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Author Talk: April 7, 2016

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Kathleen Grissom is now happily rooted in south-side Virginia, where she and her husband live in the plantation tavern they renovated. Those renovations inspired THE KITCHEN HOUSE, her debut novel and a smash hit with readers, especially book groups. Now she follows up that success with GLORY OVER EVERYTHING, where she continues the story of Jamie Pyke, son of both a slave and master of Tall Oakes, whose deadly secret compels him to take a treacherous journey through the Underground Railroad. In this interview, Grissom opens up about the tremendous and emotional research that goes into writing a historical novel about slavery, as well as the reason she felt compelled to tell Jamie’s story (he was not her first choice). She also talks about why THE KITCHEN HOUSE inspires such great discussions and what she plans to work on next.

Question: Can you reflect on how your phenomenal success as a first-time novelist has affected your life?

Kathleen Grissom: Over these past few years, what to me has the most meaning are the exchanges that I have had with so many wonderful book clubs. That the readers connected so deeply to the characters in THE KITCHEN HOUSE gave me a sense that I had done my job. From the beginning, I wanted others to experience the story as vividly as I had.

Q: You have related the unusual origins of THE KITCHEN HOUSE: how a historic map of a house you were renovating in Virginia included a detail about slaves that began to obsess you and kindle your creativity. How would you compare that experience to the series of events that led to your writing GLORY OVER EVERYTHING?

KG: In many ways the experience was very similar. Once again, in GLORY OVER EVERYTHING, the characters appeared spontaneously and insisted that I write their story. After finishing THE KITCHEN HOUSE, I had every intention of writing about Crow Mary, a Native American woman who led a fascinating life. I went out to the Crow reservation in Montana to study her culture and to search out more documentation. Yet, while researching Crow Mary, though I felt her spirit, something was stopping me from absorbing her culture in the way I knew I must. In fact, it began to feel as though a veil had come down and Jamie, Belle’s son from THE KITCHEN HOUSE, was standing in front of Crow Mary to let me know that I was to tell his story first. So, with some initial reluctance, that is what I did.

Q: The success of THE KITCHEN HOUSE was due in part to its adoption by book clubs around the country. Why do you think THE KITCHEN HOUSE lends itself so well to group discussion and interpretation?

KG: Though some might expect THE KITCHEN HOUSE to be a story of race, most come to see it as a story of humans, all caught in the trap of slavery. THE KITCHEN HOUSE is a story of complicated characters and nontraditional relationships. Through discussion these are looked at closely, and, as is often the case, new insight brings clarity and even compassion.

Q: In GLORY OVER EVERYTHING, you revisit many members of the Pyke family that you portrayed in THE KITCHEN HOUSE, but you shift the focus of your narrative to Belle’s son James. Can you compare your experiences in narrating books from both a woman’s and a man’s perspectives?

KG: The gender actually made little difference. In GLORY OVER EVERYTHING, I heard Jamie’s voice as clearly as I’d heard Lavinia’s and Belle’s from THE KITCHEN HOUSE. The difference was that both Lavinia and Belle were open to me and very forthcoming; whereas Jamie, a man with a secret, was guarded and kept me at a distance when I first met him. For that reason, I found Jamie both frustrating and intriguing. Fortunately, other characters, such as Pan, were quite verbal and gave me deeper insight into Jamie, until gradually he became less cautious and was ready to reveal himself.

Q: THE KITCHEN HOUSE relates the intimate details of the lives of the slaves of Tall Oaks, as told from the perspective of a young white girl. GLORY OVER EVERYTHING examines the lives of black and white characters mainly from the perspective of a biracial male narrator who is passing as white. How challenging is it for you to get yourself inside the heads of the fictional characters you create? Please describe the kinds of research do you before you begin writing.

KG: The best way for me to describe the way this process works is to say that I don’t get into their heads, but they get into mine. They come fully formed and are complete characters. I don’t always see them, but I feel who they are in the deepest sense. Jamie was not particularly likable when I first met him. Eventually I came to understand his deep fear, and, as my compassion and understanding for him grew, he opened up to me.

