Exploring the art of prose


Conversations Between Friends: Miki Pfeffer and Teresa Tumminello Brader

Image is the book cover for LETTING IN AIR AND LIGHT by Teresa Tumminello Brader; title card for new interview with Miki Pfeffer.


Miki Pfeffer and Teresa Tumminello Brader became friends after meeting in 2007 during a literary discussion program at a New Orleans-area library. They met over books, and books continue to bind them. Since their first meeting, Pfeffer has authored two books, and Tumminello Brader has authored her debut, Letting in Air and Light. Pfeffer interviews Brader about this fascinating and courageous tale of personal revelations, including ferreting out the “goods” on her notorious uncle.


Miki Pfeffer: Thank you for doing this interview with me, Teresa. You’re the best and most prolific reader I know, so I’m not surprised that your Letting in Air and Light is smart, authentic, and stimulating. Who is this man, the art forger, in your family, and why did you want to write about him?

Teresa Tumminello Brader: The art forger William Toye is my Uncle Bill, my mother’s oldest brother. From the time I was a young child, I knew him as a mysterious, mentally ill, “difficult” person. As a child I was full of questions about the mystery of people, but I quickly discovered there were many questions my mom didn’t want to answer, and I learned to keep them to myself. Despite a prior arrest in 1974 for selling his fakes of the work of Clementine Hunter, a beloved Louisiana folk artist, he wasn’t indicted until 2010 after a second arrest for even more forgeries of her work. Hunter was a Black woman, the granddaughter of enslaved people and the daughter of sharecroppers, and my uncle took advantage of her burgeoning reputation in his schemes. In my book, I detail how I discovered he was so much more than the eccentric uncle I’d thought he was for most of my life, and it’s a reckoning of my coming to terms with this bombshell discovery.


MP: How did you decide this was the right time to tell the family secret in Letting in Air and Light?

TTB: I don’t believe I ever made a conscious decision as to it being the right time. I didn’t find out about my uncle’s crimes until after the 2010 indictment. I then researched and gathered information for my own knowledge, not thinking I’d use it for anything in particular. When I finally started writing about it, I did so without any plan in mind. But the writing grew and grew, and I then felt I had something to share.

However, it is true that, subconsciously or not, I didn’t start writing about my uncle until after my mother’s death in 2015. She, and my father, kept this information about her brother a secret, and I knew how she felt once it came to light and we finally talked about it. If she were alive, I may still have written the story, but I doubt I would’ve sent it out into the world. It would’ve made her too worried and anxious.


MP: Our family stories are never just ours to tell, are they? They implicate others. How did you navigate that delicate dance?

TTB: Those were questions I was aware of the whole time I was writing. I remembered the advice I’d heard from memoirists at literary festivals I attended: to be fearless; to be honest about yourself, not just about others; that it’s your story and not to change it to reflect someone else’s memory, which is the main reason I didn’t consult others’ memories too much while writing and editing.

Another piece of advice was to take the long view, to know why and what you’re trying to achieve, at least a little bit. I wanted to tell the stories of those involved family members who were marginalized or ignored in others’ accounts of my uncle, and I hoped to do so as empathically as possible. I tried to be sensitive to keeping to the facts of the story, though I also fictionalized the past that I didn’t live through. I’ve based those sections on the facts I gleaned from family stories and newspaper accounts, as well as on my understanding of the personalities involved. But I’m very clear, in the text, as to what is fact and what I’ve imagined.

I took a master class on memoir (long before I ever thought I’d be writing one), and I remember the writer (though I can’t remember her name!) saying you can’t tell the truth about others without telling the truth about yourself. She read some samples from her memoirs in which she used humor when describing her foibles. That must’ve stuck with me because I tried to use humor in certain places, especially of the self-deprecating type when writing of myself.


MP: It takes bravery to be as revealing as you are. Was there a time when you were fearful of what you’d find?

TTB: I don’t think of myself as brave. Uncle Bill’s story is already out there for the world to see. My being related to him might not have been known before, but, unlike my mother, I’m perfectly okay with the relationship being common knowledge. I just hoped to give his story context, which is always what I’m looking for in anything I read, fiction or nonfiction. Maybe he doesn’t deserve that consideration, but I felt his parents—my grandparents—surely did. So, I don’t think I ever felt fearful of any discovery, but I did become more and more dismayed as I learned of the scope of his crimes and the number of victims.


MP: And I think you accomplished your goals. About the public accounts: What was the most elusive piece of documentation? What is the “if only I knew part of your research?

TTB: I couldn’t find the Times-Picayune newspaper my parents must’ve hidden from us on a particular day in April of 1974, the one containing an article about my uncle’s first arrest, which included a photo of the arresting officers in New Orleans. The newspaper was a big deal in our house and I read quite a bit of it, even at the age of twelve. I know the article exists because the FBI agent who arrested Bill had an image of it in his presentation I attended. All I found was a similar, shorter article, sans photo.

This article is also the first and main “if only I knew.” If I’d seen the article then, if I’d heard of Uncle Bill’s arrest in 1974, the repercussions would’ve been very different, including the way I wrote this book.


MP: You’ve caught my attention now! What difference might there have been?

TTB: For one thing, I wouldn’t have experienced the shock I felt upon discovering, at the age of forty-eight, that my mother’s brother was a criminal! I could’ve done without that jarring episode, even though I wouldn’t have then been able to start the book with that mind-blowing surprise.

It’s a fun, though maybe pointless, exercise to think of how circumstances, including my book—if I’d even written one—would’ve been different if I’d known about my uncle’s lawbreaking earlier. It’s like saying, “If only my parents were different,” because then everything would be different, including me.


