Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sharon Hart Green writes about what haunted her to pen her acclaimed novel COME BACK FOR ME

Evocative and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, Come Back For Me is a must read for anyone with a moral conscience and a soul. Leah Kaminsky, winner of the Voss Literary Prize for her debut novel, The Waiting Room 

In Come Back for Me, Hart-Green explores the trauma and loss of one extended family as it clashes with life’s insistence upon being lived. Heartfelt and rich in detail, the story [is] unflinching in its portrayal of devastation and renewalan impressive, ambitious, and highly readable debut. — Joseph Skibell, author of A Blessing on the Moon and A Curable Romantic 

Sometimes, I like to ask authors just to write something for the blog instead of an interview, and I'm delighted that Sharon Hart Green agreed!  Thank you so, so much, Sharon.

Despite growing up in a serene Toronto neighbourhood, I was haunted by the stories of war and loss that seemed to hover over many of the Jewish inhabitants of our leafy enclave. My best friend’s father who’d lost half his family in Poland; the neighbour who’d been hidden for years in an Amsterdam closet; my father’s cousin who’d lost one of her arms in a Nazi concentration camp. Of course as a child, I knew they were different. After all, they spoke with strange accents and had gold teeth. But there was something else that I couldn’t put my finger on, something mysterious that I couldn’t name.

And as I grew older, I wanted to ask them (though I never could bring myself): after all they have lost, how could they still embrace life? How could they marry, bear children, build families and homes? How did they preserve the ability to laugh?

My decision to write Come Back for Me was not entirely a conscious one. True, I had been teaching Yiddish and Hebrew literature at the University of Toronto for several years, and many of the novels, stories, and poems I taught were about the war. But most of those works depicted lives that were deformed by suffering. Where were the stories of those who were somehow able to rise above their pain? Or was it all an illusion, a clever ruse to cover up lives that were broken inside?

This is the tale that I set out to tell.

Sharon Hart Green

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

John Freeman Gill talks about The Gargoyle Hunters, NYC in the 1970s, fathers and sons, obsessions (my favorite thing), writing and so much more.

Zounds. The Gargoyle Hunters is one amazing novel about fatherhood, obsession, and of course, gargoyles. And it's not just me who thinks so. The Gargoyle Hunters is
a Booklist Best New Adult Fiction Pick, A Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a W Magazine Best Spring Book.

John Freeman Gill
is a native New Yorker and longtime New York Times contributor whose work has been anthologized in The New York Times Book of New York and More New York Stories: The Best of the City Section of The New York Times. He is the architecture and real estate editor of Avenue magazine, for which he writes "Edifice Complex," a monthly column exploring the biographies of historic New York City buildings and their occupants. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, the International Herald Tribune, Premiere, New York magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City with his wife, three children, and a smattering of gargoyles.

I'm thrilled to host John here. Thank you, John!

 So, tell me about the extraordinary family in The Gargoyle Hunters?
The fracturing family at the heart of The Gargoyle Hunters lives in the same Queen Anne row house where I grew up, on East 89th Street in Manhattan between Lex and Third. It was something of a grandly tricked-out imp, just twelve and a half feet wide, squashed in the middle of a jostling troupe of six. My own parents separated in a painful fashion while I was a small child in that house in the early 1970s, and so the plight of Griffin Watts, the 13-year-old protagonist of The Gargoyle Hunters, echoes my own in that period, although the characters are all inventions.
The book is really about fragmentation in all its manifestations. I wanted to tell both a small, intimate story of fathers and sons, and also a big story about the near death of New York during the 1970s financial crisis, when the city nearly defaulted on its debt. The novel’s story takes place in the year and a half or so leading up to the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Once I realized that the stories of Griffin’s family and his city could quite organically be told in the same novel—both, after all, echoed aspects of my own childhood—I allowed Griffin to be recruited into his father’s illicit and very dangerous architectural salvage business. Pushed by his obsessive, manic father, Griffin clambers around the tops of buildings, using power saws and crowbars to steal exuberantly expressive 19th-century architectural sculptures right off the facades.
In this way, the vividly crumbling city of my childhood became not only a metaphor for the family’s disintegration but also a very real, concrete backdrop in which the story of the father and son could unfold.
What kind of writer are you? What surprised you about writing this particular book?
I am a fastidious writer. I labor enormously over the language, the sound and rhythm of the sentences. I read everything out loud periodically as I write, and every morning, for continuity, I read aloud the previous ten or 15 pages I’ve written. But I’m also aware that most of the best, lightning-bolt stuff comes when you’re not overthinking things. It’s important to leave plenty of room for discovery. So I have two documents on my laptop when I’m writing: the text of the book itself, and a separate document in which I ask myself questions, talk to myself about plot or character problems, or just free-associate wildly, banging away—often in sentence fragments—at an image or scene that feels powerful to me but that I don’t yet understand. This last activity involves turning off my own persnickety internal editor and allowing myself not to worry about polishing the sentences, so that I can grope my way to what feels most exciting and alive. I always trust this instinct. For me there should always be a tension between controlling the shape of the novel through outlining and endless contemplation, and occasionally giving myself free rein to stumble into discoveries.
What I think surprises me most is how inevitable everything about the novel seems in hindsight, when the book is really composed of a thousand little discoveries along the way that you never saw coming while you were writing.
I loved reading about NYC in the 1970s (I was here in the 80s). What do you miss most about that time--and what don't you miss?
I miss the messiness of New York in the 1970s. By this, I don’t mean the graffiti-blasted subways or the tons of uncollected garbage rotting at the curb during the sanitation strike. I mean the uncertainty, the surprise. The New York of today is pleasant and orderly for the most part, but along with that order comes a predictability that has robbed the city of much of its fun. 1970s New York was a place of peril and possibility. Along with the unruliness came a Wild West sense that anytime you went out for a walk you might see something or meet someone unusual. I loved that constant sense of imminent discovery.
So much of this extraordinary novel is about fathers and sons and how they navigate their relationships. Can you talk about this please? 

I think almost all children, up to a certain age, labor under the misconception that anyone bearing the title “father” is somehow intrinsically qualified for the job. As Griffin, looking back at his childhood from middle age, says of his dad at one point, “trusting one’s parents is an occupational hazard of being a child.” Fathers, whether they deserve to or not, tend to wield an outsize influence over their sons, and in particular over the sons’ understanding of what it means to be a man. In the course of this novel, Griffin learns precisely what he needs to learn from his father, though Griffin’s self-discovery ends up being quite different from what his father thought he was imparting.

