Carla Jean Whitley is one of the main reasons I call myself a writer. In the four years I’ve known her, she’s been my mentor, friend, confidant and travel companion. While I was interning at Birmingham magazine, she taught me how to approach AP Style (hint: it’s not sneakily or from the side) and ways to make sure my articles didn’t suck.
She’s also the author of “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music,” the managing editor of Birmingham magazine and a prolific freelance writer. During the past year, she finished her yoga teacher training and has kept up a regular practice. And yet she still took the time to answer all of my questions on writing.
Clair McLafferty: Why did you start writing when you were young?
Carla Jean Whitley: I can no longer recall a time when I didn’t write. I suspect my interest was tied to school; I was always a good student, and writing came easily to me. Couple that with positive reinforcement from my teachers and parents, and it’s no wonder I kept at it.
CM: What kept you interested?
CJW: That positive reinforcement went a long way, and probably fueled my interest up through high school. I also discovered at an early age that I’m excited by sharing ideas, whether my own or those of others. Now, more than a decade into my career, I believe even more strongly in the power of storytelling. Some journalists come to the field because they want to change the world. I ended up here because I like writing and fiction didn’t come naturally to me. However, I’ve seen people better understand their communities because of articles I wrote, and that’s humbling and exhilarating.
CJW: I’ve worked in journalism for more than a decade, and so I’m accustomed to reporting and writing (and doing so quickly). I expected writing a book would be similar, albeit stretched over a longer time frame with a much higher word count.
CM: What were some of the best parts?
CJW: Easily, the most fun was reading old Rolling Stone album reviews and periodically realizing songs I love had been recorded in my home state. I already knew about a number of them, of course, but I had no idea George Michael had tracked a version of “Careless Whisper” here.
CM: How has it been received?
CJW: The reception has exceeded my expectations! Just this morning–nearly four months after the book’s release–I signed 170 copies for a single order. I’m fortunate that so many people are interested in this story, and I think that’s a testament to the incredible music recorded there.
CJW: It’s a constant struggle. My primary role is managing editor at Birmingham magazine, and I frequently check myself to ensure I’m not neglecting my duties. I’m fortunate to work with supportive people and in a flexible environment, but that could be a recipe for disaster if I weren’t vigilant about getting my work done and maintaining the magazine as my No.-1 professional priority.
CJW: I’ve got a second book, a history of beer in Birmingham, scheduled for release in the spring. That, too, will be published by The History Press. After that, who knows? While history is immensely satisfying to research and write, my true love is narrative nonfiction. I’m always brainstorming ways to move in that direction, and perhaps blend the two.