Today we’re pleased to welcome author A.B. (Anne Bryan) Westrick to the Mixed-Up Files. Her debut historical middle grade novel, Brotherhood, takes place in 1867 in Richmond, Virginia during the period of Reconstruction. By day, 14-year old Shadrach apprentices with a tailor and sneaks off for reading lessons with Rachel, a freed slave. By night he follows his older brother to the meetings of a brotherhood that supports Confederate widows and grieving families like his. As the true murderous mission of the brotherhood — now known as the Ku Klux Klan — emerges, Shad is trapped between his pledge to them and what he knows is right.
Q: Welcome, A.B.! You first began thinking about the idea for Brotherhood during long walks in Richmond, Virginia, where you live. I love to walk, too! What did you think about and see during your walks, and how did this help shape your novel?
A: I was especially struck by sounds, by sunlight and shadows, and by the views. Richmond is a hilly city, and from some places (like Libby Hill Park), you can see for miles. In one spot, I smelled honeysuckle, and in another, I studied the restored cobblestone streets. One day I heard the chime of church bells, and they led me to imagine the sounds of horses’ hoofs and carriages clattering by. Some of Richmond’s houses were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and those streets are now historic districts. I lingered in them, taking in the architecture, the alleyways, the slant of the roads and the fragrance of the boxwood bushes. I wondered what it might have felt like to have lived there 150 years ago. Many details from my walks ended up in the book.
A: I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. I love a good story, and set out to write the most compelling story that I could. The history was the setting…the milieu…the time period, not the point of the story.
When I started Brotherhood, I was trying to write about a boy who felt stuck in circumstances beyond his control because that had been my father’s experience as a boy. While growing up in Alabama in the 1930s, he’d seen some things that disturbed him and caused him to vow not to raise his children there. But he wouldn’t talk about it! So I tried to imagine what he, as a young boy, might have seen, and those imaginations took me to the Klan. In 1989, I moved to Richmond, and was struck by the sheer abundance of Civil War museums and monuments. I picked up on lingering resentments directed toward Yankees, and when I asked people about them, their answers went straight to the period of Reconstruction and the way Northerners treated Southerners after “the war of Northern aggression.” So I decided to set the novel then and have my white characters reflect Southern resentments: defeat, grief, anger, etc. So in answer to the question, I guess I’d say that historical fiction found me, and not the other way around.
Q: How could this novel be utilized in a middle school curriculum?
A: Teachers and librarians have made me aware that Brotherhood syncs closely with Virginia’s Standards of Learning, but when I was writing it, I had no idea that would be the case. Reconstruction can be a tough unit to teach because kids have to memorize constitutional amendments that were ratified during that time. It’s a lot of heady, political stuff. Instead of a nonfiction approach to the period, my book helps students imagine what it might have felt like to live in Virginia in 1867. Social Studies teachers are now telling me that if they can get kids to read Brotherhood in their Language Arts classes while they’re learning about Reconstruction in History class, it’ll be a win-win for everybody. Puffin Books has moved up the paperback release date from the fall of 2014 to June 2014, as many librarians have requested the book for summer reading.
Q: I’m sure you did a ton of research for this novel. Tell us about your research process. Were you well-versed in this time period or did you start from scratch?
A: I knew little about Reconstruction when I started writing, so I read a lot of books and websites, and spent hours in library archives, pouring over newspapers from the period. I also visited every Civil War museum in the Richmond area. What I didn’t have to research, and what came naturally to me, were Southern speech patterns and sensibilities. Although I grew up in the North, both of my parents, all of my ancestors, and most of my cousins are Southern, and from them I absorbed a certain cadence of speech and an appreciation for Southern foods. These subtleties helped me craft the characters.
Q: Was it a challenge to write in the voice of a 14-year old boy who lives in 1867?
A: I’m still trying to figure out why this is, but I have more trouble writing in a girl’s voice than a boy’s. For some reason, boys come alive for me on the page, while girl characters sometimes fall flat. Maybe that will change, but in any case, I felt comfortable writing as a boy, and drafted the whole novel in first person from Shadrach’s point of view. But his grammar was so bad and his dialect so hard to read, I rewrote the manuscript in close-third person. Reading primary source documents like newspapers and books, such as Mary Chestnut’s Civil War helped me imagine the orientation of and issues important to people who’d lived in 1867.
Q: You’re a debut author. Tell us what it was like when you found out your book would be published.
A: I’d been writing fiction for over a decade at that point, and had received so many rejection letters from agents and editors, that when word came on a contract, I almost didn’t believe it. I went around in a daze. I was thrilled. But I also remember feeling cautious, as if maybe it wasn’t really happening, and I’d just dreamed it. What a wonderful dream to have!
Q: You’ve been a teacher, paralegal, and a literacy volunteer. What drew you to writing for middle graders?
A: I love the energy of middle grade readers. I like their sometimes irreverent view of the status quo, and especially the way they question authority. I enjoy choosing issues that interest me as an adult, then writing about them from the point of view of a thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen-year old. Writing for young readers and thinking through issues from their point of view makes me a better adult.
Q: Tell us some fun facts about yourself. What’s your favorite dessert? Do you like to be called A.B. or Anne? On a Sunday afternoon, where would we find you?
A: Oooohhh…dessert… Well, of course, dark chocolate. But the caffeine in chocolate keeps me awake at night, so I have to eat it in the morning. Just have to. Afternoons and evenings: cheesecake or pumpkin pie.
I like to be called Anne. One of my boys was a reluctant reader who’d avoid books with female authors (he looked for any excuse to avoid books) so I decided to publish as A.B. for gender-neutrality. I didn’t want my feminine name to be a barrier to a reader. On Sunday afternoons, I’ll often read the newspaper or fiction, and go to a yoga class that’s super chill. It’s not aerobic power-yoga, but all about stress-release, balancing, centering, breathing, stretching, and strengthening. After that class, walking feels like floating.
Thanks so much, Anne, for visiting today!
Anne is generously giving away one copy of Brotherhood. If you’d like to be entered in the drawing for the book, please use the Rafflecopter form below! We will choose one random winner. Please note that you must live in the U.S. or Canada to enter the giveaway. Check out Anne’s website here.
Michele Weber Hurwitz, a tried and true Northerner, can be found at micheleweberhurwitz.com.