What's obsessing you now and why?
I’m in the early stages of developing a new novel I’m excited about, and I find that my mind is forever twitching with new ideas about how I might tell the tale. It’s a scary but exciting place to be, a moment of uncertainty but also of invigorating possibility.
Set against this obsession is another (involuntary) obsession: The grave challenges to our Republic posed by the current president’s disdain of our democratic institutions. To write a novel one needs to shut out the world for great chunks of time, and at this point in history, I feel it’s impossible to be a responsible citizen without keeping abreast of the threats to our Constitution. I happen to be reading Ron Chernow’s remarkable biography of Alexander Hamilton at the moment, and the juxtaposition of today’s battles with those of the early republic is pretty fascinating. The political warfare was at least as vicious in our nation’s early days, but with one major difference. As nasty as the fighting became between Hamilton and his opponents, Jefferson and Madison, it seems clear that all the combatants had the best interests of the fledgling nation in mind; they simply had vastly different views on how the republic should develop and they deeply distrusted their domestic political adversaries. By contrast, our very democracy has been compromised by Russian interference in the most recent presidential election, and it remains to be seen whether there was complicity in this effort by powerful Americans. I find it disturbing that the president doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in learning about Russian efforts to manipulate our election.
Where did your fascination with lost New York come from?
I think I essentially osmosed it as a child. My mother is a native New Yorker who has spent more than 60 years painting street scenes of doomed city buildings just before their demolition. When I was growing up on East 89th Street and later on Riverside Drive, the demolished landmarks of old New York were alive and well on my family’s walls: trains clattered over the Third Avenue el in our front hallway. Cheesecake was still being served by the 57th Street Automat in our kitchen. The Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller, not yet razed to make way for Trump Tower, sold haute couture dresses in my mother’s bedroom. Growing up in that environment, it was inevitable that I would become fascinated with New York’s relentlessly changing streetscape.

What’s more, our home was something of a salvage yard, crammed with a hodgepodge of iron railings, stained-glass windows, and gorgeous stone carvings and terra-cotta castings my mother had rescued from demolished city buildings. I was therefore sensitized, from a very early age, to New York’s elbow-jostling relationship with time, its essentially ephemeral nature.

Later, when I began writing for The New York Times, I often chose to do stories about historic preservation and the evolving cityscape. The Gargoyle Hunters is informed by both my emotional connection to the lost city and by everything I learned about architectural history and historic preservation as a journalist.

Damian McNicholl bases THE MOMENT OF TRUTH, his evoactive new novel, on America's first female bullfighter, Patricia McCormick, and he's here to talk about writing, following your dream no matter what the cost, animal rights and so much more

 Damian McNicholl is the critically acclaimed author of A SON CALLED GABRIEL, TWISTED AGENDAS and now THE MOMENT OF TRUTH, about a woman determined to make it in the testosterone-filled arena of bullfighting. I'm delighted to host Damian here. Thank you, Damian!

What was the ‘why now’ moment that had you obsessed enough to write this novel?

Like other writers, I have a file of ideas for possible novels, but nothing on it was calling me. Nothing seemed important enough. Then, one morning I was web-surfing and stumbled across an article about the death of America’s first female bullfighter, Patricia McCormick. I read “But in the mid-20th century, the bullring, too, had a glass ceiling. Ms. McCormick could never shake the title of novillera, or apprentice fighter. Elevation to the highest rank required a special ceremony and sponsorship by a matador, and no matador would do such a thing for a woman.” That was my Eureka moment. Having strong sisters, I’ve always been interested in feminism and women’s equality and I asked myself, “What if?” That led to a year of solid research before I felt comfortable enough to start writing the novel, which I did in my mother’s living room in Northern Ireland while on a visit to spend time with her.

What was the research like and what surprised you the most?

There were so many angles and dead ends. I knew nothing about the world of bullfighting, very little about Texas and Mexico of the 1950s and my knowledge of women in the workplace during that period was also scant. Luckily, I’d honed my research skills at law school so I was able to plough through the mountains of information pretty quickly and determine what was relevant to Kathleen, the heroine’s story.

What really surprised me was discovering there had been another woman with American connections who’d fought the bulls a generation or so before Ms. McCormick. Her name was Conchita Cintrón and her father was a Puerto Rican West Point graduate, her mother was Irish American, but she had fought as a rejoneador, the Portuguese style of fighting bulls while on horseback. I have her make a cameo appearance in the novel because it was apparent from my research that she was an early feminist—she refused to kowtow to the Spanish authorities when she was told she could not dismount from her horse to fight the bull while appearing there—and I thought it would be good to show my heroine and her connecting.

Did anything change the plot you had imagined into something new?

It did, actually. Her trainer, Fermin, became much more complex as an antagonist. I like knowing where my novel will end pretty early on into a story, but his development, especially the inner struggles, led to many interesting turning points and conflicts between Kathleen and him that I hadn’t anticipated during the outlining of the work. Also, Kathleen experiences a deep crisis as a result of disobeying him early on in her move to Mexico and that has profound repercussions on her psyche that resonate right up until the last pages of the novel. Her love affair with Julio also unfurled in unexpected ways I hadn’t originally anticipated, also related to the circumstances leading to her emotional crisis. But that’s the fun. I enjoy being surprised as I write.

So much of this exquisite novel is about following your dream no matter the cost. Can you talk about that please?

I’m so glad you picked up on this. That is definitely one of the messages of the novel. I’ve always believed fervently that one must follow one’s dreams in life and that these dreams, the most meaningful, enriching ones, definitely can come at a high emotional and/or physical price. I think too many people coast through life out of fear they’re not good enough to do something, or they don’t have the experience, or society will frown upon them because their dream is outside their family members, friends or colleagues expectations of what they should do in life. So many people settle for second best for these reasons and often end up on their deathbeds wishing they’d lived their lives differently. Kathleen decided early on that she was going to do something she loved even though society’s expectation of the role of women in the workplace in the 1950s was very narrow.  Her mother did not want her to leave for Mexico to fight the bulls and, even though the concept of animal rights was not developed as it is now, thought it cruel. Her fiancé did not want her too, either. Kathleen had no experience qualifying her do this for a career. But she knew it was her calling to be as good as any man in the bullring and she would not be complete if she did not go on that journey.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’ve two nieces arriving for a visit soon and I want them to have a fabulous time in Bucks County. There’ll be good food and vino. Friends have invited them to a party and they’ve got a pool so I can hope it doesn’t rain. Other than that, I’m a bit out of touch about what two fun-loving, twenty-somethings like to do when they’re on vacation. Suggestions are welcome.  

