When I first heard the premise behind Dolen Perkins-Valdez's novel Wench, I couldn't believe it - a resort where slaveowners would retreat with the slave women they owned - how could this be true? So I was so pleased when Perkins-Valdez agreed to write a guest post explaining her novel's real-life inspiration and its fictional evolution. USA Today said "Like The Help, Wench immerses readers in its characters' complex emotional lives" and the novel has been praised in O, Essence and People magazine. Be sure to visit Perkins-Valdez's site for more information and to catch her on tour near you and follow her on Twitter. Read on for the fascinating story behind Wench.
Recently, someone came to dinner at my house and after viewing the wall of bookshelves in my living room, asked me: "Have you read ALL of these books?" I was tickled by this question because when I was growing up, my parents lined the wall of my bedroom with bookshelves. And my friends would ask me that very same question. I think I've been asked that question my entire life.
I came to writing as a reader, as a lover of the written word. Many writers come to storytelling as readers. My story is no different from theirs, I suppose. I believe in the power of narrative to help us make sense of our existence. I believe that narrative is as integral to saving our lives as modern medicine. Whether the writing be poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, serious or funny, it is crucial to our understanding of ourselves as human beings. It is this belief that keeps me writing, even without the prospect of publication. My desire has always been to leave behind a record of my existence in written form, even if that were an unpublished manuscript that no one ever read.
When I wrote Wench, I tried my best to write a novel that I would want to read as a reader. I have a reading chair at home, and with a good book and a stretch of time, I can disappear into that chair. That's what I hope my book does for readers.
Some writers begin their stories with a character. Others begin with a fantastic line. I began Wench when I stumbled upon a fascinating footnote of history. While reading a biography of W.E.B. DuBois, I learned that during the 1850s, there was a summer resort near Xenia, Ohio notorious for its popularity among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I was stunned to learn this little-known historical fact. I decided to do a bit of historical excavation and learn more. At the time, it was very popular among the country's elite to visit natural springs. This particular resort opened in 1852, and became popular among southern slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I knew that Ohio was a free state and many of the northerners were abolitionists. Yet I was fascinated to learn that because they did not enjoy vacationing with the southerners and their slave entourages, they stopped coming and business declined. The place closed in 1855.
Most slaves did not leave written historical records. Yet I found myself entering an imaginative territory that would prove to be much more fertile than documents. I began by asking myself the following questions: If the women entered free territory, why wouldn't they attempt to escape? Is it possible that they actually loved the men? As I made my way through draft after draft, I discovered that these were not questions easily answered. Even the answers I thought I would find turned out to be much more complicated than I'd imagined. The attachments these women had to their masters had many layers. As I approached the end of the novel, I myself did not know how my main character Lizzie would end it all. The journey of writing the book was probably as emotional for me as it has been for the readers who have e-mailed me about their captivating reading experiences of it.
One question many people have about Wench is whether or not my character Lizzie was in love with her master Drayle. I don't know the answer to this question. I believe that love in the context of slavery is very, very difficult to draw a box around. Not only is it complicated in matters between slaves and their masters, but also between slaves and other slaves. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote, "O love is the crooked thing. There is nobody wise enough To find out all that is in it." If this is true in contexts outside of enslavement, surely it is even more so in the context of the "peculiar institution."