MP: Back to a previous answer—you chose a hybrid memoir/fiction format. How did you settle on that way to tell the story of your uncle and, in some places, it seems, of yourself?

TTB: Before I even knew of my uncle’s crimes, I started writing about visits to my grandparents’ house that took place when I was a young child. I’d always found their house interesting, even mysterious. It was the house my mom grew up in, and it was so different from our own. At times, Uncle Bill and his wife Beryl lived in that house too, on the other side of a shared wall, and that sense of mystery I felt encompassed them too. Though I returned to that piece of writing sporadically, I didn’t get far with it before setting it aside to return to writing short stories.

When I started writing about Bill’s life, my first idea was to write it as fiction, because that’s what I know best. But when I got feedback saying his story was too dramatic on its own to turn into fiction, I opened up that first piece of nonfiction I’d set aside and looked at it with fresh eyes. One could cynically say I didn’t want to “waste” the fiction I’d already written, but using that technique was mostly because I knew I couldn’t tell a full, entertaining story without it. Because of my mom’s circumspection, there was a lot I didn’t know.

As to why make myself a fictional, or more accurately, semifictional, character, here’s an example: I don’t know exactly what happened the day my parents must’ve hidden that 1974 issue of the newspaper from us, so I envisioned what likely could’ve happened on a day that would’ve seemed ordinary to me, and I wrote it as fiction. I couldn’t conceive of a better way to explain family dynamics, especially between my mother and me, while also telling an interesting story. When the time period I was writing about began to align with my own memories, I was done with the fictional sections and switched to first-person narration only, which I used for most of the book actually.


MP: The switching of the point of view is part of the book’s charm and the disorientation. At times, I didn’t know if I was inside or outside a character, in fact or fiction, or where in time I was. Then, I realized that the method reflected the story you told. Kind of like wafting in the breeze of it. I always assume the writer intends what I’m getting. So, how do you describe the structure of Letting in Air and Light?

TTB: I appreciate that explanation; I was trying to mirror how unreal coming to this knowledge of having a notorious art forger as a family member felt. As I pieced together events revealing details I hadn’t been aware of with memories from my childhood, it felt surreal, like I was outside of linear time, like it was happening to someone else.

As to the structure, the fictional sections (based on my research) are in chronological order, but they’re interspersed with memoir sections that I use to reflect on what I know of the historical time (if anything) and upon my new knowledge. Eventually, the book all becomes memoir, as time flows into the “present-day” of my writing about all I’d discovered after the day I read about my art-forger uncle in an issue of the February 2010 newspaper.


MP: I think I understand the rationale for the fictional and factual shifts now. The mystery surrounding your uncle’s deeds must have intrigued a child who loved stories. I think as children we get certain feelings. We know something mysterious is going on—and we’re right—but we can’t always know what it is we’re missing. Now, like Nancy Drew, you’ve gone far to “solve your mystery. At least for this time and place. Do you expect ripples of realizations as you go?

TTB: Ha, it’s true that I devoured Nancy Drew as a child, but then I devoured all kinds of books; I still do. And I love research, which is like detective work: it’s one of my favorite things about writing. That probably goes back to my childhood questions that went unanswered, to my wanting to discover the most fundamental mysteries of human nature.

“Ripples of realization” is a great phrase. I’m so glad you said that. It reminds me of one of my favorite artists, Walter Inglis Anderson, and his concept of “realization,” which is, more or less, the idea that nature has an inherent order to it and it’s the artist’s role to “realize” it, that is, to make it real. That idea could somewhat describe how I feel about why I wrote this book: to make the surreality of my discovery feel real, at least for me.

And big thanks to my editor, Casie Dodd, for encouraging me to go deeper in a later section of the book. It was some of the toughest writing I’ve ever done, but also some of the most rewarding. It’s amazing what “ripples” arise with some gentle prodding.


MP: Would you care to say anything more about the theme of the book? And, of course, how cathartic was it for you?

TTB: One of my favorite themes in all of literature is memory: how it’s so often wrong; how, whether rightly or wrongly, those memories shape us into our adult lives; how trauma affects the experience of memory. I find it hard to see how anyone can write about anything without addressing memory, and its inherent imperfections, and that theme is certainly a big component of my book.

I hadn’t thought about the catharsis, but I’m sure it’s there, especially as the impetus for my writing about the family was to redress the implications in some of the articles I read concerning my grandparents. My grandfather was more than just an alcoholic. My grandmother was more than just a name.

MP: Thank you, Teresa. You’ve been terrific. I feel privileged to have had this conversation with you. You’ve shared yourself as completely here as in Letting in Air and Light.


TERESA TUMMINELLO BRADER’s first book, Letting in Air and Light, a hybrid memoir/fiction, was published in 2023 by Belle Point Press. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in both print anthologies and online, such as Bulb Culture CollectiveLiterary MamaHalfway Down the Stairs, and MER. She was born in New Orleans and lives near Lake Pontchartrain; the city, the estuary, and its denizens are the source of much of her inspiration. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Marquette University, her years in Milwaukee the only time she’s lived away from her city of birth. She tweets @ttbrader.

MIKI PFEFFER is an independent scholar, a historian, whose books are Southern Ladies and Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Women’s Rights at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair and A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. Her focus is women’s stories and especially the nineteenth century and New Orleans women. Her mission is to complete her transcriptions of all the intriguing and gossipy family letters in the Grace King Papers and to publish more of them.