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Do I believe in animal rights?
Absolutely. Today, society correctly believes that animals have rights and they must be protected. I believe that the punishments meted out to those who treat animals cruelly are woefully inadequate and abusers should do lengthy jail sentences. It is time to stop treating animals as chattel. The concept of animal rights didn’t exist in the 1950s, the period in which my novel takes place. The Humane Society did exist, its remit confined to ensuring that domestic animals, mainly dogs and cats, were not mistreated. Bullfighting is regarded as cruel today, but it does also have many supporters, especially in Spain, Portugal, Mexico and other Latin American countries. Increasingly I feel guilty that I still eat meat, but as yet I have not become vegetarian. 

A gloriously tense debut, told hour by hour--Jennifer Kitses talks about SMALL HOURS

As everyone on the planet knows, I love the promise of debuts, so I was thrilled to get Jennifer Kitses' debut SMALL HOURS, which tracks a powder keg of a day between a husband and wife.. Jennifer is a writer and editor for CUNY's graduate school, and contributes to the alumni magazines of Columbia Business School and the University at Buffalo. Her writing has appeared in local newspapers, including The New York Observer, and in Akashic Books' online series, Mondays Are Murder. She is a member of the Columbia Fiction Foundry writing workshop and lives in New York.

Thank you so much, Jennifer for being here!

 I always want to know why this novel, why now? What was haunting you?

My twin daughters were three years old when I started writing this novel, and a lot of the pressures I was experiencing — everything from managing freelance deadlines to lack of sleep and financial pressures — found their way into the story. With Tom, I was also trying to answer a question that I had been wondering about for a while: can someone who is fundamentally good (as Helen sees Tom) do something that’s incredibly wrong, and if so, how would they try to get themselves out of that mess?

With Helen, I was haunted then (and I still am now!) with how easy it is for anger or violence to explode, even in circumstances when you might not expect it. I’ve witnessed a few major altercations between parents, in playgrounds and elsewhere, and on the subways I’ve seen plenty of explosive encounters between people who — I’m guessing — don’t see themselves as someone who would start a fight or shout curses into a stranger’s face. And I think it’s hard to shake the effects of those encounters, particularly if you’ve allowed yourself to get drawn into a situation that you could have avoided.

I so loved this novel. What unnerved me so much was how your characters are both distinct individuals and yet every person. All it takes is one moment to derail any of our lives. How were you able to write this novel without panicking?

First of all, thank you! As for panicking: possibly I’m a bit more used to anxiety than I should be, so maybe that helped. But I think we all have days that start out ordinary but wind up filled with tension, often from multiple sources, and the accumulating pressures lead us to a place where we’re at risk of seeing our lives derailed. The really scary part is when we feel the urge to derail ourselves.

I also deeply admired how I thought you were going in one direction with the novel, and then you went into another, always eschewing melodrama for what is real. Can you talk about that, please?

I’m lucky to have an amazing editor, who pushed me not to hold back and to let the characters make bold moves. I also got a lot of great feedback from early readers, and because I was in a writing group, it was easy to see which scenes were working and which needed major rewriting. It took a lot of attempts — draft after draft — to get certain scenes as close as possible to what I felt was real.

I love the title. Can you talk about that, also?

Well, there are at least 50 rejected titles (some of which still give me a good laugh!). I wanted to get at that feeling of being always busy — that every hour is overstuffed with things to do — and yet also feeling like you’re getting nothing done or that your life is slipping through your grasp. At one point, Tom realizes that he can see his entire life in the intense yet seemingly small moments of his day. The title references that, and also (I’m hoping) how both Tom’s and Helen’s triumphs and failures play out as we move through this day in their lives.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Some of the same questions: mistakes and paths not taken, violence and anger, self-perception and delusion. And also new but related ideas, like identity. I’m fascinated by people who decide to change their lives radically — not just how they see or present themselves, but to change who they are in some essential way. I think it requires tremendous optimism to really change who you are or how you live.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

One that I wondered about myself, early in the writing, was whether to use a real or a fictional setting. Devon is based on a few Hudson Valley towns, with details borrowed from a former mill town in Massachusetts (all places that I love; researching a place is always the fun part for me). After trying to write a previous novel that was set in a very specific neighborhood, and going a little crazy as that neighborhood developed and changed over the years (requiring countless changes in my draft), I could see the appeal of using a fictional town, like Kent Haruf’s Holt or Richard Ford’s Haddam. It was nice not to worry about warehouses getting torn down or the train schedule changing.

Jillian Cantor talks about THE LOST LETTER, memory, time, secret messages, resistence fights, love, loss, more

 I don't know why, but when I think of Jillian Cantor, I think of us in a way cool shop in Tucson and then sharing lunch with other writers, and I always smile. Of course, I also think of her brilliant novels, including the critically acclaimed THE HOURS COUNT and MARGOT, a Library Reads pick. Her latest, THE LOST LETTER, is about a mysterious love letter connecting Jewish families from 1938 Austria to 1989 Los Angeles, and it is phenomenally good.

I'm so thrilled to have Jillian here. My blog is always your blog, Jillian!

Tell me what was haunting you that lead to this extraordinary novel?

My grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s a few years ago. And though I was just a baby when it happened, my great-grandmother (my grandmother’s mother) died of the same. When I was younger, my grandmother would often talk about how she worried about losing her memory as she got older, as her mother did, and then, it happened to her. Little by little at first, but eventually all of her short term memory became virtually non-existent. What stuck with me, though, was even after my grandmother grew worse and worse, she would always seem to know me when I called her. She couldn’t remember my husband or my kids, but she would hear my voice and she would react with excitement, in the same way she would when I’d called her when I was kid. And over the course of a five-minute conversation she might ask me the same question five times, but she would also talk about the distant past in such clear detail at times. I’d tell her a story about one of my babies and she’d counter with a story about her own baby (my mom) as if it were vivid and had just happened. So I was thinking a lot about memory, about what we lose and what we keep, and what it means for someone to forget who they are but also if there are things you can never really forget on some level. The Lost Letter begins just after Katie moves her father into a memory-care facility in 1989 and she takes his prized stamp collection to be appraised (though she has no interest in stamps). She desperately wants to hang onto and understand her father, to keep from completely losing him as his memory disappears.

I always am curious if a new novel means a new way of writing. Was it for you? Do you, like I do, always feel that you've forgotten how to write, and if so, what do you do about it?

