Guest Blog: An Author’s Intro in Martha’s Vineyard
Here is the intro that John Hough gave at a lovely private reading reception hosted by Sheldon and Lucy Hackney and John and his wife Kate on Martha’s Vineyard. It was the night before my reading at L’Elegance last month, and a glorious green-and-blue evening. John’s introduction speaks generously about how we met, but it doesn’t say that he gave me the most thorough and excellent reading of If Sons Then Heirs that a writer-friend could ask for.
In particular, John helped me to have what my husband calls “the courage of my obsessions.” I want to write about extended families, people connected on all sorts of ways, across the country and even across time. Among John’s many great calls was his suggestion that I stop re-introducing the many members of my main characters’ extended family. It was too much. It stopped the storytelling. It also revealed, I now see, a lack of confidence in the story. I want the readers to be immersed in the community, which is sometimes overwhelming. So, John’s emails urged, “let them.” – Lorene
A few years ago I wrote a Civil War novel in which race and slavery were dominant themes, and I asked Lorene Cary to read the manuscript. I didn’t know Lorene, but I’d read her excellent novel, The Price of a Child, which is about a slave who escapes and makes her way to a new life in Philadelphia. I was hoping Lorene would approve of the book and maybe even say so.
Lorene lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Penn, and I had a hunch that Lucy and Sheldon Hackney knew her. They did, and Sheldon was kind enough to ask Lorene if I could write to her. She said yes. I did, and she consented, very generously, to read the unpublished novel of a stranger.
The novel begins with a runaway slave, a stowaway, coming ashore off a coastal schooner in what was then Holmes Hole Harbor, a short way down the road from here. The white abolitionist family of my novel takes him in and helps him to freedom.
Lorene liked the book but had some trouble with this first scene. She questioned my depiction of the slave, Joseph Ruffin. She thought I wrote him with a certain condescension.
I looked again. She was right. I was mortified. I rewrote the scene and in emails to Lorene, tied myself in knots trying to explain myself. Clemency came, eventually. I will never make the mistake again.
The correspondence continued. We wrote to each other about race, writing, religion, families, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin. Lorene is ten years younger than I am, and about twice as wise.
If Sons then Heirs is above all a wise novel. The title is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons…And if sons, then heirs.”
The characters in the novel are the literal descendants of slaves, and they are heirs—if they can manage it—to a number of things: a piece of land, the love that can bind families and retrieve their wayward members, and, finally, to what Lorene would probably call God’s grace—luck that is both earned and granted, and which heals and fortifies us on our journey.
The novel takes place in Philadelphia and rural South Carolina. It is the story of the Needham family, over five generations. The narrative moves back and forth in time, so that all of its characters are present to the end.
Lorene writes terrific dialogue and terrific characters. A stubborn old woman with a large heart. An inmate at Graterford State Prison who trains dogs for the disabled. A strong and loving man named King who must deal carefully with his neighbors in an era of racial violence. A sad and lovely woman named Jewell.
There’s a painful event in the history of the Needham family, and the question is how to live beyond it, how to go on believing that grace is possible, or even right. A clue to the answer comes from a sweet and quirky old man whose first name is Jones. Hating, he says, is as bad as going crazy.
Besides teaching at Penn, Lorene Cary is founder and director of Art Sanctuary in Philadelphia. If Sons Then Heirs is her third novel and fifth book. She’s a wife and mother, and she teaches Sunday school.
Please join me in welcoming her to the Vineyard.
John Hough Jr. grew up on Cape Cod, which is the setting for several of his novels. He was a speech writer for Senator Charles McC.Mathias Jr. of Maryland and assistant to James Reston at the New York Times Washington Bureau.He has been a columnist for the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Falmouth Enterprise. His novels include The Conduct of the Game, The Last Summer, and Seen the Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Gettysburg, which won the W. Y. Boyd Award for excellence in military fiction from the American Library Association in 2010.