Interview: September 27, 2013
Marlen Suyapa Bodden, a practicing lawyer at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, drew upon her knowledge of modern and historical slavery to write her debut novel, THE WEDDING GIFT. Since Bodden self-published the book to widespread success, it has been picked up by several major publishing houses around the world and garnered praise from readers and authors alike. Based on a real-life court case in 1840s Alabama, THE WEDDING GIFT is told through the eyes of two women --- a plantation mistress and a slave --- who both feel the impact as a suspected illegitimate child leads to a divorce, shaking the foundations of a powerful Southern family. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Bronwyn Miller, Bodden shares her self-publishing experiences, her love for certain literary giants, and how her interest in history and work as a lawyer for the poor has inspired her writing.
Bookreporter.com: THE WEDDING GIFT is based on a true story and court case that took place in 1840s Alabama. How did you come upon this event, and what made you want to make it the subject of your first novel?
Marlen Suyapa Bodden: I have been interested in American slavery since history classes in school, and in my spare time I read a lot of nonfiction on American history and the Civil War. Faulkner wrote about the theme of interracial siblings during the time of slavery, and I’ve been interested in that topic since I read ABSALOM, ABSALOM! in high school. Slavery is horrible enough, but the concept that slave owners didn’t have a problem enslaving their own children or siblings adds another dimension of evil to it, I think. In 1999, I was reading a nonfiction book on runaway slaves, and there were a few lines about a divorce case in Talladega where a husband sued his wife, claiming the child she gave birth to was not his and the judge granted him all the property the wife brought to the marriage, including a young biracial slave woman. While there was no statement in the description of the case that the two women were sisters, the fact that the Black woman was described by the newspapers of the day as “yellowish” led me to believe they were. I thought the case was a great idea as the basis for a novel, and it mushroomed from there.
BRC: Was it difficult writing the narrative from two different perspectives, or did it help you develop the story in more detail?
MSB: Initially, I was only going to write the novel from Sarah Campbell’s (the young slave woman) point of view, but it was important to me to have her narrate the story, to give voice to my ancestors who were kidnapped from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade and also to the slaves of today. But then I realized that I couldn’t tell Sarah’s complete tale with only her first person POV. So, yes, I think having the plantation mistress as the other perspective helped me develop and enrich the story.
BRC: What kind of research did you undertake for this project?
MSB: Readers can see a selected bibliography of some of the books I read and analyzed for my research at marlenbodden.com. My research for THE WEDDING GIFT was to read nonfiction, scholarly books and articles on American slavery. The works I found most useful were ones that relied on court and government documents, such as deeds, records of lawsuits, birth and death records, and census reports.
I read, but did not rely on, a substantial amount of slave narratives, transcribed interviews that were conducted by the U.S. government during the Great Depression. But scholars have pointed out that those interviews did not accurately depict the lives of slaves during slavery because the subjects were small children when slavery was abolished.
BRC: The novel was originally self-published, sold amazingly, and then major publishers came calling. Can you walk us through your journey from fledgling manuscript to finished book?
MSB: I like to think of myself as a pioneer in self-publishing, but I’m not. Countless writers had to publish their own debut (or more) books because they couldn’t find traditional publishers, including many of the greats, such as Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, and the list goes on! But when I finished my first draft of THE WEDDING GIFT, I didn’t think of self-publishing, and I sent out over 300 query letters to agents. Most ignored me, others sent form rejection letters, and a few said after reading part of my manuscript: “I think you’re an excellent writer, but I don’t think I can sell a book on slavery.”
So even while I was sending out query letters, I began researching self-publishing and settled on an on-demand publisher that said it had editors on staff who had worked at big houses. Mindful that the stigma about self-published books is because most have little or no professional editing, I paid a freelance editor to edit my draft before I submitted it to the on-demand company and then I paid for two more separate editors at the company before I published. This is really a summary! I then spent a substantial amount of time using online marketing tools as well as doing book events wherever they would have me, libraries, museums, non-profit organizations, universities, book fairs, etc. I do see myself as a pioneer in the digital sales age, though, because that’s how I sold a huge amount of books, the eBook, and that’s what landed THE WEDDING GIFT on the Wall Street Journal. Soon after that, I got my agent and she sold the book to traditional houses, St. Martin’s Press, Century/Random UK, and to houses in Norway and Germany!
BRC: How closely did you stick to the original story? Did you give yourself permission to veer from fact for the sake of the narrative?
MSB: Since we know very little about the people involved in the court case, there were few details that I had to go on, which was liberating and allowed my imagination to soar. But the general premise of the plot was based on actual people in 1840s Talladega, Alabama. There was a divorce case where the husband sued his wife for divorce because the child was not his, the husband fought hard and won the young “yellowish” slave woman the wife brought to the marriage, and there is another detail that was true, but is fully revealed in the ending so I can’t say it now.
BRC: Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility when you’re telling someone’s true story?
