Iowa Writers'/Yale Writers' Grad & Author of Historical Fiction Diane C. McPhail
Diane C. McPhail is an artist, writer, and minister. In addition to holding an M.F.A., an M.A., and D.Min., she has studied at the University of Iowa distance learning and the Yale Writers’ Workshop, among others. Diane is a member of North Carolina Writers' Network and the Historical Novel Society. She lives in Highlands, North Carolina, with her husband, and her dog, Pepper. She is the author of The Abolitionist’s Daughter, a personal narrative dealing with the struggles of imperfect souls to do right in a time of bitter conflict—a view of Southern Abolitionism, a deadly civilian clash, and the emerging role of women in a world depleted by the bloody conflict of men—a viewpoint far from prevailing stereotypes of the Civil War South, with themes of justice, racial relationships, and equality as timely as today's headlines.
Some have described your novel The Abolitionist’s Daughter as Schindler’s List in the Civil War. Do you see any parallels between the Schindler family of Steven Spielberg’s film and the Matthew’s family of your novel?
I grew up in a small Mississippi town with a large Jewish population. Friday nights I often went to Temple with my friends and if the Rabbi was speaking anywhere, my mother was sure to have us there. I was born just at the end of WWII and grew up with an ultra-sensitive awareness of the Holocaust. The first time I heard The Abolitionist’s Daughter compared to Schindler’s List, I was overwhelmed with emotion and with a sense I had not previously had, regarding Judge Matthew’s rescue of maltreated slaves and his conspiracy with his children’s tutor to illegally educate them. Though that comparison shocked me into a new realization as to the importance of what the Judge had done, I have to say that in comparison, it is far more those involved in the Underground Railroad who deserve the comparison to the Schindler family and their defiantly courageous rescue of the Jews from the threat of death.
“...the past has never been resolved, especially our national collective sin of slavery and its aftermath. Unless we deal with that issue honestly, the tension of our collective future is likely to remain dangerously divisive.”
Given all of the violence and racism that the Black Lives Matter movement had to respond to, do you feel that your novel is as timely as today’s headlines and if so, why? As a historical fiction author, you must feel that the past is present. Does our collective future seem tense?
James Meredith entered Ole Miss my freshman year, amid riots, tear gas, and a great deal of fear. There were, of course, numerous other incidents over a period of years, including the murder and burial of three Civil Rights workers in the dam at Philadelphia, Mississippi, while I was teaching near there. But then things seemed to settle. Segregation issues dimmed. When I came to Decatur, Georgia, to teach, I was thrilled that the co-presidents of the student body were an outstanding young black man and an equally outstanding white girl. Who could ask for better?
The years passed and we elected our first African American President of the United States and seemed poised to follow that with our first woman President. But as we all know too well, the veneer of our perceived progress cracked, crumbled, and now often appears lost in police and civil violence, divisiveness akin to pre-Civil War, and an almost equally shaky Federal government. So, indeed I do feel the past has never been resolved, especially our national collective sin of slavery and its aftermath. Unless we deal with that issue honestly, the tension of our collective future is likely to remain dangerously divisive.
“It is through story that we understand the conflicts and progressions of the past. And it has often been said that fiction may well be more truthful than fact.”
Having written a historical fiction novel, what do you feel that the historical fiction genre affords the storyteller? What else attracts you to historical fiction?
I have been a lifelong avid reader. From my earliest childhood, I was lucky enough to have an aunt who walked me to the library every day and I grew up haunting those stacks. Books were my alternative existence and escape. In fourth grade, my teacher refused to order Jane Eyere from our school book fair, saying it was too old for us. So I went home, found an old edition filled with woodcuts in my grandmother’s bookshelf, and simply devoured it. I identified with Jane utterly. There was probably never a time I was not reading one book or another.
As to historical fiction, I would say that all story, even futuristic and mythological, is somehow grounded in our collective human story. We are all a product of that evolving history. We cannot be otherwise. And so to know ourselves and to envision a shared future, we must understand our past. I am not a student of history. It was far from my favorite subject in school. I hated memorizing facts and dates. But give me a story from or about the past and I would fail to go to meals in order to finish it. Storytelling is innate to us as a species. It is through story that we understand the conflicts and progressions of the past. And it has often been said that fiction may well be more truthful than fact.
“...how acutely our present news is in our awareness all the time and how true that would be of my characters.”
What was it like studying writing under the likes of A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle, The Deep End of the Ocean author Jacquelyn Mitchard and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley?
How could I hope for three more stellar mentors? My first writing experience was with Madeleine L’Engle, whose book Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art was already a great influence on me as a painter. Her premise is that the work knows more than you do and comes like an annunciation asking to be born. You are its servant. A friend an I attended a writing workshop with Madeleine at The Swag in North Carolina. In one exercise, we were given a random set of prompts: his name, her name, a place, he said, she said. Mine were so utterly prosaic, I thought I could not possibly write anything worth doing. But when I sat down with pen to paper, I unexpectedly wrote, “Eleanor was at least as old as Caroline, or at least, she always claimed.” I was astounded and continued writing a story I could never have made up. Not a great one, but certainly a surprising one.
Later, when I attended Abroad Writers in Ireland, Jacquelyn Mitchard made me believe that my rough manuscript actually had the potential to become the novel it now is. She worked with me for close to two years, constantly prodding me towards improvement. I am so grateful.
