I first met author Ann Weisgarber at the Historical Novel Society conference in Chicago in June of 2009. Actually, I met her husband first when I sat down next to him at one of the many wonderful sessions offered at the conference. Somehow, Rob and I got to talking and it turned out he and his wife were originally from Kettering, Ohio, less than half an hour from where I live, and they had both graduated from Wright State University in Dayton, as I had. Afterwards, he introduced me to Ann. I think it was just serendipity that I bumped into them, because it led me to eventually read Ann's novel, which instantly became one of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction ever.
Ann's debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, has been named Best Work of Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters, longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for The Orange Prize for New Writers. Quite a list of accolades for a novel that was originally passed over by several American publishers. Happily, the novel found a home with a U.K. publisher and has recently been released by Viking in the U.S.
Following is an interview Ann did for me which originally appeared over at the Historical Novel Review Blog:
• How did you become interested in writing about African American ranchers in South Dakota?
I’ve always loved the West and admire the determined spirit of the people who call it home. I knew there were African-American cowboys, and I had visited a few historical forts where black troops had been posted during the late 1800’s. I didn’t know anything about African-American settlers, though, until I happened to see a photograph of a woman sitting in front of a sod dugout. The photo wasn’t labeled, but from the background the location could have been Nebraska or one of the Dakotas. I was intrigued for several reasons. This unnamed woman was alone, and she was an African-American. I did a little digging and found John Ravage’s Black Pioneers. His non-fiction book was filled with accounts of black settlers in the West.
This was new history for me, and that was exciting. But it was more than that. I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman in the photograph. She was alone in the middle of a wide open stretch of land. I didn’t know her name, and I didn’t know where she lived, but I knew this: she had a story that needed telling. I decided to do that for her.
• How did you research this novel? Did you spend time in the locations you wrote about?
I did the research in bits and pieces. I’d write a scene and realize that I didn’t know anything about the details. For instance, Isaac was posted at Ft. Robinson, Nebraska. This meant I had to research the fort and the cavalry units. When I discovered that the Ninth Cavalry served as reinforcements at Wounded Knee Creek, I then had to research the massacre. From there, I researched the relationship between Buffalo Soldiers and Indians. After that, I read about Pine Ridge Reservation. One piece of information often led to a new idea. Many times the research shaped the book.
I did have a four-week writing residency at Badlands National Park, but I did very little writing while I was there. Instead, I talked to people who lived in the area, I visited Ft. Robinson, and I went to Lead to see the gold mine. I was in the Badlands during a three-day windstorm with gusts so strong that it was impossible to walk upright. There was an electrical storm where the night sky turned white and stayed white for seconds at a time. Best of all, the residency was an opportunity to experience the quiet beauty of the Badlands.
I returned to the Badlands one other time, but that was only for a few days. That was long enough to renew my commitment to finish the manuscript.
• Rachel’s voice is so strong and clear in this story. Did you find it challenging to take on the voice of an African American woman from the early 20th century?
Thank you. It was a challenge and that was one reason why it took so long to write the book. I had to step back in time and imagine a point of view very different from my own. Reading about historical figures such as Ida B. Wells Barnett and Booker T. Washington helped. But it seems to me that assuming a different voice is nothing new for people who write historical fiction. Many writers put aside the “Can I?” and “Should I?” questions. It’s a matter of connecting with the characters on an emotional level. In my case, I was determined to give the unnamed woman in the photograph a story. I wanted to do the best I could. That was my focus.
• Every author has a unique path to publication. Can you tell us a little about yours?
The book -- an American story -- was first published in the UK and then in France. Prior to any of that, I had an agent who did her best to find a U.S. publisher. No one was interested. Several editors said the story was too quiet, and I took that to mean the novel wasn’t ready. My agent lost interest, but we parted on good terms. I went back to page one and started another round of revisions.
Meanwhile, I read about Macmillan New Writing in Poets & Writers. The imprint, a division of Pan Macmillan in the UK, was willing to publish new writers who did not have agents. I sent the manuscript to MNW. It was a long shot. The imprint received thousands of manuscripts and printed twelve novels a year. Eleven weeks later, Will Atkins, the editor, sent an e-mail. He liked the novel.
Eight months after it was published in the UK, it was nominated for the Orange Prize, a literary prize for women writers. A month later, it was nominated for the Orange Award, a prize for new writers. In the States, the Texas Institute of Letters awarded it the Best Work of First Fiction prize.
The nominations in the UK and the prize in Texas opened the door for Rachel DuPree. Pan Macmillan sold the U.S. rights to Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group. It’s a great match for me. My editor, John Siciliano, and the team believe in the book.
The book came to the U.S. through the back door, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my process. This was how it was meant to be.
• What’s next for you?
I'm currently working on a novel that takes place in 1900 in Galveston, Texas. The plot revolves around a college–educated woman who marries a dairy farmer. The story begins a month before the 1900 Storm, the historical hurricane that killed more than six thousand people.
• Where can readers find out more about you and your book?
My website is www.annweisgarber.com. There, readers will find my e-mail address and they are welcome to write me. They’ll also find the first few pages of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree as well as a few articles about the historical facts behind the book. Under Book Clubs, readers can find questions for book discussion groups.