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Interview: Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Author of Wench

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I am thrilled to share a wonderful interview with debut author Dolen Perkins-Valdez.  Though I have yet to read Wench, after reading both the description of the book and the interview, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.  Please enjoy getting a peek inside the author of this fascinating sounding book, Wench!

Tell us a bit about Wench. What is the story about, who are the characters, etc

Wench is a historical novel set in 1850s Ohio. Lizzie is a slave who lives in Tennessee on a plantation with the Drayle family. When Lizzie is thirteen years old, her owner takes her as his sexual partner. When a summer resort opens in Ohio advertising healthy mineral springs, her owner leaves his wife behind and takes her North to the resort for vacation. Other southern planters do the same, and Lizzie forms a bond with three other slave women who are in the same set of circumstances: Reenie, Mawu, and Sweet. The arrival of Mawu is where the book begins, and as she implores the others to consider making a run for freedom, Lizzie finds herself feeling split between the prospect of a new life and the one she has left behind down South.

How do you come up with the names of your characters? It almost seems as though, as an author, you have the continuous fun of naming children!

I change them over and over until I find one that feels right. Sometimes the characters have no name for a good portion of my drafts. I’ll refer to someone as X, for example. One of my characters “Glory” was named something else before. But I don’t remember what it was because after I named her Glory, she became that name so fully!!

What do you want readers to take away from reading Wench?

I have one hope: that readers will enjoy the story. I write to entertain, to transport readers out of their daily lives. Yet given the historical nature of my premise, I understand that the book will be more than escapism for some readers. One reader has recently told me that my story answered some of the questions they had about the Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson story. To this day, when I think of my character Lizzie and the things she had to endure, I cry. I have literally been driving in my car and thought of her and started to cry. Perhaps readers will come away feeling that they understand a bit more about the difficulties of being a woman during slavery.

What was the most fun about writing Wench?

The most fun part was the research. I love history. I love American history. I love librarians and archivists, and I enjoy working with them.

What was the hardest part about writing Wench?

The hardest part was creating the dialogue. I wanted to invoke the music of slave speech, but not trip up the reader too much with phonetic spellings. It was a difficult balance, and I hope I managed it well.

If you had to summarize your life and give it a book title, what would that title be?

“Balancing Act”

What are you reading right now?

Kathryn Ma’s collection of short stories that won this year’s Iowa Short Fiction Award, All That Work and Still No Boys.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, Gayl Jones, Randall Kenan, Jonathan Lethem, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

If you could have lunch and chat with any author, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Without a doubt, Toni Morrison. She has done so much to inspire me and other writers to tell difficult stories. It is so clear to me that she works tirelessly at her craft. I continue to re-read her work and discover new things to study as a writer.

Could you please tell us about your writing process?

I am a mother, so my writing process is very unpredictable. I write whenever I can. I am more of a night person than a morning person, so I often stay up very late working when the house is quiet.

Do you have any particular habits that you take part in while writing? By that I mean certain music you like to listen to, foods you like to eat, environment that helps you write better, etc.

I have absolutely no rituals that I am aware of. I prefer silence. Music and sounds distract me. I drink a lot of coffee.

Where do you get your ideas and inspirations?

I am not a media snob. I watch a lot of television, read newspapers, trashy novels, and anything else. I try to take in as much of the world around me as possible. I find that out of the chaos of my multiple interests come many ideas. Too many to use. I am inspired by people who perfect their craft, whether it be world-class tennis players, jazz musicians, dancers, or visual artists. That singular attention to expressing one aspect of our existence, sustained over a lifetime, is awesome to watch. I pray daily for diligence.

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

I never read children’s literature. By the time I was in the fifth grade, I had read every Stephen King novel published. I traded books with my good friend Jennifer Baer. We were reading buddies, and our mothers encouraged us.

What do you hope to accomplish within the next five years?

Within the next five years, I’d like to publish another novel and some more short stories. I have so many stories in my head! As I said, I pray for diligence.

What are you working on right now and can you give us a sneak peek? A small excerpt?

I wish I had something to share. My idea for my second novel is still forming, and I have not begun to write yet. As soon as I get something down, however, I will be sure to let you know!!

About Dolen Perkins-Valdez:

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction and essays have appeared or will appear in The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, African American Review, PMS:  PoemMemoirStory, North Carolina Literary Review, Richard Wright Newsletter, and SLI:  Studies in Literary Imagination.  She is a 2009 finalist for the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Award.  A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Dolen splits her time between Seattle and Washington , DC .  She is a faculty member of the University of Puget Sound where she teaches Creative Writing .  You can visit Dolen at her website.

About Wench (due to release January 5th, 2010):

 In 1851, a lawyer named Elias P. Drake purchased a plot of land near Xenia, Ohio with the intent to establish a summer vacation resort where the country's elite could relax and enjoy the mineral springs in the area. At the time, it was believed that natural water could cure illnesses and bring about good health.  What made this resort unusual, however, was that it became a popular vacation destination for southern slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses.  Ultimately, these flagrantly open relationships offended the northern abolitionists who also frequented the resort.  After four years, the resort closed.

This part of the story has been confirmed by historians.  I took this forgotten historical note and sketched in a fictional account of what it would have been like to be an enslaved woman traveling to this free state each summer.  Why wouldn't the women try to escape? What kinds of emotional attachments did they have with these men?  Initially, I believed that it was entirely possible that they actually loved the men.  Ultimately, I discovered that it was much more complicated than that.  

Situated in the free state of Ohio, Tawawa House offers respite from the summer heat. A beautiful, inviting house surrounded by a dozen private cottages, the resort is favored by wealthy Southern white men who vacation there, accompanied by their enslaved mistresses.

Regular visitors Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet have forged an enduring friendship. They look forward to their annual reunion and the opportunity it affords them to talk over the changes in their lives and their respective plantations. The subject of freedom is never spoken aloud until the red-maned, spirited Mawu arrives and voices her determination to escape. To run is to leave behind the friends and families trapped at home. For some, it also means tearing the strong emotional and psychological ties that bind them to their masters.

When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet soon learn tragic lessons,that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the cruelest circumstances as they bear witness to the end of an era.

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