Margaret Wrinkle, interviewed by Noreen Tomassi
The award-winning novelist on finding her story, writing through terror, and seeing her book into the world
Margaret Wrinkle was awarded the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize on December 11 for her stunning debut, Wash. Here, she talks about growing up in the segregated South, seeking out the truth of her ancestors, writing through her fears and doubts, learning about African wisdom, and bringing her novel to completion.
I’ve read elsewhere that you began this story thinking that you were going to write a work of nonfiction about a rumor concerning a member of your family.
Yes, I knew I had slaveholding ancestors, and I was trying to explore that legacy in a memoir about growing up in Birmingham—being born in Birmingham in 1963 and having slaveholding ancestors and Civil War hero ancestors. But when I went back before my birth, the life kept going out of the memoir. And the paper trail was so problematic, especially on the topic of slave breeding, but also on slavery in general. Birmingham Public Library has an amazing thing called the Southern Collection, which contains books that everybody else has thrown out, including slave management manuals from the early 1800s. Sifting through that material, I realized that the interpretation of slavery would shift with the bias of the writer and the bias of the time. I found I couldn’t rely on those sources.
I did get an interesting insight from some primary sources—the letters, journals, and daybooks kept by slaveholders, for example. These men wrote very emotional letters and I was surprised that they were so open about their affection for each other. But they didn’t talk at all about how they felt about what they were doing. There were letters that referred obliquely to arrangements having been made at the prices discussed, so that I had the sense that they knew, or at least they hoped, they’d be famous enough that their papers would be read. There was a feeling that they were writing for posterity and a self-censorship was going on that I found very frustrating.
So, instead, some of my most valuable research involved going to places where enslaved people lived, both places that are open as museums, but also places I would find out about by word of mouth—say, an abandoned slave quarter in the back of someone’s pasture. I spent time walking the land in places where slavery was lived. I also spent a lot of time at the plantation museums looking for the cemeteries of enslaved people. And I took photographs as I went to these slavery-related sites all over the South. I had been a photographer and I thought as I was taking them that these photos were just visual notes, but when I got home and tacked them up on the wall, they began giving rise to scenes and themes. There was a photograph of a pastry cutter that led to the scene in Wash where an enslaved woman uses it to kill the husband and wife who own her and is then executed.
It was the way the light fell on the cutter in the photograph that made it look ominous. That’s when I realized that it could be used as a weapon. Reading court transcripts I learned that if an enslaved person was executed by the state, the state had to reimburse the owner for the worth of that person. I hadn’t known that.
At this point, when you had these photographs and knew you couldn’t write this as a work of nonfiction or a memoir, you decided to write it as a novel. Had you written a lot of fiction before?
Nothing. I had never written even a short story and I still don’t understand how I did this. I had been in an Amherst Artists and Writers Method Writing Group for maybe a month, working on the nonfiction piece, when for the first time I wrote in another person’s voice, just as an exercise.
A couple of weeks after that, I found a snippet of an interview when they’d asked a survivor of slavery about breeding and the survivor said, “Yes, there was this man. His name was Joe. He was tall. He got the extra bacon. He got to sit in the shade of the willow, and he was sent away to a distant place where nine months later all these children were born.” I began thinking about that man as he was about to be sent away and that’s when Wash’s voice emerged, and so I wrote the first four pages. In the voice that emerged, Wash was so psychologically sophisticated and clear in navigating this very complicated situation that I had to find out more about his life, about how he became this person. Before that, I’d been centering the story around Richardson, because he’s the one I had the right to write about. And then along came Wash.
Why do you say Richardson, the slave owner, was the one you had “the right” to write about?
Well, he is inspired by a slaveholding ancestor of mine.
So you began with some trepidation about writing it from the point of view of the slave?
[Laughter] Some trepidation is a good way to put it. Terror.
Yes, terror would be more accurate. Yes, a white descendent of slaveholders writing about slave breeding in the voice of an enslaved black man is as politically incorrect as you can get, I guess. So I just decided not to show it to anyone. I didn’t show it to anyone outside of the six people in my writing group for a long time.