Yes, this was definitely new for me. It’s the first novel I’ve published told from multiple/alternating points of views and in multiple/alternating time periods. So I definitely had to re-think pacing and how to tell the story this way, and pacing, in fact, was something I ended up working a lot on with my editor in revision. My first draft was way too long, and when I revised I cut whole chunks of Katie’s story in 1989 that I might have kept if this novel had only been her story. But it wasn’t. It was Kristoff’s and Elena’s story in 1938 too, and that made the storytelling and understanding the scope of the novel different for me. And yes, every single time I start a new novel I am convinced I can’t do it all over again. But, what I do about it is just wake up and keep writing every day. When I’m drafting something new I force myself to write a few pages every single day, even if they’re bad. Eventually it turns into something – often, something really bad that needs a lot of work, but I know I have to get the words down and the story out in order to be able to go back and fix it.

I love the whole swirl around a stamp. Why a stamp?

I was bouncing ideas off my agent and she asked if I’d ever thought about the people who illustrated stamps and if anyone had ever included secret messages in stamps. Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought about it, but I did a little research and learned how stamps were used in the resistance in World War II in real life. It was fascinating! I was also really interested in how painstaking engraving and making stamps used to be before the digital age, and also how real life engravers, artists, played a role in forging documents to help Jews escape during World War II. I was kind of like Katie at the start of the novel – I’d never really thought about stamps before except as something that took my mail from one place to another. But once I started thinking about them, and studying them, I couldn’t stop. I can completely understand now why there are so many stamp collectors – stamps are art.

What was your research like and what changed the course of your novel for you, if anything?

Like I said, I really knew nothing about stamps when I started. So one of the first things I did was to go the Postal History Museum in Tucson. Though it is only a half hour from where I live, I didn’t even realize it was there until I started looking for it. The very kind librarians in the library there gave me books and articles about stamps and engravers that I brought home and poured through. I also did a lot of research online about the resistance in WWII and I got the chance to visit The Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC while I was researching and I spent an afternoon in their wonderful resistance exhibit. What changed the course of the novel for me, though, was the research I did about the fall of the Berlin Wall (which happens in the 1989 portion of the story) and becomes a key part of the book. I watched this wonderful German language TV series that happened to come on the summer I was writing called Deutschland 83, and I really started thinking about and researching what life was like for real people living in East Berlin behind the wall in the 1980s. No spoilers, but this impacted how I decided to end the novel. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

Germany, just before Hitler’s rise to power. I’m particularly interested in what ordinary citizens were doing at the time and what daily life was like. I’ve studied a lot about World War II but I didn’t know very much about the time proceeding it, the late 20s and early 30s in Germany. It feels like a really important thing to understand in our current political climate. And maybe there is a book idea germinating there? (Maybe!) 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

How about what was the most surprising thing for me while I was writing this? Half of the novel is set in 1989, so while it’s technically historical, it’s also the first “historical” time I’ve written about where I was also alive. Granted, I turned 11 that year, but I was surprised how much I had to research and how much I didn’t remember or understand as I was living through the time. The fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance. I clearly remember when it happened, and seeing images on TV, but I don’t think I really understood the significance or political implications until I began researching it for the novel. Also, remembering what it was like to live in a time without cell phones or email and throwing a character into what felt contemporary but with less technology was really fun. It reminded me of how personal connections are different now than they were in the 1980s and also of the importance of handwritten notes and letters, which I’ve been trying to do more of myself lately. Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Caroline!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Want to raise a glass where famous writers have boozed it up? Delia Cabe's STORIED BARS OF NEW YORK lifts your spirits (sorry for the pun) and is fascinating, fun, and guaranteed ot make you thirsty for that Martini

I can't remember the origins of my friendship with Delia Cabe, except that I feel like I've always loved her. And her latest book, STORIED BARS OF NEW YORK is amazingly wonderful--a kind of literary travelogue that's making me want to troop to all the bars in Manhattan--even though my tolerance is a quarter of a glass of wine!

 Delia Cabe, who grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is a magazine writer and a bookworm. Her work has appeared in Self, Prevention, Health, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Scientific American Presents, and other newspapers and magazines. She teaches magazine and column writing at Emerson College. ​

Thank you so much for being here, Delia! Check out Delia's events schedule on her website because a few lucky people at her readings will get free cocktail shakers!

So what was the why not moment when you decided to write Storied Bars of New York? I personally think it's a genius idea, as it acts as both a travelogue (who wouldn't want to visit all these bars?) and a fascinating look at writers (or course) AND a fascinating look at bars.
A funny thing happened on my way to getting a book contract for Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink. About five years ago, my literary agent, Jean Sagendorph, was pitching my proposal for a book about cocktail bars that had a library atmosphere. Every publisher passed. The cocktail book trend had already peaked. In April 2016, Jean, noticing another uptick in publishers’ interest in cocktail books, asked me if it would be okay to circulate my book proposal again. I agreed, thinking nothing would come of it. Besides, I’d already started research on a book about gardening and had set that summer aside to work on that proposal.
An editor at Countryman Press replied that she was interested, sort of. Instead of this book, she wanted to know if I would be interested in writing a book on New York City bars that were and are authors’ favorites. Jean texted me, “CALL ME.” After listening to her news, my heart was thumping loudly from excitement, but at the same time, my mind was in the gardening zone. (I’m an avid gardener.) That night, I talked my husband, who was all for me writing it, into thinking I should pass.
The next morning, I woke up realizing this book was perfect for me: I grew up in Manhattan, I’ve been immersed in NYC’s history beginning in childhood, I read all about its past and current literary scene, and—hello?—COCKTAILS! Dorothy Parker had gone to grade school in the same brownstone where I had gone to high school (different names). My grade school was on Christopher Street, home to many famous writers and a block away from the Lion’s Head (now Kettle of Fish), a favorite haunt of Village Voice writers and others. By mid June, the contract was signed, and I was arranging my research trips. My manuscript was due October 1.
I bet you had a blast doing research! Tell us one of your most surprising stories? And if you were me, where do you think I'd most love to drink in NYC?
In all my years writing nonfiction, never have I had offers to help me research until I snagged this book contract. Suddenly, everyone wanted to join me. I refused. I had serious work to do. On my first 48-hour trip to New York City, I did seven interviews and visited about 10 bars. I put about 25 miles on my Fitbit. On my second 48-hour trip, I visited about 11 bars, did more interviews, went to the New York Public Library to read out-of-print books, and put about 30 miles on my Fitbit.
One interview was unplanned. I walked by the New York Distilling Company, which makes a Dorothy Parker Gin (try it!), and its attached bar, The Shanty, while waiting for the Prose Bowl, an open-mic contest (think: a kinder, gentler American Idol for nonfiction writers) at Pete’s Candy Store to begin. The distillery wasn’t open, but upon seeing me peer in the door window, Bill Potter, one of the owners, invited me in. He gave me a personal tour of the distillery, showed me the industrial-designed bar, described the plays a local troupe puts on there and visits by the Dorothy Parker Society, and more. Pete’s Candy Store and the distillery/bar made it into my book. (By the way, because Caroline has done readings at Pete’s, I included her in that chapter.)
I thought for a while about where you’d like to grab a drink in NYC. I’d meet you at Bo’s, also in Storied Bars of New York, on West 24th Street. One of the partners is Andrew “Bo” Young III, son of the civil rights leader, Andrew Young. Because of Bo’s Louisiana heritage, his restaurant has a Big Easy vibe. Every month, the bar features a reading series called #YeahYouWrite (the name comes from a sign in the restaurant, Yeah You Right, which, in turn, is a New Orleans expression of agreement). On one night a month, three or more authors tell stories and read from their works, while the bartender makes signature cocktails based on the author’s tastes and his or her book. For Tayari Jones, author of the novel Silver Sparrow, he made a cocktail called “Silver Secret,” consisting of gin, St. Germain, peach, prosecco and a strawberry garnish. Naming a cocktail for novelist Julia Glass was a no-brainer: Julia’s Glass. I can easily picture Caroline entertaining the room, while sporting her red cowboy boots. Although you’re not a drinker, perhaps the bartender could concoct a light cocktail with Kahlua, which you favor.
Which writer did you not expect at which bar?

