Author Q&A with Ann Weisgarber

November 9, 2011

Ann Weis­gar­ber (web­site) wrote The Per­sonal His­tory of Rachel DuPree (my thoughts) which is a unique and involved book. This was her first book and an award winning one as well which, of course, provoked some questions in my curious mind.

Q.As a white woman, did you have trepidations writing a book about an African-American woman and African-American culture?
A. When I first began to write this story, I didn’t think about publication. If I had worried about that, I would not have written one sentence. Every objection – this was not my story to tell, publishers wouldn’t be interested, I might be criticized – would have stopped me in my tracks if I thought anyone would read it. Instead, I wrote this story because I was inspired by a photograph that I happened to see in a small museum while I was in the West. It was of a woman sitting in front of a sod dugout. She was alone, the picture was not labeled, and she was African American. There was something about her that spoke to me. It was as though she looked beyond the camera and said, “I existed; I mattered. I had a story.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Who was she? Why was she alone? Where was she from?

I began to jot down sentences and at some point, those sentences became a story.

Q. How long did it take you to write the book and do the research?
A. I spent about seven years writing Rachel DuPree. I taught sociology at a junior college so this was a weekend and vacation project. I’d write a few paragraphs and would realize that I needed to do some research. I’d do the research and then start writing again. About three pages into the project, I realized I had a problem: I didn’t know how to write a story. I was determined, though, to do the best I could for the woman in the photograph. That meant I had to learn how to write dialogue, back story, and figure out a tricky thing called pacing.

I took about five or six nonacademic workshops through Houston’s Inprint program which was open to writers at all levels of writing. About the fourth year into the project, one of the instructors said I might have something worthy of publication. I worked on the manuscript for a three more years before it was published.

Q. How did you manage to capture the sense of loneliness living in the Badlands ? The feeling of self reliance?
A. I was fortunate to have a U.S. National Park Service writing residency at Badlands National Park. I spent four weeks there and lived in ranger housing. This was an opportunity to experience the sound and feel of the constant wind, to experience a powerful electrical storm, and to slog through the mud that sucked at the bottoms of my boots. I also spent time on trails where I’d sit and be alone.

Prior to that, I had lived in Des Moines where I was very homesick for family and friends in Houston. In Des Moines, I taught night classes at a junior college but my husband traveled quite a bit and I knew very few people. To top that off, during our first winter we had several blizzards and had over five feet of snow on the ground. I figured out how to dig my car out of snow drifts, what to do when the power in the house was out for hours, and the importance of keeping a well-stocked cupboard. I had it cushy compared to homesteaders but I did carry those experiences to Rachel DuPree. When there is no one to call for help, you have to rely on yourself.

Q. The stark difference between Chicago and the Badlands is an interesting contrast, but the challenges in the big city are difficult as they in the Badlands. Why did you feel it was necessary to contrast the modern life vs. life out in the Badlands?
A. I felt it was important to show what Rachel left behind when she and Isaac went to the Badlands. In Chicago, a very modern city, she was familiar with indoor plumbing, telephones, and convenient access to food and fuel supplies. In the Badlands, those things did not exist. The trade-off, though, was land and a house, two things she would probably never have in Chicago.

While writing the book, I enjoyed thinking about the “the grass is greener on the other side” concept. It’s a concept that seems to be part of our American heritage and propels people to leave their homes and start anew somewhere else.

Q. What are the challenges of book promotion in the social media age?
A. Every business has to get out the word about products and it’s the same for authors. We can’t assume that readers will hear about our books so we do have to get out there. The social media is great fun, and I love all the chatter about books. The big problem for me, however, is time. As a writer, there is pressure for the next book. How many hours can I spend on social media and still have the creative energy left to sit at my desk and write the next novel? It’s a trade-off and I’ve had to set limits on my time.

Shame­less plug dis­guised as a ques­tion: Why do you love ManOfLaBook.com so much and often visit the web­site?
Wise gal answer: Zohar! This is a shameless plug, but your blog is terrific. Who else blogs about Don Quixote? Or about Dracula? I love your range that runs from graphic novels to Cleopatra, A Life. Here’s the other thing. You defy the image that men do not read fiction. Hip, hip, hooray! Let’s hear it for those who break the stereotypes! I’m hooked on the man who reads and blogs about books.

Thank you for the kind words and the great answers. Good luck with, hopefully, future books.

Zohar – Man of la Book

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