Monday, April 27, 2009

An interview with Ann Weisgarber

Ann Weisgarber's debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, is a slice-of-life tale set in the South Dakota Badlands in 1917. Rachel and her husband Isaac had left Chicago fourteen years earlier to establish a homestead. They have achieved some measure of success with their ranch, but during this summer's drought, hard times force them to make tough choices. Already isolated from other settlers in this sparsely populated country, the DuPrees and their five living children face additional challenges because of their race.

As a pregnant Rachel minds her cookstove, cares for her children, and worries about their future and that of their starving cattle, she reminisces about the years she spent working in the kitchen of a Chicago boardinghouse. This job brought her into unexpected contact with many socially prominent African Americans, including a handsome army veteran named Isaac DuPree. Rachel tells her story in clear and unpretentious language, revealing the reality of her daily life in the Badlands, the levels of social hierarchy out West and back home, and her conflicting feelings about the bargain she made in her marriage.

The novel opens a window onto an aspect of American history rarely explored in fiction. Rachel is a strong and courageous heroine who faces universal dilemmas, and her tale moves at a good pace despite the seeming quietness of the setting. I especially enjoyed the authentic portrayal of the tangled history shared by the novel's white, African American, and Indian characters, as seen in the shadows it casts on their present-day relationships.

Ann Weisgarber lives in Texas. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was published by Macmillan New Writing (UK) in 2008; the paperback appears this month from Pan Macmillan (320pp, £7.99). It was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009 and is a contender for the Orange Award for New Writers, with the results to be announced June 3rd. Ann will be speaking on the "debut authors" panel at the HNS Conference in June and will be signing copies of her novel at the event. I hope you enjoy this interview!

You tell Rachel DuPree's story in the first person. What sources did you draw upon to get into the mind and heart of an African-American woman from the early 20th century?

When I started the novel, I realized assuming a voice different from my own was a challenge and that I had to get the details rights. The first thing was to get a sense of the South Dakota Badlands. I couldn’t understand Rachel until I understood her home. I read everything I could about the area and about homesteaders. I spent several vacations in the Badlands and had a four-week writing residency at Badlands National Park.

Research and a handful of weeks in South Dakota, though, didn’t make me a rancher. Instead, it allowed me to see the Badlands as Rachel saw it when she first arrived. Its vastness overwhelmed her just as it had me. She missed aspects of city life just as I had. The constant wind tore at her nerves just as it did mine. My being an outsider allowed me to see the Badlands through Rachel’s eyes.

Next I had to learn about the issues that shaped Rachel when she was a child and a young woman. This called for history lessons about black culture. I discovered popular music, slaughterhouses in Chicago, and race riots in East St. Louis. I discovered Ida B. Wells-Barnett and admired her greatly. So did Rachel. Absorbing the culture was another step toward my seeing the world through Rachel’s eyes.

Regardless of research, I could not completely understand the African-American experience. This, I realized, was true of the other Dakota ranchers. They couldn’t understand Rachel. Nor could Rachel completely understand whites or Indians. Rachel’s struggles to deal with people different from her were more opportunities for me to see the world as she does.

Last, I had to learn about the mindset of the time period. I read novels and diaries written before and after the turn of the 20th Century. I discovered Rachel’s story was not unique; most women in the West, including Indians, struggled to feed their children. Many women lived with determined men. Heartache and homesickness were not unique experiences, but shared by many women. Rachel was one woman among many.

Writing this novel called for considerable research. But just as important, I relied on my imagination. Imagine, I told myself, the thrill when the handsome Isaac DuPree showed up in the boarding house where Rachel worked. Imagine the train trip from Chicago to South Dakota, Rachel dressed in her wedding suit. And imagine what it was like to lower a child into a water well. Emotions are emotions regardless of race or nationality. That was the common bond I shared with Rachel.

Many of the characters are pioneers in one way or another – not just the DuPrees themselves, but also others, such as Rachel’s parents, who were first-generation settlers in an unfamiliar land. What about the pioneering spirit interests you?

I’ve always been fascinated by American pioneers who had the courage to shed their past and start fresh somewhere else. They were full of hope, confident life would be better in a new place. They might have had doubts and they might have been scared, but they believed in themselves. Pioneers dared to try, and I admire that.

Isaac DuPree, Rachel's husband, takes considerable pride in his ranch; he bases his self-worth on the amount of land he's able to purchase and hold on to. Because of this, he's determined to tough it out in the Badlands despite incredibly harsh conditions. In this respect, how typical is he of other black pioneers you learned about in your research? How did you develop his character?

Isaac was typical of many western men, regardless of race. Like many men, owning land gave Isaac dignity and worth. It gave his children a future. Like many others, he pitted his strength against the land and pitted his will against anyone who tried to separate him from his land. Isaac’s determination to keep his land was a common story, and the steps he took to keep it were not unusual. His willingness to sacrifice was the norm even today. He was a composite of the typical Western man.

Have you found that your academic background in sociology influences the topics you choose to emphasize in your fiction?

