Interview with Laurel Saville, author of Henry and Rachel

Publisher: Amazon Publishing

Publication Date: October 15, 2013

Book Links:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Synopsis: Brought to live with the George family as a child, all anyone knew about enigmatic Rachel was that she worked hard, making herself indispensable to the plantation. And she remained a mystery until the day she disappeared…even to her husband. Especially to her husband.

Henry was Rachel’s opposite—gregarious where she was quiet, fanciful where she was pragmatic. After years of marriage, Rachel left Henry and their oldest son without explanation and set off on a steamer for New York City with their other four children. Was her flight the ultimate act of betrayal or one of extraordinary courage? Eight characters connected by blood and circumstance reconstruct Rachel’s inexplicable vanishing act.

Weaving real family letters into this narrative of her own great-grandparents, Laurel Saville creates a historical novel of incredible depth and beauty.

Interview: Q. Please tell us about the inspiration for Henry and Rachel.

Growing up, I regularly heard a single story of my mysterious great grandmother, Rachel. It was said that she left her brilliant but irresponsible husband, Henry, and his favored son, my grandfather James, behind when she fled Jamaica for New York with her four other children. Her secret and somewhat desperate escape was presented as somehow heroic, in spite of its cruelty. When I was in my twenties, I started sharing family lore with one of my mother's cousins, and Rachel's story got more layered, complicated, and therefore, intriguing. Then, one day I was looking at a copy of her death certificate and saw we shared the same birthday. That strange coincidence settled it -- I knew I'd have to write about her someday. As I was working on my memoir of my mother's tragic life and death, "Unraveling Anne," I tried in vain to uncover more of Rachel's history, but she remained an enigma, so I eventually decided to fictionalize her life, and in that way, try to understand why a woman might have done what she did and what impact her actions might have had on her family.

Q. How did writing this book affect you?

After spending so many years laboring over my memoir, trying to get that true story just right, and then stumbling through the publishing world's many morasses and mysteries to get it to published, "Henry and Rachel" was, frankly, much more fun. As fiction, I had the freedom to make up what I needed in the narrative; as an author with the support of a great publishing team, I had more confidence that it would probably see a fairly direct path to print. It made me feel much freer in my writing. Emotionally, the book took me on an interesting empathetic journey. All the characters are psychologically complex and greatly flawed, primarily because they are caught in the tangled nets of their birth, parenting, and rigid class expectations. As readers, we may not like much of what they do; as a writer, my job was to help explain why they actions they took were somewhat inevitable and understandable outcomes of the characters their fates had created.

Q. When did you know you would be a writer?

I don't remember a time when I was not writing and wanting to write and wanting to be a writer, which, by the way, I think of as three different things. Writing = practice.  Wanting to write = aspiration to do better and more. Being a writer = career management. To be successful, artistically and practically, it seems you really have to do all three. I think I knew I would be, or at least could be, a writer when a short story I wrote won the Vermont Emerging Writers contest almost 20 years ago. A lot of life intervened for about a decade afterwards, but then I got serious and went to grad school as a means of focusing my writing energies. I've been making my living as a full-time writer of everything from brochures and websites to articles, essays and books since 2000.

Q. Do you plan any subsequent books?

I am currently writing a novel set in the Adirondack mountains of Upstate NY, near where I used to live and spent plenty of hours hiking. Like "Henry and Rachel," it involves the clashes of family, class and culture, but this book is contemporary, not historical, and it also explores some of the different ways people have of relating to our natural world.

Q. What are you currently reading?

I just finished Bob Shacochis's "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul." Bob is an incredibly generous teacher and writer who invests vast blood and sweat and undoubtedly tears into his students and books and was hugely important to me as a mentor. This book is the very definition of a magnum opus and probably the biggest bass ass of a book I've ever read. Also reading Langdon Cook's "The Mushroom Hunters" because it is set in my new home, the Pacific NW, and the title alone gave me an important plot point in the novel I'm currently working on.

Q. All of the books you’ve read, which book has impacted you the most?

Oh, so many have affected me in so many different ways. Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" showed me much about structure, the uses of violence, multiple viewpoints. The Bronte sisters are so good with the subtleties and profundities of feminine feeling. Michael Ondaatjee has gorgeous language. "Silk" by Alessandro Barrico is a simultaneously hugely complex and deceptively simple story, as is "The Little Prince." Great non fiction writers like Jon Krakauer, Adrian Nicole Leblanc and John Vaillant offer lessons in pacing a complex and multi-layered story and helping us understand deeply flawed individuals. I try to learn something from everything I read, even if it's just an oddly compelling tweet.

Q. Please tell us your latest news (book-related or not!)

I hit the big five-oh at the end of September, my first novel, "Henry and Rachel" releases 10/15, and at the end of October, I celebrate 4 post breast-cancer years. Phew. In other news, I recently started taking voice lessons and my husband just bought me a guitar.

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Yes: Thank you! As a writer, I work in isolation and solitude, always hopeful that my words will create a compelling story for unknown readers. The fact that you invest your time and money with my work is deeply appreciated.

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