Sugarland: Who is Eve Riser?

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message 1: by Martha (last edited May 09, 2018 12:55PM) (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Who is Eve Riser? The Inspiration Behind the Character

I had been writing the manuscript of what would become Sugarland for over a year when I realized that I was more interested in Eve Riser—who was at that point a secondary character—than the main character, Lena Hardy.

Eve is a struggling artist, and I identified with that. A musician and composer in the Roaring Twenties, Eve faces not only battles racial prejudice, but sexism as well.

And her character was inspired by a real person: Mary Lou Williams.

Mary Lou Williams, an extraordinary jazz pianist and composer, was born in 1910, almost a decade after the fictional character of Eve Riser in my novel Sugarland, but her talent and pluck and beauty all served as a model for Eve. Like Eve, Mary Lou grew up mainly in Pittsburgh, and in high school left her family of origin to live with an aunt. Also like Eve, she began her career playing piano on the music circuit, traveling on train from town to town with a jazz band.

As a child, Mary Lou faced enormous challenges: poverty, racial prejudice, alcoholic parents, neglect. Yet by all accounts, as an adult she tried to help desperate people all her life, usually musicians, with empathy and patience. She had true depth of character, and I could envision her searching for her missing stepsister, even when injured, with courage and persistence, just as my fictional character Eve does.

But it was Mary Lou’s life in music that initially drew me to her.

The life of a professional jazz musician was and is a difficult one, especially for women. It was harder for women to find work, and they were always played less. When Art Tatum played piano one evening in an after-hours place in Cleveland, he was paid fifty dollars. Mary Lou Williams played right after Tatum, and she was paid five dollars.

In addition to the pay discrepancy, women faced constant harassment from club owners, managers, and even audience members. You had to be tough to stay in the game.

Mary Lou was born in Atlanta— “some say our house was built on a sunken cemetery”—but as a young child her family moved to Pittsburgh where she became known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” Her first professional gig was for an undertaker, and later she played dances and society parties for a dollar an hour plus tips. Occasionally she was an accompanist for silent movies, and once in a while she played the piano at whorehouses. Like so many professional musicians, she learned her trade by playing as often as she could find a job, no matter what the job was.

The difference between Mary Lou and most of the other female musicians of the time was that she never stopped looking for those jobs.

And she never stopped honing her craft. In one interview, she relates how she practiced certain techniques by playing along with piano rolls on player pianos. By the time she was twenty-one, Mary Lou had become a composer and arranger for Andy Kirk’s band, “Twelve Clouds of Joy.” (Also, the chauffeur.) Her arrangements inspired other musicians, including Thelonius Monk.

I wanted my character Eve to have Mary Lou’s resilience and determination. At the onset of Sugarland, Eve has to cover up a murder, outwit a would-be thief, and perform with a new band in a speakeasy—all within 24 hours. And after that, even more gets thrown her way. (It is, after all, a mystery!) But throughout it all, Eve is tied to her music. That was important to me. She is a modern woman with a burning desire to be creative. And when romance strikes, Eve finds it with a man who feels the way she feels about music, too.

In later years, Mary Lou said, “I never thought about anything but the music inside of me. I guess what happened to me was really unusual for a woman, as during that time, a woman was supposed to stay home in the kitchen.”

Eve could not have said it better.

message 2: by Rebecca, Champagne Widows, 2021 (new)

Rebecca Rosenberg (rebeccarosenberg) | 270 comments Mod
Love this background! I'd like to feature SUGARLAND on by FIERC WOMEN FRIDAY BLOG!

message 3: by Martha (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Rebecca wrote: "Love this background! I'd like to feature SUGARLAND on by FIERCE WOMEN FRIDAY BLOG!"

Gladly! I'll send you the post.

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