MSB: Absolutely, these were people who lived through a time of great violence and suffered horribly. I aimed to treat my characters with respect and to not portray them as caricatures or stereotypes. I also wanted to give them the voices they did not have when they lived.
BRC: In THE WEDDING GIFT, there are a bevy of characters that run the gamut from kind and compassionate to cruel and cunning. Which character proved to be the most enjoyable to write? Which was the most challenging?
MSB: Sarah was the most enjoyable because, even as a little girl, she was very manipulative. She dreamed of freedom from the age of six, when she began working, and realized she was a slave. As she grew, she learned to hide her passions and her hurt as a way to survive and bide her time until she could try to escape. But living under traumatic conditions eventually made her capable of engaging in evil acts and to me that is what made her interesting --- that she was not a saint and needed to get revenge for the gross harm she and her family suffered.
The most challenging character was Theodora, because I didn’t want her to be a caricature of the suffering delicate White lady. And it was tricky writing about someone of a different race. How I dealt with that was that I reminded myself that women of different races and backgrounds have similar experiences that distinguish us from men. Also, in my research, I learned that slave owners controlled slaves through violence and the threat of violence and that they could not “turn off” their violence at home, with their legal wives and children. So with Theodora, I knew I needed to show the form the master’s violence took against his wife, but I didn’t want her to be just a victim. That was the struggle --- how to make her not just survive, but grow.
BRC: What made you choose Psalm 19:14 (“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord.”) as the epigram for the novel?
MSB: Psalm 19:14 was not only Sarah’s epigram, but mine. Black people who were enslaved in the New World survived because of religion and spirituality --- both Christianity and religions they brought from Africa. For Sarah, Bible verses and prayer maintained her resolve in her quest for freedom, so when she told her story, she prayed it would be acceptable to the God who had delivered her from bondage. But to me, Psalm 19:14 was a special prayer as an artist.
BRC: What would you like readers to take away from THE WEDDING GIFT?
MSB: I want them to say, “I enjoyed that story.” Then, I want them to think about modern human rights violations, that there are at least 27 million slaves around the world today!
BRC: What has been the most surprising part of the entire process of writing and publishing this novel for you?
MSB: That every time I reached a milestone, when I thought that was as far as the book would go --- first it was a local success, then a national indie success --- something else happened to take it to another level. A recent example is that Publishers Weekly gave THE WEDDING GIFT a starred review in August and then it was just included in the list of best new books for the week of September 23! So, it has been a non-stop wild ride since I finished the manuscript and had my first reader reactions that encouraged me to keep finding ways to reach wider audiences.
BRC: How thrilling was it to garner blurbs from acclaimed authors and critics like Tom Wolfe and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.?
MSB: I did? I still can’t believe it, and sometimes I think everything is happening to someone else with my name. I am deeply honored by what they said.
BRC: Who are the authors who inspire you?
MSB: So many! But the main ones, in terms of his minimalist style, Hemingway, and for her innovative literary style and respect for people who were often poor, Zora Neale Hurston. But for leaving all his emotion on the page, I am inspired by Faulkner, who was well-respected by his peers. Ralph Ellison said about him: “for all his concern with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking the nature of man” and Eudora Welty said: “No man ever put more of his heart and soul into the written word than did William Faulkner.”
BRC: Was writing a novel always a dream of yours?
MSB: Yes! I began writing “short stories” when I was about 10, when I got my first library card. I fantasized that one day my book would be on library shelves. But I also wanted to be a lawyer and I later decided to do that first and then begin writing fiction when I retired from the practice of law. Here I am, still practicing law full-time and writing fiction! I just couldn’t wait to become a novelist, I guess.
BRC: If readers wanted to learn more about modern-day anti-slavery organizations, where would you recommend they look?
MSB: There are many wonderful anti-slavery organizations today. I love Free the Slaves, Anti-Slavery International, Polaris, and International Justice Mission, among others (I have a list of main organizations on my website: marlenbodden.com). I also support Fair Trade organizations because their work attacks poverty, and poor people are the most vulnerable to exploitation by slave owners and traders.
BRC: You work as an attorney at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, the nation’s oldest and largest law firm for the disenfranchised. How has your career in law informed your work as a writer? Do you feel it helps you to bring a different vantage point to the subject matter at hand?
MSB: I don’t think I could have written THE WEDDING GIFT if I didn’t have a background as a lawyer for the poor. I learned from my clients, one of whom is a prisoner on death row and many who are so poor they are about to be evicted from their homes or are homeless, the true meaning of grace under pressure. That is what I aim to portray in my characters, that even when they are at the lowest points in their lives, they do not surrender. So I definitely bring something to the table that most other novelists don’t.
BRC: Do you have any plans to write another novel? Would you do another historical novel or perhaps try nonfiction next time?
MSB: I began writing my second historical novel about a year ago. Generally, it’s about the conquest of Mexico. Since I do a lot of nonfiction writing as a lawyer, I’m not interested in nonfiction at this time, but who knows? I seem to have opinions about everything!