Critics are loving Rita Williams-Garcia’s latest novel, A Sitting in St. James. “Monumental,” says Booklist. “A marathon masterpiece,” raves Kirkus. “Necessary,” claims School Library Journal.
Williams-Garcia is a three-time National Book Award finalist and Coretta Scott King Award winner for her beloved YA and middle grade novels. Her blistering new historical novel for teens and adults tackles the subject of slavery—an unblinking look at life on a near-bankrupt Louisiana sugar plantation owned by White creoles, on the eve of the Civil War.
Williams-Garcia deftly exposes how oppressive hierarchical systems like patriarchy, heteronormativity, and racism, corrupt the people who benefit from them, even as those same people victimize others. I found A Sitting in St. James to be uncomfortably brutal, utterly empathetic, and entirely human—essential reading for both teens and adults grappling with the long, sordid history of racism in America.
I read that you love to do research. How much did you do for A Sitting in St. James, and how did you know when to stop?
I took a year to do nothing but research before I started writing the story. I basically knew my story lines and divided my research into the most dominant subjects in the story. At first, I saw the novel as Byron and Pearce’s story, so I dove into 19th century West Point Academy research. It helped to have a detailed memoir of Academy life from Black cadet Henry Ossian Flipper. I had visited the campus, and read about other notable West Point graduates of the era. I ploughed into Louisiana history—pre-colonization, ties to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean.
Being an outsider, I studied Louisiana Creole identity, its complexities and evolution. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating!” It continues to fascinate me. I know nothing about painting—let alone techniques of the mid-19th century, so, into that realm I plunged: paints, styles, supplies, and then an overview of portrait painting. I lived inside coffee table books on Louisiana plantation estates to construct “Le Petit Cottage” in my book. Still, nothing took the place of seeing those plantations, so I made visits to see working farms and to get a sense of the lifestyles of both the enslaved and slaveholders. I had a stack of awesome books to rely on to fill in detail. I’d say my bible was Richard Follett’s The Sugar Masters. If my depictions of plantation life seemed brutal, just know that those depictions are mere slivers from the accounts of practices in Follett’s book. Even though my book focuses on the slaveholding Guilberts, I read narratives of enslaved ancestors, curated in government archives to echo the presence of those not heard or seen. I read and perused archived Creole, English, and French newspapers of the period to get a sense of daily living for Louisiana planters. I don’t speak or comprehend Creole or French, but I gained an understanding. A sense of voice. The research list goes on.
How did I know when to stop? When I found myself enjoying the subjects for their own sake! (see Spock.) Fascination would tempt me to stuff findings and scenarios inside an already daunting, fully packed saga. If I didn’t stop myself, my editor and protector of the book, Rosemary Brosnan, would wave red flags. But here’s the cool part of delving into the abyss: Research creates tangibles! I can see where my characters fit in the world I try to create. Dialogue springs from research notes, often scribbled while I dig.
As you researched the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, it must have been emotionally challenging. How did you manage that throughout the process of researching and writing this story?
During this period, I said my morning prayer before I was fully awake and acknowledged and praised my ancestors for all that they endured. I think of the unimaginable sum of my ancestors’ psychological, emotional and physical journey; the stories my grandmother shared that affirms their humanity; I say, ‘I am here. The least I can do is tell it. Write.’ When scenes are hard to write, I step away for self-care. I’m a firm believer in taking care of my mental and emotional well-being. I’m no stranger to difficult storytelling. I lead with this: Respect those who have endured it and those who will read it.
Language plays an important role in your book. The characters speak French, Creole, and English…some speak all three. And then there are those who can read and write and those who cannot. So, language carries with it power, status, and agency. Can you talk about how you use language in the novel?
I couldn’t attempt this story set in Louisiana without hearing and feeling the languages. Language underscores the territory—now state’s, history and diversity. You visit the parishes and you hear that you’re in different country. You hear ties to France, Spain, Africa, the Caribbean, to Native Americans and Acadians. To tell this story, I used language to denote class, social currency. The silent slave Thisbe is endowed with a social currency she is forbidden to use. She must be clever. Remain cloaked in silence. Code switch for whomever she speaks to, and switch with respect to a desired response. By contrast, Rosalie, born of a White slave owner and one of his slaves, learns social mores by reading Jane Austen, shared struggle by reading Victor Hugo, ostracism of the ‘other’ through Mary Shelley. So, here’s a thing I like about Rosalie; she’s a sympathetic character who is capable of cruelty. She knows what she’s doing when she leaves Laurent with an obscure line from Les Miserables. If she is to be denied a better life, she might as well haunt his life for all of his days. As you can see, I like playing with my characters and their words.