And then, Jane Smiley, also at Abroad Writers—oh, my. The closest word I have for Jane is "unexpected"—in the best way. Jane prodded me into the unexpected in ways I never expected. That is the only way I know to express it. In private discussion, Jane asked me question after question about the Civil War. And I could only answer that my story was not about the war but about civilian violence, trauma, and survival. So after more than ten years of research, she is saying to me that my research is not over. She reminded me how acutely our present news is in our awareness all the time and how true that would be of my characters.
So, back to the "drawing board"—scene by scene, researching and correlating war events with my story. My greatest surprise and gratitude for this process came one day when I was reading a scene in which there is a drought. I knew I had made that up for other purposes, so I began to research the weather. Here is the "biggie": the Civil War occurred during the global warming and intense extremes of climate change at the end of the Little Ice Age! The resulting weather was a major factor in the progression of the Civil War—and yes, there had been a drought exactly where it occurs in the book.
“...I simply had to explore not only the history, but the psychological depths of motivation and survival that became a microcosm for the larger war surrounding these lives.”
Your ties to the historical time period of your novel, its setting and characters is as deep as blood for you. Might you be willing to share that aspect with readers of this interview?
Of course. This story of civilian violence is one I grew up hearing over and over. My parents’ "people" all came from Webster County, Mississippi. I can remember my aunt taking me as a little girl to the "ghost town" and being immensely disappointed at finding only an abandoned graveyard. My mother died when I was only nine weeks old and no one really talked about her. I knew she could draw and sew, but little else. At some point when my own children were up in adolescence, I felt an unquenchable need to know who my mother had been.
(Diane C. McPhail's mother, wearing a dress made by the slaves of Diane's great-grandmother, who suffered the deaths of all those men and is the model for Emily’s character in The Abolitionist's Daughter).
Over a period of years I searched, asked, and encountered an amazingly vibrant woman who died at twenty-six. My children were probably grown and I had become a therapist when I made a visit to my uncle, who still lived on the old home place. He was telling me stories of my mother’s childhood while I perused an old photo album. I turned a page to see an old news article on the "Greensboro Feud," as it had come to be called. I commented how, as a therapist, I could not imagine how those women survived that trauma and went on living. My uncle looked surprised and asked if I knew who that one young woman was. No, I did not. He paused. “That was our grandmother.” From there, I simply had to explore not only the history, but the psychological depths of motivation and survival that became a microcosm for the larger war surrounding these lives.
Are there any authors or books, namely in the historical fiction area, that have been of influence to you as an author? For instance, Cold Mountain and The Invention of Wings seem to come to mind…
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain certainly has been an influence. The stories of ordinary men and women during the Civil War are deeply engaging to me. His novel Thirteen Moons hit me with one concept—that of Mississippi as the Frontier, the river being a formidable obstacle to expansion that far south, confirming my information about the town of Greensboro and the frontier aspects of its development and inhabitants. Also, on the list of influences, I would like to add the novel Wash by Margaret Wrinkle, for her courage in avoiding stereotypes and for depicting the very human interweaving of relationships during that "peculiar institution" of slavery.
(Exterior of Yale University)
How did you find your current literary agent and then go on to become a published author?
What can I say about the grueling query process that is not an echo? It is indeed grueling. No one prepared me for the hours and hours of researching literary agents, refining and personalizing queries, keeping track and checking off rejections—or silence. I knew the average of rejections for published authors to be in the neighborhood of 100, but I was not forewarned of the intense work it would take to collect those rejections. My husband created the image of a scoreboard and every new rejection a point toward the winning goal. I had been to New York City to a Writers Digest Conference specifically for the opportunity to pitch my manuscript. Result: several request for significant sections, but no offers.
I was attending the Yale Writers Conference with no thought of literary agents when Jotham Burrello, the director, announced he had invited a panel of literary agents and that they had agreed to hear pitches for finished manuscripts. You were one of them. When I did then research, I thought you were definitely beyond my reach, but I thought it’s practice and one more rejection point on my scoreboard. It was such a surprise when you requested my full manuscript, even more of a surprise when you had it read in a matter of days, and joyfully more when you had it sold in eight weeks.
“...I could not have hoped for a more pleasant process... I can’t imagine being in better hands as a debut author.”
What was it like going through the publishing process as an author making her debut?
First I have to say that I could not have hoped for a more pleasant process. I sometimes hear other debut authors describing troublesome issues. Thanks to your negotiations on my behalf, your continued voice in support, John Scognamiglio, my editor and imprint at Kensington, their two outstanding publicists working with me for launch and tour, I can’t imagine being in better hands as a debut author. This industry can be confusing and difficult, so feeling myself consistently supported and guided by experienced, competent, and trustworthy hands is invaluable. I’m deeply grateful.
(Shakespeare & Co. owner Katherine Willoughby. with Diane C. McPhail)
Do you have any advice for writers trying to become published authors?
Don’t give up! Perseverance wins.
What can we expect next in a book from you, a new standalone historical novel or a sequel?
There is a minor, but significant, character from a subplot in the current novel who keeps nudging at my elbow. I have begun writing her story beyond the war through Reconstruction. Her primary struggle is one of racial identity. I’m not sure whether to call that a sequel since the protagonist of this novel is only a minor character in the new book. Sometimes thing are difficult to classify—as it should be.