did enforce it, believe me. Not only the police, but everyday citizens.

[16:22] Cindy: In your book, there are a number of times where Robert is encountering different issues that he's really worried about. He drives up upon somebody by accident and it has to literally impact every aspect of their life. Anytime they're interacting with a white person, especially some of these that are clearly hate filled. It's a super stressful situation for him. I just would hate that.

[16:44] Cheryl: Can you imagine living with that hourly and daily stress in your life?

[16:49] Cindy: No.

[16:50] Cheryl: Where maybe the only time you sigh of relief is when you get home to your bedroom.

[16:56] Cindy: Yes. You're sitting in peace all by yourself or with your wife and child and knowing that, okay, I'm going to be okay here. As long as someone doesn't show up looking for me for these few hours.

[17:06] Cheryl: I may be okay. It's a miracle to me that high blood pressure hasn't taken more black people out. Living with that daily, daily stress of what interaction might get me killed. And unfortunately, you know, that's we see it today, you know, black people driving in cars who get pulled over and shot and killed by police. It's happening too often that we should.

[17:30] Cindy: Not ignore it way, way too often. And I liked that you included some of those in your book as well because I think it's important to remember that it's happening all the time. And I think it's a little bit like these school shootings, you almost become numb to it because it's just happening all the time. And so it's nice to have that highlighted, focused on a little bit to remember this has been happening for a long time and continues to be happening.

[17:55] Cheryl: And if I can just start a conversation about that through this book, it doesn't have to be hurtful to anyone, but a conversation that we are seeing some of the same kind of actions 100 years later, I think it keeps us focused on the ideals of our democracy. I'm a patriot, true blue. But at the same time, I want to be able to constructively criticize the policies of our country that don't work for all Americans. I'm a little resentful that people on, like, white supremacist groups and hate groups think they can take the flag and make it their symbol. I'm not going to let that happen. That's my symbol, too. The story of black immigration to this country is one framed in slavery and captivity and prejudice and all that's true. And at the same time, we are here and we are patriots and we love this country.

[18:49] Cindy: I'm so glad you mentioned the flag because this has been something that has been driving me crazy for the last four or five years. I too am a patriot, and I love the United States. There are definitely things that need to be fixed, but that doesn't mean I don't love my country. And I feel like the flag has just been hijacked by these crazy people. You see the flag, and it initially almost sends you a bad message. And I have to be like no, reset, there are plenty of great people who love our country, and it's just difficult that it has become a symbol of all of this hate.

[19:21] Cheryl: And I think we have to retake that flag back as a symbol of what it is meant to stand for, a place where all kinds of people have come to this country seeking freedom, seeking liberty and ways to make their lives better. I don't think we give up that symbol to people on the fringe. I'm not willing to do that.

[19:42] Cindy: I agree. And last time around, when they were having elections and we had signs out front, I'd seen a neighbor put a bunch of little flags behind her signs and I was like, oh, that's a great idea. I went and did the same thing. I'm like, I am not going to let the flag be lost to these crazy people.

[19:55] Cheryl: Excellent. That's a great idea. I'll do that next time.

[19:58] Cindy: Yeah, exactly. I was like, we will maintain the flag. Well, what do you hope your readers take away from this book?

[20:05] Cheryl: I hope that they will say to themselves, wow, I didn't know I hadn't thought about the fact that some of the goals of the black lives movement were also at play a century ago, that this notion of excessive force by police is not a new thing. I hope that it will help people think about that differently. I hope it will help readers look at the parts of the book that show black life and black joy and make them smile and make them see themselves in those moments of family and community unity. There are lots of things that we have in similarity. All Americans have in similarity. And I hope they will see those pieces and also be willing to continue a conversation about race and social justice in this country.

[21:01] Cindy: I think that point about how much we share is so valid and is one that needs to be kept at the forefront of the conversation. Because I do feel like as we talk about some of these hate groups, their whole purpose is to try to separate and divide and make these great barriers. And I think to remember we are all way more alike than we are different is a super helpful reminder.

[21:23] Cheryl: And I think there are probably some generational gaps in that knowledge. I think some of our young people understand it better than older people, but I hope it starts a conversation. I think this country will be better and smarter and more relevant to the rest of the world when it has an honest, continuing conversation about how race impacts almost everything we do. And I think I want us to be the best. I think we can get there. I'm kind of Pollyannaish in that way, perhaps.

[21:57] Cindy: I think you're right though. Quit all the infighting and then just pull ourselves together. Yeah, well, I love the title. I always like to talk about titles and covers and it's not only the title of the book, but it's the title of the last chapter. So can we talk a little bit about that?

