What can you tell us about your new book, The Promise?
The year is 1900. One of the narrators, Catherine, is caught in a scandal. To save herself, she leaves her comfortable life in Ohio and travels to Galveston, a small island off the coast of Texas. There, she marries Oscar, a widower with a five-year-old son.
The other narrator is Nan who has been taking care of Oscar’s son. The two women clash and yet, they need one another as they try to adjust to the changes in their lives. In the meantime, a hurricane swirls in the Gulf of Mexico and when it strikes Galveston, nothing will be the same again.
The hurricane, the historic 1900 Storm, was America’s worst natural disaster during the 20th Century. It is still very much a part of Galveston lore, and those of us who live near or on the Texas Gulf Coast compare all hurricanes to it.
What is your writing background that led you to write this and your other book?
When I started my first book, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, I didn’t have a writing background. I taught sociology at a two-year community college. I wrote Rachel DuPree during my spare time because I was haunted by a woman in a photograph. She was in front of a primitive sod dugout in the American West, she was alone, and the photo was unlabelled. I kept thinking about her and felt sure that this unnamed woman had once loved, laughed, and cried. After awhile, I began to draft a story. I didn’t think about publication but instead, wanted to give voice to a woman who had been forgotten.
I had a contract with Pan Macmillan for my second novel, The Promise, so that was a different process. I live near Galveston and have long been fascinated by the stories about the 1900 Storm. As it turned out, it was more of a challenge than I expected. People kept contacting me with requests that I write about their ancestors who had been in the storm. I eventually had to stop listening to their stories so I could listen to the voices in my imagination.
Which authors have had a profound influence on your book?
Since The Promise is a novel that explores social rules, Kate Chopin, the author of The Awakening, helped me understand the pressures women faced during the turn of the 20th Century. W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil sat on my desk during the early drafts. His character, Kitty, has an affair, and so does one of my characters. Ellen Feldman’s Scottsboro was also close on hand. Her character, Ruby, has a rural, somewhat uneducated voice similar to one of my narrators in The Promise. Whenever I got stuck, I reread chapters from these novels.
What is your favourite novel?
If I can pick only one, it has to be the children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. It’s a story about friendship, love, sacrifice, and the value of the written word. Plus, the black and white illustrations are beautiful.
If you could have any actor to play Rachel DuPree, then who would it be?
Viola Davis, who starred in The Help, has optioned the film rights so in my mind’s eye, she’s Rachel.
You spent four weeks in the Badlands National Park, so tell us about that experience.
It was an artist residency offered through the U.S National Park Service. I stayed in housing for park rangers near the Visitor Center and didn’t have television service but could get one radio station. The closest grocery store was a thirty-minute drive and the one time I made the trip to the store at dusk, I vowed never to do that again. On the return trip, it was dark with not a light in sight. I was the only person on the road, and I didn’t want to think what I’d do if the car broke down. Cell phone service was nonexistent.
I relied on that experience when I wrote about the possibility of Rachel DuPree and her children being alone and far from neighbors during the winter months.
During the residency, I experienced wind and electrical storms. Both kinds of storms found their way into Rachel DuPree. I took long walks alone and listened to the sounds of the Badlands. I also listened to the park rangers who gave me their poems and short stories. There weren’t many rangers since it was the off-season, but it felt like a community of writers.
Your interest in Rachel DuPree began when you visited a sod dugout, so could you expand on this for us?
When I was a kid, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series about her family in the West. In one of the books, they lived in a sod dugout so when I happened to come across one while on vacation in the Badlands, I couldn’t pass it up.
I was shocked by how small it was. I was equally shocked by the primitive conditions. How did women survive childbirth in a home made of grass and dirt? How did babies survive childhood illnesses? I couldn’t imagine. Then I noticed the cookstove in the corner. A slight path had been worn in the dirt floor around it. Someone had once stood at the cookstove, preparing three meals a day, seven days a week. Who was she? Was she homesick? Or was the dugout a stepping stone to something better?
Paired with the photo of the unnamed woman, I had a setting and a character.
You were nominated for the Orange Prize and Orange Award for New Writers, so how did you feel?
The entire experience was magical and surreal, and I still can’t believe it happened. I didn’t know Rachel DuPree had been submitted to the selection committees so I was stunned when one morning I turned on the computer and had about fifty e-mails with Congratulations or Orange Prize in the subject lines. An e-mail from my editor, Will Atkins, was buried in the midst of those but I opened his first. He called me a few minutes later.
The nominations changed my life. I was invited to come to London for the Orange Prize ceremony and to read at Southbank Theatre, something I never imagined doing. Book clubs in the UK began to read Rachel and it was eventually published in the States. The book didn’t win either prize, but I had achieved my goal. The voice of the unnamed woman in the photograph had been heard.
Tell us about your previous book The Personal History of Rachel DuPree.
It’s the story of an African-American ranch family in the South Dakota Badlands during 1917. The narrator is Rachel and her husband is Isaac, a former buffalo soldier. They have five children and have been in the Badlands for fourteen years. When the novel begins, times are hard and for Rachel, South Dakota no longer seems like the land of opportunity. Isaac, though, is convinced things will get better. Eventually, Rachel must do what she believes is right for her children.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a novel set in the back country of Utah. The year is 1888 and the narrator is Cynthia Rogers, a non-practicing Mormon who covers up secrets to protect her community.
Female First Lucy Walton