Inspired by the real-life tale of folk legend Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who disguised herself as “Lyons Wakeman” and enlisted with the Union Army during the civil war, NEVERHOME is Laird Hunt’s enthralling return to historical fiction. We caught up with the burgeoning superstar to talk about fictionalizing history, the difficulty of "stepping into such distant minds" as a writer, and the lasting legacy--both good and bad--of the Reconstruction Era.
2. How did you go about fictionalizing history? Did it feel risky? Where did you take the most license?
I start with good intentions then go astray. Then I correct and go astray again. Then I repeat this about a thousand times! Stepping into the minds not only of long-dead but actually never-living characters always involves license. But I do my best to make sure what I can verify gets verified, that the "surround", to borrow a notion from C.D. Wright, is as sound as I can make it and that what I imagine is grounded in what I have researched.
3. Your main character is a female who impersonates a man. How did you create a main character not of your own gender, and how did you go about making her so believable in a male guise? Seems a complex writing challenge!
I proceed from the position, solidly confirmed by now, that everything about writing is challenging! When I started Neverhome though I already had a book under my belt that was narrated in the first person by a woman (Kind One) so I didn't feel as afraid of tackling it. Part of what makes it work for me is that this is a character not of my gender who experienced the central events of her life 150 years ago. All of us, no matter what our gender, are strangers in a strange land when it comes to stepping into such distant minds! I also had the great gift in creating the voice of Ash Thompson that I lived with my paternal grandmother for many years, just the two of us in a big farmhouse in rural Indiana, and I can still hear all the echoes of much older female voices that lived in and colored hers.
4. Why were you drawn to this period of history?
So much, everything central perhaps, of what continues to bedazzle and bedevil the US comes to a burning crescendo in the middle of the 19th century. One doesn't need the recent example of Ferguson (and the profoundly unjustified killing of the unarmed Michael Brown) to understand that we are still far from resolving the myriad problems handed down to us by the horrific institution of slavery and its evil offspring Jim Crow. But the Blues and Jazz and so much art and writing and general amazingness comes leaping out of the 19th century too. It is hard not to get lost in its fabulous complications.
5. What do you want people to know, learn or realize about this period of history?
I've already partly answered this (see the preceding question) but more specifically I would love for people to get a greater sense of just how extraordinary the actual women who fought and died for both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War were. They ran all the risks of common male soldiers (risks which were horrific) and had to conceal their identity on top of it. In the case of a cavalry soldier like Maria Lewis, who was African-American, both gender and race had to be disguised. While on horseback! It boggles the mind…
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