Here's a piece I wrote for the newsletter of the wonderful Fountain Bookstore
in Richmond, Virginia. The owner made me swear to give her something just naughty enough to make readers take notice. I think the title says it all.
Is a Spank in the Bottom the Way to Welcome Readers to Richmond?
How does an author ensure a reader is . . .
captivated by a character, and by a place? The first chapter of my new novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser
, begins with the main character describing her weekly journey from a Church Hill mansion, past the factories and businesses of Shockoe Bottom, to the small cabin where her father lives. It's the 1840s, and Mary is a slave owned by the Van Lew family. In the ensuing chapters, she is freed and sent North to be educated, then ultimately returns to Richmond and, during the Civil War, spies for the Union by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House, as part of Bet Van Lew's infamous espionage ring.
That larger trajectory-which, amazing as it is, is the true story that inspired the novel-doesn't say as much about the heart of the book as Mary's initial trip from Hill to the Bottom does. Because the heart of the book is about the people and the place that Mary loves.
When I learned about the real Mary Bowser, the first questions I asked were, What would make her give up her freedom and risk her life, when she couldn't have known how the war would turn out? What was it that pulled her back to Richmond?
In crafting the novel, I found two answers. The first answer is her love of her father, Lewis. In researching the real Mary Bowser, I unearthed no sources about her real parents-part of the reason I wrote a novel, not a biography. In the world of the novel, Lewis is owned by another family and thus remains enslaved when Mary is freed. As devoted as Mary and her father are to each other, the confines of slavery weigh heavily on their relationship: that first scene in chapter one ends with Lewis so frustrated by how enslavement limits his ability to take care of his own daughter that he spanks her for referring to the Van Lew mansion as her home. It's a risk to introduce Lewis to the reader at a moment when he's crueler to Mary than he ever is again. He is not a bad person or an uncaring parent. Understanding what he and Mary can't be and do for each other, despite their deep love, reveals one of the things that draws her back to the South: her desire to see her father free, and her need to protect him, though her protection is limited
The second thing that draws her back is her love of Richmond, a love she communicates to readers in that early description. But Mary only recognizes how much she cares for it later in the novel, when she contrasts the Richmond of her childhood with the bustling, crowded Philadelphia where she goes to school, and then later when she experiences how hunger and disease ravage Richmond during the war. In a way, her deepening awareness of the city mirrors mine. In researching The Secrets of Mary Bowser
, I discovered that the black community in antebellum Richmond was unlike anything I expected. I also learned that even wealthy Church Hill was transformed by the presence of wounded and sick soldiers during the war. But mostly I discovered that love of place can be as powerful as love people. And that, dear reader, was a real whack in the Bottom!