Luan Gaines interviewed author David Fuller about his debut novel, Sweetsmoke, and murder mystery as a
fictional means to explore history.
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for Sweetsmoke?
David Fuller: First, let me thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview.
As a young man, I worked for an African American production company owned by a Chicago celebrity, Jim Tilmon. Jim Tilmon is a Renaissance Man; he was the third African American Senior Pilot for American Airlines, 1st chair clarinetist for the Lake Forest Symphony Orchestra, host of the television program ďOur PeopleĒ for PBS and ďTilmon TempoĒ for NBC. When I joined his production company, I did illustrations for a multi-media presentation entitled ďWe Are Black.Ē From that experience, I learned a great deal about African American history, including the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. When I became a writer, this background knowledge led me to often include African American characters in my stories. I think Cassius had been lurking for a while.
From the beginning of Sweetsmoke, there is a pervasive atmosphere of threat, suspicion and envy, Cassius, a carpenter, keeping to himself rather than share his business with others. Why do the other slaves resent Cassius? Please explain this dynamic in the novel. There is a connection between Hoke Howard and his slave, Cassius. What is the significance of this relationship? How is Cassius altered by the particular interest of his master?
From the moment of Cassiusís birth, he had a relationship with Hoke Howard, his master. Hoke named him, and found him warm and engaging as Cassius was growing up. Hoke favored him and aimed him at carpentry. The slaves resented him for this special relationship he had with the master, as he didnít need to protect himself in the same way, or at least they didnít think he did. The significance of the relationship plays out in loyalty. Cassius was favored and gave Hoke his loyalty. As a human being, Cassius expected loyalty in return, and was surprised when he did not receive it at a critical moment in his life.
What does Emoline teach Cassius about survival during his recovery? About knowledge?
Emoline teaches Cassius many things, one of the most important being that she teaches him to read. Once he is recovered from his whipping, having this secret ability is one of the things that helps to reinforce his caution. She does not tell him that she is a spy for the North, but his cautious behavior parallels her cautious behavior during that time. It is that caution that assists his survival, particularly when he decides to go after Emolineís murderer.
It is hard to imagine Cassius before the death of his wife, Marriah, and the loss of his son. How profound is this trauma for Cassius and what does it portend for his future?
In the answer to your second question, I have tried to describe Cassius as a young man. The trauma, combined with his new ability to read, gives him a greater grasp on how to navigate the world around him and protect himself. But once he starts on the road to knowledge, driven by his need to know who murdered Emoline, he is unable to stop. Knowledge is the way to freedom. Therefore, this trauma is profound indeed.
Is Emoline a spy for the Union or simply a part of the Underground Railroad? When considering who might have killed Emoline, does Cassius believe her secret activities have led to her death or that the culprit is someone closer?
Emoline is not part of the Underground Railroad, she is only a spy for the Union. And while Cassius may, deep in his heart, wish to blame his master Hoke for her death, he actually knows better, and the evidence leads him to believe she was murdered because she was a spy.
How does the Underground Railroad operate? What is its genesis of the Railroad? Its purpose?
The Underground Railroad is neither underground nor necessarily a railroad, although trains were sometimes used. One story I heard was that in the early 1830s, a slave named Tice Davids ran from his Kentucky master, who watched him cross the river into Ohio, reach the other side, and seemingly vanish. The master declared that Davids must have taken some underground road. This story was apparently repeated often, while being altered in the retelling to railroad, and it became an accepted term. Itís a fine story, but I donít know if itís true.
The purpose of the Underground Railroad was to sneak slaves away from their masters and plantations and transport them safely to the North, and after the Fugitive Slave Act, to Canada.
Hoke Howard embraces common beliefs about slaves, stating, ďWe are, after all, benevolentÖ our people are well served.Ē How does this statement describe Hokeís perspective of the system that supports his way of life?
By seeing slaves as something less than human and therefore weak of mind and unable to fend for themselves, planters like Hoke were able to justify their lives and actions and perceive themselves as benevolent, generous parents. There is an element of noblesse oblige in his attitude. Hoke was born into his position, just as Cassius was born into his. Hoke had been fed the beliefs of his day, and had no reason to question them. And, from a human perspective, why would he question them? These beliefs had been the foundation of a great plantation from which he enjoyed great benefits.
In what way does the Civil War threaten the very foundation of Southern economy?
The Southern economy was based on the free labor of slavery. It was not all that expensive to house and feed slaves, not compared to the benefits their labor delivered to the planters. To the Southern planter, if the Union was successful in winning the war and ending slavery, it would end their way of life.
When Sweetsmoke begins, the Civil War is in its second year, victory by the Union forces far in the future. In 1862, could Virginia slaves even imagine that an end to slavery might be on the horizon? Conditioned as they are to plantation life and ownership by white masters, what would freedom look like to these slaves?
Let me say that I am not a historian. I did extensive research, but it was to a specific end, which was to tell this particular story. I am a storyteller. What you will find in the novel Sweetsmoke is that every slave sees their situation from their own individual perspective. Some slaves could indeed imagine the end of slavery. Some could not, and Cassius would be one of those who could not. Some slaves thought that things would be worse if the Union won and worked for the Confederacy, imagining their efforts on behalf of their masters would bring better conditions for them.
Given the immediate interest of the other men when Quashee comes to Sweetsmoke, what might be her fate if Cassius could not arrange for her safety as a house slave?
Quashee was likely to be sold, and she knew it. She was too small to be an effective field hand, and would fetch a better price if she were to be sold as a house slave. At the time, border states were more likely to sell slaves to the Deep South.
Quashee bluntly declares to Cassius, ďDonít love nothing in this life. You only give them power over your mind as well as your body.Ē How does this statement describe the narrow margins and expectations of a slaveís life?
