I recently reviewed The Promise, a tale of a young woman who moves from Ohio to Texas desperately seeking a new start. You can read the review here. Loving it as much as I did, I took a chance and asked the author, Ann Weisgarber, for an interview and she graciously agreed to answer my questions. Now, you have the opportunity to read the exclusive interview here. A big thank you goes to Ann for answering all of them in such a busy week.
Ann Weisgarber Interview for Books and Reviews
Elena, this is my first interview for The Promise, and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to be part of your blog, Books and Reviews. Many thanks; your generous support is greatly appreciated.
1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin has clearly influenced your work. Why? Which influence did the book have on you as a woman?
During the early days of the writing process, I read The Awakening twice to understand the sensibilities of the era and to study word choices and phrasing. I was drawn to the book for several reasons. It takes place on an island off the coast of Louisiana, and the main character struggles against the norms of Southern society.
Although our plots and characters are different, Chopin’s theme about limited choices for women is one that runs throughout my novel. The acknowledgement of the truth is another of my themes that echoes The Awakening.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Kate Chopin and not only because I admire her novel. In 1899, The Awakening caused a literary uproar and her publisher canceled her contract for the next novel. Misunderstood and punished for daring to create a character who wanted more than marriage and motherhood, Chopin’s career was finished. She continued to write although few publishers would touch her work. I find that deeply moving and inspiring. She did not allow the critics to get the better of her.
2. The South is a great place, but most of the times underrated in artistic projects, usually depicted as rural, superstitious and illiterate. Nan sometimes behaves like this (although never Bernadette). Have you paid attention to the Southern stereotype before and taken in into account when writing?
When I started The Promise, I wanted it to be about the “down the island” people who were overlooked in most accounts about the 1900 Storm. They were ranchers, dairy farmers, fishermen, and their families. Some had little use for school, and some believed in luck, both good and bad.
I realized they might fit the stereotypical images of rural, illiterate Southerners, but I couldn’t change who they were and didn’t want to. Instead, I tried to highlight their strengths. Nan, who represents rural Galvestonians, is hard working, smart, perceptive, and graceful within her own environment. Even more important, Nan is a realist. She is able to face the truth while Catherine, the educated, polished woman from the North, shies away from it.
In many ways, Nan and Catherine are similar. The most obvious is that they are both musicians. On a deeper level, both have suffered loss, both must make choices about their futures, and both must find peace with their decisions.
3. Same happened with the Southern American English. Catherine kept correcting Texans’ grammar. Did you want her to come across as fastidious? I love a good Southern drawl!
I do too! I had fun with the language since it allowed me to heighten Catherine as the outsider. She arrives in Galveston and although it is a thousand miles from her home, it feels even farther. There are ’rattlers, skeeters, and the noon meal is dinner, not lunch. Grits, purple-hull peas, shrimp, and corn pone are served at the kitchen table. People speak slowly and words are drawn long. The neighbors’ poor grammar makes Catherine feel even more misplaced.
Catherine understands that Oscar, her husband, wants his son to have opportunities that Oscar did not have. In Catherine’s mind, the first steps toward that goal are proper grammar and good manners. She corrects Andre when he uses “ain’t” but fortunately, she doesn’t correct Nan. That would go a step too far.
In turn, Nan comments on Catherine’s fast-talking “Yankee” accent. Catherine’s vocabulary includes words that are new for Nan which makes her aware that she and Catherine come from different worlds.
4.Your book is being published first in the UK. In Europe we are not as familiar with Southern literature as Americans are. What do you expect your novel to teach/show us?
My debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, was published first in the UK, and I’m thrilled that Mantle in England is publishing The Promise. The readers in Great Britain and in Europe have been supportive of my work, and I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the UK feels like my literary home.
I was aware of these readers while writing The Promise but I didn’t think about imparting a message or lesson. Each reader interprets a novel based on her own experiences, and what resonates for one person may fall flat for another. I couldn’t worry about that but instead wrote the story that haunted my dreams at night and trailed after me during the daylight hours. When I started The Promise, I simply wanted to give voices to the forgotten people who lived “down the island” on September 8, 1900.
There are many definitions of Southern literature but probably most can agree that it is literature with a strong, distinctive voice and that the characters often carry the weight of their region’s history on their shoulders.
