Interview: January 5, 2007
January 5, 2007
Lalita Tademy, author of the critically acclaimed CANE RIVER, once again blends American history with stories of her ancestors in her latest book, RED RIVER.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Stephen Hubbard, Tademy explains why she chose to fictionalize events from her family history rather than portray them in a work of nonfiction, and describes the challenge of writing a new book after the unexpected success of her debut novel. She also discusses some of the early roadblocks of researching the little-known catastrophe on which RED RIVER is centered, and reveals why she is considering trying her hand at contemporary fiction in the future.
Bookreporter.com: You blend genres. Why do you choose to write a mixture of your family's history and fiction rather than pursue the more pure biography form?
Lalita Tademy: Paradoxically, fiction sometimes lends itself to the delivery of difficult and emotional truth more easily than recitation of fact. For the story of my ancestors, I was much more interested in who they were, what made them able to endure such hardship, their drives, desires and motivations than the exact date that an event occurred. That was the rich vein that I wanted to tap in the telling of their stories.
BRC: In doing your research for RED RIVER, especially during your so-called "roots trips," did you ever encounter any discrimination, or feel that you weren't getting the help you needed in tracking down information?
LT: In the early days of my research into my family, in the '60s, '70s and even '80s, there were several instances of obvious reluctance to help me find records from the past. I have not encountered any of this same behavior in the last decade. Now when I ask for a particular record or document, I am sometimes brought documents I didn't even ask for, just "in case these might be helpful." Times change.
BRC: In your Author's Note on the final pages of RED RIVER, you seem to stumble on the Colfax massacre and begin to research it. Why is it, do you think, that such a major event has been so relatively unheard of all these years?
LT: I believe that there is an extreme reluctance by both individuals and countries to face uncomfortable issues without obvious solutions, particularly when they happened long ago. History is written by the victors, and at the time of the Colfax Massacre --- with its bloodshed and violence --- there was fear, pain and shame that many wanted to forget. Fortunately, the fact that the Colfax Massacre occurred is not something that the locals in Louisiana are particularly proud of in this day and age, but neither is it something most want to dwell on.
BRC: Aside from the one brief statement from your Aunt Ellen, did you find any historical records that confirmed your family's connections and/or involvement in the Colfax massacre?
LT: Another reason for writing RED RIVER as fiction was the lack of irrefutable evidence of what happened inside that Colfax courthouse. But, there appears in RED RIVER an official document compiled by the government that lists the names of over 100 men who died in Colfax on that day in 1873, and among those names is my great-great-grandfather.
BRC: How prominent was family storytelling in your house? Did you grow up with stories of "the old days"? And if so, do you think you would have ever pursued your family roots without having heard them?
LT: In California, I grew up with normal doses of stories about the old days, but on our family trips back to Louisiana, the storytelling intensified. Without these stories, I am not convinced that my curiosity would have been sufficiently stimulated to fill in the gaps and find out more.
BRC: With RED RIVER, you really bring to life the men of your family, and it results in a markedly different feel from CANE RIVER. Was it your intention to do this?
LT: My intent with RED RIVER was to tell a story, from a point of view that had been suppressed for well over 100 years. The different feel of the story reflects the simple fact that the point of view was male. I didn't write in this way to make the prose or the feel different from CANE RIVER; I wrote in this way because the story demanded it.
BRC: Was there any one moment when you held your corporate job that you suddenly felt you absolutely needed to stop and pursue your family history? What prompted that desire and the subsequent decision to leave your career behind?
LT: I didn't leave my corporate job to research or to write my family history. Ultimately, this happened, but when I originally left, I had no idea that the end result would be two historical novels. I left the corporate world after almost two decades because I was no longer energized by the work and felt there was something else I was meant to do. I wanted to explore what that "something" could be.
BRC: CANE RIVER was such a remarkable success for you. Did the overwhelming acceptance of that novel make RED RIVER easier, or harder, for you to work on?
LT: Harder. I had a very strong sense of what I wanted the work that eventually became RED RIVER to be, but there were significant pulls toward turning out another CANE RIVER. I am happy to say that RED RIVER, after much effort, time and rewriting, became the novel I originally imagined.
BRC: In all of your hours of research, is there any one person from your history that you've stumbled on who has just amazed you and inspired you more than others?
LT: If anyone, it would be my father, who was real, and not a figment of my creation.
BRC: Who are some authors who have inspired you?
LT: An eclectic bunch. Toni Morrison, Alice Hoffman, Harper Lee, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen.
BRC: What's next for you? Is there more of this family history that you feel needs to be told, or will you shift your attention elsewhere?
LT: I believe that my historical fiction days are over, at least for now. I would like to try my hand at a contemporary novel, with the freedom to be totally from my imagination. And in my mother's words, it may just be time to "stop putting our family business in the street."