Volunteer Andrea interviews Delia Sherman, author of numerous books including, most recently, The Freedom Maze.
Andrea: Your main character, Sophie Martineau, is a young girl whose life is in flux. Did you start the writing process with the idea of sending someone back in time to the Civil War or some other way?
Delia Sherman: This novel started with a dream in which I was sitting on the window-seat of my study at home, looking out the window at a garden and maze that weren’t there in waking life. The image haunted me enough to keep worrying at it, thinking about where it might be and who I might find in it and what they might do there. I’ve spent time in the South (my mother’s family is from Louisiana), so I set it there, and I loved time-travel novels when I was a child, so I put that in. In short, one thing led to another until I had the group of characters and the situation and the setting and a bunch of scenes that eventually came together into The Freedom Maze.
Andrea: What gauge did you use to determine the appropriate tension level for a story about a girl who is considered one race in 1960 and another race in 1860?
Delia Sherman: As you can probably tell from my first answer, I’m not a planning kind of writer. I write, re-write, fiddle, and rearrange until I get something that has the right shape and feels good to me. When it comes to creating suspense and tension, I consult my own tolerances. I don’t like reading about violence, so I don’t often write about it. The scene in which Mrs. Fairchild whips Sophie is about as much as I can stand. I try to scare myself a little, but not too much. As for the question of Sophie’s race, my chief concern was to make clear how her attitude towards race changes when she comes to know a community of African Americans as individual human beings and not as servants. She is forced to realize, not as a huge revelation, but slowly, over time, that “us” and “them” are terms that only have meaning in the context of a social system, and that meaning can change without warning, without appeal, if the conditions are right.
Andrea: You have spent many years researching The Freedom Maze. What would you do differently if you had that research to do all over again?
Delia Sherman: I’d have started ten years later. Yes, really. A lot of the really interesting information I found on slave life and culture wasn’t really available when I began to research. As recently as the mid-nineties, most plantation museums were focused exclusively on Big House culture. Questions like “what did people eat?” and “what did people wear?” prompted lists of fancy, dinner-party dishes, corsets, and hoop-skirts. The standard texts on slavery and slave culture were written by white people, too. That’s changed in the last 15 years, which both made my job easier, in that there was a lot more material out there for me to look at, and harder, as I went back in and changed some things that turned out not to be as true as I thought they were. But everything I learned enriched the book and the world, so I was glad to do it.
The other thing I might have done was to spend even more time in Louisiana than I did. I love Louisiana. I love looking at houses and walking in the cane fields, talking to people and dancing to Cajun music. You can’t get the atmosphere of a place–the smells, the tastes, the way it feels to be there–from photographs or descriptions, no matter how good they are.
Andrea: What unexpected writing process opportunities did you find as Sophie came to life and you continued to develop the various worlds of the plantation where she lives?
Delia Sherman: The Freedom Maze went through a lot of changes over the twenty years I worked on it. The background, story, and characters remained more or less the same, but the pacing, the incidents, and the amount of information on plantation life, changed drastically from draft to draft. I’d say that the most valuable point of the process was when circumstance forced me to put the manuscript in a drawer. I hadn’t given up on the book, but I wasn’t at all sure that I’d be able to sell a children’s book about slavery, or, even if I could, that writing yet another draft of it would improve it. In the next four or five years, I wrote three other books, two of them for younger readers, and numerous short stories. Everything I wrote taught me more about pacing, exposition, about being clear. So when Kelly Link said she’d like to publish it, I was ready to tackle the daunting task of taking The Freedom Maze apart yet again and putting it back together, knowing a lot more about writing than I did the last time around.
Andrea: Your depictions of plantation life are intense and thought-provoking. What was your guiding principle in creating those scenes, and how did you arrive at it?
Delia Sherman: I just wanted it all to seem real. For me as a reader, a really good description isn’t just about what things look like. I like to know what the characters hear and smell and eat and touch, too. Sophie goes from the privileged sanctuary of her mother’s air-conditioned, comfortable home in a suburb, to a hot, damp old house next to a swamp, and from there to a time where bathing was difficult, sanitation primitive, clothing uncomfortable, and work heavy. And that was for the white folks. The slaves had it a whole lot worse. And I wanted the reader to experience that with Sophie.
Andrea: Once your writing was finished, how did you bring this project to the printed page?
Delia Sherman: I didn’t. I’d pretty much given up on it. I’d sold it once, to an editor who believed in it, and bought it back when that editor left the company. After that, my agent sent it to a number of publishers. Some of them said it was old-fashioned, some of them said it was politically problematical, some of them just didn’t like it. So I put it away. A few years later, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, who founded the distinguished independent publisher Small Beer Press, decided to start a children’s imprint called Big Mouth House. Kelly, who is also a member of my writing group (and one of the best short-story writers of our time), remembered having workshopped The Freedom Maze and liking it. She came to me and asked if I might consider letting them publish it. After I finished dancing and whooping and generally carrying on, I said yes. And then I went to Louisiana again and read some more books and wrote three more drafts.
Andrea: Do you have any project in the works that you can tell me about?
Delia Sherman: I’m working on a middle-grade book about a boy who goes to work for an evil wizard in coastal Maine. It’s called The Wizard’s Apprentice, and it’s based on the story of the same name that was published a few years back in the Windling/Datlow anthology Troll’s Eye View.