Ladd is a retired educator who was most recently the director of Harvard's Bunting Institute, a postgraduate study center for female scholars and artists. She returned her advance, ended her relationship with Bancroft Press, and looked for a new home for her novel, the story of a black American living in Paris who connects with the ghost of dancer Josephine Baker. After a workshop at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts—“it's not just for yoga,” Ladd says—she decided to publish the book herself.
The book has already drawn strong endorsements. Barbara Chase-Riboud, the author of Sally Hemings: A Novel and Hottentot Venus, says that “Ladd reveals a heroic, contradictory figure, military hero and frivolous spendthrift, instinctive creature of luxury and extravagance and dedicated humanist.” Trica Danielle Keaton, editor of Black Paris/Paris Noire, says that the book “is sure to resonate with anyone who cherishes family and treasures Paris,” while Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow, calls it “beautiful from cover to cover.”
Ladd had already published several books with both trade and academic publishers, but her previous novel, Sarah's Psalm, came out from Atria nearly two decades ago, long before CreateSpace was an option for authors. Being responsible for the entire process, Ladd found, “is very hands-on,” an experience that “allows one to put one's signature on the entire work.” She was particularly pleased to have complete control over the cover, which was designed by her husband, an artist.
Although Ladd has no complaints about self-publishing—the only drawback, she says, is, “if one doesn't hire a copy editor, relying on one's own eye to catch errata”—but she is not sure she will publish any more novels under her Cote-d'Or Press label. Her next project, Jason Henderson's Senior Year, will be published by Atria in 2015. Ladd calls the book, which draws inspiration from the 2009 incident in which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was stopped by police while trying to enter his own house, “my most ambitious fictional attempt.”
Another project, though, may send Ladd back to self-publishing: She is working on a suite of poems about her maternal great-grandmother, who was born in 1836 and spent her life as a slave, even after emancipation, on a small island on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Although many people, including Ladd's agent, have suggested telling Rose's story as historical fiction, Ladd is certain that poetry is the right format for exploring the life of a woman who maintained an independent spirit despite her enslavement, naming her children after the white men who fathered them.
But for now, Ladd's top priority is getting The Spirit of Josephine launched. “I have some name recognition in Cambridge,” she acknowledges, and she will present the book soon after its publication at two of the city's premier literary institutions: the venerable, independent Harvard Book Store and the Cambridge Public Library. Ladd, with a crown of silver hair, a distinguished accent that reveals her Southern roots and a presence that commands attention, is the book's best spokeswoman. After conquering the Northeast—an event at New York's Chez Josephine, a restaurant named for Baker, is also in the works—she will shift her focus to France, where she has a home in Burgundy.
“It's no accident that I find myself part of the year in France,” Ladd says. Not only is it where her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren live, it is also a place that has a tradition of welcoming not only Josephine Baker, but also James Baldwin, Nina Simone and Countee Cullen: “not only an acceptance but an embrace of African-Americans in France,” she says. Baker, in particular, “is still a historical presence in France” and is one of the notables mentioned when the French discuss the possible addition of women to the Pantheon.
Ladd thinks The Spirit of Josephine will find admirers among French Anglophones as well as her fellow expatriates. She mourns the 2012 closing of Paris' Village Voice Bookshop, her favorite French bookstore, but hopes to schedule a reading at the iconic Shakespeare & Company. And if there is interest in publishing a translation, Ladd knows where to go for advice: Her daughter-in-law translates young-adult books for the French market.
Writing The Spirit of Josephine has allowed Ladd to produce a book that embodies several of her longtime interests and passions. The expatriate experience, she says, is “sort of a subtext in my life,” and the book explores not only Baker's French career, but also that of Violet, the modern-day protagonist. It's no coincidence that Violet, like Baker, is a performer. “I've always had a fascination with women in show business,” Ladd says, and writing from the perspectives of a singer and a dancer was “a chance for me, vicariously, anyway, to get into the dressing rooms and to look into the mirrors” of the world of performance. It is also a book that, Ladd hopes, readers will turn to for enjoyment: “The book was described by somebody as a feel-good story. I think she meant it pejoratively. I'm happy if people have a sense of satisfaction when they read it.”
And at its core, the book is a celebration of an artist who found success abroad but was often overlooked—or even forgotten—at home. While the story was always “intended to lift the image of Josephine Baker,” Ladd says, that aspect “became very important for me after hearing from the editor who never heard of her.”
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.