INTERVIEW WITH PAT
What do you think will attract 21st century
kids to read a book about an 18th century slave girl from New
Hampshire? What can they learn from Matty?
Curiosity, I hope. The title is likely to
strike a familiar cord. Most kids at one time or another have had
that uncomfortable feeling of being "out of place"...not belonging.
And, the book's cover, painted by my friend and illustrator, Debby
Ronnquist, does stir the imagination. Were I a teacher, I'd
challenge my students to make up their own story just on that
I think once readers move on into the story, carried along by
more of Debby's heart warming drawings, they'll discover it's got
all sorts of stuff to hold their interest. While it does reveal much
about the different nature of slavery in New England -- as compared
with most of the South - it's really about a child's determined
optimism in the face of harsh reality. Despite what young Matty's
relatives tell her, she's certain there's a special, happier place
for her, a "belonging place", she calls it and that one day soon
she'll get there.
I realize that slavery is an uncomfortable topic for some parents
and teachers of young children. This story provides a gentle way to
get discussions going, help kids empathize with young Matty, be with
her as she's forced to confront the reality for African Americans in
1806. It's the human connection that makes history fun. Lots of
textbooks fail at that.
research for this story four years. Tell us about that.
Actually, it was the whole project right up to
the printed book that took over four years. Research was fun.
Writing certainly wasn't. So often I'd get started at the computer,
thinking I was on my way and then get stopped by the enormity of
what I'd undertaken. I had so much to learn about early African
American history. I'm so grateful to Valerie Cunningham for her
valiant work on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the resource
guide co-authored with Mark Sammons. I'm indebted to lots of other
authors who opened my eyes. Joanne Pope Melish's Disowning
Slavery in New England 1780-1860,
for example, was a great help. I was amazed to discover how broad
and rich is African American literature and how lacking my formal
Of course, research was only one big stumbling block on the way
to creating Child Out of Place. Though I'd been writing
non-fiction journalism for years, I had to learn a whole new writing
craft, learn to create characters and historically accurate
settings, get characters to interact, respond to their situations
and settings -- hundreds of new challenges for me. Even word for
word, the language had to be accurate for the times. Thank goodness
for the Oxford English Disctionary.
So many times, over that first year or so, I walked away from the
whole thing, threw away chapters, even a draft of what I thought was
a finished book. I never had that much trouble when writing for
newspapers. All I had to do then was create a snappy first sentence
hook and let the fishing line play out until the editor cut it. A
novel is a whole different critter.
But something -- likely my character Matty -- kept pushing me. I
knew she had an important, unusual story to tell. I just wasn't sure
I was the one she needed to tell it. It's a funny feeling to invent
a character and then she begins to talk to you. No, I wasn't hearing
voices. The more I learned about enslaved Africans in the North, the
more I felt compelled to write a story about that for youngsters.
It's a chapter that's missing from their textbooks. In retrospect,
I'm ever so grateful Matty came along. she changed me, opened new
horizons for me, intellectually and personally. She set me on a
did you discover life was like for blacks in Portsmouth in the late
then, there were a few, small, hopeful changes beginning to occur,
but life for most African Americans was pretty much the dreadful way
it had always been in this country. Small numbers of Africans --
ones, twos, threes -- were held by farmers, businessmen and
homeowners, their futures and that of their enslaved children always
uncertain. I was appalled at how casually black families were
sometimes broken up by their "owners", even young children sold
away. I was shocked to read those casual, inhuman notations on
shopping lists, telling local ship captains headed south to purchase
a "likely negro boy" along with orders for china dishes, fine silks
and such. Such shopping lists were common in lots of seacoast New
England towns, too.
Prior to about 1760, I think the word "isolation" best describes
the difference between enslaved Africans in New England compared
with those in the South. As Matty's great uncle Ned tells her, "Bad
as that Barbados plantation was for our parents, at least there they
had the comfort of friends near by." That wasn't true in early
Before Valerie’s Cunningham’s research on
local African American history, most of us were unaware the role of
blacks in the history of Portsmouth. How did her work affect your
paved the way. I might have attempted to do basic research in what
scant records exist, but I wouldn't have achieved the depth of her
knowledge and understanding. From time, to time, she graciously and
patiently steered me in right directions. What Matty learns about
her ancestor's history, though couched in fiction, has an
authenticity I alone could not have given it. I must add that I was
guided by many minds, past and present on this project.
did you choose to publish the book yourself rather than submit it to
a publisher? Was it costly and was it more difficult without an
I did try a few publishers very early on, but
they were cold to the idea. At this stage of my life, I decided I
wouldn't wait, maybe years, while copies of my manuscript moldered
at the bottom of a pile of manuscripts on the desk of over-worked
editors. I came across a wonderful book by Tom and Marilyn Ross,
The Complete Guide to Self Publishing, and dutifully followed their
step-by-step instructions. That sounds simple, but of course, it
wasn't. I quickly learned that self-publishing is hard, demanding
work, fraught with critical choices and tons of pesky details. But,
my mantra became "I believe, I believe, I believe." Somehow I had to
get Matty's story out there.
here are pluses to self-publishing. You've got more control over
the outcome than with most commercial publishers, especially in
regard to illustrations. Every time I look at the book, I thank God
that Debby Ronnquist came along. It was such joy working with
The price tag to produce 2000 books was about equal to a couple
of those adventure trips seniors like to take. I certainly got far
more enjoyment and satisfaction on my "book trip." I wish I could
have afforded a hardcover edition. There's not much for posterity in
paperbacks. But, who knows, maybe Fate will smile one day and a
commercial publisher will buy it and do it up proper.
As for not having an editor -- in a way -- I actually had
multiple editors, especially my daughter, as well as many caring
friends who read and commented on various drafts of the manuscript.
They're all listed in the book.
was your first book. What did you learn from the mistakes you made
in the writing process?
I had immersed myself years ago in a broader range of English
literature, old and modern. In writing this book there often was
such painful struggle to find the right phrase, the right word. I
wasted too much time, ruminating over the same dumb sentence,
sometimes for days. Also, I think that early on, I wasn't
"listening" enough to Mattie and the other characters, understanding
what they needed to convey. It was amazing how much of the writing
came clear while doing dishes or driving. Coming up with the book's
title took forever, but it finally popped out while I was waiting
for a stoplight.
white woman in a modern age, how did you get "inside the head" of an
enslaved black child in a distant time?
could say she got into my head, unexpectedly. As a guide for many
years in the Warner House Museum, I got to know its history and the
generations of privileged white families who owned it. There were
hints in the records that slaves had been there, but there wasn't
much to tell visitors about that, not until quite recently. I
thought it would be fun to write a story for children. For
inspiration I'd sometimes climb up into the rooftop cupola of the
House. White family records tell of children playing up there and
some of them likely left those initials to be seen carved on the
cupola walls and circular bench.
To my surprise, on one of my visits, I imagined a servant child
and, she was black. Questions about her flooded in, and soon Matty
came into being. The more I got immersed in early African American
history, the more Matty and her story took shape. At first, I did
worry that my being white would be a barrier. But I soon realized
that ignorance is the barrier, not skin color.
As for dealing that "distant time" you asked about, I grew up
surrounded by the past, by antique furniture and parents who loved
American history. They often dragged me off to visit historic sites
and old houses. I loved it but, as kids will do, I often made fun of
all that "old stuff." Somewhere, up there, my folks are now having
the last laugh.
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