Interview

Q: Your debut novel, River, Cross My Heart was an Oprah Book Club selection in 1999.  Describe your Oprah Book Club experience and how it felt to write your second novel?

A: The Oprah Book Club experience with River, Cross My Heart was simply exciting. It is thrilling for a novelist to reach so wide an audience. Shortly after this success, I left my office job and made a transition to writing full time. It wasn’t as effortless as I thought it would be. I began by structuring my writing around swimming. I took my first swimming lessons in 2000 and the experience changed my life. I began swimming regularly and a loose structure evolved that helped me figure out my most productive, creative time of day. 

Work on Stand The Storm began with research – reading books. I cast a wide net and brought back plenty. The subject of the Civil War is vast. I visited museums and historical houses and perused documents. I also collected some historical newspapers from the mid-nineteenth century. These documents were immediate and provocative of ideas. They helped me get into the “flavor” of everyday life of 19th Century Washington, D.C.

Q: River, Cross My Heart was also set in Georgetown, why did you revisit this historical community in Stand the Storm?  

A: Well, frankly, I am curious about Washington, D.C. It’s my hometown. And I am fascinated with Georgetown for all kinds of emotional reasons, as well as, simple curiosity. I believe that Washington, D.C. suffers for being the nation’s capitol. Images of the town are shaped by partisan politics and the machine of the federal government. Like much of the nation, Washington, D.C.  has a “slave” history and I chose to consider closely the lives of people who lived in Georgetown and Washington in that time.

Q: What’s the meaning behind Stand the Storm?

A: The title is from the lyrics to a traditional African American spiritual.  The Coatses are survivors and are determined to meet any challenge to their  survival, their freedom, their dignity. They will stand up to any storm that assails them. They are emblematic of the many descendants of enslaved people who have triumphed in their own personal lives though  unrecognized in the mainstream.

Q: And is the poem an original piece?

A: The lyrics belong to a traditional  African American spiritual.

Q: Most novels that focus around slavery rarely portray African-Americans as skilled workers, as the Coatses are.  Why did you choose tailoring as the occupation for the Coats family? 

A: First and foremost I wanted to portray a profession that, if not typical of African American slave and free persons of the time, was plausible for them. Enslaved people who labored in Washington in the 18th and 19th centuries were occupied in a variety of agricultural and non-agricultural professions. I selected needlework for the Coatses because the skills can be transmitted in a mundane, utilitarian way or in a culturally significant way. The individual practitioner can interact dynamically with others in quilting, tailoring and knitting and/ or develop highly individual artistic expressions. Tailoring and dressmaking were commercially viable professions before the wide availability of affordable, ready to wear clothing. The laundry business was also commercially viable for enslaved and free Blacks -- especially for women. I chose to emphasize less the sometimes stereotypical image of slavery as only agricultural work, only rural and only unskilled labor.  Perhaps an unlikely spark to my ideas was a nugget I came across while reading. I learned that George and Martha Washington included several male and female knitters in their inventory of slaves. Though far larger than the typical Virginia or Maryland plantation, Mount Vernon is a good model for a self-contained, slave labor agricultural operation. There was textile production at Mount Vernon so that skills in this profession could be acquired.  

Traditions in needlework have defied the limitations of literacy and have been preserved through hand to hand links. I wanted to put my characters squarely in the line of African Americans who pursued literacy and pursued a highly specialized, creative art.  

Q: From the time Gabriel was a little boy he watched his mother sew & knit.  How did that shape him as a worker and a person? 

Sewing Annie Coats is not a woman who sews and knits in her off-times. She is mandated to the tasks of needlework and textile production on the Ridley Plantation. She has been trained specifically to these tasks through her apprenticeship to Knitting Annie. She decides to apprentice Baby Gabriel to herself – to develop his skills as her own were developed and make him more useful to master Ridley for this specialized work than the work of the field, agricultural laborer.  Gabriel’s father‘s influences should not be discounted. His specialized skills as a blacksmith made him an important model for his children. Sewing Annie shapes her child’s  temperament to the work with a view toward self-preservation and, ultimately, self emancipation. 

Q: The road to freedom was never smooth. Gabriel soon experiences this, yet diligently continues on his journey for freedom. How does he sustain his resilience?

A: One of the most important things that I discovered in reading autobiographical narratives of slavery is that it was not a condition of “on/off” – one day a slave and the next a free citizen. Most self-emancipators struggled to get to freedom and most struggled daily to maintain their status. Gabriel has been trained to his profession and the values of patience and determination he has learned in his work are of value to him here as well. He is stalwart. He never loses his vision of his own future: a successful man working as a tailor with his family working alongside. This vision is under constant assault, but Gabriel Coats stands against any threat to it.  I suppose his experiences in the Civil  War tested his resilience and he is something like an exhausted piece of  elastic band when he returns home after the war. 