How many years were you in a writing group?
Five years, seven years, maybe. In and out.
While you were doing that, did you have any formal training? You didn’t get an MFA…
I knew I couldn’t workshop this book. I desperately wanted to get an MFA. I thought that it would be much simpler not to be so isolated, but I knew that if I workshopped this book, it would be controversial and I would end up writing defensively in response to the feedback. I grew up around people like this and I knew this dynamic, and also knew I had to trust myself. I didn’t want to get distracted. I did workshop one part of it in a group in the Bay Area and, of course, they said, “I just don’t like the way Richardson talks about the black people.” It would have been a lot easier, though, to get an MFA, in terms of community and mentoring and all of that. I did take a weeklong workshop with Pinckney Benedict, whose response to the book was encouraging. At the time I was just sort of floundering, hopeless and lost. He resonated with it and, bless his heart, read the whole 700 pages and believed in it. I also took a one-week thing with A. J. Verdelle in Provincetown and that was really helpful. I had taken a class with Dennis Covington back in Alabama, and then I went to Tin House, and worked with Ann Cummins. So I did maybe four short workshops altogether.
Did you sit down and first create the structure or outline, or develop a list of characters?
That’s really funny. No. No, at first I thought I was writing a novella. Ninety pages. One day. Morning, noon, and night. And then it just grew and grew and I didn’t know—I just had these three voices and I felt like they were all together somewhere and that they had all heard each other, but they hadn’t been heard by anyone outside of their shared reality, and it was sort of a haunting. I just tried to get it all down, and thought, “Well I’ll figure it out later.” So sometimes Wash would be talking about something when he was seven. Sometimes he would be older. Sometimes he wouldn’t be born yet. Sometimes it sounded like he was already dead. I did see an interview with Michael Ondaatje where he talked about how he just wrote not knowing what was happening and the interviewer said, “Well, how long do you do that?” And he said, “Oh, two or three years.” [Laughter] So I thought, “Okay.” I felt if I looked right at it, it would vanish. So I just wrote. And then I had 700 pages and had to figure out how it went together.
You wrote as these pieces came to you and then you had the 700 pages—and then what?
I got a friend to help me and I wrote scenes on poster boards and tried to see a landscape the story would move through. I saw that Wash finishes saying something and that Richardson comes in and eventually, after a long time, it was as if they could hear each other. That made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. And then I read Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola and I learned more about African literature and African thought. By that time, I had the sense of three very potent voices and I was a bit spooked by the whole thing. I knew a little bit about the work of a man named Malidoma Somé who is from the Dagara tribe from Burkina Faso. He lives in the States because his elders told him that his mission in life is to live in the West and explain the ways of the West to the Dagara so they could survive. But as it turns out, he spends his time explaining the ways of the Dagara to the West so we can survive. Anyway, he happened to be living near Oakland so I went to him for help.
What kind of help?
He talked to me about the energetic architecture of West African reality and the philosophical paradigm and worldview, and how everything is connected and how everything is animate and everything that’s ever happened is here all the time, which is very different from the modern Western way of seeing things. And the more I researched African literature and philosophy, the more I recognized that the South I grew up in is truly half African.
What do you mean by that?
I think that in so many places, in so many states in the South, there was a very high percentage of Africans relative to other places in the country. We’re told the story that they were enslaved, they were brought here, they were stripped of their culture, they were stripped of everything--as if in a situation like Mena’s, who was kidnapped as a teenager, you aren’t old enough to know what you know. And that’s knowledge that no one can take out of you. Our typical view reduces or leaves out so much of what happened during slavery.
When people say, “How did you come to write this book?” I feel like this story has been coming for me all along, from the time I was born in Birmingham in the summer of ‘63 right after King’s campaign, right before the bombing that September…right after Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi.