As you mentioned, your story features two West Point cadets (Bryon and Pearce) who are secretly in a romantic relationship. Two female characters (one who appears to be on the autism spectrum) develop a strong friendship that seems to border on romantic. These are characters we don’t see often in traditional historical fiction. Can you talk about how they came to be?
Easy! Non-binary people have been with us since the first human footprints on the earth. That’s my basic compass. It frees me from seeing LGBTQ people and people with different abilities as unique or special guests in my work. A daydream told me a few years ago, that I would write about two boys in love or one boy pining for the other. Here they are: Byron and Pearce. Between Jane and Eugenie, I felt strong friendship that dovetails a need between one another. Eugenie doesn’t judge Jane or demand that she conform. They are, to me, the Q, with their own answer.
I had grand plans for my characters, and then they announced themselves. Like many closeted gay men, Byron is compelled to accept his one-day role as master, husband, and father because it’s what’s expected of him. Except for a fling, it doesn’t occur to him that he can have his life. Jane’s character changed from my original vision, when I saw her mounted on that English charger named Virginia Wilder, gunning for the postman. She had a singular focus. A singularity that made sense to me. It occurred to me: Jane only knows her truth. And her Virginia Wilder. (I almost wrote horse.)
What fascinates me about this period is that the norms of expression are different from today’s social norms. We speculate that people were gay from reading correspondence between friends. Men used to hold hands and posed in intimate pictures. Boys wore dresses up to age five. Same sex people shared beds for warmth. Cowboys held dances—cowboys only, no girls—with male and female roles assigned. Female friendships were very strong for many social reasons; their correspondence read like love letters—although some were. Remember, girls danced cheek-to-cheek at parties until the 1960s. Today, we would proclaim every other person from the 19th century and earlier as gay. And then, a lot of people were non-binary.
One of the aspects I love most about your writing is that you manage to be both brutally honest about all your characters, and yet empathetic, even to the worst of them. This is a skill I admire and try to emulate in my work. How and why do you do this?
It’s a balancing act. On one hand, a fictional character has their role to play in advancing the story. On the other hand, each character—whether primary or secondary—is capable of a range of thoughts and actions, given their own life story. I try to understand a little more about my characters. Things that will never hit the page. I don’t just mean backstory—although that’s a part of it. I mean, I get them. More importantly, I don’t judge them. That doesn’t always save them from their roles, themselves or from their fate, but it allows me to add a layer of understanding to their character.
This novel feels very adult in its subject matter, language, and literary style. How important was it to you that it be geared toward the YA audience?
A Sitting in St. James might be the first detailed account of plantation life and slavery that a young person encounters. I want that reader to get as full an account as I can paint. Although the book swirls around Madame Guilbert’s hold on the plantation, it’s the younger people who are greatly affected. There seems to be an inherent injustice about that scenario that young people know firsthand. My novel provides an opportunity to talk about duty, tradition and privilege—things that young people of the era were expected to uphold and maintain. Think about life from Byron’s and Eugenie’s point of view. They are expected to forgo their personal wants and fears (a true but forbidden love and a morbid fear of childbirth) and assume their familial roles “because it is done.” This is the same logic Madame uses to justify a portrait sitting the family can’t afford. “Because it is done.” As for the other manipulative adult, slave owner Master Lucien might very well love Rosalie, his daughter/property, but she is first and foremost valuable to him as a bride to another plantation master’s son. Does Rosalie have a choice about her prospective husband? So, while the elders pull the strings, the story is very much about the consequences to and inheritance of young people.
I hate to pull out the ‘back in my day’ card, but I feel it sliding out of my hip pocket. Back in my day I read Ethan Frome, The Invisible Man, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, plays by Lilian Hellman, Eugene O’Neill, and Oscar Wild in high school. YA literature? Books about contemporary teens involved in their own lives? What was that? (OK. Yeah, Catcher in the Rye, Go Ask Alice, Rumble Fish.) Still, we read about adults.
In honor of our blog’s name, were there any Dead Darlings you loved that you had to cut from this new novel?
One of the inspirations for the story was a dream I had of a woman running to evade capture. She throws her baby into the ocean. I often hear music when I dream. I woke up out of that dream still hearing the joyful sound of African drumming and singing in my mind. That woman would have been Hannah in the story. I wrote the scene but cut it. The dream and scene had already served its purpose.
What are you working on next?
At last! I’m going back to a gaming novel I wrote ten years ago. It needed revision to make it readable. Many trees in the forest axed. Darlings by the dozens, killed off. I’m working on the sequel. Right now, I’m on a long trek with my characters. The path keeps shifting. (Hah-hah!) Literally.
Rita Williams-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of novels for young adults and middle grade readers. She’s won numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award Finalist, Newbery Honor Book, Junior Library Guild, and the Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction. She served on faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children MFA Program and resides in Queens, New York.