UW-Eau Claire professor wins award for published novel

English professor’s book speaks about pieces of history that may go unnoticed


WRITING FOR RIGHTS: UW-Eau Claire English professor B. J. Hollars won an award for his novel on fighting for civil rights in Alabama. It was published last spring. © 2014 Zack Katz

Story by Zack Katz, Currents Editor

Award-winning author and Assistant Professor of English at UW-Eau Claire B.J. Hollars is continuing his run with “Opening the Doors: the Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa.”

Hollars is set to receive the Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award for his novel, which was published in spring of last year.

“During my last year at Alabama I had to write a thesis, and I asked myself, ‘What do I want to take away from this place or leave behind?’” Hollars said.

While teaching an African-American literature course in his last semester in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Hollars said he was shocked to find the majority of his students were unaware of the historical Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.

“We were in a classroom 100 yards from where the scene took place, and yet my room full of students had very little understanding of the historical events that had transpired,” Hollars said. “I told myself I wasn’t going to leave this university without at least trying to tell this important story.”

Hollars said he dedicated a portion of his book to the students of that term after learning from his experience with them.

Having written on issues of race relations in the past, Hollars said this novel was a long time coming for him. Walking around the University of Alabama library, he was directed to an atomic-age emergency water bottle that sparked an interest in his mind.

“From that point I saw the fears transferred from the atom bomb to racial violence, scapegoating and things of that nature,” Hollars said. “As a writer you never know exactly where you’re going to end up.”

Hollars said he was fortunate to be able to conduct research in a personal manner, beginning by walking around his former home city and going to the doorsteps of affected citizens with questions.

With more than 60 pages of notes and index, Hollars said the amount of research he put in was shocking.

“The issue was so important to me that I tried to leave no stone unturned,” Hollars said. “I talked to community leaders, former students and the editor of the newspaper among others … there were so many different perspectives to pick up on.”

While senior broadcast journalism major Ginna Roe said she hasn’t had the experience Hollars has, she’s not unfamiliar with his area of study.

She participated in several of Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimages.

During her experience, Roe talked to key members of the civil rights movement, such as a Freedom Rider and the former police chief of the Montgomery Police Department.

“I think that we have different dynamics in our school,” Roe said. “Being that we’re a majority white school it makes the issues seem less relevant when in fact it’s not. It’s just that we’re not recognizing it because of the lack of diversity at our university.”

Though her trip took her far away from Eau Claire, Roe said race relation is universal, and subjects of Hollars’s novel brings her experience home.

“Going into historical places where you know so much has happened when you’ve never been exposed to it before is daunting and eye-opening,” Roe said. “It’s powerful to put yourself in that position and to make yourself feel in some ways uncomfortable.”

Associate Dean of Students Jodi Thesing-Ritter assisted in coordinating the Pilgrimage Roe and other UW-Eau Claire students embark on twice yearly. She said Hollars’s novel is particularly striking because it calls on everyone, not just social figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, to take action.

“I love that he’s approaching it with the mind that civil rights work can be in any career you do, it’s not just for social workers,”  Thesing-Ritter said. “If someone doesn’t take to time to capture the stories, they can be lost … the approach BJ took in his book was careful to encompass the entire picture.”

For his next act, Hollars will be writing a novel about Eau Claire specifically, he said.

“I really do happen to write about where I happen to be,” Hollars said. “I think these stories transcend boundary lines, we don’t have to go that far to find our own stories of racial violence.”