QUEENIE’S PLACE: An Interview with Toni Morgan

Toni Morgan
Toni Morgan (Photo courtesy Toni Morgan, Author/Facebook)

Toni Morgan is an artist and author of six novels, including Queenie’s Place, the compelling story of a military family who is reassigned from California to North Carolina during the 1970s, only to find themselves at odds with practically everyone. We are so delighted she can stop by and chat with us today, and we hope you enjoy this exclusive interview! –J&H

J&H: Toni, welcome! To begin with, I must tell you that I could not put your book down. So much of what happens here I can identify with, especially as a native Californian who was moved to the South as a child. But before we get to all that, I want to start by asking one thing: When you think of the 70s, what do they represent to you?

TM: A lot happened in my life during the 70s.  In January of ’71, my youngest son was born.  In ’72 my husband left for his 2nd 13-month tour in Vietnam, leaving me with four young children and a Bassett Hound. When he returned, we were off to North Carolina (where just like Doreen, I saw that Welcome to Klan Country sign) and two Bassett Hounds, followed by a tour in Maryland and ending the decade in Japan.  Politics dominated much of those years.  My husband used to say I was a commie and I’d counter that he was somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. As you can imagine, we had a lot of spirited conversations about politics and always cancelled each other’s votes. Like today, the nation was divided over politics, Vietnam, Watergate, and race relations. Now it’s war in the ME, politics and race relations.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to change.     

J&H: Now tell us a little bit about Doreen Donovan and Queenie. How do these women fit into the world during that time?

TM: A lot of people assume Doreen is me and that Queenie’s Place is memoir.  I’m sorry to say that isn’t so. Although we shared some of the same experiences, Doreen is the woman I wish I’d had the courage to be. I spent some time in the south before Civil Rights legislation. I would often take the bus home from work, where “Colored” were instructed to be seated in the rear.  I was outraged and would often fantasize about moving to the back of the bus, but lacked the courage to do so.  One of life’s regrets. Queenie is a compilation of women I met or worked with over the years or read about. Wouldn’t you have loved knowing her personally? Me, too.    

J&H: As I mentioned at the onset, the Donovans are a military family. What are some unique complications and difficulties military families often face and how does this play out in Queenie’s Place

TM: As my children grew older, as with Billy, changing schools was one of the most difficult things for them, I think.  But, on the plus side, what experiences.  It was before the internet, of course, so before we moved, I’d write to the Chamber of Commerce for insight into wherever we were going and encouraging the kids to believe we were on a new adventure. I actually loved moving—in fact, I’m now preparing to move back to Oregon.  On the downside, military families are always on the move—I can’t begin to count the cross-country moves we made—so friendships often were made quickly, but not deeply.  I think my kids may regret not having formed the lifelong friendships their cousins made.  On the other hand, how could you regret living almost four years in rural Japan? We all loved it.

J&H: Relocating—even from one side of the country to another—comes with challenges for the Donovans. How do you use differences in locale (views on race, culture, and even food) to propel your story?

TM: For a writer, every experience and emotion is grist for the mill. I grew up in the Northwest, and experiencing the racism I witnessed in North Carolina, even after Civil Rights legislation, and Florida, when Jim Crow was still alive and well, was a shock I never got over. When we were in North Carolina the second time, this time in the early ‘80s, my neighbor called me one day and asked if I would come and pick her up as her car had broken down. She gave me directions, but before hanging up whispered, “And please hurry. This place is weird.” When I got to the address she’d given me, a couple of miles out of town, the place didn’t look weird.  Just a house. With flowers around it.  It was a brothel.  We giggled all the way home, of course, planning what we’d tell our husbands. But I thought about that place for years, wondering what the women’s lives were that led them there, and what they thought of two middleclass White women dropping into their midst.  It was with that experience in mind that I wrote Queenie’s Place. Although I wrote Queenie’s place as a roadhouse that catered to Black marines from the base, in my mind it was that house with the flowers leading to the front door.

J&H: One of my favorite characters is Aunt Honey. She reminds me of so many women I knew growing up, and you capture her essence so well. Tell us, how does she come by her name and how does her attitude toward bees reflect her attitude toward people?

TM: There is a legend about a little girl falling asleep and waking up covered by bees. I used that to create Aunt Honey, who, like bees, could have a bit of a sting. But, once she trusted someone, the stinger retracted.  Her store was the gathering place of the community, and she was like the queen bee at its center. 

J&H: Why is the theme of sisterhood important here, and in what ways are Doreen and Queenie sisters?

TM: Like a true friend, Queenie accepted Doreen despite all Doreen’s carefully hidden fears and flaws, and in return, Doreen would go to great lengths to defend Queenie and her place. And it was not one-way. Queenie invited Doreen into her world and showed her what it was like to grow up and live in the Jim Crow south, and what true acceptance looked like. I loved writing Queenie’s memories of her childhood.

