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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.
This was an excellent book and grabbed me on the first page. It gives a true-to-life picture of the plight of African Americans from the days of Slavery to the present. Read morePublished 9 hours ago by Janet Lipscomb
Haven't finished the book. Seems interesting. Not crazy about the writing itself.Published 4 days ago by Mildred Fitzgerald
Interesting read. The author sheds light on the pre civil war plantations and does not romanticize how slaves were treated.Published 4 days ago by Paulette Derkach
One of the few novels I have read recently that has little redeeming social or literary value.Published 5 days ago by Ann-Marie Rizzo
I do not care for books or movies that move back and forth through time with a lot of characters. The events of yester year were more interesting then current day.Published 6 days ago by Yvette C. Magruder
I didn't like that every other chapter went from the old days, to modern times - - so I fixed that by reading just the old days chapters to completion, then went back and read the... Read morePublished 6 days ago by Cheryl Robertson
This book is all over the place. Long and drug out, but comes to a sudden stop.Published 8 days ago by barbara zeuch
Again I gave this a 5 but not one of the best books I have read but a good book and quite different than many books on the subject. It has quite a mystery too. Well written.Published 10 days ago by Shirley A Benedict