My background in sociology pushes me think about my characters as people of their times. I believe it’s important to include references to literature, to music, and to popular culture. Characters don’t live in vacuums but are influenced by the news of their day as well as by events in the past. Newspaper headlines impact lives.

Social class and prejudice also influence characters and are themes I especially like, although admittedly it’s nerve-racking to write about them. The revelation of ugly prejudices in plain language is not comfortable. When writing Rachel DuPree, I had to remind myself that in 1917, Indians were considered inferior and if I wanted the story to be accurate, I had to write about Indians as Rachel saw them.

I've read that you taught yourself the basics of fiction writing by studying Cold Mountain. Why Frazier's novel in particular?

I wanted to study a novel that was historical fiction and that had a strong voice. Cold Mountain was Frazier’s first novel and had won the National Book Award. That was inspiring. I had also heard that he spent years writing it. That was all the more inspiring.

The four-week writing residency at Badlands National Park you mentioned earlier – is this something you arranged yourself, or was it an opportunity that writers can apply for? How did your residency there improve your manuscript?

The National Park Service has a residency program in selected national parks for writers and artists, and Badlands National Park is one of the parks. I was there during the off-season, and I had a small efficiency apartment near the main visitor center. I encourage any writer who wants to experience isolation to apply. It was a terrific experience. It gave me an opportunity to experience the weather, to sink up to my ankles in mud after a downpour, and to admire the Milky Way on clear nights. I also got to meet ranchers and hear their stories. I could not have written this book without those four weeks in the park.

What were some interesting or surprising things you discovered during the research process?

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a wonderful surprise. I came across her when I was researching Chicago and the black professional class. I admired her and knew Rachel would, too. At first I wasn’t sure how I would use Wells-Barnett but eventually found a place for her. As it turned out, she inspired much of Rachel’s actions.

At the moment, Rachel DuPree isn't available from an American publisher. I find this unusual and rather ironic, given the setting and subject, and hope that a publisher stateside will make the wise decision to pick it up! How did your search for a publisher lead you to Macmillan New Writing?

I had an agent a few years ago, and she worked hard to sell the book here in the States. It didn’t get anywhere since many editors considered the story too quiet. That told me the book wasn’t ready. My agent and I parted on good terms, and I went back to page one and worked on revisions. When I finished, I sent the manuscript to Macmillan New Writing, a division of Pan Macmillan in the UK that was willing to published unagented manuscripts. I had read about MNW in Poets & Writers but didn’t think the book had a chance since MNW published only twelve novels a year and received thousands of submissions. Luck was on my side, though. Eleven weeks after e-mailing the manuscript, I had a contract with MNW.

The book hasn’t yet been picked up here in the States and that might not ever happen. However, Editions Belfond in France bought it from MNW, and the French edition comes out in June, 2009. It has also been released in the UK in large print and as a CD. I’m very fortunate and appreciate the UK’s and France’s support of the novel.

Can you reveal anything about the novel you’re currently working on?

My next novel takes place in Galveston, Texas, and is based on the 1900 hurricane that killed 6,000 people on the island. The narrator is a young woman whose husband, a cattle rancher, disappears during the storm. The story revolves around her search for her husband and her determination to keep the ranch.

6 comments:

  1. I've got this book on my tbr list. I do wish it was available in the states but will probably order a copy through Book Depository since they ship free from England.

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  2. Jeanette, that's where I got my copy also - they have great service!

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  3. Anonymous5:11 PM

    Sarah,

    Just wanted to recommend a read-alike for this one. Have you heard any buzz on Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill? (Original Canadian title is The Book of Negroes, which I think was way better as it refers to a real historical document that is important to the story, but whatever). Anyway, it's a fabulous book that covers the history of one Aminata Diallo, abducted from her African homeland by slavers as a young girl, and taken to the Carolinas to work on an indigo plantation. She eventually escapes to freedom, but her journeys will take her from New York to Canada to Sierra Leone to London. This book was a bestseller in Canada, and won CBC's Canada Reads (a Survivor-style radio show in which five Canadian novels are proposed for the country to read, and they are "voted off" until only one remains). It's a wonderful, wonderful book, and since Canadian historical fiction doesn't show up on your blog often, I would really encourage you to take a look!

    Heather

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  4. Hi Heather, I've read Someone Knows My Name and agree that it's a fabulous book! I reviewed it for Booklist when it first came out here and can't repost the review because the publisher owns the rights, but I found an online version of it in case you're curious (2nd one down). I made sure to include the original title in the review; the name change is pretty ironic given the importance of remembering one's origins in the novel!

    There are some similarities between it and Rachel DuPree in terms of theme (racial equality, the desire for self-improvement, the search for a place to belong) but the scope is pretty different... the latter focuses on domestic matters and takes place on a much smaller scale. Both are well worth reading.

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  5. Thanks for an interesting interview.

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  6. This book sounds wonderful! Thanks for the insightful interview. I just added it to my tbr.

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