Q&A with David Fuller, 2009 Edgar nominee
Published: April 22, 2009
|Nominated for Best First Novel by an American Author for: |
What's your book about? David Fuller
Sweetsmoke is the story of Cassius Howard, a slave in Civil War Virginia, who goes after the murderer of a freed black woman. This woman once saved Cassius's life and secretly taught him to read ... and as he soon discovers, she was also a spy for the North. But it is very much Cassius's story, how his need to bring her killer to justice leads him to knowledge, and, hopefully, to freedom.
|How long did it take you to write it? |
I spent more than eight years doing research for the book. When it came time to write, it took the better part of a year. What surprised me was that I rarely went back to look over the research, as I had absorbed it in my bones. I ended up doing fresh research during the writing process, but that was to find out specific things: What were matches like during the Civil War, what did envelopes look like, that sort of thing.
|What was the most challenging part? |
Initially the most challenging part was to write from the point of view of a black man and a slave. My way in to the character was to understand that he was definitively not a victim, despite being utterly oppressed. Once I understood that part of his personality, I was able to place him in extremely dangerous situations and watch him use his clever and agile mind to work his way out I also wanted to make sure that the planters (slave owners) were represented as human beings and not as Simon Legree-like monsters. At the same time, I was not interested in presenting the slaves as noble, downtrodden victims. The planters are appalling, decent, clever, stupid—basically, as characters, they encompass every good and bad thing a human being can be. The slaves are also appalling, decent, clever, stupid, in other words, frustratingly, admirably human. I was particularly interested in examining the politics that would have been prevalent in the slave quarters. While there are instances of selflessness and decency, there are also slaves willing to undermine or even destroy other slaves in order to enhance their situation.
It was also challenging to fold the research into the book and make it seamless. There were instances where I wanted to include very interesting bits of knowledge I had uncovered, but unless that knowledge was part of the story, I had to cut it out.
How did you create the main character in your book?
I realized in retrospect that the main character, Cassius, had been gestating within me for some time. As a teenager, I was a good painter and was hired by Jim Tilmon in Chicago (host of Our People for PBS and Tilmon Tempo for NBC, a senior pilot for American Airlines, and owner of a production company) to do illustrations for a multi-media presentation entitled We Are Black. Therefore, it was by accident that I learned African-American history. I was 'introduced' to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman while painting their portraits. Years later, while speaking to a producer friend, I offhandedly suggested she look for projects in which opposite things come together, and the words "slave-detective" came out of my mouth. I instantly understood the importance of what I had said, and the entire book opened up for me. I knew it would be set in Virginia during the Civil War, that I would have my main character visit a battlefield (not Gettysburg), that the murdered woman would be a spy for the North ... and I knew that the slave protagonist would be a carpenter, as carpenters on plantations have more freedoms. As I said before, I couldn't write him if he'd had the personality of a victim. And I knew he would be haunted by a terrible incident in his past. Once I did the research to understand what his world looked and felt like, I then attempted to see through his eyes.
What's your advice for beginning writers?
Find a great reader. Give yourself over to some smart, well-read, cranky writer who knows what makes a good story, and let them read your work. Listen carefully as they brutally disembowel you, and learn. If they are willing to give you more time, then rewrite and take your work back to them. Overcome your thin skin, and keep at it. Other than that, plant your butt in a chair and put words on paper.
Okay, here's my cop-out. There are so many wonderful writers (just look at the work of my fellow nominees) that to name one or two would leave out two dozen others. So I will play it safe and reach back to old favorites: Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (I carried that book around with me after college, thinking it would make a great movie—I didn't much care for the Matt Damon version; Ripley was unpleasantly homogenized). And for simple pleasure, I always enjoyed John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series.
For more information about David Fuller, visit www.sweetsmokedavidfuller.com.
For more information about the Edgar® Awards, see www.theedgars.com.
--Posted April 22, 2009