★ Inhabiting other lives in historical fiction with Lawrence Reid Bechtel

Blacksburg-based sculptor and author Lawrence Reid Bechtel has released the novel, A Partial Sun (BQB Publishing, 2019). The story of Isaac Granger, the work of historical fiction follows the enslaved man from Monticello to Philadelphia when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson apprentices him to a tinsmith.

Bechtel, who has two pieces of sculpture in the City of Roanoke’s public art collection. was inspired to work on the first of three novels after sculpting portraits of Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Isaac Granger.

On Tuesday, January 14, Bechtel will join the Stamped from the Beginning Book Club to discuss the Thomas Jefferson section with the group. He will bring the portraits of Jefferson and Granger and discuss with the group the research and empathy it takes to begin to imagine the lives of others. In preparation, he gave us a little background in the following BOOK CITY Q&A.

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BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Congratulations on writing A Partial Sun. You’re also a sculptor. How do you see your literary efforts and your work as a visual artist working together?

Lawrence Reid Bechtel: My father was an English professor, and my mother was an elementary school librarian, so they cultivated in me and in my brother and sisters a love of books and a belief in the importance of literature. Yet I was also inclined as a boy to pursue various forms of visual art, partly as an expression of independence, so the creation of stories and the crafting of objects have always been bound up together for me. I am apt to conceptualize a sculpture as depicting a climactic moment in a story; and the story lends vitality to the sculpture.

BCR: There are certainly climactic moments in A Partial Sun. What first attracted your interest in Isaac Granger’s story?

LRB: In 2004, I was invited to submit a proposal for a statue of Thomas Jefferson to be sited at UVa’s Darden School of Business. This was a fine opportunity and I immediately set about reading as much as I could about Jefferson. In doing so, I began to comprehend how slaves were nearly ever-present in his daily life, which caused me to more fully appreciate the momentous contradiction of his resounding proclamation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” So I resolved to incorporate this contradiction into my proposed statue of him. It was in searching for some means of doing this that I ran across Isaac Granger’s story, and an 1840’s daguerreotype of him. I found the story and picture so fascinating that even though I did not win the commission for the Jefferson statue, they stayed with me. So I crafted his sculpture, and finally, wrote out his story–or the part about his having been taken by Jefferson to Philadelphia, to be apprenticed to a tinsmith–as a historical novel. The one novel grew into a trilogy. The first two books are written, and I am developing the third.

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BCR: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the first novel?

LRB: I believe the most difficult aspect of writing this novel may have simply been giving myself permission to write it at all. There have been many occasions when I questioned the legitimacy of my efforts to write the story of a black slave in the 18th century, doubted whether publishers would accept the work, and feared the reaction of readers. Yet it is a story I have felt compelled to write, and one in which I have deeply invested myself over the past six years at least, and so I have persevered. Thankfully, readers’ response thus far has been wonderfully positive, for the most part. I take it as an article of faith that we are all bound together by our common humanity, and that is the opportunity of a writer to extend our understanding of other lives and other modes of being.

BCR: What did you learn about writing in working on this novel?

LRB: I have learned that it is a lot of work, but that it is work I love to do. I love to create a fictional world into which I slip, departing for a time from my actual circumstances. I love to be surprised by characters as they move through that world and interact with other characters. I love to develop convincing scenes and situations, hoping readers will become as absorbed in them as I do in writing them. I have learned to be neither too pleased nor too discouraged with my writing, choosing instead to just keep at it. I have told myself to remember that “there is no accounting for taste,” and so I must expect a wide spectrum of reactions to my novels.

Additionally, I have learned gratitude. Writing a trilogy of novels, over a span of several years, requires a dependable stability in my circumstances. Allowing for the normal complications of everyday life, and thanks to the support of my wife, Ann, I have largely had that stability. Yet when I look out upon the world, and contemplate the chronic instability in the lives of persons and families fleeing war in Syria, for example, or in the lives of migrants on our Southern border who have suffered from violence and corruption in Central American countries and then been detained in dangerous and unsanitary holding camps in Mexico, I am profoundly grateful for the stability granted me to write a book! May I use my time wisely.

BCR: I agree. Gratitude is a great and freeing foundation for creative efforts. What else did you learn about yourself?

LRB: I learned that I have the necessary patience for sustaining and completing a long project, that I can invent credible characters and convincing dialogue, and that I can work to a deadline. Beyond that, I learned that racism runs deep, and that I must plumb those depths, if adversarial characters are to be credible and conflict authentic. Put differently, racism is like bones and relics buried in the ground. We walk back and forth over them, assuming such things have vanished out of existence—until archaeologists carefully dig down and expose them to view. Sometimes they appear almost perfectly preserved. They do erode, they do wear away, they do crumble to dust, but it takes a long time, and sometimes only if they are uncovered. Such is racism.

BCR: That’s what our study of Stamped from the Beginning is all about. It’s a complex history that surprises us because we haven’t been taught it. I found that as a companion to the nonfiction section of the Ibram X. Kendi work, A Partial Sun does a fine job. The narrative briskly pulls the reader along. What tips do you have for those plotting and pacing a novel?

