Paula Meseroll is a public relations professional and award-winning freelance writer/editor/columnist whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Syracuse University Magazine, UB Today, Central New Yorker Magazine, and All Kids Considered. A summa cum laude graduate of Marywood University with a degree in communication arts/public relations, Meseroll is director of marketing and communications at Syracuse University. She’s here today to talk about Flossie Turner Lewis and their new book, Little Hot Mama.
How did you first learn about Flossie Turner Lewis?
I met Flossie at the Laubach Literacy/Literacy Volunteers of America national conference held in San Diego in 2002. Flossie had won the National Award For Excellence as the Outstanding Student of the Year and as the editor of Laubach Literacy’s newsletter, LitScape, I had the chance to interview her. As a long-time reporter and freelance writer, I know a good story when I hear one and Flossie’s had everything — family conflict, the glamour of show business, a woman’s struggle to make a life for herself and her children on her own while being unable to read or write. I also saw her hold a room full of people spellbound as she gave her award acceptance speech, telling of her life in show business and her struggle with illiteracy. She is, in a word, amazing.
For those readers who aren’t familiar with her name, please tell us who Flossie Turner Lewis is.
Flossie Turner Lewis began delighting audiences with songs and dances in 1935, when she was just two years old. Known by her stage name “Little Hot Mama,” she was the child of black show business stars Hot Papa and Dolly Turner. Flossie, along with her sister LuLu B. and brother Junior, traveled with their parents and performed as the Turner Family Revue. Her own show business career lasted for more than 40 years. She performed on the carnival and chitlin circuits, in speakeasies and minstrel shows, and in the swank nightclubs of Miami’s Overtown where the Turner Family shared venues with other black entertainment greats of the day. From the Deep South to Miami, Puerto Rico, and Los Angeles, Flossie lived her life as a performer, a mother, an eyewitness to racial discrimination and turmoil, and a woman who could not read or write — until she decided to learn how at the age of 65. She is now almost 78, has earned an honorary high school diploma, is the most requested speaker for the United Way in Fayetteville, North Carolina, has lobbied Congress and state legislatures on behalf of literacy organizations, and is much in demand as a commencement speaker.
How did Little Hot Mama, your book co-written with Flossie Turner Lewis come about?
At the literacy conference, we exchanged business cards and I told Flossie if she wanted to work together to write her memoir, I would be happy to do so. When the conference was over, I went back home to Syracuse and got busy with other projects. Several months later, I found her card in a desk drawer and decided to give her a call. She told me other writers had offered to work with her to tell her story. She said she had to pray about me to see if I was the one she should work with and she’d let me know. A few days later, she called me back and said the answer was yes.
Who’s your target audience?
Flossie’s story is interesting on so many levels that practically anyone would find it a great read. Literacy students, tutors, people interested in African American, black entertainment, and women’s history would all be especially enthralled.
What would you like readers to get out of the book?
Most of all, I would like people to be entertained. That is the basis of everything Flossie did in her show business life — for the Turner Family, despite poverty, hunger, and her father’s gambling addiction, the show really did have to go on. I hope readers will be as deeply moved as I am by her story.
What makes this woman’s story so special?
Flossie’s story is the inspiring tale of one woman’s struggle to make a successful life for herself and her children, despite the roadblocks of racism and illiteracy. Her first-person accounts of life on the minstrel show and chitlin circuit are a part of American history that perhaps no other living person can tell.
Flossie is an astoundingly strong woman who refused to be defeated by circumstance. She met everything life threw at her and overcame it all. The book has moments of intense pain and anguish — such as Flossie’s experience of being a poor, black single mother with a brain-damaged child, as well as the night when Flossie’s beloved mother died in her arms. But there are also parts where readers will literally laugh out loud — many of the hilarious plot shows that the Turner Family was famous for are described in detail. There are 35 pages of photos of Flossie, her family, and the entertainers they worked with.
Tell us about the actual writing process of this book. What was it like working with Flossie?
Since Flossie lives in North Carolina and I live in upstate New York, we did all of our interviews by phone. Some nights we spoke for a few minutes, other times for hours. We laughed and cried together as she dredged up memories she’d submerged for decades — to get the details, I asked about many things she didn’t want to think about because the memories were too painful. Flossie likes to say that I know more about her than she does. Her recollections are intensely vivid — her family became so real to me that I actually dreamed about them at night. I have literally hundreds of hours of taped interviews which were made over the course of more than a year. During that time, we became more than collaborators. We are very good friends. Then came the hard part — organizing Flossie’s sometimes chaotic life into a readable manuscript and writing her story.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Flossie and I could not be more different — she’s African American, I’m white. I’ve been reading since before I started kindergarten, words were just jumbles to her until she was in her late 60s. I graduated from college with highest honors; Flossie’s schooling was practically non-existent most of her life. There were times I had to research what she told me — names, dates, places — because she didn’t know how to spell them. Her life was so vastly different than mine that I literally had to submerge my own personality to write in Flossie’s voice. In that, I think I was successful — more than one person who has read the book has asked me if I am African American because I had the words and usage so right.
Where is the book available?
Little Hot Mama: The Flossie Turner Lewis Story is available on Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book. It is also available as an e-book to libraries to purchase for unlimited lending to patrons.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers?
Flossie and I, our literary agent, Leticia Gómez, and our publisher, Stay Thirsty Media, have joined together to donate 50 cents from the sale of every digital copy of our book to The Flossie Turner Lewis Literacy Fund at ProLiteracy to support the most worthy cause of adult literacy.
Read more about Flossie Turner Lewis and “Little Hot Mama”: