Out of Twenty: Ann Weisgarber, Author of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Answers Eight Questions


In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer!

I have been intrigued by the premise of Ann Weisgarber’s novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, since first seeing it on the shelves. I love reading about people who show up in history where we don’t expect them to be. I’m glad that Ann’s similar curiosity led her to exploring Rachel’s story in this novel.

Ann answered eight questions, and here is what she had to say about reading, writing and her character, Rachel, sitting on her shoulder!

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I live in Sugar Land, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston.  This was once sugar cane country and there’s a sugar processing factory a few blocks from my house.  My husband and I live on Oyster Creek, but we’ve never seen the first oyster.  We do see alligators, though, or as we say here, ‘gators.

I’ve been a social worker, but the bulk of my career was spent teaching sociology at a junior college where scholarships were given for rodeo.  Until a few years ago, I never thought about writing a book.  I was a reader, and that was fine with me.  When I was a kid, I lived across the street from a public library.  I remember thinking that I wanted to read every book on every shelf.  That was the power of a ten-year-old child’s imagination!

When I first began to write Rachel DuPree, I didn’t see myself as a writer.  The word seemed too grand.  In my mind’s eye, I composed sentences.  Those sentences eventually became Rachel DuPree.

The story was inspired by a photograph that I saw in a small South Dakota museum.  It was a picture of a woman sitting in front of her homestead.  She was alone and she was African-American.  I knew about black cowboys and about Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American army troops posted throughout the West.  But I didn’t know about black homesteaders or ranchers.  The thing that really hit me, though, was that she was alone.  I could not imagine how she homesteaded in such an isolated place by herself.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her.  She had a story, I felt sure of it.  I started to do a little research on black settlers.  One thing led to another and I began to write.  I did not write, though, with the idea of publication.  I simply wanted to give her a story.  I worked on her story for about four years before I considered the possibility of publication.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

Rituals help make the transition from my everyday world to the imagined world.  I first make a to-do list of everything I need to do that day.  Then I set it aside for a few hours and go to my study where I work.  There, I pull a written resource that I’m using for research and copy a few paragraphs.  It’s a warm-up drill that helps me think about the story.  It also gives me a great sense of satisfaction.  The fingers dance across the keyboard!  It’s a wonderful sound.

When I get stuck during the writing process, I look at pictures of the landscape or I look at a map.  I read the names of rivers and towns.  Sometimes I close my eyes and daydream.  It’s remarkable what can happen when we let our thoughts drift.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

It’s a little eerie, but when I saw the woman in the photograph, I felt her speak to me.  “I existed,” I heard her say.  “I mattered.  I had a story.”

I couldn’t ignore her.  Nor could I ignore the lack of fiction about African-American ranchers or homesteaders.  I found non-fiction books about African-Americans in the West but that didn’t work for me.  I wanted the woman in the photograph to speak, to have emotions, and to wrangle with difficult choices.

During the writing process, I felt her on my shoulder.  I had many moments when I was discouraged and overwhelmed by the blank screen.  But there she was, telling me that I couldn’t give up.  She hadn’t.

The story changed my life.  The woman in the photograph became a role model.  She endured and she held herself upright.  She taught me to put one foot in front of the last.  When I had doubts about my ability to write this story, she told me not to worry about that.  Since publication, I’ve been asked to speak to various groups, something that terrified me.  The woman in the photograph was with me, though, during each talk.  I wasn’t alone; I spoke for her.  She made me a stronger person.

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?

Literature was important in the lives of many people during the turn of the 20th Century, and I wanted Rachel to have books that were popular during her day.  In one chapter, she puts her three youngest daughters to bed and reads Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm.  Her two older children read The Swiss Family Robinson.  In another chapter, she reads Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha to her childrenToward the end of the novel, she hears her husband recite a few of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems.

