Later this week I will get to meet Margaret Wrinkle in person at my local independent bookstore, Island Books. EVENT DETAILS HERE. I’m quite excited at the prospect, bordering on giddy. She’s one of my favorite authors at the moment, and I’m not alone. In December, the Center for Fiction awarded Wrinkle the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize award for Wash her breathtaking debut about slaves and slave owners in the post Revolutionary War era. Despite being catapulted to literary rock-star status, Wrinkle appears to be humble and down to earth, even agreeing to the following Q&A for Popcorn as an event teaser.
1. Amazingly, Wash is your debut novel. How did you arrive at the concept of Wash and what was its path to publication?
I think this story was headed for me all along. I was born in Birmingham Alabama during the summer of 1963, just after King’s campaign and just before the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, so I grew up in a very racially charged landscape, which probably set the template for my life long interest in racial reconciliation. After finishing a documentary on contemporary race relations in Birmingham, I knew I had only scratched the surface and that I would have to trace today’s racial dynamics back to slavery in order to understand them. That’s when I stumbled across a rumor that one slaveholding ancestor may have been involved in the breeding of enslaved people. I never found any proof of that allegation but once I knew that the practice existed, I felt it needed to be explored. So I created a fictional world in order to answer all the questions I had. I knew it was a volatile and controversial story but I decided to worry about all that later, once I’d gotten the story down, which took years. I guarded it and protected it and was very lucky to find the right agent and editors and publisher who resonated with such a challenging story. It took a very long time but it came out right on time, with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
2. I found the timing of your novel particularly unique. It is set soon after the Revolutionary War. What inspired you to focus on that time in America’s history?
Too many of the slavery stories we know come from the 1840s and 50s, right before the Civil War. But once I learned that there was a window right after the Revolutionary War when many of the Founding Fathers questioned slavery and some may have even thought they had started to bring it to an end, I was fascinated with this earlier time period. When West Tennessee was still kind of a frontier and abolitionists were few and far between out there. And the economic pressures operating on that time and place made the whole issue of breeding more salient.
3. Your book tackles many hard subjects, brutality, slavery, sexual assault yet despite the weightiness of the topics I still found it very readable. As you wrote the book, were you at all concerned that the subject matter wouldn’t appeal to the majority of readers?
Well, people may think they are not interested in those specific topics, but the novel is really much more about power and healing and I knew deep down that everybody is interested in those crucial aspects of being human. But while I was writing, I did not think about potential readers at all because that was too scary. The only reader I thought about was myself. What I wanted to know, what I wanted to read. But even more than that, I kept my main focus what on what Wash, Pallas and Richardson had to say.
4. In addition to being a novelist, you’ve also worked as a filmmaker and documentarian. What story-telling format do you prefer and why?
Well as a visual artist, a filmmaker and a writer, I tend to see in multiple dimensions. Each medium has its merits and its’ limitations. I often I wish I could combine them all into one. Once I realized that too many people have too hard a time telling their truth about race on camera, then I had to move into fiction. And while I was not doing it intentionally, when I look back at how I structured the novel, I can see that it’s put together like a documentary film. For example, cutting back and forth between people talking and then rolling archival footage.
5. I’m sure you’ve received accolades and input from multitudes of fans. Of the feedback you’ve received, what has been the most surprising or thought provoking?
I really like it when a black audience member thanks me for tackling these issues and urges more white people to enter into this conversation. They often add the comment that when a black person talks about slavery and its effects, he or she is seen as being overly angry or bitter or exaggerating, but when a white person talks about it, it’s taken more seriously. I also like to get good serious conversations going about traditional spirituality. More of us have mystical experiences than you might think.
And so concludes our brief teaser. If you are local and interested in hearing more from Wrinkle, head to Island Books on 2/26 at 7:30 p.m. See you there!