Q: What is the significance behind quilting? 

A: It would be hard to over-emphasize the importance of quilting to nineteenth century women (and men). Needlework skills were considered an important component of a young woman’s education. For African-American women needlework proficiency was often the key to self-sufficiency and freedom. It was always an important “necessary skill” for a woman to build a home.  Also, quilting traditions have long been used to transmit sacred symbols and document births, deaths, marriages and other social milestones. For women with superior skills and design ideas quilting provided one of the few opportunities for artistic expression. And in an era before the mass marketing of ready-made bedding, quilts were made in the home for family use. The popularity of patchwork, also known as crazy quilt, emphasizes the ways that people with limited resources executed beautiful, utilitarian quilts. The use of quilts by conductors of the Underground Railroad may seem fanciful because there is no incontrovertible proof of it. However, there is anecdotal evidence that quilts were displayed in a variety of ways to signal to escapees and to identify safe houses.

Q: The women in Stand the Storm play key roles in the family’s road to freedom.  Can you tell us more about why you made your female characters so strong?

A: In my view and in the Coats family, strength and the myriad qualities that we consider signs of strength, i.e. physical prowess, determination, courage, are not gender specific. Strength does not belong to men alone.  The women of Stand the Storm are survivors. They could hardly be otherwise given the threats to their health and welfare. Though enslaved and assailed on all sides by the slave system, African American bondpersons and freedpersons worked mightily to cling together and form families with regard to mutual support and uplift. Because African American slave women have been unacknowledged, unappreciated and misunderstood, I consider it an important duty to give them voice and agency in my text.

Q: How important is Daniel Joshua’s role and his contributions to their journey? 

A: Daniel Joshua’s inclusion in the Coats family’s orbit is a clear example of “regard to mutual support and uplift.”  He develops a deep relationship with the group and Annie in particular because he is motivated to help -- to protect.  And he has had to break from all that he previously had known as “friends” and “family” when he left his own bondage. This is an unrecognized toll on the life of the self-emancipators. They must voluntarily leave behind their relations – spouse, children, parents, friends – to liberate themselves. A successful and compassionate person like Daniel will, of course, find a circle – a community to gather with, to love.  Though he is not a needle worker, Daniel Joshua occupies a place in Stand the Storm as a “knitter,”  -- one who is creating a whole swatch from different strands – as he did in introducing the Coatses to the traumatized runaway, Mary and keeping them connected to the Underground Railroad community.

Q: Throughout Stand the Storm, there were unspoken rules on how blacks were to conduct themselves among whites; because of this the Coatses family developed gestural ways to communicate with one another.  How did this strengthen their family bond and do you have similar forms of communication with your family?   

A: The Coats family developed their gestures and methods of observation because they needed to communicate in the presence of hostile “others.” Sewing Annie’s decision to educate Gabriel and develop his intellectual skills was, under the slave system, an audacious and dangerous idea. The stone, the pit, the heart’s core of Stand the Storm is that, slave or free, every human being is intelligent and motivated to have agency in her/his own life. No additional explanation need be given for the characters’ curiosity, reasoning, cunning and courage.  Sewing Annie forges a special bond with her child to keep him safe and to help him find “ a way from no way.” Closely observed by whites, the Coatses have quiet methods of communicating. And, as all needle workers know, there are myriad ways that the “work” on/with needles is deeply, intellectually stimulating while cultivating a strong social bond. These are dexterous people with imagination.

Q: Kirkus reviewed Stand the Storm and called it, “a compelling social panorama of black servitude in Washington, DC.” What are your thoughts on this statement?   

A: Well I agree with the statement. However, at first blush, I wasn’t fond of the word “servitude” used here. I wondered if what people would read in Stand the Storm would be only the limitations upon the lives of Blacks – would not see the Herculean struggles that most waged just to remain around their hearths with enough food for all to eat and a place to lie. Then I looked closely at the definition of the word servitude, i.e. the state of being a slave/the state of being dominated by somebody or something/ work imposed as a punishment for a crime/a restriction or obligation attached to a property that entitles somebody other than the owner to a specified use of it.  You see, this is sharply distinguished from the word “servant.” Yes,” servitude” was the condition for the overwhelming majority of Blacks in nineteenth century Washington, D.C.  Though the city offered increased opportunities for slaves to pursue education and earn money at skilled and semi-skilled labor, there were severe restrictions and penalties on  slave and free Black people that thwarted any attempt at upward mobility and mainstream acceptance – ordinary citizenship. Yet the town offered a wider community and a glimmer of possibility. So Washington existed as a beacon for Blacks living in the surrounding areas.