I chose these titles to push the story forward.  Rapunzel is the story of a woman locked in a tower waiting for rescue.  The Swiss Family Robinson reminds Rachel that people have to make do with what they have.  Hiawatha makes Rachel think of a landscape far different from the Badlands. It is also a poem about Native Americans. Dunbar’s poems are love poems that reflect her relationship with her husband.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

The original title was Looking Over Jordan.  The connection is the spiritual that speaks of a better place and a better time.  The word home is mentioned frequently in the lyrics, and the book is very much a story about the need to make a home.

The book was first published in England and my British editor wasn’t too crazy about Looking over Jordan.  He wanted Rachel’s name in the title.  He and I spent about two months considering various possibilities.  I made a list of suggestions, and he had his list.  The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was always on the top of his.  Oh dear, I thought at the time.  The title was long and history implied non-fiction.  However, my editor obviously liked the title.  I eventually agreed and I’ve come to love it.

It was almost changed when Viking in the U.S. decided to publish the book.  The editor and I settled on the title Rachel’s Claim but at the last minute it was changed to the original title.         

As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?

The biggest surprise has been the opportunity to meet readers.  I had no idea I would actually interact with people who read Rachel DuPree.  I’ve been invited to book discussion groups, and I receive e-mails from readers.  The discussions often go far beyond Rachel DuPree and that’s fun.  It’s a great pleasure to spend time with people who love to read.

I’d like to add that another surprise has been the generosity of readers and writers.  People have helped me in ways I never imagined.  Readers write to me and tell me that they’ve passed their copies of the book on to friends.  They recommend it to other book discussion groups.  Writers have written gracious blurbs and have invited me to speak at different events.  It’s a humbling experience.  I will never forget the many kindnesses extended to me by so many.

Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?

I recently read I, Too, Have Suffered in the Garden by Jennifer Hritz who lives in Austin,Texas.  It’s a remarkable novel told from the perspective of a gay man.  The writing is rich, and the story is strong.  I especially love this book because Jennifer Hritz had the courage to assume a voice different than her own.

What’s next?

A few days ago, I turned in my second novel to my editor in England.  The novel is tentatively titled (we know how that can change) Galveston 1900.  It takes place at the time of the historic Galveston hurricane that killed over 6,000 people.  It is the story of three people who are changed by two pivotal events:  a marriage and a hurricane.

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About: Ann Weisgarber’s debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, was first published in England by Macmillan New Writing and in France by Editions Belfond. It was then published by Viking in the United States. It was nominated for England’s Orange Prize and for England’s Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, it won the Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction, the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction, and is currently shortlisted for the Ohioana Book Award. It was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers book and an Indie Next List Great Read.

For more interviews with Ann and reviews of The Personal History of Rachel Dupree check out her page at TLC Book Tours.

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  1. Nicole, thank you for including Rachel DuPree on your blog. I’m delighted to see it here with all these other wonderful books.

  2. What a great interview, Nicole. Ann, thanks for sharing your insights about how the book came to be. I’m halfway through reading your book right now, and I’m totally captivated. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work in the future.

    Your comments about how the woman in the picture spoke to you really struck a chord with me. “…when I saw the woman in the photograph, I felt her speak to me. ‘I existed,’ I heard her say. ‘I mattered. I had a story.'” A similar experience motivated me to write my novel All Different Kinds of Free, inspired by the true story of a black woman in 1830s America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. When I first learned about Margaret Morgan, I just knew her story needed to be told.

  3. Jessica, I’m intriqued by your novel. I’m book shopping this evening at Barnes & Noble and if your book is sold out and not on the shelf, I’m ordering it. This is just my kind of novel. Congratulations on listening to the voice of a woman who might have been forgotten.

    Nicole, your blog introduced me to Jessica. Thank you!

  4. Jessica, your novel, All Different Kinds of Free, is on its way and should be at the bookstore by this weekend. I’m excited about reading it.

    Many thanks for reading Rachel DuPree and I appreciate your kind remarks. Those of us who love books have to stick together! Nicole, thank you again for making this conversation possible.