Why did you choose tell “Jefferson’s Sons” through the eyes of three characters?
This was mostly a decision based on structure. As I did the research for this book, the time frame kept expanding. I could see how the world in which Beverly spent his early years, at Monticello during the relative stillness of Jefferson’s Presidency, was very different from that in which Maddy grew up, after Jefferson’s retirement, when visitors flocked to the farm. I wanted to contrast those differences. But I also really, really, wanted to tell what I saw as the natural end of the story–that horrifying auction after Jefferson’s death–and, by that point, Beverly is long gone, and Maddy fully grown. Peter Fossett actually left a written account of his childhood at Monticello, a terrific first-person source for those final years. To start where I wanted to start, I had to be in Beverly’s voice–he’s really the only one old enough to carry the story–and at the end, I had to be in Peter’s voice, as he’s the only one left.
Theoretically I could have stayed with just those two, but there’s another problem: I wanted this book to reach middle school audiences. To do that, I have to keep a certain level of innocence in the discourse. Some of the topics we cover would be viewed and discussed very differently by adult narrators, and the minute I slide into an adult point-of-view I run the danger of losing of either being untruthful to the history, or writing something inappropriate for a fifth-grader to read. When I split the narrative three ways, so that each voice begins at around age 7 and continues into early teens (a bit younger for Peter), I could cover the ground I wanted to cover, and still write the book I wanted to write.
Please note that if this hadn’t been based so strongly on historical facts I wouldn’t have done it this way. If it were straight fiction–I was making all this up–I’d have used one narrator and a much shorter time frame. Easier on everyone. But the biggest strength of the book is that is very much based on fact.
Do you have a favorite scene in this book?
Hmm. I’d have to go with the ending–very hard to write, and it’s certainly not the happiest scene, but I was really pleased with how I got it in the end. I think it has a rhythm that suits the action.
What was one of the most unexpected facts or stories you uncovered while researching for “Jefferson’s Sons”?
There are simply tons of good stories, many of which couldn’t make it into the book. For example, Joe Fossett’s older brother Daniel, who is very briefly mentioned as having been sold away why Joe was a small boy, actually bought Wormley Hughes at the auction. He bought him for a dollar and gave him his freedom. Where Daniel had been living and how he gained his own freedom are completely unknown–from a historical point of view, he appears, then disappears again.
Part way through my research, the historians at Monticello found evidence that Patsy Fossett gained her freedom as an adult–she comes up in Census records in 1830, in Cincinnati, which is where many of the Fossetts were living, including Joe and Edith. Prior to a few years ago, she was “lost” from a historical point of view–no one knew what had happened to her.
Do you have plans for another historical fiction?
I’m in the middle of a book set in England during World War II. It features wholly fictional characters, more like my book Weaver’s Daughter than Jefferson’s Sons.
What advice would you give to a person trying to become a fiction writer?
Read everything you can. Especially read writers you admire. Write, but don’t be too eager for publication–publication is really hard, and rejection is really discouraging, and at the start you just need to write for yourself, nobody else. Forget “write what you know.” Write what you want to read.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I’m really pleased at how many people are reading and responding to Jefferson’s Sons. It’s been a really good journey. Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, and for caring about my book.
Thank you for joining us on this blog! I’m looking forward to reading your new books in the future.
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