Like a lot of white children of that era, a lot of my earliest and strongest bonds were with the black people who were being paid to take care of me. So I grew up carrying divided loyalties and hated it and determined to leave the South as soon as I could, and I did. I think a lot of white Southerners with slaveholding ancestors either lionize them or demonize them. Others just try to move away and forget all about them. I did the third thing. I didn’t realize that it was not that tenable—to live without your story. I was living in California when Ms. Washington, who had cared for me as a child, started to have health problems. When I went home to visit, I started going to her house on the other side of town, and everything shifted. Once we were in her home and on more equal footing, she began to tell me more about her life and about her family. When she died suddenly while I was still living in California, it just laid me out and I realized I hadn’t dealt with anything. So I moved back home and began to collect oral histories of women who were doing domestic work. I ended up spending nearly ten years back in Birmingham as an adult. I spent a lot of time with Mrs. Washington’s family and they told me their stories in a way that taught me to hear them. One of those stories is in the book. A great-aunt lived to be 102 and told about getting on the block and picking out a white man who seemed reasonable and flirting with him to get him to buy her. That became a key scene in the novel.
From the time you knew you were going to write this as a longer novel through to when you had the first 700 pages, how many years was that?
It’s so long that it’s embarrassing. I mean, a decade is conservative. I had all this material and I knew I had this incredible story but I couldn’t figure out how it all went together, and there were years of butcher paper on the wall trying to take it apart and put it back together. Years that were very challenging. And then I got a freelance editor. It was very helpful not to be alone in it. Of course, someone else’s solutions are never your solutions.
Sometimes, though, their suggested solution leads to yours. When you rebel against it, you say, “It’s not that; it’s this.” You realize what it needs to be. So then years went by and I worked with another freelance editor named Beverly Swerling who was really helpful and helped me get an agent. I was so excited to get an agent. Then I got this long editorial letter from the agent saying, “I love it. I love it. I love it. But you have to redo the whole thing.”
And is that person still your agent?
Yes, Marly Rusoff.
Right. So what happened then? Now that you had an agent that you trusted? Did you spend a lot of time in the revision process just with your agent?
I did. And I went back to Beverly and I shut myself away and I cut 200 pages, so much that I felt like blood ran on the floor. It was bad. Marly wasn’t as involved in that revision at first, but her involvement was critical simply because she was holding the light for me. I couldn’t have done that without her belief in the story. She resonated with it, she wasn’t afraid of it. A lot of people had been afraid of the story. So just having that light to go toward was huge. And her responses to that revision led me to clarify the ancestral elements even more. I've been lucky to find such great editors.
How did it arrive at Grove Atlantic?
Wash was a really hard book for Marly to sell. The more corporate houses were concerned about potential controversy, but Elisabeth Schmitz and Morgan Entrekin are fearless. Elisabeth had been on my radar for years and she had also heard about the book from another friend she trusted. But she did grill me for a good long time to make sure I could deal with whatever might come. We weren’t sure at all how it was going to be received.
So I’m trying understand the timeline. You started this, you did a lot of research, then you wrote the 700 pages, and that whole process took you eight or nine years…
No, the bulk of the writing took me three or four years. But then it was figuring out how to structure it and finding the right home for it and, I think, also, growing up enough to understand the story. There were definitely new pieces of writing and bridges and transitions and threads over all those ensuing years, but I would say I had a lot of the material pretty early in the process and then spent years wrestling with it and then some years working with good editors. I think the biggest thing that had to be figured out was the relationship between the third-person and the first-person.
Did you have an aha moment or was it something you just had to tough out and wrestle to the ground?
Sometimes I think my intuition is better than my analytical mind, but it often takes me awhile to trust it, to learn to follow it. And I think the biggest struggle for me was that the modern western novel is linear—rising action, climax, falling action. At one point, everyone was pressuring me to give the novel more narrative momentum, but it’s a very psychological and interior story. It’s nonlinear. So I gradually started to realize that the first-person parts were the ones that could convey that reality and the third-person parts could be the linear parts, and that using both would be the way to integrate two different ways of being.
Did you imagine a reader? I’m curious because from what you’ve said it sounds to me like you were writing it for the people in the book, not for an outside reader.
