You may hear that old adage “You’re never too old to try something new,” and scoff. Or shuffle off to play shuffleboard.
Tracy Sugarman takes it to heart.
The Westport icon — a famous illustrator for 40 years, who published 3 non-fiction books about his experiences as a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement, and 1 based on his service as an officer in World War II (including storming the beach on D-Day) — has just written his 1st novel.
He’s 91 years old.
Nobody Said Amen is the fictionalized tale of 2 families — one white, one black — as they navigate the challenges of social change in the Mississippi Delta.
It’s a story of fighting for the right to vote, the Ku Klux Klan, and love. They’re not easy topics to write about — but Tracy Sugarman was there.
He was already in his 40s when he traveled to Ruleville, Mississippi in 1964 and ’65. His training group included 3 young men named Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. On Tracy’s 2nd day in Mississippi, they disappeared.
He’d headed south as an artist, intending to draw the scenes he saw. “I was an observer for about 2 hours,” he says. “Then I become a participant. This was way too important to be a voyeur.”
Tracy’s involvement in the civil rights era changed his life. He developed a deep friendship with Fannie Lou Hamer. She and many other movement leaders visited his Westport home.
Two of Tracy’s books — Stranger at the Gates and We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns — chronicled the civil rights era. My War was a collection of letters and drawings he’d sent to his young wife, June, during the harrowing days of World War II. Drawing Conclusions was his rendition, in words and pictures, of the biggest historical, societal and cultural stories of his time.
For nearly 90 years, he never imagined writing fiction.
But as he worked on Drawing Conclusions — it was published 5 years ago, when he was “just” 86 — he figured it might be fun to try a novel.
It took 2 years (though, he points out, “I did other things too”).
“I was charmed by this world I was inventing,” Tracy says of the writing process. “People just showed up, and insisted on being in it. They were characters I’d never met!”
He had no idea how the story would end. But — as with everything he’s done — Tracy made it all work out.
His publisher — Syracuse University Press — liked Amen. But after a change of editors, they decided fiction was not right for an academic publisher.
Tracy asked Maxine Bleiweis about self-publishing. The Westport Library director put Tracy in touch with David Wilk, a Westonite and expert in the field.
More importantly, it’s on Amazon — in paperback and Kindle.
If it’s surprising to learn that a 91-year-old has self-published a book available on e-readers, you don’t know Tracy Sugarman. He looks, sounds — and thinks — like the young people he so admires.
“All these young kids put themselves in harm’s way,” he says of the Freedom Riders. “They thrived, survived, and changed Mississippi.”
That experienced reinforced an idea he’d had since World War II, 2 decades earlier: “Only young people can change the country. They’re wonderfully inspiring. They certainly changed my life.”
So, as he closes in on a century of living, what’s next?
“Everyone says you’re very old to write a novel,” Tracy says. “Well, I don’t feel it!” He’s ready for plenty of new challenges.
“You’re as young as you feel” is one adage Tracy Sugarman proves true.
Here’s another: “You’re never too old to try something new.”
(Tracy Sugarman will discuss Nobody Said Amen at the Westport Library this Saturday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. Books will be available for purchase and signing.)