The late Christopher Hitchens at Café Loup, a French bistro near the New School. He seems like a guy who’d like a bar that is unfussy. Café Loup isn’t fussy, but it has white tablecloths and napkins. I pictured him at a darker moodier, crusty place—not a dive, but one that has lots of dark wood. He was a café regular while teaching at the New School, which is nearby. He wrote a tribute to the café for The Spectator. He liked the place because he could “read, or write, or brood, or recuperate” undisturbed and because it lacked televisions. There, he could nurse a whiskey on the rocks, his libation of choice.

What was the writing like?
I had a blast researching and writing my book. It gave me a chance to immerse myself in my hometown, its history, literary lives, and more. I bought a huge number of used books on the internet, so my summer reading was delicious. By the end, I had become a walking encyclopedia. On subsequent trips to New York City, I regaled my patient husband with trivia as we walked by one bar or street address after another. My brain became filled with anecdotes about bar owners, bar tales, and literary bar flies. Of course, because my book features a few recipes of either author’s fave cocktails or a bar’s signature cocktails, some recipe testing was involved. I also had the monumental task of gathering color photos—my own and those from the bars—for my book.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Obsessions, moi? Right now, I’m getting ready for my book launch. I’m giving away cocktail shakers at my readings to lucky attendees whose name I draw. I’m asking them to name their favorite author and cocktail. I’m sending framed covers of my book plus coasters featuring my book cover to the bars featured in my book. I still need to frame the photos and package the coasters. At the moment, my home office looks like a warehouse filled with boxes. I have little room to move around, but my two cats enjoy climbing all over the boxes. This coming week, I will be head of my own mailroom, packing and sealing boxes, addressing them, and visiting the P.O.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You didn’t ask me where I’d like to go for a cocktail and where! I have so many favorites that are in my book, but for sentimental reasons, I will say a gimlet at Bemelmans. First, the walls are covered in murals by the author and illustrator of the Madeline children’s books, Ludwig Bemelmans. The bar had tiny lamp shades made to match. (In an interview, novelist J. Courtney Sullivan told me about the days her grandfather took her there for tea, and then later about the times she went during her early days while on staff of a magazine. She could only afford to go there if a friend of hers was treating.)

The bar, which feels like a cozy club, features live jazz. The tables are gathered closely around a grand piano. The last time I was there, my sly husband asked the pianist to play, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” my favorite jazz standard, which became popular during World War II. The piece always gets me verklempt. Sure enough, as soon as I heard the first notes, I turned to my husband, whose face gave away the fact that he’d made the request. I melted.

The brilliant Gail Godwin talks about her extraordinary new novel GRIEF COTTAGE, writing ghost stories, sea turtles, kindness and so much more

"What is standing between me and my powerful work?"

Make me bolder
"I've long thought of Gail Godwin as a present-day George Eliot — our keenest observer of lifelong, tragically unwitting decisions.”
—John Irving
Can the needs of the living and dead sometimes merge? Eleven-year-old Marcus’s desire to believe so leads him, and us, on a harrowing and unforgettable journey toward an answer. Grief Cottage further confirms that Gail Godwin is one of our country’s very finest novelists.
—Ron Rash

It's amazing when you love the author as much as you love her books, isn't it? One day, a few years ago, I got a call. Gail Godwin, whom I didn't really know,  wanted me to have lunch with her, her publishing people and Emily St. John Mandel. Of course, I was thrilled and excited and honored, and the lunch was spectacular. But what I loved the most was how open, and thoughtful Gail was, how fascinating. And I left that lunch glowing, and I am so grateful that Gail and I became friends.

Her accomplishments are legendary. She's written 14 novels, two short story collections, three non-fiction books, and ten libretti. Her primary literary accomplishments are her novels, which have included five best-sellers and three finalists for the National Book Award.Grief Cottage is about an isolated cottage, the thin line between this life and the next, and the sorrows that transform people. As you can see from the praise at the top, it's absolutely extraordinary.

Thank you so much for being here, Gail. And next time, lunch is happily on me.

Do you remember the moment the novel was conceived?

I remember the exact moment. I was walking on the beach at Isle of Palms. Early morning. I saw some little shell creatures burrowing into the wet sand to keep from being eaten by the birds. I thought: "Everything seems to be sending me a message. Some good, some not." I heard it as the boy Marcus's thought. He had lived in my mind for some years. First as a boy who has lost his family and goes to live with a guardian at the beach. He keeps sane from grief by discovering two old people sitting on the porch of a dilapidated beach house. They are interested in him and knows no. He visits them every day. Only much later does he realize they were ghosts,.

Then when I was writing Flora (2013), Helen and her guardian Flora are listening to a spooky radio program in 1945. I made up a boy going to live with a crusty aunt who makes beach art to support herself. He goes for long walks and discovers an old ghost couple living in the ruins of a burned down cottage.