My husband, by-the-way, was an EOD officer—explosive ordnance disposal—and often worked with federal agents. During the seventies, in the south, there were many bombings of Black churches, some like the events described in Queenie’s Place.  

J&H: In what way are we all prostitutes, according to Doreen? And what makes her so determined to fight, even when her car is defaced and so many people pressure her to give up?

TM: I think Doreen meant that we all sometimes fail to live up to our principles.  Like me not having the courage to move to the back of the bus as I wanted to do. Doreen, who had the courage I didn’t, wouldn’t give up because of her determination not to let her friends down. It was in her nature to fight for, stand up, for what she perceived as right despite the unexpected consequences. (Maybe not so unexpected had she been less blinded by her own perceptions and less determined to make the world a better place.)

J&H: How closely does this novel represent your own experiences and do you think this story is still relevant today?

TM: As I said earlier, for a writer, every experience is grist for the writing mill.  Doreen and I had many shared experiences—military Hail & Farewells were always fun. I’m sure I could walk into one today and feel right at home.  Moving from one coast to the other, one culture to another, one climate to another, can be both enlightening and a shock to the system. Like people, military bases have personalities, I found. Some open and welcoming, others not so much.  

As to the story being relative today, we cannot forget our history of racism. Jim Crow laws may be gone, but, as a friend once said, “There may not be a sign out front, but we still know where we’re not welcome.” I hope the BLM movement will finally bring an end society’s unfair treatment of anyone based on their ethnicity. As I said in my dedication of Queenie’s Place, it was meant to honor “all military spouses, current and former, and to all Queenie’s, black, brown, white or yellow, searching for their place in this world.” I hope Queenie’s Place lived up to that wish.

J&H: The book is Queenie’s Place and the author is Toni Morgan. Toni, thank you so much for stopping by today. It was a joy to chat with you. This is an important book, and I really hope everyone reads it. Please come back again next time.

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ABOUT QUEENIE’S PLACE

Toni Morgan's QUEENIE'S PLACE
Adelaide Books Publishers

Queenie’s Place, set in rural North Carolina in the early seventies, is the story of an unusual sisterhood between a thirty-something white woman from California and a fifty-something black woman from the south.

From the moment Doreen Donavan sees the “Welcome to Klan Country” sign outside Goldsboro, North Carolina, she is one culture shock after another. She thinks the women she meets on the military base, where she and her family now live, are the dullest, stuffiest, most stuck-up women she’s ever run across, and frankly, they don’t think much of her either. She’s hot, miserable, and bored.

Then one day, BAM, her car tire goes flat, right in front of a roadhouse outside the town of Richland, near where MCB Camp Puller is located. Inside, Queenie is holding forth at the piano. The place is jumping. Besides the music, there’s dancing and the best barbecue in North Carolina. Doreen’s husband, Tom arrives and must practically peel her out of the place.

Queenie doesn’t expect to see Doreen again, but Doreen comes back and their unlikely friendship begins. Without warning, Queenie’s place is closed, the women accused of prostitution and bootlegging.

A born crusader (she cut her teeth demonstrating against the Vietnam War—yes, even with her husband over there), Doreen quickly dons her armor and saddles up. Things don’t go quite as planned.

Toni Morgan
Toni Morgan

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A longtime military spouse, Toni Morgan has lived in many parts of the US and also for nearly four years in rural Japan. There she had the good fortune to work part-time in a Japanese pottery factory. That rich experience led to the first in her WWII trilogy, Echoes from a Falling Bridge, which gives a unique view of life in rural Japan during the war. Second in the trilogy is Harvest the Wind, partially set in a Japanese internment camp in Idaho’s Magic Valley. The third in the series is Lotus Blossom Unfurling, which continues the saga after the war ends.

She also wrote Patrimony, and TwoHearted Crossing, companion books set in Montreal Quebec Canada during the Quebec Separatist Movement and 20 years later, in northern Idaho. Her novel Queenie’s Place is a 2019 National Book Award in Literature nominee.

Her short stories have appeared in various literary magazines and journals, and her short story “Tin Soldier” was included in Mooring Against the Tide, a creative fiction and poetry textbook published by Prentice Hall. Her most recent release is Between Love and Hate, a collection of short stories, including Pushcart Prize nominee “The House on East Orange Street” and the aforementioned “Tin Soldier.”

For more information, visit ToniMorganBooks.com, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.

QUEENIE’S PLACE
By Toni Morgan
302 pp. Adelaide Books Publishers. $22.30.

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Purchase Queenie’s Place direct from Jathan & Heather Books or from one of these other fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Half Price Books, IndieBound, or Powell’s.

Queenie’s Place is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

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About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

One Response to QUEENIE’S PLACE: An Interview with Toni Morgan

  1. Amy Bruno says:

    Thank you so much for hosting Toni + Queenie’s Place! I loved, loved, loved this interview!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

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