Well, yes and no. I was kind of writing it for me. I wanted a book that had the whole story, though I don’t want to sound arrogant and think that I got the whole story at all. Because you never do. As James Baldwin wrote, “You never get the book that’s in your mind.” The book you get is always smaller, less rich, than the book you imagined. So that definitely happened, but I think growing up in a segregated place made me really want to bring things that have been kept separate together. I didn’t think of a reader because whenever I think of a reader I freeze up. It shuts me down. I felt like this was just something that I needed to do. The whole topic of race in the South is so complicated. We did a documentary about race [broken|ground] and I remember how rewarding it was to not have to get into a long explanation of how I felt about race in my hometown, but instead just to give somebody a copy of the documentary. It was a way of saying, “Here’s what I think about that complicated topic.” And I still feel a little bit like that. And Wash is also a way of answering a similarly large topic.
It sometimes seems that we’re never going to be done writing about slavery, and so I wonder how—even as you were writing this, how you placed yourself in the telling of this story. Did you read many of the other American novels on the topic?
Well, I was steeped in Faulkner. I think I’ve read The Sound and the Fury at least four times. And I read Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and John Edgar Wideman, among others. African writers had a huge influence – Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka’s Death of the King’s Horseman and Tutuola and Gordimer, and people like Credo Mutwa, who is a traditional healer in South Africa. And Ben Okri, obviously, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead. Another hugely important book was The Bone People by Keri Hulme. She brings the Maori and non-Maori realities together, and that book gets better every time I read it.
When I was a child, we didn’t have a television and that was a really good thing for me. I had all these books that I read multiple times. I remember reading Nadine Gordimer as a child and resonating with it even though it took place on the other side of the world. Birmingham was called the Johannesburg of the South, you know. Caryl Phillips was another writer who influenced me. His book Crossing the River helped me a lot. Another huge influence on me was August Wilson. I was at Yale when his first play premiered.
You also went to South Africa?
Yes, I went to South Africa and traveled around for a month going to the amnesty hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Did you do that as a filmmaker?
No, after we did our film about race in Birmingham, I was in despair because I felt like there were so many stories that hadn’t been shared across racial lines. Around that time I heard a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission speak in Birmingham. I found a way to get myself to South Africa and traveled around to several hearings. The experience of hearing all those different voices, those different truths, those competing truths, being spoken in one space was hugely important to me. And it was right after I returned from South Africa that I stumbled on the rumor about my slave-owning ancestors and slave breeding.
So once you got to the publisher, were you involved in the whole process of thinking about what the book would physically look like and how it might be marketed? And did your experience in the South and in South Africa have an effect on those decisions?
Very much. Grove was fantastic because I know so many writers who are not allowed into that process to the extent that they would like to be, but I knew that with such volatile subject matter, a misstep would be a bad thing. The cover was a big issue and a process. I didn’t initially want a figure on the cover. When you have a figure on the cover of a novel you don’t want to show his face so the reader can imagine the person, but there’s this hugely problematic tradition of the silhouette in black portraiture and so it was very difficult to find the right way to address that. Grove did a terrific job with that. In fact, they have been terrific in every way.
Born and raised in Birmingham Alabama, Margaret Wrinkle is the author of the novel Wash, which reexamines American slavery in ways that challenge contemporary assumptions about race, power, history and healing. Published by Grove/Atlantic, Wash is a New York Times Editors’ Choice, an O, The Oprah Magazine top ten books to pick up now and a People magazine 4-star pick. It won the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was nominated for the Crook’s Corner Prize for Debut Southern novel. Wrinkle has earned a BA and an MA in English from Yale University and has also studied traditional West African spiritual practices with Malidoma Somé. Wrinkle is the 2013 recipient of Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail of Mobile Griot Award for outstanding contribution as storyteller of diverse cultural heritage. Her award-winning documentary broken\ground, made with Chris Lawson about the racial divide in her historically conflicted hometown, was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and was a winner of the Council on Foundations Film Festival. She has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and lives in rural New Mexico.
Noreen Tomassi is the Executive Director of the Center for Fiction.