Friday, April 02, 2010
The Meltingpot Interview (And a Giveaway Too!) -- Kathleen Grissom
Meltingpot readers, I've already written here about the new novel, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. This is the fascinating book I discovered at The Virginia Festival of the Book about a Irish girl's life as an indentured servant on a southern plantation in antebellum America. Well, Kathleen Grissom has been kind enough to sit for an interview to tell us some more about this book and herself.
What's more, she's provided one autographed copy of her book to be given away to a Meltingpot reader. If you'd like to be entered into the drawing, leave your name in the comments section before 9pm on Monday April 5.
And now, on to the interview:
The Meltingpot: Let's start by telling everyone what your novel, The Kitchen House is about?
Kathleen Grissom: The Kitchen House is a story that takes place in 1790, when a young Irish orphan is brought to a tobacco plantation in south-side Virginia. There she is put to work as an indentured servant and placed in the kitchen house to be raised and to work alongside the African slaves. Though she becomes deeply bonded to her new family, Lavinia is also slowly accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. As time passes she finds herself straddling two very different worlds and when loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are exposed and lives are at risk.
MP: Now, you were born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada. What made you want to write a story about this very dark part of American history? And also, did you feel any kind of anxiety tackling what was technically a "foreign" subject?
KG: I didn’t set out to write this story. My husband and I were renovating an old tavern in rural Virginia when we were shown an old map of the region. There we located our house, but also on that map we saw a notation that read “Negro Hill.” There was something about that notation that grabbed me and would not let go. I asked local historians about its meaning, but there was no collective answer. They did agree, though, that it likely represented a tragedy. Then one morning, while sitting to do my daily journaling, in my mind’s eye a movie began to play out and I began to write what I saw. A terrified white woman was racing up a hill. At the top, to her horror, she found a black woman hanging from a tree.
I was appalled at what I had written and I wanted no part of it. But day after day, the story kept coming. It was painful and horrifying, yet inspiring and tender. The interesting thing is that the material itself did not feel foreign. As each character presented himself/herself I knew them as completely as I know myself.
MP: Do people talk about slavery in Canada? And if so, what are those conversations like? Do Canadians think slavery was an American thing?
KG: I have lived in the U.S. since 1970. When I was raised in Saskatchewan, those many years ago, I don’t remember being taught anything about slavery, nor do I remember discussions about slavery.
Today, it is different. I have a sister-in-law who teaches in Alberta, Canada, and she told me that now there is a new curriculum where, with the study of slavery, students are taught that there were Canadians who were also slave owners.
MP: What was the hardest part of writing this book? Both as a writer and just as a human being, because there is a lot of pain and heartache in these pages.
KG: All of my life I have hated violence, so much so that I refused to read books or to see movies with violence in them. Opening myself up to read about the atrocities done to slaves was extremely difficult, but I knew that to understand, I had no choice.
Then, while writing the story, I could often sense when a difficult scene was coming. I would pace, sit, pace again, then finally I would sit with reluctance and sob as I wrote.
MP: How did writing this book change you? I can only imagine after writing a book like The Kitchen House that something within you has to shift. Or not.
KG: I worked on this book for over five years. Because of some personal tragedies in my own life, I would say that I went into this book with little belief in the goodness of man. However, on the completion of this story, my focus shifted from the atrocities committed by man to the inspirational strength and courage of the survivors. Incredibly, I was given hope again.
MP: Now I have to ask, as a White author who does write in Black period vernacular in some chapters, have you received any criticism for going there? And if so, how do you respond? I know Kathryn Stockett, who wrote The Help, has been criticized for just that.
KG: To date, I have not received criticism for it. After I read Bullwhip Days and Weevils in the Wheat, two books of slave narratives, I could hear the characters speak and I wrote their speech the way I heard it. The original draft had a much heavier dialect, but it was suggested from a number of respected sources that I soften it to make it easier for the reader. I took their advice, yet tried to stay true to the original voice.
MP: I love how you have introduced the American reading public to a different character in the slave narratives, that of an Irish servant. What do you know about the life of Irish indentured servants in the American south?
KG: My research mainly focused on African American slavery. But, I was shocked to learn of the numbers of indentured Irish, and of the terrible conditions so many of them also suffered.
MP: And finally, I know The Kitchen House has just been released, but are you working on anything else? Can you tell us about it?
KG: I have begun research for Crow Mary. It is based on the true-life story of a young Crow Native woman who, in 1872, at the age of sixteen, was married to a well-known fur trader, Abe Farwell. Her life is another incredible story of bravery and courage, and there is documentation to support this. However, it is rumored that she murdered her husband…
MP: Now if that's not a cliff hanger. Way to leave us hanging. Thank you for answering our questions and good luck with The Kitchen House. I really enjoyed the book.