I’d like to mention several contemporary Southern authors whose books I read while writing The Promise or while writing The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order. They are:
Ellen Feldman – Scottsboro (Although Feldman does not live in the South, the voices of several of her characters are distinctively Southern.)
Charles Frazier – Cold Mountain
Ernest J. Gaines – A Lesson Before Dying
Robert Morgan – Gap Creek
Alice Walker—The Color Purple
Daniel Woodrell – Winter’s Bone
5. You live in Galveston. Tell us about it and the constant threat of floodings: I saw a picture of a cemetery almost underwater dating a few years ago and it broke my heart. Despite the seawall you’re still vulnerable. Did you ever see the water pass the seawall? Feel free to share any experiences.
My husband and I have a beach house in Galveston where we spend our weekends. We’re farther down the island than where The Promise is set, and although there are no longer any dairy farms, there are several small cattle ranches. This mix of cattle and beach houses is typical of Galveston. In the city proper, elegant Victorian homes are just blocks from the industrial wharves where offshore drilling rigs are repaired. At Christmas, we celebrate Dickens on the Strand, a nod to Victorian England, and in late winter, Mardi Gras parades and parties rock the island.
I love Galveston but I’m not sure I have the courage to live there full time since hurricanes are a real threat. Our last one was Ike in September 2008. A few days before the storm was expected to make landfall, the Galveston mayor called for a mandatory evacuation. At my home in Sugar Land, about 70 miles inland from Galveston, I watched television footage of waves crashing over the seawall, seventeen feet above the beach. Twelve hours before landfall, tides from the bay and the gulf began to flood the streets, trapping people who intended to evacuate but had waited too long.
My family and I rode out the storm in Sugar Land, and it was frightening. The electricity went out early, and we lost telephone and Internet service. The air hummed, the oak trees looked ready to snap in half, and our windows shook, about to blow out. Our house is by a creek and in my mind’s eye, I was sure that the alligators had crawled up the banks in search of high ground.
It was a long night. When the storm passed, our Sugar Land home had roof damage and water had come up under the house and ruined the wood floors, but we were fine. The electricity still down, we fired up our generator so we could run our refrigerator. Our attention then turned to Galveston and to nearby Bolivar Island.
For a day, there was little news. The National Guard, the Coast Guard, and police from all over the country arrived to rescue people who were trapped by the storm and to protect the island from looters. Television crews were not allowed on the island and we later found out that government officials were afraid there had been many deaths. We eventually began to see aerial photos of the island. Almost every home on Bolivar Island had disappeared but Galveston was far more fortunate. There were many deaths but not as numerous as once feared.
About seven days after the storm, city officials made the unexpected announcement that people could return to the island for a few hours during daylight to check on private property. My husband left work and made a beeline for Galveston. He had to pass through checkpoints where his identity was checked and rechecked.
It was slow going. Countless sailboats and shrimp boats had washed up onto the causeway that linked the island to the mainland. Sand was deep on the roads, and bulldozers cleared narrow paths so cars could pass through one at a time. The buildings on The Strand had had up to eight feet of saltwater inside of them, and mud and dirt coated the walls. The island was littered with broken staircases, furniture, flooded cars, refrigerators, and mattresses. Rope and fishing lines seemed to be tangled in every bush. Electricity was out, and there was no running water. Our beach house is on seventeen-foot high pilings and was fine. Across the street from us, a house had collapsed and another one disappeared, leaving only the broken pilings. Along the bay, the wind had punched holes in the homes and tore off parts of roofs.
A few days later, I went with my husband to shovel the thick gooey sand and mud that was under the house and on the driveway. There was also debris to pick up. Golf clubs, rowboats, boards from destroyed decks, canned food, dishes, and toys had washed up from somewhere. We brought our own drinking water and a cooler packed with food. We had had tetanus shots – rusty nails were everywhere – and wore boots and long pants in spite of the heat. Rattlesnakes were a problem and since the island hospital was closed, we needed to be careful.
About a month later, electricity and water services were restored. We were still cleaning up debris when I found a framed photograph caught in the branches of a low palm tree. It was a picture of a couple on their wedding day, and the clothing suggested it had been taken around the turn of the last century. The name of the photographer was embossed on the corner. It was Harper & Co. on 2215 Market Street in Galveston. I put several notices out hoping to find the owner, but no one responded.
The photo captured my imagination and eventually found its way into The Promise. In this small way, I like to think that the unnamed couple has not been forgotten.