How did you come to this story? Or how did it come to you? The story definitely came to me. About 7 years ago now, I was reading a biography of Virginia Woolf and came across the term “slave doctor”. The words described one of Woolf’s long-gone relations and no further explanation or description of the man was given. I found myself wondering what kind of person would occupy what to me seemed an inherently conflicted role: to dedicate your life to healing and yet your patients were destined only for more and graver harm. From that initial spark of curiosity I wrote the story of Caleb Harper, a doctor working for a slave catcher, and two women appeared in his story: Josephine Bell, an artist and enslaved woman living on a Virginia tobacco farm, and Dorothea Rounds, a young white woman active on the Underground Railroad. And I was off.
You draw from the perspectives of two very different women, but both Lina and Josephine were searching. What connections do you see between these two women? They are both very strong willed, smart and adept at hiding how they feel, both from others and from themselves. Of course, the circumstances of their lives could not be more different; Lina enjoys all the privileges and freedoms that Josephine does not. I see Lina and Josephine as vertically connected rather than horizontally, if that makes any sense. Josephine is Lina’s predecessor, her mother, at least symbolically. Dresser has a line about enslaved people “They were as much our founding mothers and fathers as the bewigged white man who lay a whip upon their backs.” And that idea resonates with Lina, both historically and personally. She has very few memories of her own mother Grace and knows very little about her, but Josephine shares many of Grace’s characteristics: a talented artist, a disappearance, a lost child. At the beginning of the novel, Lina is too afraid to really search for her own mother, and so she searches for Josephine instead. Josephine gives Lina the inspiration that she needs to move forward with her life, the courage to confront her own past. And of course in the process of finding Josephine, Lina finds herself.
The novel weaves compelling insights about slavery into Josephine’s personal decision to run. What are some reasons slaves ran while others didn’t? It’s more difficult, I think, to understand the decision not to run because most slave narratives were written by (or about) those who were able to escape. But fear must have been a huge component – fear of capture and punishment. The cutting of the Achilles tendon (as happens to Nathan in the book) was commonly done to slaves who had tried to run and been recaptured. To escape also meant leaving family and friends behind, loved ones who in all likelihood you would never see again. At a time when families were routinely torn apart, to voluntarily leave one’s family must have been a very difficult decision to make. Women ran much less frequently than men because they were more likely to be caring for young children, and fleeing with a child was much harder. There were also the practical difficulties of not knowing where to go – certainly after the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, the northern US no longer offered any real prospect of ‘freedom’ and the road to Canada was very long.
You do a lot with images and art in the book. I wonder how, with the hard work behind The House Girl, you see images of slavery, historical and modern-day. It’s requires a kind of resilience and courage to know the things you likely learned in your work on the story and keep at it. Yes, there was a point at which I had to stop researching. It became very overwhelming – the scope of tragedy, the individual horrors. Antebellum art generally tended to depict idealized visions of peaceful plantation life – the myth of the benign master, the happy Negro. Many are very pretty pictures, but I couldn’t help seeing them as quite sinister given what they omit. More realistic images were created for the abolitionist movement, and these are generally horrifying. Their intent was to provoke outrage and increase support for the abolitionist cause, and I presume they were very effective. More contemporary artists have grappled with slavery in a variety of ways. I’ve personally been most effected by the work of Kara Walker who makes intricate cut-paper silhouettes of antebellum life – shocking scenes of violence and sexual exploitation, but rendered simply, starkly, with black cut-outs against a white background. They are very powerful.
Lina’s experience was peopled with men like her father, her legal mentor, and the potential lead plaintiff. What characteristics equipped her to navigate such diverse relationships? Lina is very independent and very driven. She grew up in a single-parent, poor, urban household with a father who suffered from severe depression and has never been traditionally “responsible”. As a result, she’s had to parent herself in many ways. I think this self-sufficiency, learned at an early age, helps her to operate successfully in these diverse worlds – with her father and his artist friends, in the more conservative world of the law firm, and with Jasper Battle, a musician whom she finds both very foreign and also oddly familiar, given that his world is so similar to her father’s. The corporate law world and professional art world are very different of course, but they are both arenas traditionally dominated by white men, so I think growing up in one prepared Lina in unexpected ways to succeed in the other.
In a sentence, maybe two, imagine how Lina would explain her case to her mother, how Josephine would explain slavery to her son. What a great (and really tough!) question. First, Lina to her mother: “I’m working on a lawsuit that’s seeking to repair the damage done by slavery, at least in some symbolic way. And Mom, it’s more about memory than money.” Josephine to Joseph: “We live in a world where some people own other people based on the color of their skin. But things won’t always be this way, and you don’t have to let it define you.”
Your book made me think of the many ways people experience loss—of a hope, a relationship, an ideal, a role. On the other hand, the story is one of motivated, resourceful people moving forward. Is that a fair reflection? Yes, very fair, and thank you for it. For me, the characteristic that binds all the characters together is their willingness to face and ultimately overcome their fears. For Josephine, the fear of running, of leaving everyone and everything she knows. For Lina, the fear of discovering the truth about her mother and, by necessity, the truth about her father as well. For Caleb, his fear of caring, of investing himself in another person; and Dorothea, fear of rebelling against her father and of once again putting her faith in something large than herself. So they are all moving forward, as you say, trying to push past these fears as best they can.
There are two very striking things I’d love you to say more about. First, the musical list of names in Lina’s index. Second, the notion of celebrating and honoring slaves who have died in slavery. The list was particular, poignant, thorough, and considerate. The comment, a summation of the novel. Say more about how those emerged. Thank you for them. The list was culled from the more than 2,000 names of some of the last surviving slaves whose testimonies were taken in the 1930s under the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The testimonies are available on the Library of Congress website; it’s an amazing resource that I would encourage readers to explore. I included the names for a couple of reasons. First, Josephine’s story is very circumscribed – one day in the life of one woman on one small farm in Virginia. Her position as a house slave and the close relationship she has with her mistress, Lu Ann Bell, makes Josephine’s experience somewhat uncharacteristic, I believe. Given Josephine’s exceptionalism, I thought I would be remiss in not acknowledging, at least to some degree, the vast scope of slavery’s tragedy. I wanted the reader to be hit with the physical presence of those names – a solid page of text – and feel, for a moment, disoriented and overwhelmed. And second, before I started researching in earnest, I believed that there was a national monument or a national museum dedicated to memorializing enslaved Americans. I don’t know where this belief came from – I just assumed that such a thing must exist, and I was surprised to learn that it doesn’t. There is no national memorial or museum (although the National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015). I was thinking of the power of naming and how important that is in honoring the victims of a particular tragedy – for example, the inscriptions on the Vietnam War Memorial, or the reading of names after 9/11. I wanted Lina’s chart to serve as something similar, although of course on a much reduced scale.
What are you reading these days? The pile beside my bed is groaning – I’ve got so many waiting in line. I just finished two wonderful novels: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which I loved and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, which I also loved. Now I’m just about to dive into Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I’ve been waiting for this one for awhile. I still remember scenes from her Half of a Yellow Sun, which I read a good number of years ago.
How can readers follow you and support your work? You can find me at www.taraconklin.com, on facebook and twitter @TEConklin. I love to hear from readers and regularly participate in book club discussions via Skype or phone so feel free to get in touch.