It wasn't until Grief Cottage that I began to understand Marcus's unusual history with his late mother, and appreciate his complexities. And the inhabitant of the ruined cottage was now the ghost of a boy lost in a hurricane a half century ago.

How was writing Grief Cottage different from writing your other novels?

Well, mainly, it is my first novel with a male narrator. I always knew this protagonist would be a boy. I wrote an essay, which is posted on my new web site, called "What made me write about a boy?"
An Interesting postscript. The first two stories I ever wrote (at age 9) were from male viewpoints.

The first was about a very rich  little boy who lived behind high gates and wished for a friend. The second was about a henpecked husband, Ollie McGonnigle, who pushes a person into a manhole because that person said, "Why don't you look where you're going?" Then Ollie comes home from work and his wife has invited the mayor of the town to eat supper with them. The mayor of the town is the man Ollie pushed in the manhole.

Talk to us about ghost stories!

The ideal ghost story for me, whether I'm reading it or writing it, is one in which the protagonist confronts, or is confronted by, something that may be a level of reality we haven't discovered yet. But when we meet our ghost, we seldom know that.

The tales I am drawn to are those in which the arrival of the ghost coincides with a mental crisis in the character's life.

And to be really effective, the ghost story must be grounded in the details of daily life. For Marcus, this means unpacking the dreaded boxes from his former life, caring for his reclusive, alcoholic aunt, visiting the ninety-five year old "self archaeologist" next door, and monitoring the well-being of the Loggerhead turtle eggs.

How can the present change the way these characters feel about their pasts?

I composed this epigraph to Grief Cottage: "Not everybody gets to grow up. First you have to survive your childhood, and then begins the hard work of growing into it."

I came to this knowledge as I was writing the book.. It could easily be something Marcus will realize when he is older. "Surviving your childhood" can mean reaching adulthood without going crazy or being a psychological mess. It can also mean, literally, getting out of your childhood alive.
In the novel, Marcus is struggling to stay sane and keep wanting to live. Aunt Charlotte, in her late fifties, achieves her hard won adulthood by using her art to purge the horrors of her childhood. And 95-year-old Coral Upchurch tells Marcus she is "doing archeology on herself" with the goal of discovering "what would be left of the essential me without any of my roles?"

Being a tortoise and turtle aficionado, I was fascinated with the sea turtles. Can you talk about them, please?

Ah, the sea turtles. In rental houses on the Isle of Palms, strict notices are posted on the refrigerator. In turtle-laying season do not leave lights on that can be seen from the beach. It will disorient the mother turtles as they come ashore to bury their eggs. In fact, you need to close your curtains if your bedroom is on the ocean side.

Guarding the turtle eggs in front of his aunt's cottage calls out to the caretaker in Marcus. He feels responsible to protect them through their hatching and dash to the ocean. He identifies with their plight. Some make it, some do not. The longevity of their species(forty million years, when "we've only been around for the last two hundred thousand") both comforts him and appeals to his preoccupation with death. ("Their kind will be around after I'm gone.")

What's obsessing you now and why?

In two words: the president.

To quote Auden: "Waves of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth/Obsessing our private lives."

On the night of November, I felt as though I was entering an alternative universe. And I WAS entering an alternative universe.

For about a week I found it hard to use words.. I started drawing again, which has turned out to be asanity saver. I draw at least one picture a day and have found it is a way to identify obscure feelings . And my skills are improving. They are all 4"x6" in size (Aunt Charlotte's curative paintings are all this size). The earlier drawings are on my web site, and I include two new drawings on each weekly blog on that site.

The world has shifted for me. Greed, cruelty, ignorance and incuriosity seem to be triumphing. Yesterday a Chinese doctor was dragged down the aisle of a United Airline flight because he refused to give up his seat to a United off duty crew member. The CEO called this an "involuntary de-boarding."

Yes, I am obsessed by what I can do to help RE-BOARD the values of kindness, generosity, and a proud desire to know more and feel more.
You asked what question you did not ask me, and thus started me thinking: what question have I not asked myself.
I answered it through two drawings, which I will forward on to you.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Was Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite when it came to slavery? Stephen O'Connor investigates in his wildly original novel, now in paperback, THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS

I love history. What I especially loved about Stephen O'Connor's brilliant novel THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS is that he's taken a presidential "he can do no wrong" icon and peeled back the layers for us, fashioning a novel that is complex, unsettling and blazingly original.

STEPHEN O’CONNOR is the author of five books, most recently, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, a novel, and Here Comes Another Lesson, short stories. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, and many other journals. His story, “Ziggurat,” was read by Tim Curry on Selected Shorts. He teaches in the Sarah Lawrence MFA writing program.

Thank you so much for being here, Stephen.

I always want to know what was haunting the author before he or she wrote the book. What was haunting you?

Back in the fall of 2009, one of my Columbia MFA students asked if I would contribute a 300-word piece on a historical figure to a literary magazine he was starting. That night, I sat down at my desk and typed the first words that came into my head: "Sally Hemings is sleeping." At that point I knew almost nothing about Hemings, other than that she had had several of Thomas Jefferson's children. So in my next sentence, I described those children kneeling on her bed, looking down at her as she slept, and then I decided that I would have the oldest child lower the youngest down into her dreams in a sort of diving bell. I finished the story quickly, sent it off to my student and thought that was the end of it—and that, of course, was exactly when the haunting began. Over the next few days I simply couldn't stop thinking about Jefferson. I found it impossible to understand how the same man who had written, "All men are created equal," was not only a slaveholder, but felt justified in having a sexual relationship with an enslaved woman. How he could have held both ideas inside his head and imagined himself to be even a remotely decent human being?

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I am constantly writing about people who try to do the right thing and fail, and this is as true of my nonfiction as my fiction. In WILL MY NAME BE SHOUTED OUT?, my memoir about teaching at a New York City public school, I am the one who wants to do the right thing and fails, and in ORPHAN TRAINS, my nonfiction account of an early child welfare experiment, that person is Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Children's Aid Society. Obviously, Jefferson failed rather spectacularly at living up to some of his own ideals, so perhaps it was inevitable that he should end up as one of my protagonists. But that was the last thing on my mind when I first started writing about him. My main goal in those early days was use fiction as a sort of tool to get inside Jefferson’s head and see if I could make some sense of what was happening there. The first scene I wrote after mailing off my story was realistic, but I followed it with another dreamlike scene, and after that basically alternated between the styles according to the whims of my inspiration. As the pages accumulated a narrative gradually emerged and I realized that I had, in fact, embarked on a short story. For a long time, however, I couldn’t decide whether the story should be realism or surrealism. I kept going back and forth between the genres, always missing the clarity of vision afforded by one genre when I was writing in the other. But then one day I realized that what most interested me was the contrast between these two ways of making sense of my characters, so I decided to try writing the story in both forms—and found the result so inspiring that I eventually threw prose poetry and essays into the mix. More and more pages accumulated, and over a period of six years, my “short” story grew into a manuscript eight inches thick.