LRB: I think the first thing is to create a central character that readers care about. The second thing is to introduce conflict or danger with uncertain outcomes for the central character. The third thing is to “up the ante” little by little, by creating chapters that are themselves like “mini-novels,” rising toward their own climax, and leaving this unresolved until the next or a later chapter. However, I like to let good characters or propitious scenes unfold in unexpected ways sometimes, even if my overall plan for the novel has to be adjusted as a result.

BCR: There’s a passage toward the end that feels pretty important to the book. Isaac is reflecting on Charles, a fellow apprentice.

 “…I realized he had a depth that I had missed after all, assuming’ he hadn’t any, or not much. He assumed the same of me. It was the common mistake of most people, I guessed. What is more, it seemed to me that from knowing Rachel I had found more depth in myself than I had thought I had, or even should have. Was it the same for her, from knowin’ me?”

What’s at work here?

LRB: Unlike Isaac’s situation at Monticello, where he is mainly confined to living and working with other African-American slaves, in Philadelphia he finds himself working and living alongside white apprentices of about his own age, and being taught to read and write by Rachel, the tinsmith’s daughter. The whole situation is new and often awkward for Isaac. Yet from his experiences and interactions, Isaac is prodded to change, and articulate to himself certain unexpected human connections beyond the divisions of race. This is particularly so in his relationship with Rachel, which continues to grow, especially in Book II, That Dazzling Sun.

BCR: What was your path to publishing?

LRB: I googled various NY agents, selected some which I thought might be receptive to my manuscript, and sent carefully crafted letters to them. I either did not receive responses in return or received responses saying that they couldn’t take on more clients. Likewise, I googled contact information for NY publishing houses, reviewed submission guidelines, and again sent carefully crafted letters. I even went to NY, found my way to the headquarters of three of these publishers, and presented myself at the front desk, with a brief note, but still received no response.

I then turned to BQB publishers, in Christiansburg, and after reviewing their submission guidelines, prepared and sent a letter along with the book manuscript. I received a lengthy letter in return, with comments from the BQB Editor, “provisionally” accepting the manuscript, provided I made certain changes, which the letter specified; especially, that I provide more insight into the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. I then met in person with Terri Leidich, President of BQB, and she provided additional helpful comments. I went back to work on the manuscript, and 3-4 months later re-submitted it again, and it was accepted. I met with Terri Leidich to sign the contract, and not long after that, met with both her and the Developmental Editor she had chosen to work with me, and I was on my way. BQB is an “Indie” publisher, which means that the author pays to have his/her book published, is provided with considerable help for doing this, and given access to book distribution networks, regional booksellers’ conventions, and other channels for advertising the book.

BCR: You’ll be part of the Stamped from the Beginning book conversation on January 14th. How do you see strengthening our understanding of history, whether it be through nonfiction or fiction, as helping to shape our communities today.

LRB: One of the strengths of historical fiction, it seems to me, is its capacity to take us behind the scenes of large historical events, or into the parlors and drawing rooms of well-known historical figures, to show us the everyday life of characters—real or imagined–who may also have been present and involved and who were struggling to make their way in the world, come to terms with their circumstances, and find happiness if possible. Especially for classes of people like black slaves in America before the Civil War, who were largely illiterate, and left very few written records of their own, fiction may in some cases be our only window into the possible thoughts, feelings, and motivations for such people. If a work of historical fiction is successful, readers will feel empathy for the characters–or certain of those characters, at least–which hopefully can transfer to a deeper appreciation for the complex lives of people we live and work with in our “real” life.

An unfolding insight for me in writing this book–obvious once stated, I suppose–is that slavery was not a monolithic system: every single person bound to a master had their own story. While the basic division was fixed–the master and their family on top, with slaves on the bottom–this division, if examined, becomes a finely tuned, almost infinitely variable hierarchy, with domestic enslaved persons who were nearly white and known by name by the master–as with the Hemings’ family members–hovering just below Jefferson and his wife Martha and their children, all the way down to recently purchased field hands who on large plantations such as Monticello were entirely managed by the Overseer and hardly known to the master at all. In such an arrangement, where proximity to the master and skin color were so consequential, all manner of rivalries and alliances developed. “Normal” social interactions were deeply corrupted by this, because so much was at stake, which the knowing master capitalized on, to keep their bondspeople divided. Loyalty could be as strict a control as the lash. And there was peculiar, widespread crossover between blacks and whites: Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, for example. What has been the legacy of all of this, which we still must deal with?

BCR:What has the response to the book been like so far?

LRB: I have been very happy with the warm reception the book has received thus far. Perhaps no commendation has been more gratifying than that of Calvin Jefferson, a descendant of the Granger family, who specifically came to a book event at the New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville to meet me, because he had been so impressed with the book. He was also pleased that I had not “dumbed down” Isaac but had presented him as an intelligent and articulate young man.

BCR: When will you follow up with That Dazzling Sun?

LRB: I have completed the manuscript for That Dazzling Sun, and the book itself is due to be published on June 1st of this year. Please look for it!

BCR: I’m looking forward to it, and best of luck!

Learn more here about the Stamped from the Beginning conversations hosted by Roanoke Public Libraries and Book City Roanoke. If you’re reading the book following the August 2019 appearance of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, consider attending conversation on section II with Lawrence Reid Bechtel on January 14 at 6:30 PM at the Melrose Library. ★

 

 

 

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