For my research, I visit the places I feel my characters inhabited. There I walk and absorb whatever comes to me. There are times when I come upon something, such as a torture device, that I feel such pain and despair that I want to fall to my knees. Often I cry over it after I uncover the details of how it might have been used. When I see something that gets me happily excited --- perhaps an artifact at a historical site --- I research it with joy. I’ve learned that when I have this type of strong reaction, one of my characters wants me to have the information so they can use it to better tell their story.

Q: How did you decide to set GLORY OVER EVERYTHING in Philadelphia? What plot opportunities does an urban setting provide that a more confined or rural setting, such as a plantation, does not?

KG: I don’t decide on the setting. My characters do.

I always saw Jamie in Philadelphia. I’ve been there a number of times and happen to love the city, but curiously, when I began my research, I found the city to be overwhelming, just as it initially was for Jamie. It wasn’t until Jamie left for the rural South that both he and I felt less constraint.

Q: GLORY OVER EVERYTHING is narrated by James Pyke, Pan and Caroline Preston. How did you decide to tell the novel from these three characters’ perspectives?

KG: Actually there is a fourth voice --- that of Sukey. In fact, hers, I believe, is the soul of the story.

Interestingly, I don’t choose who will be the characters to speak. They present themselves to me as though in a movie. They arrive fully formed, and each speaks in his or her own distinctive voice. I can’t say that I decide on who will speak --- instead, as the characters appear, I go with the ones who take center stage.

Q: You have mentioned that the troubling aspects of slavery were extremely challenging for you to write about in THE KITCHEN HOUSE. To what extent was that the case in GLORY OVER EVERYTHING?

KG: Writing about slavery, I’m sure, would be challenging for anyone. However, Sukey’s narrative was so painful that I cried my way through her story. Each time she spoke, I dreaded what was to come. Yet I loved her so that I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say.

As well, I loved young Pan, and to see his innocence taken away was heartbreaking.

In writing THE KITCHEN HOUSE, many times I considered stopping because of the violence. This time I better understood the process, and realized that, though there were times I was in tears, I needed to write what I saw. I feel that my job is to tell the story so the reader can see and feel what I see and feel.

Q: In many respects, the Great Dismal Swamp seems almost like a character in GLORY OVER EVERYTHING. Can you describe your acquaintance with it, and how it became such an essential part of the novel?

KG: Once I knew that some of my characters were headed in the direction of the Great Dismal Swamp, I began to visit and research the area. In time I learned about the Maroon societies that had once lived there. These communities were formed by escaped slaves who not only found refuge in this swamp but made a home for themselves in what many consider a hostile land.

As the name suggests, the Great Dismal Swamp can appear forbidding, but after visiting it a number of times I found incredible beauty there as well. For those interested in learning more about the Maroon communities, Daniel Sayers, an anthropologist who studied the Great Dismal Swamp, wrote a book titled A DESOLATE PLACE FOR A DEFIANT PEOPLE. As well, some of the artifacts that he uncovered will be displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in fall 2016.

Q: You have said that “DNA isn’t what family is about…. I believe family is about love, and love is color-blind.” To what extent does the denouement of GLORY OVER EVERYTHING bear out that conviction?

KG: Once again, in GLORY OVER EVERYTHING, need and love create a family unrelated by DNA. I might add, with this mention of DNA, that I always found it unusual that family is most often defined as those who share the same blood. Doesn’t every family begin with partners who don’t share the same DNA?

Q: Do you know if you will return to these characters in a future novel? What kinds of considerations factor into your decision-making about your future writing projects?

KG: As soon as GLORY OVER EVERYTHING is published, I am heading out to Montana to once again begin my research on Crow Mary. Her call to me becomes stronger every day.

I do have a niggling feeling that others from GLORY OVER EVERYTHING might want their stories told, but this time I have already done some bargaining. First Crow Mary, and then…we shall see.