Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Author Interview: Lois Leveen

Portland author Lois Leveen is getting national buzz for her newly-released, debut novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser.  Based on true events, this is the remarkable story of a former slave who spied on the Confederates during the Civil War.

The book was released this week, to glowing reviews in The Oregonian and others (see here, here, and here, for example).

AUTHOR BIO:  Award-winning author Lois Leveen dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet. A confirmed book geek, Lois earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard, the University of Southern California, and UCLA, and taught at UCLA and at Reed College. She is a regular contributor to Disunion, the New York Times coverage of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and her poetry and essays have appeared in numerous books, literary journals, and on NPR. Lois gives talks about American history and literature at libraries, bookstores, universities, museums, teacher training programs, and conferences throughout the country. She lives in a bright green house in Portland, Oregon, with a charming, bipedal Newfoundlander.

Lois took time from her busy promotional schedule to answer questions from Rose City Reader. 

How did you come to write The Secrets of Mary Bowser?

I first learned about the real Mary Bowser when I came across a few sentences about her espionage in a book of women's history. I couldn't stop wondering about her. How did she come to play such an amazing role in the Civil War? What experiences in the North would lead her to sacrifice her own freedom, without being certain about who would win the war and whether emancipation would really happen? What was it like to be educated, but to spend every day around people who consider you ignorant and not even human? What was the relationship between Bowser and Van Lew, two extraordinary women separated by race and class but united through their spying? I wrote the novel to answer those questions, for myself and for readers.

How did you research the historical information and detail found in your book? Do you have a background in history?

My undergraduate major was history and literature (not a double major, a special major focusing on the intersections of those two fields), and I do love to dig for details. I learned about Bowser while finishing my Ph.D. in English, with a specialty in African American literature, so I'd already read a lot of slave narratives, along with nineteenth-century poetry, fiction, essays, and speeches by African Americans, and other relevant materials, all of which helped me develop the voices of the characters.

But I still did a lot of new research for the novel. Although there is very little information about Mary Bowser's life, I did extensive research on urban slavery in Richmond, free black life in Philadelphia, and of course on the Civil War. That was the biggest surprise, because the Civil War always seemed to mean a dull laundry-list of names of generals and battlegrounds when I had to study it in high school. Suddenly, the era came alive through this fascinating story about friendship and family and what happens when you choose to do what's right rather than what's easy.

Plus I got to create some secret codes to use in the novel, which is always pretty cool.

How much of your novel is based on true, historical events?

This is a work of fiction — not a biography. Although Mary Bowser and Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew were real people who spied on behalf of the Union, very little specific information is known about Mary Bowser (there is actually quite a bit of "information" about her on the internet and even in books by legitimate historians that is false, or at least unproven). We know from church records that she was baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond on May 17, 1846, and married there on April 16, 1861—dates I wove into the novel. It was extremely unusual for black people to be baptized or married in this church, which served Richmond's elite white community, indicating that the Van Lews treated her differently from other slaves or free black servants. Historical accounts indicate that Mary was educated either in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or in Princeton, New Jersey. Few other details about her can be proven.

Nevertheless, many scenes in the novel draw on real incidents and involve real people, including leaders in the black community in Philadelphia as well as prominent white Unionists and Confederates in Richmond. Often the oddest things that Bet does in the novel are things the real Bet actually did, in a truth is stranger than fiction way. But mostly this novel is a work of invention.

At times I purposefully altered factual details for the sake of the story (I discuss these at the end of the novel and on my website, so I'll avoid any spoilers here). Despite these intentional changes, I made every effort to be historically accurate and to present events and language that were plausible for the era. As someone who loves historical research, I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out what Mary and the people she met would wear, eat, read, and do. I'm such a research hound that I'm still tracking down information about the real Mary Bowser—look for a piece I'm doing in the New York Times on May 17 or thereabouts. I can't imagine stopping if more sources emerge, even though they won't change the novel. It's a great pleasure to share the history through the eyes of such a compelling character. I will always want to honor her life, because she really is an American hero.

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

I always joke about the fact that many debut novels are autobiographical—leaving the authors perplexed about what to write for the second novel. Clearly, The Secrets of Mary Bowser isn't autobiographical, yet what surprises me is how much of my own experience, or the experience of close friends, is in there. What it's like to leave your family and community to seize an educational opportunity, what happens when you find yourself courted by someone wealthy, how you go from being an unsure girl to a risk-taking woman . . . although no one would read this novel as a contemporary roman à clef, these themes aren't so distant for readers today.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

The first draft is for the author—but then you must revise, revise, revise for the rest of the world. I muttered that MANY times, as I cut some scenes I loved, some lines I loved, because they weren't working for readers. In fact, I'd add another piece of advice: if you know which draft you're on (first, second, third), you are not done. I can't tell you how many times I revised a give scene or even a given sentence.