The master owns you and your work. The only thing the master canít control is how a slave thinks. Slaves had to be smart in order to avoid punishment, being sold or even being killed. Quashee and Cassius understand that the single most vulnerable part of life is to love. They fear exposing their vulnerability, as it is just one more thing the planters can use against you. They have the power to sell your husband or wife, your children, your parents, your friends. Anger them in some way, even if it is not your fault, even if the anger simply comes from the masterís mood or whimsy and you happen to be in the way, and your loss can be devastating.
After leaving the battlefield, Cassius adds a line to Jacob Howardís letter to his mother at Sweetsmoke Plantation. Without giving away the plot, how critical is this addition to the success of Cassiusís plans?
There might be other ways for him to accomplish the same goal. He could write a letter himself, sign it with a colonelís signature, and no one back at Sweetsmoke would be the wiser. It might not be as effective, but it could be something to try (will you look at that - Iím still writing Cassiusís story). However, at that moment, Cassius is working things out on his feet, figuring out his plan as he goes, and I think he takes full advantage of the opportunity that presents itself. This piece of information written at the bottom of Jacobís letter to Jacobís mother allows Cassius considerable freedom of movement, and allows him to carry out his plan.
Besides Cassiusís personal story, the novel centers around a mystery, Emolineís murder the catalyst for Cassiusís subsequent actions. How does this format allow you, as a novelist, to define other characters and their motivations?
The murder mystery was a plot device I utilized to explore the world of historical fiction. I was not interested in writing a detective story, but by using the rough outlines of how mysteries are solved, I could put Cassius into new situations and environments. He could leave the plantation, which put him in danger as a runaway. He could come across Confederate soldiers, Union soldiers, abolitionists and slave traders. He could stand in the middle of the single bloodiest day in American history, at Antietam. By having him search for the truth about Emolineís murder, peopleís foibles would be revealed as he tested and prodded them.
As shown in one manís personal journey, Sweetsmoke is one of the few novels I have read where there is real context to the devastating institution of slavery; in fact, Cassius is the heart of this novel, his quest to locate Emolineís killer, his perceptions, disappointments and challenges, both physical and emotional. As the focus of Sweetsmoke, how does Cassius dictate the tenor of the novel?
I have never been comfortable with or particularly good at writing victims as main characters. I knew that Cassius was not a victim by personality, which makes for a wonderful dynamic when you put such a man in a situation in which he is absolutely oppressed. His inner strength, going up against this incredible power, fueled the story. I hope that the reader likes him as much as I did while writing him, and that they can identify with his personality and go with him on his journey.
What did you find most rewarding in writing Sweetsmoke? Most difficult?
Cassius as a character was the most rewarding, although being able to put a human face on the planters as well as the slaves was also rewarding. I wanted to show that the slaves were just as human, decent, venal, kind, and back-stabbing as the whites. We are all human beings, and human beings are not necessarily nice and decent and sweet just because they are oppressed. They are not necessarily tyrannical and ignorant and vicious just because they are oppressors. For the book to work, there had to be an examination of everyoneís humanity.
The most difficult element was integrating the research. I had to find ways to make it appear that I was not showing off how much I had learned. I wanted the world to be felt around the characters as a natural place in which they existed.
You spent eight years writing Sweetsmoke. What is the significance of this work for you creatively? How did your screenwriting experience influence your approach to the novel?
I actually did not spend eight years writing Sweetsmoke. I spent eight years researching the novel. I wrote the book in just under a year, while continuing to do research along the way. It is a story I knew had to be told in prose. I did not see it as a movie, although there are those who are interested in making it a movie.
I think that, because the movies are so often so terrible these days, that screenwriting is an undervalued skill. There are many reasons the movies are bad, most of them having nothing to do with the writer. Screenwriting is difficult to do well, as you must be swift in your characterizations and story-telling. Movies are two hours long and require a specific kind of short hand. You learn to set up obstacles, both in plot and in character, and carrying these skills over to prose writing I think is a good thing. In prose, you have the ability to step into a characterís mind, and understand what he or she is thinking. This is a great luxury. You have a chance to take the time to describe the world around the characters, another great luxury, as scripts are bare bones. You donít take time to describe much of anything in a screenplay; that gets left to the director and the director of photography.
Are you currently working on another novel? If so, can you share something about it with us?
I am working on a new novel. But I have not even told my agent, much less my editor, what it concerns. Iím afraid Iíll have to keep it to myself for the time being.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Simply, you must write. There is no other way. It takes time and sweat, but you learn by doing, by letting other writers read your stuff and react, by going back and rewriting and rewriting some more. Try to be specific in your writing, about the things you write about, about the people you describe. Sometimes a simple, specific thing that a character does will instantly define that person so completely, that you will not need to do anything more. It is often a long apprenticeship, and a writer will go through many false starts before he or she learns to be brief and to the point. One day I hope to reach that goal. Mark Twain once said, ďIf I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.Ē
You must be an observer of life. This can be difficult because you will encounter more rejection as a writer than acceptance. That rejection will make you want to toughen your skin. But to let the world in, to be a good writer, you need a thin skin, or at least some kind of permeable membrane. The key is to toughen your skin later, when you need to be a salesman, or when you are graciously accepting criticism.
Thank you for allowing me the chance to answer your excellent, thoughtful questions, Luan. I enjoyed them, and I wish you great success with your own writing in the future.
David Fuller has been a screenwriter
for twenty-five years. He spent eight years researching Sweetsmoke, his
first novel, and along the way discovered that he had ancestors who
fought on both sides of the Civil War. Fuller lives in Los Angeles with
his wife and twin sons.
Luan Gaines is a contributing
editor of curledup.com.
Her interview with David Fuller was written in conjunction with her review of Sweetsmoke. © Luan Gaines/2008.