[22:12] Cheryl: Yeah, I don't know. That title just kind of came to me at one point. I was thinking about going back and forth in time on these chapters and I was thinking about what we talked about earlier, sending about how places have hold their past history in the earth. There's a line in there and it says, the earth holds all the dirt. And I was thinking about how even though times change, memories don't necessarily change and spirit doesn't change. And so at some point it came to me when I was writing it and I remember just sticking it at the top of the story. I think before I had Grandpa's story, the lovely title was Grandpa’s Story. And then the publisher came to me and said, what about this title? Maybe we can come up with a better one. And I thought, I don't think so. I think this is the title. It was one of the moments where it certainly was kind of a spiritual moment for me when I came to that title. And I love that it's there. And every time I think about it, it has more resonance for me. There's an epigraph at the beginning of the book that says memory lasts longer than our lifetimes or something like that. Lifespans got the book. I could read it.

[23:34] Cindy: Our memory is longer than our lifespan. And it's Professor Christie Batson at University of Michigan.

[23:39] Cheryl: Christy Dotson.

[23:40] Cindy: Yes, Dotson okay. Sorry. I don't have my contacts in and.

[23:43] Cheryl: She's a professor of philosophy and epistemology, which is a study of knowledge. I had to look at us, and I think that's such an important thing to understand, that memories go long after our generations die off. I think people can hold memories in their bones. I think the things that happen to us and happen to our communities and happen to our countries reside with us long after we're gone. And that has a lot to do with this. Time’s Undoing. Title. My next book, as a matter of fact, I was thinking about this morning is going to be partly historical and I'm going to talk about memory. It's going to start off, once upon a time, God gave us memories. That's my first line. You're the first to hear this, Cindy.

[24:34] Cindy: I love that I always like being first. I'm the first child in my family, so I'm always like to be the first. Me too. Stays with me my whole life. Well, I think it's a stunning title and I really think it encapsulates the book. And I love the COVID I know we're on a timetable, so I'm just going to tell you I do love the COVID so I just think it's stunning. And every time I see it, I'm like, oh, it's just really beautiful with his face inside of her head and all that. It's just so well done. But before we wrap up, what have you read recently that you really liked?

[25:09] Cheryl: Oh, my goodness. I've read a whole bunch. I was doing judging some contests last year, so I read a whole bunch of mysteries, two that I really think stand out. One just came out earlier this month. E. A. Aymar, No Home for Killers. E.A. is such a stunning thriller writer. He's got a great sense of humor. You see that in the book. And he has a different take on writing crime fiction. And then the other book is one called Shutter by a young native American crime fiction writer, Ramona Emerson. I highly recommend it. It's beautifully written. So many themes in it that just fascinate me. Her protagonist is a police photographer who's Native American. It's a beautiful book. I think it's really getting a lot of awards. I think just got a Pen Faulkner finalist status.

[25:58] Cindy: I've seen it around and it looks like something that would really appeal to me. So you're encouraging me to pick it up.

[26:03] Cheryl: Excellent.

[26:04] Cindy: Well, Cheryl, thank you so much. This was an absolutely delightful conversation, and I can't wait to talk with you next time with the book that you're telling me is coming out that I now know the first line to.

[26:15] Cheryl: Thank you so much for doing such a deep read of the book and asking these great questions Cindy.

[26:19] Cindy: Absolutely. And I can't wait for everybody else to read Time’s Undoing. Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram @thoughtsfromapage, consider joining my Patreon group to access bonus content and support the podcast, and tell all of your friends about the show, and rate it or subscribe to it wherever you listen to your podcasts, I would really appreciate it. The book discussed in this episode can be purchased at my Bookshop storefront, and the link is in the show notes. I hope you'll tune in next time.

Cheryl A. HeadProfile Photo

Cheryl A. Head

Time's Undoing

Cheryl A. Head (she/her) is a writer, television producer, and broadcast executive. She is also the author of the award-winning Charlie Mack Motown mysteries, whose female PI protagonist is queer and Black. Head is an Anthony Award nominee, a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a three-time Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award. Her books are included in the Detroit Public Library’s African American Booklist and in the Special Collections of the Library of Michigan.

In 2019, Head was named to the Hall of Fame of the New Orleans Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, and in 2022, she was awarded the Alice B Readers Appreciation Award. Head is vice chair of the national Bouchercon board of directors. She lives in Washington, DC, with her partner, and with Abby and Frisby, who provide canine supervision.