Monday, March 1, 2010

Dolen Debuts

Posted By on Mon, Mar 1, 2010 at 9:00 AM

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Drayle is master of the house — the plantation house in pre-Civil War Shelby County. Fran, Drayle's wife, is mistress of the house. But it's Lizzie, a slave, who is Drayle's mistress, both in Tennessee and at the resort in Ohio, where Drayle takes Lizzie for three summers in the early 1850s in Dolen Perkins-Valdez' debut novel Wench (Amistad/HarperCollins).

Here's what the author, a native Memphian, had to say by phone from Washington, D.C., a week before she returns to her hometown to read from and sign copies of Wench at Rhodes College:

"Wench" was published the first week of January. What are you hearing so far from readers?
Dolen Perkins-Valdez: The snow storms in the Northeast have thrown everything off as far as bookstore appearances are concerned. So this has been my first week getting on the road. But, by now, a lot of people have read the book, and I'm hearing of personal connections to the story. It's a story that's reaching people's hearts, which is really good to hear.

For example, just yesterday, I read at a bookstore, Politics and Prose, here in Washington. A couple of guys had heard that Wench is — and I may have even been the one to say it — a "women's book." These guys wanted to say they liked it too, which is also good to hear.

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What got you started on this story, a work of fiction that's partially based on a real-life setting?
The place, Tawawa House ... the resort in the early 1850s where Southerners would take their slave women, near Xenia, Ohio ... the future site of the historically black college Wilberforce University ... and Ohio being a hotbed of abolitionist activity: I found all that intriguing. But I wanted to know more. And even though there was a lot about the place in the archives, it was difficult to find evidence about the women who visited there. I knew that Southern families had brought their slaves with them, but it was hard to find evidence of black concubines being there too with their owners. With only 12 percent of slave narratives written by women, I knew there had to be a story there. So I began to use my imagination, fill in the gaps.

Were there other challenges to writing "Wench"?
I wanted my characters to be true to the dialect of the time, but I also wanted the book to be readable. I wanted to capture the rhythm of the speech without losing the reader. The trick to the dialogue was to hint of the time and place, for the modern reader to hear the story.

The second challenge was the character Drayle. I wanted to show enough of the good parts of him to explain why Lizzie felt so attached to him. At the same time, I didn't want him to appear "contemporary." He's a man of his times. He's different when he and Lizzie are alone and when he's around other men.

The sleeping arrangements inside the "big house" outside Memphis will surprise some readers: with Drayle's wife Fran in one bedroom; Lizzie across the hall in another. How common was that arrangement?
I don't think it was common. For Lizzie to sleep in the storeroom, which she sometimes does, was more common. But you know, Sally Hemings lived inside Monticello with Thomas Jefferson. One of the things I'm trying to suggest in Wench is that ALL kinds of things happened.

Tell me a little about your background.
I graduated in 1991 from White Station High School and from Harvard in 1995. After spending a year abroad, I came back to Memphis and decided to take a creative-writing class at the University of Memphis from Tom Russell. I loved it! I decided to enter the MFA program and got my degree in '98.

You'd never seriously considered becoming a novelist?
In college, I majored in African-American studies. I only knew writing as a child, from the standpoint of "play," as a fun thing to do. But when I entered graduate school, when I was exposed to professionals, to working writers, it occurred to me I could make a living at it. I could teach. That honestly hadn't occurred to me. But it started my ambition to become a working writer.

I wrote two or three "apprentice" novels, but I felt this novel was "the one" — the one to get published. I'd had a short story end up in The Kenyon Review. With Wench, I thought, THIS is my book. But I waited to send query letters to agents. I waited until the novel was finished and really ready. And once it was ready, I did get an agent. Six months later, Amistad took it.

In the course of all this I was teaching, I got married, I had a daughter, life went on.

But you made time to write.
I was living in Seattle and teaching creative writing in Tacoma at the University of Puget Sound, an hour commute each way. I had a digital tape recorder, and I'd talk my thoughts about the book into it while driving. Once I got home, I'd transcribe the tape. But, you know, an hour talking into a tape recorder is A LOT. But that's how I got the book done. It was in some ways easier than sitting and staring in front of a computer.

You've got another book already in the works?
The book tour for Wench is sort of zapping me. I'm on the road until May, every week. My friends have been telling me to get started on that second book! But with this tour, it's hard to concentrate. For now, I'm just reading.

What's been the reaction to "Wench" from your hometown readers?
My sales in Memphis have been phenomenal. Up until a couple weeks ago, 10 percent of those sales were in Memphis alone, which is huge. We're entering the sixth printing of the book and Memphis especially ... Memphis can be a really loving, supporting place when it comes to its own.

I had a reading in New York on January 16th, and it was with another author, a New Yorker. She'd been named by New York magazine as a writer "to watch." So people were pouring into the place, people she knew. I'm thinking nobody's coming to see me. Then a group of 20 old Memphis friends walked in. I said, "Oh my God!" Phenomenal! It was nothing but love, and it deepened my love for my hometown.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez will read from and sign copies of Wench at Rhodes College on Wednesday, March 3rd, at 7 p.m. inside Blount Auditorium in Buckman Hall. For more information, contact Rychetta Watkins of the college's English Department at 901-843-3445. And for another interview with Perkins-Valdez, on NPR's Tell Me More, go here.

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