Part of the absolute genius of your novel is that you have created a living breathing Sally Hemings and given her a voice that was denied her in her lifetime. How daunting a task was that? What was your research like, and what surprised you?

Initially, the realistic scenes of the novel (which are the ones that elaborate the main plot) were entirely in the third person, and slightly more than half of them focused on Sally Hemings (I actually counted the pages!!). My first surprise came when I gave an early draft of the book to two friends, and both thought that my primary focus was on Jefferson. Initially, I found this response deeply puzzling, but then I realized that, because of his nearly mythical status as an American icon, Jefferson simply loomed larger on the page than Hemings, and his every word and action had an amplified significance—a state of affairs that struck me as a continuation of the injustice that had deprived the historical Hemings of her own voice. For a long time I couldn’t figure out how to correct this imbalance, but then one afternoon, as I was making a sandwich for lunch, it occurred to me that if I let Sally Hemings speak directly to the reader I would, in effect, be giving her a megaphone and allowing her to seize control of her part of the story. I took my sandwich to my desk, started typing and, for days thereafter, her words just poured out of me. I don’t think I have ever been more inspired in my life.

In some ways it is no surprise that her voice should have come to me so quickly. By the time I finished that early draft, I had read many books on Hemings and Jefferson, and on slavery and the historical period generally. (The most important of these were Annette Gordon-Reed's brilliant THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO and Harriet Jacobs's memoir, INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL.) And I had also spent years writing and thinking about Hemings’s life and how she might have responded to her predicament. What might be more surprising, however, is that I actually found Hemings's heart and mind far easier to occupy than Jefferson's. I had, after all, started the book precisely because I had found his moral schizophrenia incomprehensible. But more to the point: Once my imagination actually enabled me to enter into Jefferson’s character, and recreate within myself a sensibility that experienced “owning” other human beings as natural, I had constantly to fight off my moral repulsion and my sense that, by having come so close to Jefferson, I was besmirching myself. By contrast, there was nothing morally objectionable about Sally Hemings. She was the victim rather than the perpetrator of injustice, and even when she had to do things that troubled her conscience, she was only trying to make the best of a horrific situation.

But just because Hemings's point of view was far less emotionally grueling to inhabit than Jefferson’s does not mean that, as a 21st century white male, I didn’t face many significant challenges in my attempts to render anything like the truth of her experience. One of those challenges was the fact that I wasn’t sure it was even right for me to speak in Hemings’s voice. I well understood that for the last 400 years, the stories of African Americans have primarily been told—and, in general, told badly—by white people, and that this is an era in which it is probably best for someone like me to simply get out of the way. But on the other hand, the key reason I found writing from Hemings’s point of view so inspiring was that it enabled me to convey the complex psychological, emotional and moral ramifications of slavery far more powerfully than I had been able to in the third person. To cut her voice would have weakened the whole book and made it impossible for me to render what I felt were crucial insights. So I continued writing in Hemings’s voice and did all I could to avoid succumbing to the blind spots and prejudices that might arise from my demographic characteristics and individual history. Whether I have succeeded in this regard is for other people to decide.

What things were you compelled to fictionalize and what things strictly followed the truth?

Well, since this is a novel, probably the most honest answer to this question is that everything is fictionalized, except for the quotations from historical documents. After all, even in those scenes based on documented events, all of the dialogue, specific actions and emotional responses are the products of my imagination. But that said, I worked hard to make sure that the novel accorded with the historical record. I didn’t take any liberties with chronology, and tried never to contradict any well-established fact about Jefferson or Hemings. Even in the wildest surrealist passages (when Jefferson is an ape, for example, or when Hemings is in her flying machine), I hoped that my inventions would shed light on the psychology and relationship of the actual Hemings and Jefferson.

The historical record is, however, extremely sparse when it comes to Sally Hemings. She is not mentioned on a single one of the 20,000 pages of Jefferson’s surviving letters, and I would be surprised if, outside of the scanty notations in Jefferson’s plantation record books, there are more than a thousand words specifically referring to her written by anyone who actually knew her. I had so little to work with, in fact, that my efforts to keep Hemings’s story close to the historical record primarily consisted of extrapolations from what I knew about Jefferson and life at Monticello, and from the memoirs of other enslaved people.

I suspect that I diverged farthest from the historical Sally Hemings when I made her literate. Jefferson had no injunctions against enslaved people at Monticello learning to read and write. We know that two of Hemings's brothers were literate, as were at least some of her children. If she herself could read and write, however, one would assume that she would have been the one to teach her children, but in his memoir, her and Jefferson's son, Madison, says he was taught by Jefferson's grandchildren. My decision to make Hemings literate derived far more from the moral, political and aesthetic imperatives of my story than from historical probability. Practically from the moment I first started writing about Hemings, I wanted her to be Jefferson's intellectual equal in every way, in part so that I might emphasize the injustice both of slavery itself and of Jefferson's treatment of her. And her literacy came to seem an essential element of this equality, especially once I decided to have her tell her story.

The other thing I wanted to talk about is that you have sort of mussed up the "holier than thou" image of Jefferson, who might be revered, but the fact is, he kept slaves. He was complicated and maybe a bit of a hypocrite, too. Can you talk about that please?

He was very definitely a hypocrite, and also terrifically self-absorbed and shockingly racist, at least by modern standards. And even though he was a "liberal" slaveholder, he was perfectly capable of turning a blind eye to the barbarity of his overseers. Also, rather than economize, he sold thirty of his slaves so that he might pay off his bills, and when he died, despite having referred to his enslaved workers as "my family," he left his estate in such bad financial shape that almost all of his slaves (Hemings and her children among the few exceptions) had to be sold to make good his debt, a fact that caused untold pain and horror to nearly 200 men, women and children. But at the same time, Jefferson’s words, "All men are created equal," have served as the moral and legal foundation of all liberation struggles from abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement to feminism and gay marriage. As a young lawyer, he did pro bono work on behalf of two mixed-race young men suing for their freedom. He also wrote a draft of the Virginia constitution outlawing slavery, tried to outlaw slavery in what is now the Midwest. And as president steered a law through Congress banning the importation of slaves—the single strongest Federal anti-slavery initiative prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. He was a man who simply does not make sense by modern standards.

