Tag Archives: literature

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery.

ABW:  The opening chapter establishes a strong sense of place—a footpath, the creek beyond the fields, an apple seedling. While it grounds Gabriel and his story, literally and figuratively, it also sets a tranquil tone for a story that’s anything but tranquil. Again, can you talk about choosing to begin the story in this place rather than in, say, a blacksmith’s shop or marketplace, or some other place that Gabriel would have frequented? You might even have chosen to begin it with the scenes that became chapter two—glimpses of slaves treated harshly and slaves dashing for freedom—but instead you chose this tranquil tone. Can you say more about that?

GA:  First of all, thank you. Writing a convincing sense of place both in the countryside and in the city was important to me, as was conveying a feeling of tranquility and beauty at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. To me, it’s valid that Gabriel would have experienced beauty as well as terror. That’s the human experience, right? Even in the darkest days of our history, the human spirit fights for beauty, for love. It would’ve been wrong for me to write this book by dismissing the real suffering and unbearable oppression that was an everyday part of enslavement. All of history shows us how the human spirit insists on faith, hope, and love, so I think it would have been wrong of me to lead with anything but such a spirit.

Gigi Amateau

Gigi Amateau

As I studied the primary source documents related to Gabriel’s Rebellion, I saw that much of the recruiting and planning took place outdoors—on the river, at Young’s Spring, under the bridge at Littlepage. For sure, the blacksmith forge, taverns, and the cityscape were key, too, but the people gathered outside for worship, funerals, weddings, fish feasts, and barbeques. You know, I feel like the evidence suggests that the natural world offered Gabriel some refuge, a place where he and his men could speak candidly. Trial testimony shows that the men did discuss the rebellion at taverns and on the street, and in these places they often spoke in code: The boys on the brook are ready to do the business.  When they gathered outside, their words were direct: We have a plan to rise and fight for our freedom.  ­­

ABW: Writers are encouraged to begin a novel “in scene” rather than in back-story. You manage to do both: your opening chapter is very much a scene, and at the same time, it depicts Gabriel’s life before he set out to organize the rebellion. I think your approach works because of the sense of yearning, of desire, of feeling that emanates from the opening pages. In early drafts of the novel, was this your opening scene, or did you craft it later?

GA:  Hmmm…I always liked that beginning! When I look back at the earliest draft, the first line is: Ma believed. You know, I just feel like this is a story about a man who was part of a multi-generational rebellion, a freedom-movement that started well before him and continued, or continues, long after 1800. So, to me, the story had to start with a linking of generations and end there, too.

ABW:  How long did it take you to write Come August, Come Freedom, and can you tell me a little about your process in writing it?

GA:  Well, my first research notes are dated 2004. I thought a lot about Gabriel, saved clippings, and dabbled in the research before really starting to write the pages in 2008. My editor, Karen Lotz, and I went on a candlelight tour of Mount Vernon one Christmas… maybe in 2006 or 2007? There, we shared a profound moment while we were standing in the area where the quarter had been at Mount Vernon. The only way to describe it is that we experienced a lingering, a really deep encounter—for me and, I think also for Karen—with the history of our nation’s enslavement of men, women, and children. That’s about when I moved more into researching seriously. The research informed my writing constantly. I never stopped researching! I wrote, then researched more, then wrote more, then researched. It was a very circular and layered process.  I’m still researching the story. Who knows, I might stick around the 1800s for a while yet.

ABW:  Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts and process in writing Come August, Come Freedom. I even enjoyed reading the comment Candlewick Press printed on the book jacket: “Gabriel’s story illustrates how one individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness can intersect with a nation’s pursuit of a more perfect union. Gabriel went all in for freedom. To me, he is one of American’s greatest patriots.” Thank you, Gigi, for bringing his story to life!

Emotional seeds for stories

This past Saturday while speaking on a panel at the James River Writers Conference, I choked up and found myself babbling an apology to the audience. The panel moderator, Meg Medina, had asked such a simple question: when you began writing your novel, what was your starting point? What was the emotional place—the germ—the seed—from which the story came (the story being the YA novel I recently sold to Viking—the story of a boy who struggles to protect a friend from the KKK in 1867—pure fiction, but with historical anchors).

In answer to Meg’s question, I began to speak about my Alabama-born father, and the words caught in my throat. I felt my father’s shame over the fact that our ancestors had owned slaves, his pain over present-day racial prejudices that continue to poison parts of the South. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, Daddy ducked my questions about the South, avoiding the topic as best he could. But at some point, he gave in and told me in his soft, thoughtful Southern drawl that at a young age he had vowed never to raise his own children there. He’d gotten out as soon as he could (on the G.I. bill) and never returned. He taught me that “it’s fine to judge people in any number of ways—of course we make judgments all the time—but don’t ever judge a person by the color of his skin.” What I suspect he meant was never treat black people the way I saw them treated.

So there I was on a panel with Meg and the inimitable Kathi Appelt, and I choked up over the image of my daddy as a shy, gentle boy in the 1930’s. I imagined him suffocating beneath the weight of expectations that he become a man in the way manhood was defined by good Southern boys. What he witnessed, I’ll never know because he’ll never say…so while writing my novel, I imagined what it might have been. The novel isn’t about my father—it’s a story set sixty years before he was born. But the emotional seed came from my daddy’s yearning to get as far away from his roots as he could.

My editor and I are brainstorming titles, and I’ll post the release date when Viking decides… Meanwhile, tell me… what is the emotional seed of your story? What triggers unexpected tears?

The difference between content and process

In mid-March, as I staffed the James River Writers (JRW) table at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, it occurred to me that the JRW Conference differs from the VA Festival in the way an MFA differs from an MA or PhD. The VA Festival is all about books and the JRW Conference, about the craft of writing.  Of course, there’s an overlap.  But it comes down to the difference between content and process, between analyzing literature and writing it.

I particularly enjoyed hearing Kekla Magoon talk about molding historical facts to heighten her protagonist’s struggle in The Rock and the River.  But if Kekla were to speak at the JRW Conference, she might go into more depth about the challenges of the craft.  She might note how she picked up the narrative pace in the fourth chapter by manipulating readers’ sympathies (her policemen characters beat up a boy, then charge the boy with resisting arrest).  She might tell us how she wove setting into plot.  She might talk about scenes added or deleted to enhance the story’s emotional arc.

It’s one thing to have a story to tell, and another to tell it well—to show up at the page every day in order to wrestle with the tense and pace and voice while developing characters and searching for the right structure. It’s one thing to love reading, and another to embrace the art and process of writing.

The VA Festival may not have showered me with tips on craft, but it drenched me in warm fuzzies.  I staffed the JRW table with Meg Medina and caught up with writers who have spoken at the JRW Conference over the years—Clifford Garstang, Charles J. Shields, Bill Glose, Michele Young-Stone, Irene Ziegler.  JRW members Linda Dini Jenkins, Kristi Austin, Beth Rogers and Judy Witt were there, as were conference-regulars Becky Mushko, Stephanie McPherson and Michelle Ehrich.  I saw SCBWI colleagues Ellen Braaf, Kathryn Erskine, Valerie O. Patterson and Anne Marie Pace, and Vermont College alums Kekla Magoon, Tami Lewis Brown, Maha Addasi, Louise Simone and Winifred Conkling. JRW shared a table with Rose Esber, and Lee Knapp sold her fun, grammatically-correct ceramics. I’m already looking forward to VA Festival 2012.