This year has been tough physically for me. If you’ve been around here for any amount of time, you probably know I battled cancer. Do you know what kept me going through those dark days of chemo? Books. Surprise, surprise, right? The author loves to read. Shocker.
Well.. I don’t like talking about ‘favorites’ because I have a lot of author-friends whom I love and respect more than life itself, but I’m going to tell you about MY FAVORITE book that carried me through chemo. It’s a little gem called Blue Honor by K. Williams.
About the book…
Blue Honor tracks four tightly twining families during the American Civil War. Each member is asked to sacrifice more than their share to see friends and loved ones through the terrible times. The only certainty they have is that nothing will be the same.
Emily Conrad is the bookish daughter of a wealthy dairy family from Vermont. Her indulgent father has educated her and bred ideas that aren’t acceptable to her more urbane mother, who thinks Emily needs to settle down with her longtime friend and town philanderer Evan Howell. The outbreak of war frees Emily from these expectations for a time, but a stranger soon arrives after the guns begin to blaze, threatening her plans more than societal conventions ever could.
Devoted to the young woman who healed her wounds, Henrietta has become part of the Conrad family, hoping that she may one day see her husband and son again. As a runaway slave, she’s been lucky enough to find this slice of peace in Vermont, but the return of Evan Howell and the man he brings with him portends great change that might see her locked back in irons, if not executed for what she’s done.
Evan isn’t as bad as his reputation has made him out to be. He knows his chum Emily will make the best doctor Vermont has ever seen, and he knows he’s not the man to marry her. With a little manipulation, he convinces his commanding officer, Lieutenant Joseph Maynard, to take leave with him and see the beauty of the north. He just doesn’t let on it’s not hillsides and streams he’s setting the man up for.
Joseph has both power and privilege as the son of a Baltimore lawyer, but neither can guarantee him the things he wants in life. His commission in the army is likely to lead to death, a sacrifice he was willing to make to end slavery in the States—that was until he saw Emily Conrad. Torn between duty and desire, Joseph struggles to stay standing for that which he once held strong convictions. War weary, they all march on to duty…
I was so excited that she agreed to be interviewed on my blog. It was a total fangirl moment for me! So without further ado…
Author Interview with K. Williams
One of my favorite things about Blue Honor is the attention to detail you put into the history of it. I felt smarter for reading it when I was finished! What is that process like for you? Do you have formal education in history or are you just a history buff who studies it for pleasure?
That process is probably a little insane, but it works for me. I have a lot of background in history, growing up in a house with a veteran and being surrounded by history, history buffs and other vets. I’d say that had an influence on how I proceeded in life.
For my undergraduate studies, I minored in European, British and early some American history. I majored in English, reading a lot of British Lit, but also Native Lit and some American. When I got to my master’s program, I had already done 99% of the work on Blue (and those studies focused on political history of the US and Film; emphasis on race and gender). I pretty much wrote the story and kept my resources handy as I wrote. I knew a great deal about the history/period, but specific details and dates had to be looked up. I’d look those up as I went along, as needed, so it wasn’t overwhelming the story. Some materials you read end to end before getting started so you have a base to work with, and others you use as secondary information for the tidbits, or to fill in any cracks. Ken Burns’ work The Civil War had a huge impact on me, helping me to focus my story and understand the period.
Being from North Carolina, the majority of the books I’ve read about the Civil War have been from a Southern perspective. Blue Honor is told from the perspective of the Union side with a few characters who seem to carry the traits of the best of Southern and Northern ideals without being Confederate sympathizers. What influenced the decision to put your leading characters in a slightly gray area?