Not long after my novel was published, I met a biographer of Jefferson who said that to understand Jefferson is to forgive him. I told the biographer that there are things about Jefferson that I can never forgive, and that they exist side by side with those qualities I most admire. And just as his best qualities in no way diminish the barbarity of his worst, so his worst characteristics in no way diminish his best. I think it is a mistake to assign people a moral worth that is an average of their virtues and weaknesses. Such averaging diminishes our ability to clearly comprehend and feel the moral nature of any individual action. We find it hard, for example, to believe “basically good” people can commit truly evil actions, or that people designated as criminals might have any good sides to their characters. None of us is an undifferentiated “average;” we are all bundles of contradiction, and to neglect this fact only diminishes our ability to understand and deal appropriately with other human beings and with ourselves.

The book is so wildly imaginative, so inventive, and it takes so many chances--what was it like writing it?

I am tempted to say it was a total joy, but that is not true. There were many moments when I was lost, confused, in despair, and afraid that I had taken on a task way beyond my abilities. But even so, all through the novel’s composition, images, scenes and ideas flowed into my head with astonishing abundance. And I was never less than fascinated by everything I had to learn and think about concerning my protagonists and their era.

When I first started to work on the book, I was very worried that the quantity of fact I had to absorb and the political controversy surrounding almost every aspect of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship might so limit my imaginative freedom that I would end up producing the literary equivalent of one of those dutiful and boring 1960s television docudramas. So once I had done enough research to feel confident writing, I decided that I would compose the novel entirely out of chronological order and switch randomly from realism to surrealism to essay to poetry and to quotation from historical documents. My hope was that in my uncertainty about how these fragments might ultimately link up, I would find enough freedom to follow even the wildest promptings of my imagination. I wrote in this fashion until I had what felt like a complete manuscript. Of course, once I arranged all the pieces into something like a coherent order and then read them over, I discovered that much of what I had written was just garbage and should be cut, and that I had many more scenes to write and a huge amount of research to do. From that point on, most of what I did was correct the weaknesses of what I had already written. But even so, those first chaotic months of composition did provide my book with an eccentric and capacious structure that seems to have served me well throughout all my years writing.

What's obsessing you now and why?

The longer I worked on THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS, the more I came to feel that it was about the ways in which the human race accommodates evil. So now I am exploring that theme in a novel about an "Aryan" psychoanalyst and his Jewish daughter in Nazi Germany—and maybe that is all I should say about that book for now. I am, after all, still worried about limiting my imaginative freedom!

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Well, the most common question I get when I discuss my book in public is whether I think Jefferson raped Hemings. And my answer is: Yes—but with qualifications.

When we say that any sexual relationship between master and slave is rape we are making what we might call a clarifying oversimplification—one that helps us see a complex situation more clearly, just as the reduction of a mass of economic data to a single line on a graph can give us a clearer idea of how the economy is doing. When we define rape as a sexual encounter to which one partner is not truly free to consent, we are identifying the injustice and cruelty, not just of violent sexual assault, but, at least potentially, of any sexual encounter in which there is an imbalance of power, including sex between a boss and employee, a teacher and student, and even some marital partners. Obviously, not all of these situations are necessarily rape under any definition. And even those that can legitimately be defined as rape are not equally easy to recognize as such, to the point that some of these encounters might even be perceived as wholly positive experiences by the people participating in them. By modern standards, for example, an eighteenth century marriage was alarmingly close to slavery for women, but that didn’t stop Jane Austen (Hemings’s almost exact contemporary) from portraying marriage as the happiest of fates for her protagonists.

When I first began writing about Hemings and Jefferson, my assumption was that their “relationship” had been little more than rape in the most classic sense. But as I began to do research, I discovered evidence that their thirty-seven years together might have had more positive dimensions. For example, when Hemings left Monticello after Jefferson’s death, she took his spectacles, inkwell and shoe buckle, which she gave to their son, Madison, who gave them, in turn, to his daughter. If Hemings had seen her relationship with Jefferson as nothing more than a monstrously prolonged rape, why would she want theses intimate tokens of his physical being? And why would they become heirlooms within her family? Also, Hemings was the offspring of a sexual relationship between an enslaved woman and Jefferson’s father-in-law, which is to say that she was the half-sister Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Jefferson loved Martha so dearly that after her death his friends thought he was being driven mad by grief. And so it is at the very least possible that, years later, some of his tender regard for his wife might have been extended to her sister.

There is a fair bit of other circumstantial evidence that Hemings and Jefferson’s interaction might have had positive dimensions, though none of it negates the huge power differential between them and therefore the notion that their sexual relations can be classified as rape. But just as I had been inspired by Jefferson’s Jekyll-and-Hyde moral nature, so the possibility that his relationship with Hemings might have been simultaneously contemptible and, to some degree, positive suggested all sorts of fascinating dramatic, psychological and philosophical possibilities. If we consider, for example, that over their decades together Hemings might have viewed Jefferson as something other than her rapist, how then should we interpret her feeling for him? Could it have been love? Was it the Stockholm Syndrome (that tendency of kidnapping victims to develop positive feelings for their captors)? Or was it something in between? And if the latter, how do we define that that feeling? Is it good? Is it bad? Or at what point does a beautiful and empowering emotional bond switch over into a pathological attachment? These questions terrifically excited me, for they meant that by presenting Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship in a more ambiguous light, I would be able to explore the underbelly of an emotion that humanity has venerated for millennia.

The truth is that I have always been drawn to such ambiguity in my fiction. One of my main goals when I construct any narrative is to take my readers one small, perfectly believable step after another to a point where they might say, “Wait a second! What’s going on here? Is this true? I don’t know what to think!” I find such moments terrifically rich, because it is exactly when readers don’t know what’s true that they think their hardest and are most likely to come up with valuable insights. Had I chosen to base my novel on either of the two most common assumptions about Hemings and Jefferson (that he was a straight-out rapist or that they were in love), I would not have been giving my readers anything they did not already have, nor would I have stimulated productive thought. My hope is that by making my portrayal of the relationship an amalgam of both assumptions (as well as of many other possibly contradictory factors), I might be able to accomplish something like what I think James Baldwin meant when he said that art’s purpose is to “lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” It is, of course, immensely important that we constantly struggle to reach new understandings of ourselves and of the world. But it is also important for us to remember that every new understanding creates a new form of blindness. The world is too complex for us ever to fully grasp, and so our search for truth must be endless.