Behind The Words With Leo Daughtry

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We’re welcoming debut author Leo Daughtry to the blog. His release Talmadge Farm explores life in the 1950’s Southern tobacco era.

What inspired you to write “Talmadge Farm?” 

I lived through changing times, particularly the 1950s when there was nearly complete segregation in the South, especially in rural areas. Sharecropping was common, and women did not divorce in those times because it was considered demeaning, a failure. Then in the 1960s, everything began to change. Sharecropping disappeared, birth control entered the picture, and women could live life with more freedom and less dependence on men.

Can you tell us more about your family history and its connection to North Carolina and tobacco? How did this environment influence your writing? Beyond the direct associations with tobacco and North Carolina, are there more subtle aspects of your upbringing and family history that influenced your writing? 

Tobacco was king in North Carolina. People practically worshiped it. Where I grew up, it put food on the table. Cotton was more up and down, but tobacco provided financial stability, not just for farmers but for the whole community. My family grew tobacco, sold fertilizer and seed, and managed a tobacco auction. It was our whole world.

You have had a successful career as a lawyer and an Air Force Captain before that. What prompted you to pursue writing fiction? 

I always had the idea for this particular story in my head. The 1950s and 1960s were two decades that changed the world, and a farm with sharecroppers is a bit of a pressure cooker environment. You have the farmowner’s family – in many cases people of wealth and entitlement – living just down the driveway from the sharecropping families. The sharecroppers were poor and had limited options, so they felt stuck living on a farm that didn’t belong to them doing backbreaking work with no way out. It’s a situation that lends itself to drama: families with major differences in class/race/socioeconomic status living in such close proximity to one another.

How has the landscape of tobacco farming changed, and how did you incorporate those changes into the plot of “Talmadge Farm?”  

Probably the biggest change was the shift from sharecropping to migrant workers. Today, tobacco farmers are large corporations that use migrant workers as laborers. But in the 1950s, farming relied almost completely on sharecropping, which was a hard life. Tobacco farming is physically demanding work, and sharecroppers needed the help of all family members to complete the various steps – planting, seeding, suckering, priming, worming, and cropping – of harvesting the crop. Sharecroppers at one farm would help sharecroppers at the neighboring farm because they did not have the resources to hire extra people. In the 1950s, sharecroppers were unable to get credit anywhere but at the general store and maybe the feed store. They truly lived hand to mouth all the time, only able to pay their debts after the tobacco auction in the fall. Hence the phrase “sold my soul to the company store.” Sharecroppers often turned to moonshining as a way to make extra money.

As I describe in the novel, sharecropping began to disappear in the 1960s as children of sharecroppers started taking advantage of new opportunities that the changing society offered. Migrant workers took over the labor of farming. In addition to labor changes, new machinery improved the industry. N.C. State was instrumental in developing advances in the farming world. Legislation changed and farmers were allowed to have acreage allotments outside of the land they owned. I touch on all of these changes in the novel.

Are any of the characters in your book based on real people? 

Not really. The closest characters to real people in my life are the characters of Jake and Bobby Lee. Jake is a Black teenager who wants to escape farm life and ends up running away to Philadelphia to become a success. Bobby Lee is a young Black soldier stationed at Fort Bragg. On the farm where I grew up, there was a Black sharecropping family with four sons, the youngest of whom was my age. We were very good friends. All of the boys were bright and athletic, could fix anything, yet were limited in their opportunities. They didn’t have a school to go to or a job to look forward to. Their only options were to stay on the farm or join the army. The character of Gordon, while not based on any one person, reminds me of a lot of men I knew who did not treat women well, who were racist, who enjoyed the status quo and were resistant to anything that threatened their way of life.

Thank you for dropping by today and sharing a look inside Talmadge Farm, and the American landscape of tobacco, and a historical look at the American South.

Readers, Leo’s novel Talmadge Farm has just released. Here’s a quick look:::

It’s 1957, and tobacco is king. Wealthy landowner Gordon Talmadge enjoys the lavish lifestyle he inherited but doesn’t like getting his hands dirty; he leaves that to the two sharecroppers – one white, one Black – who farm his tobacco but have bigger dreams for their own children. While Gordon takes no interest in the lives of his tenant farmers, a brutal attack between his son and the sharecropper children sets off a chain of events that leaves no one unscathed. Over the span of a decade, Gordon struggles to hold on to his family’s legacy as the old order makes way for a New South.

TALMADGE FARM is a sweeping drama that follows three unforgettable families navigating the changing culture of North Carolina at a pivotal moment in history. A love letter to the American South, the novel is a story of resilience, hope, and family – both lost and found.