Well, Vermont is very much a Northern place, as I see it—even more so than New York. They were the first state in the Union to outlaw slavery. They also had a large black regiment. Vermont has always been on the cutting edge of progress. I think that’s quite exemplary of what has been labeled Northern ideals. That said, there isn’t anywhere in the States that you can go where you don’t find people with traditions, although the South is stereotyped as ‘down home traditional’. Northern or Southern, Americans have traditions and they also want to progress. I think those common core ideals of humanity reign true throughout all people, despite how we want to paint them, in order to either feel superior or suit some other need. Privilege, for instance, is at the root of a lot of misunderstanding. We take for granted that our perspectives on life and the world are universal, or that the United States is singular in every aspect, when that is not at all the truth. I remember a colleague who, many years ago, was asked if they had corn in France—well corn is grain to Europeans, but he knew what she meant by it (maize), and responded with equal surprise that they indeed did. That is how privilege works, it precludes us from realizing how very similar all of humanity is, and that because someone is from outside the US borders that they’re not a rube living in rudimentary conditions. Despite cultural quirks here and there (like calling orange soda pop in other states, or Sprite a lemonade in the UK) we’re all on the same page, all trying to live and be happy.
That’s why the gray area, bad guys don’t wear a certain color, although it feels that way at times, and good guys are not always in a ten gallon white hat. Striking realism requires a balance, hence Joseph’s refusal to abide abuse and slavery despite growing up with that institution at his doorstep, while his father is a little more passive about the matter due to age and his legal career, and Mr. Oates is aggressively pro slavery, believing Africans were not human or deserving of equal rights. Mr. Oates is not all of the South, because you have Joseph there denying that. Likewise, you have Emily and her mother as opposing forces and even some of the folks in Vermont aren’t all that keen on blacks, despite the state voting slavery out. Other than that, the grayness can be found in the fact that things change. The way we view events, current or past, changes with the experiences and knowledge we gain in life, and are really defined by the context of the temporal. One overarching idea/thing may be at the heart of an event/view, but it is dotted with many other ideas/things. That’s called intertext and that is a fascinating subject I love writing about.
One of my favorite characters is Henrietta, a runaway slave who is rescued by the Conrad family. Is she based on a real historical figure?
Henrietta is completely fictional. I struggled a great deal with writing her. How can a white girl from privilege ever understand the struggle of this woman? How I approached her came from a couple of places. The invasion of Afghanistan by Taliban forces back in the 1980s changed that state forever. Up until that moment, they were quite a progressive country. You can see pictures from the 1950s-1970s of many of the Middle Eastern States prior to the rise of fascism there, and they don’t look at all different from the United States at the time. Many of the countries are on par with the west still, despite terrible poverty (we have that too). Anway…I was given an article to read about these changes in my junior year of high school. It illustrated what was happening to the women in the region. Prior to the takeover, women were lawyers, teachers, doctors, all kinds of professionals, but then that was banned upon pain of death. I read about refugees and I read about one woman who had been a doctor. This doctor lay down on a cot, faced the wall and expired. She willed herself to die because she could not accept this change and give up her former life. They would have executed her if she continued to practice, as she could not run away and resume her life in another place—but, imagine being forced from your home or accepting the decimation of your equality. Hettie was derived from the emotions that I had in that moment, wondering what it would be like if I could not write again because the laws of the country were changed and women were forbidden such things. My guts ached and I cried for this woman. I empathized so deeply with her plight. My empathy deepened as I continued in my career, facing rejections and insurmountable obstacles in my path. Had a man written Blue Honor, would it have taken me so long to get it published? So many articles are written on this topic and it’s a very real struggle. Secondly, would they have labeled it romance, as they were wanting to do—waring between the label of literature and romance. This has also been written about extensively. Much of women’s writing is dismissed to Women’s fiction and Romance simply because women wrote it, and it has very little fit in those categories. Blue, in my estimation of the work and intent I put into, deserved a more proper label that it didn’t achieve because of the gender of the author. My fear is that readers will be disappointed in the work, because it doesn’t fit the romance parameters they’re expecting. Being mislabeled, misrepresented if you will, is agonizing. This experience with gender bias also helped forge Hettie. It was the closest I could come to the kind of suffering she experiences. That said, I’d love to see her discussed in classrooms and beyond, as those around her as well as herself expose the nuance of privilege and race. Maybe in that she’s representative of many historical figures, both known and unknown.
How are we going to celebrate when you hit the best seller list?
Probably with a ‘fat dinner’—cheeseburger and fries from Five Guys or maybe a Hattie’s Chicken shack run. Chill out with my dog, Sadie Sue and relax for a bit.
Where to Find K. Williams on the WWW:
International Thriller Writers: http://thrillerwriters.org/