Thursday, August 15, 2019

Interview with Elizabeth Bell, author of Necessary Sins, first in a four-book family saga

Lovers of engrossing family sagas: here's a new historical series to add to your list. Necessary Sins, the first book in Elizabeth Bell's Lazare Family Saga, travels from Saint-Domingue in the French West Indies in the late 18th century to Charleston, South Carolina in the 19th century, with a brief sojourn in Rome. The book's tagline—"In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family's secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner's wife"—reveals the basics of the plot. Joseph Lazare and the woman he comes to love, Tessa Conley, are richly described, complex characters, as are the rest of the cast. They include his level-headed doctor father, René; his mother, Anne, a hearing-impaired woman and devout Catholic; and even Joseph's formidable great-grandmother, Marguerite, whose story is told early on and whose actions affect all of their lives. I read it on a lengthy transatlantic flight, glued to the pages. Thanks to Elizabeth for her willingness to answer some questions in this interview.

The research you undertook during the 26 years of the writing process sounds impressively thorough. What were some of the most enjoyable or unique aspects of the research process?

My fictional family's story begins in Saint-Domingue, the French sugar colony that becomes Haiti. A lot of the information about Saint-Domingue is available only in French. I took seven years of French, but it was getting rusty when I started that part of the story. Then there's 18th-century French and modern French. So I'd say the language barrier was one of the more challenging aspects.

I also researched Catholicism extensively. I attended Masses in Latin, both in a church and in the open air before a Civil War reenactment. I felt like a spy because I wasn't there as a worshipper. My most enjoyable research was on-the-ground, when I toured the Charleston area. During last year's Festival of Houses & Gardens, I got to step inside the private home that sits where my character Tessa's house is located, on the corner of Church Street and Longitude Lane. You buy the ticket months in advance, and you don't know the exact homes you'll visit, so that was surreal: to stand in the place where on some other plane, my characters were arguing and embracing.

Title page of our best first-hand account of
Saint-Domingue (1797), written by a colonist
named Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry.
You’ve written a remarkably complex, multi-layered male protagonist who not only lives in the 19th century, but who’s also of mixed race, as he's shocked to discover, and is destined for the priesthood. How did his character develop over time? Did any of these qualities present more challenges during the writing process than others?

I don't exactly make it easy for myself! My Joseph Lazare was inspired by Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds. But for about the first 15 years of his fictional existence, Joseph was merely a supporting character. My focus was his nephew David and…well, David's generation, because the other two characters would be spoilers. Joseph and Tessa were always in love, but for 15 years, I never let them do anything about it. Theirs was a tragic, unconsummated love that pretty much all the characters knew about, but it was entirely chaste. It's, ahem, become less chaste as I grew into adulthood myself and took a hard look at Catholicism and starting asking "Why?" and "What if?" questions.

Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist,
Charleston, SC (although the congregation existed
in Joseph's day, this structure was completed
much later, in 1907; photo by author)
Catholicism is a gold mine of drama and angst for a fiction writer, and I couldn't let that opportunity go to waste. Since I've never been a boy or a man, writing from Joseph's point-of-view at various stages of his life was its own peculiar challenge. I found myself checking out books from the library on a boy's changing adolescent body! The history of racial identity and categorization is its own mountainous subject area. But I write because I want to learn and understand. I want my characters to be fully realized individuals. By giving them life in all its complexities, I think I expand my own humanity.

At what point did you realize the full story of the Lazares would be a four-book series?

About six months ago! When I began this story, I thought I was writing a single book. I knew it would be a long book, but my inspirations were 900-page epics from the 1980s, so I thought that was fine. Very slowly, I realized my saga would be more like 1500 pages. I decided that I had a trilogy...and then when I actually finished "Book 3," I realized it was over 800 pages. I had to split it again for a total of 4 books. To me, they're all one narrative. The character arcs aren't complete and the story won't be totally satisfying unless the 4 books are read in order. Joseph at the end of Book 1 or even Book 2 is not the fully evolved Joseph.

What impressed you so much about The Thorn Birds that compelled you to write an homage?

