We’re excited this week to bring you our exclusive interview with Sarah Smith, author of The Other Side of Dark — a new book that we adore here at Novel Novice. We have Sarah’s interview posted in two parts, PLUS your chance to win a copy of The Other Side of Dark, courtesy Simon & Schuster (stay tuned)!
Many thanks to Sarah for answering all our questions so thoughtfully, and to Bernadette at Simon & Schuster for introducing us to such a great book and coordinating this week’s goodies.
The Other Side of Dark covers a vast array of topics — which, on the surface, may appear an odd combination. But they flow together seamlessly in the book; everything just works. How did all of these elements come together for you while writing the book? Did any stand out more than the others?
- You’ve asked a separate question about what happened to me as a writer after 9/11. Basically, I decided that I didn’t want to write such pearly-white books as I’d been writing. I started work on another project, and then:
- Hugh Mattison, who is real and a friend, asked me to set a murder mystery at an endangered historic house, Pinebank so people would talk about it and the house would be saved.
- I discovered that the family who owned Pinebank were slave traders.
- They also owned the slave ship Katey. That story is in the book, so I won’t spoil it. In The Other Side of Dark it happens in Boston Harbor, because I overheard a woman say that she could never see a ship in Boston Harbor without thinking of the African Diaspora.
- One of the modern issues arising from slavery is the question of reparations, what people now owe to people then. Should African-Americans ask for payment for their ancestors’ suffering? What should it be, and who should give it? I read Randall Robinson’s The Debt, which is about reparations—Charles Randall Walker, in the book, is named in Prof. Robinson’s honor.
But what if a father who believes in reparations had a son who found the whole thing embarrassing?
- And then there’s the Perkins Bequest. It was real. Five hundred thousand dollars—which would be worth fifty million dollars now. It totally disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to all that money. What was it for? Why so much secrecy?
- Katie and George? They just appeared, the way characters do. George is based partly on a neighbor who is never entirely going to grow up mrentally, and who loves dogs and is a genius at petting them. Katie is based a little on me. She’s an artist, she’s poor in a rich high school, she has no friends and no one is really taking care of her. Until Law.
- Katie’s Christmas pie? I baked that. My, it was awful.
For those who don’t know, can you tell us how 9/11 influenced The Other Side of Dark?
When 9/11 happened, I went down to Jersey City to see my daughter, who was living there. Jersey City has many different cultures, and most people who live there make relatively little money. It’s also right across the river by PATH train from the World Trade Center.
Many people who worked at the WTC lived in Jersey City. Most of them weren’t the day traders and fancy lawyers; they were the cooks at Windows on the World, the cleaners at the WTC, the secretaries.
I got out at the Journal Square PATH station, and the station, which is esnormous, was covered in posters. “Have you seen” my husband, brother, niece, sister, wife? “Missing.” All those faces.
If you’re lucky and work at writing, sometimes the little voices tell you it’s time to write a different way. All of the major characters in my previous books, and most of the minor ones, had been pearly white. But not even my entire family is white.
I wasn’t comfortable with ignoring that any more.
What sort of research (historical, sociological, etc.) went into writing The Other Side of Dark?
I knew nothing. I self-identify as white, and you would identify me as white too. But I was going to need characters of color, who would tell their own stories.
I was going to fail. A lot of people know what it’s like to be African-American. Every single one of them would know I was faking.
I talked with Barbara Neely, who writes the wonderful Blanche White mysteries. She said, “You can learn. You can do research.” So for the past five years I’ve been reading writing by everyone from W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson to Patricia Smith, Zane, Mary Malone, and Black Pearls, which is a self-help book. With their help and a lot of listening on the bus, I got some new voices in my head.
Friends read the book and helped a lot, particularly Tempest Bradford and Vandana Singh.
Finally the voices turned into characters who are just themselves. Law’s a nerd, a house geek. He has to fight his dad, who’s a bully, hates his history teacher, thinks he’ll never get a girlfriend. When he gets one, he doesn’t know how to help her through her issues.
What helped me most was giving myself permission to fail. I’d had some success at writing, more than I’d ever expected. I didn’t need more. I couldn’t possibly succeed. But I could fail.
Any recommended reading for readers who want to explore these subjects more?
African-American writers have even more difficulty getting published than white writers do. So if you like this book, read something by a writer of color. If you’ve got the money, buy the book. Review it on Goodreads or LibraryThing or Amazon. If you like YA, read Jacqueline Woodson or April Sinclair. SF, try Nnedi Okorafor or Nora Jemisin or Alaya Johnson or Nalo Hopkinson. So Long Been Dreaming and the two Dark Matter anthologies are excellent. Mysteries? Gary Phillips, Frankie Bailey, Persis Walker—Barbara Neely is amazing. Poetry? Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler is a brilliant cycle of poems about Hurricane Katrina. There are many lists online of worthy books. Africans in America, The Debt, and the WPA collections of interviews with ex-slaves particularly moved me.
If you’re in New York in summer, check out the Harlem Book Fair