The Big Idea: Delia Sherman
When it comes to their projects, authors, like anyone, can bite off a little more than they can chew. The question is: What do they do then? This was the quandary that Delia Sherman found herself confronted with while writing The Freedom Maze, set as it was in antebellum Louisiana. As the book received both a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and a place on its list of the Best Children’s Books of 2011, Sherman may have found a way to a solution. Here she is to discuss the issue and how she resolved it.
Eighteen years ago, I was stuck. I was living in a house in rural Maine, where my then-partner was teaching college, trying to write a historical novel that just kept getting longer and more complicated. My nearest neighbors were a mile away, and there was a goose whose chief ambition in life seemed to be to keep me from picking up my mail.
So when I heard that there was a children’s book writing group starting at the college, I dropped the long, complicated historical like a hot brick and started a children’s book.
The maze came first. One night, I dreamed I was sitting in the window seat of my house back home in Boston, reading a wonderful story. Out the window was a formal garden with rosebushes and a boxwood maze beyond it, much more romantic than my own suburban lawn, and the story I was reading was all about that maze. It was fascinating and exciting and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to find out what happened next.
Needless to say, I couldn’t remember a word of the story when I woke up.
That garden and maze haunted me, though. I wanted to know where they were and who might inhabit them.
The who was easy. I’d been wanting to write something about a girl who wasn’t perky, who wasn’t resourceful, who wasn’t particularly outgoing, who was shy and reserved and not very worldly. I’d been a girl like that, and I couldn’t be the only one in the world. Surely the others would like to read a book where they got to have adventures, too.
The where was easy, too. My dream maze and garden had a Louisiana feel. My parents both came from the South. I’d spent time in Louisiana, as a child and as an adult, visiting Mama’s relatives.
As for the plot, I’d always liked books where the child got sent away to the country and had magical adventures. So that’s what I set out to do.
The first few chapters flew out of me like butterflies. I loved writing about Sophie and her mother, with my fellow writing groupers egging me on with questions about their relationship and how Sophie felt about her father and how her mother got along with Grandmama. I still didn’t have, you know, an actual plot, but I was enjoying myself.
And then the Creature showed up.
The Creature was pure inspiration. I was writing along, and there it was, piebald, toothless, plump, and sassy, a Southern descendent of E. Nesbit’s Psammead and Edward Eager’s Natterjack. I described it, I wrote some dialogue, I had it convey Sophie into the past. And then I embarked happily on the research, trusting in history (as I often do) to give me a plot.
History did not disappoint. In antebellum Louisiana, I learned, the child of an enslaved mother was a slave, no matter who its father was and no matter what color its skin or hair or eyes. I came across this tidbit of historical information at about the same time the whole “descendents of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemminge” controversy was coming to light, and I couldn’t help but wonder just how pale some of those slave children had been.
Armed with a potentially dramatic situation, I plunged in (as I often do), trusting to my characters to give me the rest of the story. About six chapters in, I got stuck again. The plot went nowhere, Sophie’s character would not arc, the information available on antebellum Louisiana was too much Big House and not enough slave quarters. I went back to the long, complicated historical, (The Porcelain Dove) finished it, and saw it through publication. I returned to The Freedom Maze, eked out a first draft, re-wrote it twice–to little avail—and concluded that I hadn’t done enough research on setting and society.
I went down to Louisiana and dug around in the collections of Loyola University and the Rural Life Museum at LSU, where I found advertisements for escaped slaves in The Planter that included the words “Could pass as white.” With my new partner, the intrepid Ellen Kushner, I examined the kitchens and parlors and boudoirs of Creole and American plantations. I read books on the history of men and women and children, free and enslaved, as well as on architecture, horticulture, fashion, and the history of sugar manufacture.
I read about how plantations were run and how slaves lived and the lengths men and women who believed themselves to be good Christians and honorable people went to, trying to justify owning other men and women. I talked to practitioners of Voudon from New Orleans, New Jersey, Washington State, Boston, and New York.
I worked what I’d learned into my book, filled some plot holes, but still the book wasn’t working. It seemed like everywhere I fixed it, something else would break. The book was getting worse, not better.
Eventually, I realized that I was in over my head. Like Sophie, I had followed the Creature into difficult territory, uncomfortable territory, maybe even dangerous territory. I was writing about race and class and history.
I don’t like controversy or confrontation. In my writing, as in my life, I try to be as honest and as moral as I know how, and I don’t want to hurt or offend anybody. I am a WASP, raised primarily in New York City. By any measure of identity, background, or temperament, I am absolutely the last person on earth to tell the story of a white girl on a Louisiana plantation passing—however unwillingly—for black.
Yet that’s the story I was telling.
Telling it was clearly important to me. I spent eighteen years doing it, on and off. So I asked a bunch of smart black writers with better things to do to vet my manuscript for Well-Meaning Cluelessness, Unconscious Privilege, and Magical Negroes. With the help of their generous responses, I confronted the toxic residue of being the child of basically well-meaning Southerners, who believed that Others (by which they meant Jews and Catholics as well as people of color) should have full and equal rights under the law, but preferred those rights to be exercised somewhere out of sight. And I thought hard about class and privilege and that aspect of human nature that sometimes causes those with very little power to abuse what they do have.
And then I had to put everything I’d learned in the back of my mind and go back and tell the story of a particular, unique individual and her interactions with the other particular, unique individuals in a world in which the details of daily life are almost unimaginable in this age of electronic appliances and instant communication. That was a story I could tell.
How well I succeeded is for others to judge.
I’m really glad I did it, though.