You have a terrific website and facebook page. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book? 

Thank you--I work with a wonderful web designer, Chuck Barnes, who is extremely helpful. But the truth is, I'm torn about social networking. It's an ENORMOUS time suck for me to be on Facebook, on Twitter, re-posting from FB to my author website, etc. I'd rather be working on my next book (or reading for pleasure, which I feel like I never get to do). But I also know that people increasingly get their information from the internet, and so the book needs a presence there just as much as it does in a bookstore or a library. More, actually, because someone has to know the book exists to find it in a bookstore or library (who has time to browse any more?).

When I was updating my website recently, I asked some of the early reviewers who'd posted on Goodreads and Amazon if I could quote them on my website, and they were so charmed and flattered. I thought they'd done me a favor by saying nice things about the book, but they felt honored that the author bothered to track them down. It reminded me this is all about community. Yes, Jane Austen didn't have to worry about tweeting snappy, retweetable messages all day, but she also couldn't connect with readers around the world in the way authors do today.

Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?

Of course! See my events page or facebook page for details. And check back for new events!

Portland Area: Friday, May 18, 7:30 pm at Powell's City of Books on Burnside, Portland, OR; Thursday, May 31, 7:00 pm at St. Helen's Book Shop, 2149 Columbia Blvd. St., St. Helens, OR; and I know I'll also be at Broadway Books in a few months (they have so much planned for their 20th anniversary, we're waiting until afterwards); and hopefully other locations.

Farther Afield: Tuesday, May 22, 7:00 pm at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park, WA;  June 9-10 at Printers Row in Chicago; June 24 at the American Library Association annual conference (who doesn't love to party with librarians?).

Oh, and through the end of May, folks can vote to have The Secrets of Mary Bowser selected for the June Sutter Home Wine book club selection.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?

This is an enormously hard question for me, because my tastes vary so much by mood. And yes, my writing is influenced by what I read, to the point that I have to be careful not to start reading a book with a "voice" that is going to interfere with the voice in which I'm writing.

I can say that I read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women over and over as a child, and I'm still dazzled at how well constructed that novel is. And I often will pick up Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower and just read a few chapters from anywhere in the book, because I find it so droll. I wish I could master droll historical fiction!

Although I love narrative, I also try to read poetry pretty regularly, and I take poetry-writing workshops. Rhythm and word choice mean as much in prose as they do in poetry—at least as a reader I find that to be true—and the poets are the masters.

What are you reading now?

'Tis by Frank McCourt. I devoured Angela's Ashes, which I think is wonderful in evoking place, language, and characters. It's especially sharp on having a first-person narrator who is a bit of an innocent but not a dupe. That's a tough trick, because your narrator has to report everything for the reader, and so much of the success of the book depends on how much she or he knows and how she or he presents it. I'm a little less in love with 'Tis—maybe it was too soon to pick it up, because I miss the characters and setting from Angela's Ashes.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

Yes. I had a project I spent nearly a year researching. It's another "footnote from American history," and I was really excited about the topic. But when it came to writing, it was all over the place. I couldn't figure out who should narrate. There were too many characters and settings over the course of this person's life. I wrote some good scenes, some lousy scenes, but nothing emerging as a whole direction. And I had a big fear that it was going to be another long book. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is nearly five hundred pages, although it's not a slog. Still, I didn't want to write a second book that was even longer, which this was threatening to be, because I don't want to be pegged as a "long" novelist.

I work on my writing every morning, and one day after spending about four hours on that sprawling project, an idea for another book popped into my head. I spent another two hours trying to figure out if anyone had already written about the protagonist I had in mind, and doing some basic research on what I'd need to figure out how to go about writing her story. And it's been off to the races ever since. But I'm still not ready to say what that new new project is. And I'm still planning to go back to the one I'd already researched, at some point in the future.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

For years, I've said the best part is working in pajamas, with a cat on my lap. That's still a big draw—for me and for the felines in my life—but as I've begun to do public readings from The Secrets of Mary Bowser (and to read early reviews—everyone says not to do that, but I can't help myself), it's been so amazing to feel the emotional responses listeners and readers have to what I've written. That's the best thing, really: knowing your words will touch someone you may never meet, in ways you can never know.


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