For my final installment of my Author Up Close series in 2019, I’m sharing a Q&A with Elizabeth Bell. Elizabeth and I e-met after both finaling in a writing award competition. Elizabeth is a craft genius—no surprise there; she has an MFA from George Mason University and works in the school’s library. When I caught up with her she was launching her novel, Necessary Sins, a James Jones First Novel Fellowship finalist. Her 26-year journey to publishing is fascinating, and our Q&A provides an honest look at the sometimes tumultuous road to publishing and how that road makes it even more important to define success on your own terms.
GW: You’ve got an interesting backstory when it comes to writing Necessary Sins, including how long you spent working on it. Will you share what inspired you to write about this particular subject?
DB: When I was eight years old, I visited Charleston, South Carolina. I fell in love with its gardens and architecture and wanted to set a story there. As an adolescent, I devoured Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, John Jakes’s North and South, and Alex Haley’s Roots. I wanted to write a saga on that scale, something with multiple settings that would follow characters across decades. Those stories are great escapism and drama, but they also taught me about history and place.
The central family in my saga, the Lazares, is multiracial and “passing.” This was partially about secrets—family sagas always revolve around those—and partially about history, getting at the heart of the contradictions that are the American Dream. But the very first seed of the Lazares’ racial makeup came from my mother. She read an early draft and told me Caucasian people don’t have black hair; it would have to be dark brown. But my Lazares had black hair; I just knew it! Caucasian people do have black hair—the Welsh, for instance—but somehow the “problem” of black hair simmered in the back of my mind. I was puzzling out David’s (one of the main characters) personality, what made him reluctant to trust and reveal his true self, as well as why his uncle Joseph might choose to become a celibate priest. Joseph is very pious, but as a priest, he’s also hiding in plain sight. My characters are products of their time, but I wanted them to resist racism. What might make them view the world differently than the slaveholders around them and work for justice? My answers to these questions coalesced into the Lazare family having African ancestry.
It’s taken me a quarter-century of research and revision to become a wise enough person and good enough writer to tell this story.
GW: You went to great lengths to authentically portray characters with African ancestry. Will you share some of the things you did to help with that? [Read more…]