Photo: Roland Scarpa
1. My safety net failed.There is nothing that could've stopped me from writing this novel, I think, but there were certainly hurdles, like when my laptop crashed. My remote data backup also failed—and it had failed for a month, I found out, without my knowing it. Two computer tech people came to my home for two days, working while I paced, like outside a delivery room. They were finally able to recover everything.
2. We got the diagnosis.The most daunting thing for me was my husband's diagnosis of cancer. He had myeloma, and we had to go to another city while he went through a bone marrow transplant. I stopped work and gave him my full and utter attention. I slept in the hospital room with him. (Sometimes when I couldn't sleep at night, though, I made notes.) After we came home, there were all kinds of protocols that we had to follow that have to do with his immune system. I would be cleaning the shower with Clorox, and then run into the study and write a few lines. It was a long while before I could just sit down and work all day. But, he was the number one important thing in my life, and I was glad to be there for him. Strangely enough, I think it deepened the work. I just poured everything I could from that experience into the book.
3. My life got packed into boxes.In 2009, after I had begun the writing of the outlines, we decided to relocate from Charleston, South Carolina to Florida. Moving had all kinds of stressors, like selling our old house and packing. Our new, much smaller home didn't have a study for me to write in, and I really believe in Virginia Woolf's room of one's own. You need to have a nook, at least. To make mine, I had to first knock down a wall, then build floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. There are always interruptions, though; we live hip-deep in life, and just have to plug along.
4. I got a little intimidated.Writing in the voice of an American slave felt like I was biting off something very large. I wanted to write from Handful's mind and heart. I wanted to be very respectful. I did not want to portray her as a victim. I wanted her to have great dignity. The only way I could begin was by writing in third person. But she kept inserting herself in my mind in her own voice. Finally, I just said, "You know what? She wants to talk, I'm going to let her talk." And I'm so glad I did.
5. The facts took over the fiction.One of the huge challenges for me was how to weave together history and imagination. After researching, I was so in love with the Grimké sisters and their history that it took me a while to figure out that I wasn't a biographer. Sarah was especially hard. I had to discover her in my imagination. That's when she became alive. If you read this novel you will know about Sarah Grimké and what really happened to her, but I grafted on a lot that I completely conjured, mainly about her relationship with Handful.
6. The dog made me quit (in a good way).I have an old dog named Lily and she's a black lab. We got her as a puppy when I finished writing The Secret Life of Bees. My main character was named Lily and so that's what we named her. She is 13 now, but she will come in and get me if I stay too long in my study. She'll come put her head in my lap and tell me it's time to stop.
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Published on January 06, 2014