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The House Girl: A Novel Hardcover – February 12, 2013
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Author One-on-One: Maria Semple and Tara Conklin
Maria Semple: Tara, huge congratulations on The House Girl. How did this novel come into being?
Tara Conklin: Thanks, Maria. The novel began as a short story that I wrote about six years ago. I came across the term “slave doctor” in a book I was reading and the words made me stop. I became curious as to why a person dedicated to healing would take on such a role. From that initial spark of curiosity, I wrote a short story about a slave doctor, Caleb Harper, and two women appeared in his story. I say “appeared” because that’s really how it seemed to happen – Josephine and Dorothea just showed up and demanded my attention. I couldn’t stop wondering about these two characters and so I started writing separate stories about them, and I just kept writing.
MS: Josephine, a house slave in 1852 Virginia, became one of your narrators. The other, Lina, is a lawyer in present day New York. You practiced law before you became a novelist. Did Lina’s voice come easily by comparison?
TC: No, I actually found Lina’s sections tougher to get right. I think because Lina’s external world is more similar to mine, it was more difficult to imagine her – I kept bumping up against my own experience.
MS: That’s so surprising, that Josephine was the easier voice to get right.
TC: Josephine came to me very organically – I felt that I knew who she was and what she wanted early on in the writing. Her character was inspired by two people: one was an African-American artist named Mary Bell and the other was a former slave, Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman, who lived in my hometown during the 18th century. Mumbet said that if she could have one minute of freedom, only to die afterwards, she would make the trade. That strength of purpose helped me understand Josephine.
MS: While she's not a narrator, the character of Lu Anne Bell looms large over the story. She's quite mysterious and wonderful. I'm curious if she, too, is partly based on a real person.
TC: No, she is entirely fictional, but I’m glad that you thought otherwise! I wrote quite a bit of back story for Lu Anne that never made its way into the novel: her childhood in Mississippi, how she met Mister, why they fell in love. I see Lu Anne as an essentially tragic figure – I think she wants to break out of the world she’s been born into, but she can’t quite transcend it.
MS:You were born in St. Croix and grew up in Stockbridge, MA. Did growing up in these two vastly different environments influence you as a writer?
TC: Both places are steeped in history, so they’ve given me an appreciation for and curiosity about the past and how it helps shape the present. Both places also have substantial ties to slavery. I don’t remember much about St. Croix, but I grew up with my parents’ stories of the island’s racial tension, the horrible legacy of the sugar fields. When I was in elementary school in Stockbridge, I learned about the Underground Railroad and Mumbet (mentioned above), a slave who sued for her freedom in a Massachusetts court and won. These stories really stayed with me over the years.
MS: What are you reading now?
TC: I always have several novels on the go at once – right now I’m reading Zone One by Colson Whitehead, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m re-reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, one of my all-time favorites.
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Top Customer Reviews
The House Girl by Tara Conklin is such a book. Well written with superb attention to detail and a wonderful ability to make scenes come to life, The House Girl tells the stories of two women--Josephina, the artistically talented house slave in Virginia and Lina, the ladder-climbing young attorney in New York City. Their stories become intertwined when Lina starts working on a retribution case for a big client. Looking for the perfect plaintiff, Lina discovers that Josephina may actually be the true artist of the famous works of her owner.
To be honest, the story began slowly and I struggled to stay involved. I must admit that I only had quick moments of time to read lately and The House Girl sat neglected on my night stand for a few weeks. It was only the last few days that I was able to devote the time this book deserved. I spent the last few evenings devouring the story and falling in love with the likable and rich characters.
Part heartrending tales of the abuse of slaves; part a genealogical mystery and part a story of individual healing, The House Girl won me over.
Josephine's story revolves around one day, the day she decides to run for freedom. I felt this story dragged and had too many holes in it that Lina would magically come to fill. Josephine's story did have moments of suspense about whether or not she would be caught trying to escape.
Lina's story moves quicker and is full of coincidences that propel her to find out about Josephine. I found myself not liking Lina as a character. I don't need to like a character to like a novel, but Lina annoyed me. Her passivity about her own life irked me; there are secrets that she knows are being kept from her about her mother, but she doesn't press to find out about them. The feasibility of a billion to trillion dollar slavery reparations case is only nominally questioned and then presented as a moral imperative. Only a few of the many legitimate arguments against such as class-action case are presented in a brief discussion and then utterly discounted.
Additionally I found it unbelievable and irritating that Conklin would make it seem that finding a person who could prove they were descendent from slaves with a credible story of harm, to be such a haphazard, needle-in-the-haystack situation. Surely there are millions who could fit that bill.Read more ›
THE HOUSE GIRL flawlessly switches between these two time periods telling of the life of Josephine, a slave girl, Lina, a New York City attorney, and Lina's father, Oscar, an artist. The book leads you through the life of Josephine as she struggles with her decision to "run, it leads you through the life of Lina who is researching families who may benefit from wrong doing during the period of slavery in the United States, and it leads you through the life of Oscar trying to make amends through his artwork.
The most significant question, though, along with finding descendants is that of who really did create the paintings found in Lu Anne Bell's home? Was it really Lu Anne or was it Josephine? Corresponding with this painting mystery and the mystery of Josephine's descendants is that of Lina's mother...what really did happen to her when Lina was only four?
You will get caught up in both stories because of the great detail Ms. Conklin uses and because of the research. I love "digging" for historical information. As you switch between the two stories, you will ask yourself to choose which life you were more interested in....Lina's or Josephine's....it may be difficult to choose since both were appealing and drew you in, but for me Josephine's story wins hands down for interest.
It took a few chapters, but you will become so involved, it becomes difficult to stop reading....you want to know what will become of the characters and the answer to the mysteries.
Each character comes alive with the vivid detail Ms. Conklin uses, and she puts their feelings out in the open...Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Loved the format on the book and the way the story was told....Published 3 days ago by Vincent Williams
Excellent! I enjoyed reading this book and loved the resolution. An easy read that's hard to put down.Published 3 days ago by Diane Hurtgen
Enjoyed the greatly. Highly recommend this book for all to read. I could not put the book down, had to keep on reading wondering what was going to happen next.Published 12 days ago by Sslon
The flashbacks on slavery and the investigative work were the best part of this book. It is difficult to read "big law" nonsense in the "modern" portion of the book.Published 1 month ago by A. Hollis
One of the best books I have ever read - this from someone who reads about 3 books a week. Very moving story, told from various points of view, but gradually and with plenty of... Read morePublished 1 month ago by M. Crockett
This book is full of useless plot lines that unravel and an ending that will leave you wishing you had the hours of your life back. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Samantha Cecil
Interesting take on American slavery, art history and modern connections. Definitely a read only for those who enjoy historical fiction. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Dayna M.