Last year, Valerie Boyd was sitting in on an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker when the subject of her personal journals came up.
Walker had been rifling through the journals, part of the extensive archive the author placed at Emory University in late 2007, and was at her wit’s end. The author was complaining about how cumbersome the task was when Boyd piped up.
“Why are you doing it yourself?” she asked. “You should have someone go through them with you.”
“I’d love to have someone work with me on it,” Walker said.
Thus began Boyd’s journey through five decades of Walker’s life — which is also the subject of a BronzeLens Film Festival documentary titled “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.” Boyd, a University of Georgia journalism professor and author of “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston,” will moderate a talkback following the 6 p.m. screening Wednesday at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center in Atlanta.
“We had this moment of clicking,” recalled Boyd. The following night the two met to hash out the details.
At the Floataway Café that night, over a meal of oysters and white wine, they talked about how they would work together, and soon sealed the deal with a high five.
“We’re going to do this,” they said.
For most of her life, Boyd had admired Walker, like many young aspiring writers of her generation.
“I remember reading her short stories in high school,” Boyd said over a latte at Inman Perk Coffee. “When “The Color Purple” was published during my second year in college, I was blown away.”
Indeed, as recently as 10 years ago Boyd was no more than a “trembling fan,” standing in line waiting with everyone else for Walker to autograph her latest book.
“Now I can say she’s a friend and colleague and mentor,” Boyd said, still in awe. “It’s like wow, yes, this is happening to me.”
The truth is, Boyd’s relationship with Walker began long before that fateful conversation in Atlanta in October 2012.
Because Walker had placed a marker at Hurston’s grave and in 1975 had written an essay about the late author that jump-started the revival of interest in her work, Boyd sought Walker’s blessing when she began work on Hurston’s biography.
Boyd went to Spelman College professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Walker’s friend since they met as Spelman students in the 1960s. The respected feminist scholar arranged a meeting with Walker.
“I told her I was writing a biography of Hurston,” recalled Boyd, a former editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” “She touched my face and said ‘Bless you my child.’ ”
When “Wrapped in Rainbows” was published in 2003, Walker gave it her blessing.
“The research and interpretation of events is breathtaking, the writing precise and beautiful,” she wrote. “The book takes such a warm, honest, all encompassing and wise view of its subject, that I read it from start to finish as though reading an adventure tale… Boyd has done justice to a dauntless spirit and a heroic life.”
And so, when Boyd offered to help sift through her journals, Walker knew it was a perfect literary match.
“That’s why it was such a shorthand conversation,” Boyd said.
With input from Walker, Boyd wrote an 80-page book proposal, using big chunks of excerpts from the journals. Her literary agent, Joy Harris, then sent the proposal to about a dozen publishers. They signed with 37 Ink, a new Simon & Schuster imprint that recently published the best-selling “The Butler: A Witness to History.”
“What’s amazing is that these are her personal journals. It’s not even her going back and reflecting; it’s real-time stuff reflected on the page, unvarnished,” Boyd said. “Young women will read this book and say, ‘Wow, Alice Walker went through the same kinds of challenges I’m facing. Maybe it will turn out OK for me, too,’” she said, marveling at Walker’s willingness to be “so brave and yet so vulnerable” in allowing excerpts from her journals to be published. “What a great example for those of us who are in our 40s and 50s who long to be that free.”
Scheduled for publication in 2017, “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker” will trace Walker’s life from a sharecropper’s shack in Eatonton, Ga., to becoming a cultural icon.
“I can’t help feeling the imprint of ancestors on the happy occurrence that Valerie Boyd has emerged to stand beside me as I tackle the work of transcribing and publishing my journals of over fifty years,” Walker said in a press release. “We anticipate a satisfying and joyful collaboration.”
And their meeting this week for the screening promises to be just as rewarding. Both Walker and director Pratibha Parmar will participate in the discussion after the film, which features interviews of close friends, including Angela Davis, Quincy Jones, and Steven Spielberg, who in 1985 transformed Walker’s groundbreaking novel “The Color Purple” into a Hollywood movie.
“Beauty in Truth,” Parmar’s documentary, “is pretty amazing,” Boyd said. “I saw it at the world premiere in London, so I’m excited to moderate the first major screening in the Southeast.”
Walker still has many relatives in Georgia, Boyd said. “I’m eager to see how Atlanta responds to the film. Every time Alice Walker makes an appearance here, it feels like a homecoming.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.