Wednesday, April 12, 2017

INTERVIEW with author Dr. Annette Laing

Welcome author and historian Dr. Annette Laing to My Favorite Pastime!

Annette Laing is a British native, an early American historian and former professor, a presenter of Non-Boring History in schools, and the author of The Snipesville Chronicles. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, teenage son, and demented dog.

 Did you know the ending of the Snipesville Chronicles when you started writing it years ago?

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but no, I had no clue!  Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When (Book 1) was written about three kids who accidentally tap into a strange time-travel connection between a small town in England, and the small Southern town in which they live.  I wrote it without a clear destination in mind, and I only figured out where I was headed as I wrote Book 2 (A Different Day, A Different Destiny) From then on, I had to make sure I did not contradict what I had already written. That was weirdly fun. One thing I got wrong in the first book was the year in which British suffragettes began throwing rocks through shop windows to draw attention to their cause. While I was annoyed when I realized what I’d done, I was able to make a whole subplot out of my mistake in One Way or Another (Book 4) So that was cool.
Understanding how I would end the series was very emotional for me. It was like, “Huh, how did I not get this from the very beginning?” I’ve been thrilled by my readers’ reactions to the jaw-dropping conclusion. My hope is that many will want to re-read the series, knowing what they know now, because (honestly) I started dropping hints as soon as I knew, and I made sure that everything worked
with Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, too. I didn’t want the ending to come out of nowhere.

One Way Or Another is about double the size of the other books in the series, and you cut a lot of words from the first manuscript. How did you go about cutting? And were you tempted to split the book up into two or were you willing to keep it this long from the beginning?

I cut 80,000 words, and it’s still very long! Insane! Originally, there were supposed to be five books in the series, but, strangely, I don’t think that’s why it’s so long, because the last book was intended to be set in 1951, and I only used a few pages of material from it.
Another reason for the length is that I dropped the spare, episodic structure of the earlier volumes completely for this last book, going instead for a day-by-day chronicle, which gave me the chance to really immerse us all in the two worlds of the book: a frighteningly segregated small Southern town in an era of racial violence, when a new black middle class was struggling to figure out a way forward, and a complacent, suffocating middle-class household in an England that was  at the height of its power, and at the most unequal time in British history, when working-class people and women were starting to awaken to their lack of rights.
I was able to cut as much as I did because I trained as a journalist, and learned a very long time ago not to become too wedded to my words: I love to be edited by professionals, and don’t take it personally at all. When it’s me editing, as it was in making these cuts from the first draft, I am ruthless. Everything has to pass the “does it advance the plot?” test. Well, almost everything. Some bits that I could have dumped are also the most entertaining and provocative. Brandon’s meetings with W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, for example, show how the issues they raised in real life about black education are startlingly relevant to education today: Is education meant to be job training  for social advancement and social control, or is it important for its own sake to us as human beings, allowing us to have fulfilled lives? Now you can tell where I stand, as if it weren’t obvious from the start. The character of the Professor is, to some extent, my avatar, and when she said in Book 1 “Isn’t the experience itself the point?” she gave me away.

The character of Eric seemed like he was a total idiot about racism. I got that he was from England, but did you research the attitudes of the people of the times? Or is Eric just a character you gave this personality to?

I was raised in 1970s Britain, in a place that was overwhelmingly white, and moved to multicultural California in the 80s. Race as a subject has fascinated me all my life, including as a scholar of early America. Starting in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, I tried hard to represent a typical range of whites’ views of race from twentieth-century Britain, based on both my study of history and my personal understanding. One thing I have noticed today on both sides of the Atlantic is that most people at some point label ourselves “not racist” and content ourselves with that, until and unless something jars us out of our complacency. That is certainly true of Eric. Having grown up in an overwhelmingly white Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, he had only known one black person in his life, who was himself raised by a white family. Eric had an horror of segregation, which he had read about, but he had never been exposed to it, nor did he know much about America, nor had he studied much history (he is more of a science type). So he set about trying to understand 1906 Snipesville in the only context he did understand, which was the society and values of postwar Britain, which put great emphasis on human decency and progress in the aftermath of war and the Holocaust. Eric means well, but he is clueless. Which I think is also true of me, by the way.

What drew you to studying, writing, and teaching about history? What or who inspired you?

Thanks to some excellent British teachers and the BBC, among other inspirations, I have always loved history books, documentaries, docudramas, and museums. But I haven’t always wanted to be a professional historian. From the age of seven, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and I worked nonstop on student publications from the age of 10 until I was 22, and editor of my college newspaper in California. Then I woke up one day realizing I didn’t want to be a journalist. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to teach and write history. I wanted an intellectual challenge, and I thought I could do a good job teaching. I also wanted to write for the public, as I made clear in my graduate school application. This was painfully naïve, since in those days, PhD programs had the single goal of producing future scholars, My grad school ignored that, and put me into its well-honed machine for churning out historians who write impossibly complex history for other historians. I do enjoy writing history—the mental stretch is bracing—but I didn’t find it half as rewarding as writing for regular folks. As a historian, I wasn’t especially productive (which is what happens when you work in a dysfunctional institution and also have a kid). But  I’m known in my field of early American history for an article called “Heathens and Infidels?” about African-American religion in the eighteenth century. I get some very kind fan mail from professors and grad students. To be honest, though, scholarly work is not where my heart lies. However, I am glad to have the chance to translate scholarly work for audiences as young as nine.

I noticed in this book Brandon being more "religious" than in the previous books. Why is this?

I always knew Brandon was an evangelical Christian, as are most people in a small Southern town. Black communities in towns like “Snipesville” are bound together through church, and while churches play social and political roles, these roles are never separable from religion. I did toy with the idea that Brandon would eventually distance himself from the faith of his childhood, but if that ever happens (and it may not) it won’t happen while he’s young. I also felt that the Dias siblings, as agnostics with a Catholic Christian background, were representative of a more secular outlook, and that I wanted to represent a person of faith interpreting the world through a different lens.  We’re so divided in America now, and it’s important to keep practicing empathy even when others don’t.
Although Brandon mentions prayer in Book 1, you’re correct that  he’s not as explicit about his faith as he is later. Time travel challenges his entire value system, and he finds himself in settings—just as a 19th century workhouse—that call for the word “godforsaken”. But Brandon draws confidence from his faith. As he sheds more and more of his naiveté in Look Ahead, Look Back (Book 3), set in the 18th century, he becomes increasingly invested in his Christian faith. In Book 4, confronted with the evil of racial segregation, he finds enormous courage in religion. It is not by accident that, landing in 1906 Snipesville, he finds sanctuary and community and light in the darkness when he enters a church.

Where do you go from Snipesville? Will you continue to write fictional stories?

Absolutely! Most women get their history from fiction, and I am convinced that fiction (or heavily dramatized non-fiction) is the best way to engage kids in history. Making social and cultural history accessible seems to be my life’s mission.  Scholars have not written for a wider audience for years now. When historians think of writing for the public, they think of highly-educated and influential people. I believe that if we still want to have a democracy, we need to find a way to reach everyone, and I don’t think that’s pie-in-the-sky. I’m proudest when people tell me that Snipesville not only entertains them, but makes them think. My next novel will again be time travel, and will be set in the American Revolution. It will be much shorter than One Way or Another!

If you haven't read the Snipesville Chronicles go grab your copies today! I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them!

Come back tomorrow for a guest post by author Dr. Annette Laing and find out how the Snipesville Chronicles evolved through the years.

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