Monday, February 27, 2012

New Voice: Barbara Wright on Historical Fiction & Crow

Read an excerpt & view teacher guide.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Barbara Wright is the first-time children's-YA author of Crow (Random House, 2012). From the promotional copy:

 The summer of 1898 is filled with ups and downs for 11-year-old Moses. He's growing apart from his best friend, his superstitious Boo-Nanny butts heads constantly with his pragmatic, educated father, and his mother is reeling from the discovery of a family secret. 

Yet there are good times, too. He's teaching his grandmother how to read. For the first time she's sharing stories about her life as a slave. And his father and his friends are finally getting the respect and positions of power they've earned in the Wilmington, North Carolina, community. 

But not everyone is happy with the political changes at play and some will do anything, including a violent plot against the government, to maintain the status quo. 

One generation away from slavery, a thriving African American community—enfranchised and emancipated—suddenly and violently loses its freedom in turn of the century North Carolina when a group of local politicians stages the only successful coup d'etat in US history.  

What is it like, to be a debut author? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

I don't think about audience as I write. For Crow, I focused on trying to get inside the head of the main character, in this case, a 12-year old African-American boy named Moses.

 This was a real challenge, because, being a boy, he was interested in all kinds of things I am not—trains, firetrucks, boats, and pirates.

Visit Barbara online; photo by Jill Toyoshiba.
Because he lived in a different historical time, I had to be careful. I couldn't write "He zipped up his jacket" because zippers weren't in use in 1898. I couldn't write "He slammed the screen door" because there were no screens.

Then there was the whole issue of race. I am white, so I had to figure out how a curious, intelligent boy would feel as he begins to experience prejudice, and it dawns on him that the world of possibility that his father has raised him to believe in may not be a reality.

As to what I love about being a debut kids' author, what are the challenges and what came as the biggest surprise, the answer is the same: kids. They're so smart, sophisticated, and responsive.

Thank goodness I didn't think about this as I was writing the book, or I might have been intimidated!

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you to first-character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

It was the incident of the 1898 race riot and coup d'état that hooked me enough to spend four years on the novel. I first learned about it in an op-ed article in The New York Times. I grew up in North Carolina and have spent summers my entire life at a beach next to Wilmington, and I had never heard of the race riot. My reaction was: How could I not know about this?

I plunged into the research. In addition to reading history books and the riot report that was funded by the North Carolina legislature in 2006, I also looked at historical photographs, and visited museums and libraries. An original late 19th Century diary written in long hand by a white boy in a nearby town was particularly helpful. Thank goodness his handwriting was easy to read. This is where I picked up Moses's fascination with bicycles.

On one of my frequent trips to Wilmington, I read the historical markers that are placed along the docks for tourists. It was here that I learned about the tunnels under Wilmington. This became an important plot point in the novel.

Barbara Wright's office.
After I had researched the events leading up to the race riot, I wanted to create a family who could interact with the events in a personal way.

Thus, the father is from the thriving African-American middle class in Wilmington at the time. He is an alderman and works as a reporter for the Daily Record, which becomes key to the plot. He is an enthusiastic citizen who believes in democracy and cherishes the right to vote. 

Starting out, I knew the job descriptions of the characters in the novel, but they didn't become real people to me until I had been writing a while, and then each developed his or her own personality, sometimes to my surprise.

Boo Nanny was who she was from page one, and that didn't change, but I did not plan on making the father such a principled man of character. When I put him in a situation, he just started acting that way.

In constructing Moses's world, I tried to use things that were local or unique to the area. He likes pirates, because Blackbeard actually did operate off the coast of the Outer Banks, just north of Wilmington. The conjoined twins, Millie-Christine, are real people who were born in Columbus County, right next to Wilmington.

At one point, I describe the house on the Turpentine Plantation where Boo Nanny was a house slave: It faced a river that fed into the Cape Fear and had first and second floor porches that spanned the front of the house, with a separate building for the kitchen.

Long after I had finished this chapter, I came across a photograph of a plantation north of Wilmington that exactly fit my description. It was both creepy and thrilling to realize that I had invented something totally out of my imagination that existed in real life.

While writing the novel, I turned to my husband for support. There are many tragic and sad things that happen in the novel, but after a hard day's work, he could always make me laugh.

Close-up of Barbara's desk.


Cynsational Notes

"Crow is a fascinating and poignant story of one boy's summer in the time leading up to the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. Thought-provoking, but not preachy, Crow pulls no punches as it remains true to the era yet always maintains the perspective of an eleven-year-old. Altogether, it's a compelling read with an engaging and likeable protagonist." --Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog

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