I love all that Colleen McCullough accomplishes in The Thorn Birds. The way she captures a time and place I knew nothing about, rural Australia. Her unforgettable characters. Her work holds up to repeat reads, and I get more out of it every time. Most of all, I love how interconnected each generation of her family saga is, how Fee's story echoes through her children and grandchildren. I loved the idea that (SPOILER) the earlier generations screw up and miss their chances at happiness, but eventually the youngest generation is able to break the cycle and find fulfillment. It's not reincarnation, but it's like the family is a single being that's failing and slowly learning and finally growing—the story arc isn't just about a single character's journey but all the family members together. That's so emotionally engaging and satisfying. I guess I find it cathartic, the idea that suffering will eventually lead to transcendence, even if it happens beyond your own lifetime. In Book 2 of my saga, Lost Saints, I have Tessa quote Thomas Paine: "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

The Thorn Birds also inspired so many questions. As you can probably guess, I was most captivated by the character of Father Ralph. I wanted to understand the choices he made: why he wouldn't leave the Church for Meggie and why he became a celibate priest in the first place. Colleen McCullough gives us glimpses into Ralph's inner struggle, but only glimpses, and we hear very little about his life before he's ordained. I wanted more! I started asking "What if?" and eventually my answers turned into Joseph and Necessary Sins.

Alley of live oaks, Boone Hall Plantation, Charleston, SC (photo by author)

How did you choose South Carolina as the main setting?

When I was eight years old, my parents took me to visit Charleston. I fell in love, and I knew I had to set a story there. The desire simmered until I had a story to tell. I adore the flora and fauna of the Lowcountry, and they became part of my saga. But as a child, I think what appealed to me most was how easy it is to time travel in Charleston. So much of the architecture and narrow streets in the historic district have been lovingly preserved—incredibly, considering the hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes the city has endured.

How were the studies you undertook for your MFA in creative writing beneficial in your writing career?

They definitely made me a better writer. It's essential that a writer read widely and venture outside his or her comfort zone. My literature courses forced me to do that. It's essential that a writer learns to critique others' work, to take criticism, and to make her stories the best versions of themselves. But the most important thing to come out of my MFA degree were the lifelong friendships I forged with classmates. These writers have provided invaluable feedback on my work in the years since we graduated, and they've supported me on this grueling journey to publication.

Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston (photo by author)

I love family sagas that extend over generations and journey to different places, and based on Necessary Sins and the descriptions of the later books, it sounds like you do, too. What appeals to you about writing an epic historical saga?

I love stories I can dive into and inhabit for more than a day or two. I love contrasts and juxtapositions. I love finding surprising connections and echoes. To me, a saga best reflects reality in all its rich beauty, ugliness, and complexity because the writer has a canvas as large as life. However, classic sagas from ancient times to the 20th century are often larger than life and tend toward melodrama. I'm trying to walk that line: a grand scale that captures lost times and places yet is deeply grounded in characters who aren't simply props and symbols. No single individual can express what it means to be human, so the characters are part of a larger whole, but each one is fully rounded and believable. At least that's what I'm striving for. Real life is messier than fiction, so there's artifice involved in telling a satisfying story; but if it's done well, artifice can become art.


Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade. At the age of fourteen, she chose a pen name and vowed to become a published author. That same year, she began the Lazare Family Saga. It took her a couple decades to get it right. New generations kept demanding attention, and the story became four epic historical novels. After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library. She works there to this day.  Visit her website at


  1. This sounds really good! I enjoy family sagas also and the antebellum Charleston setting will be something different for me. I read "The Thorn Birds" SO many years ago. Thanks for the review!

  2. Thorn Birds is a favorite of mine. The miniseries, too, even though I heard that McCullough didn't like it.

    Hope you enjoy the read!

  3. Yes, I also read that McCullough and "Meggie" (Rachel Ward) disliked the miniseries. Personally I like Richard Chamberlain's Ralph better than Ralph in the novel; he's less arrogant. But I like Meggie better in the novel. I think the differences between the two mediums were part of what got my writer's brain humming and gave me "permission" to ask "What if?"

  4. I am so tempted to re-watch The Thorn Birds now. I was barely in high school when it first aired, and I'm sure some of the story went over my head. I still remember many of the scenes and lines, though!

  5. Then you should definitely watch it again! The musical score is wonderful too.

  6. I don't remember the score at all! I bet it will come back to me once I see it again.