I met Ann Weisgarber some nine months ago when I requested Sophie from Mantle an ARC of her latest novel, The Promise. After that, we started talking on Twitter and she even let me interview her. Now that I’ve already reviewed The Personal History of Rachel DuPree – her debut novel – I had some questions to ask and she kindly accepted to our second interview.
One of the things you must know about our friendship is that I always feel I can ask her any question and she’ll answer it. Regarding this interview, I was particularly nervous about the first one, but Ann as lovely as usual, provided me with a great answer.
So, here it is. Ann Weisgarber’s exclusive interview for Books and Reviews on her debut novel The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Thanks for letting me interview you, Ann. It’s always a pleasure!
Q&A FOR BOOKS AND REVIEWS
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree – Ann Weisgarber
Elena, before we begin with the questions, I’d like to thank you for your support of my books. It’s a pleasure to work with you, and I’m delighted to be a part of your blog.
Were you ever worried about giving voice to an African-American woman being yourself white?
I did think about this and was concerned that this was not my story to tell. There were times when I lost my nerve and nearly stopped writing. But I’d think about the inspiration: the photograph of an unnamed woman sitting alone in front of her sod dugout. “You think it was easy to homestead?” I’d imagined her saying. “If I could do that, surely you can do your part.” Spurred on by her courage to stake a claim in the West, I’d return to the manuscript and push on, just as she must have done countless times.
Since publication, African-American readers have told me stories about their ancestors who were part of the Oklahoma Land Rush, or who mined for gold in California, or who ranched in Montana. Many have thanked me for remembering people who have often been overlooked in history books. It’s been a humbling experience, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the woman in the photograph who would not allow me to give up.
The novel reminded me a lot of Willa Cather’s works. Did you have them in mind while writing?
I did. I reread My Antonia and O Pioneers! while writing Rachel DuPree to get a sense of the times, to understand the landscape, and to learn how the characters perceived the world. I also reread Laura Ingell Wilders’ Little House series and was struck by the many desperate situations the family faced. I also gained a new awareness of the father’s restless spirit. In the early books, he’d announce that it was time to move and within a few days, the family picked up and went farther west. The mother, with young children, was expected to somehow cope.
The works that most influenced Rachel DuPree, though, were Oscar Micheaux’s The Conquest, Era Bell Thompson’s American Daughter, and Luther Standing Bear’s My People the Sioux. Micheaux and Bell Thompson were African Americans who moved to the Dakotas during the early 1900’s. Standing Bear was a member of the Sioux tribe who lived during a time of upheaval for his people and was sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Their voices provided the perspectives that I needed for Rachel DuPree.
It is very ironic that Rachel’s husband is fighting against racism yet he always discriminates against Indians. How did you come to articulate that double morality?
Rachel’s husband’s discrimination against Native Americans comes to a surprise for many readers. This was painful to write but I felt compelled to make the characters fit with the prevailing mindset of the times and with the historical evidence I’d discovered. Well before Rachel and Isaac arrived in the Badlands, Native Americans had been negatively portrayed by newspaper reporters. By the time the novel opens, the federal government had already moved Native Americans to reservations, taken the children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools, and outlawed many of their religious practices. Few Americans questioned this, including most African Americans who had their own civil rights struggles.
To heighten the tension, Isaac, Rachel’s husband, had been an army man trained to see Native Americans as the enemy. On a personal level, Isaac didn’t think about what had been taken from them during the past 150 years, but only what had recently been given to them. At the same time, Native Americans had suffered mightily at the hands of the United States army and drew little distinction between black and white soldiers. They saw only the uniform.
The stereotypes were too engrained and the wounds too deep for either Isaac or for Mrs. Fills the Pipe, a Native American character, to forget and forgive. However, the novel hints that a softening will begin with the next generation.
Would you like to explore other issues and times of female African-American history in the South?
It might seem odd, but I don’t think in terms of wanting to explore specific themes and then building a novel around them. Instead, I’m first inspired by a particular landscape and then by the people who once lived there. With Rachel DuPree, I was on vacation in the Badlands when I stumbled across the photo of the woman. The Promise, my second novel, was the result of an interview I’d conducted in Galveston. The spark for my current project hit me while I was hiking high above the Fremont River in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Once I have the landscape fixed in my mind, the main themes seem to evolve.
To answer your question, any character and all issues are possibilities for future projects. I know it sounds like a cliché, but for me, it’s a matter of being in the right landscape at the right time.