Rainy Saturdays and Literary Pursuits

A rainy Saturday is perhaps best for staying in bed, for rolling over and burrowing under the covers to forget that April in your area has had freeze warnings and snow flurries. Rising from that warm bed would require something far more stimulating than a morning cup of coffee. Fortunately, the prospect of meeting and listening to best-selling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez was well worth dodging raindrops this past Saturday in Staunton, VA.

Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, speaking at Mary Baldwin College's Spencer Center. Her appearance was jointly sponsored by Mary Baldwin College and the Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG Writers).

Perkins-Valdez, a professor of writing at several east and west coast universities, became intrigued by a snippet of information she discovered about Xenia, OH. For a few years in the 1850’s, Xenia was home to the Tawawa Resort, a place where southern slaveowners could come for the summer and bring their slave mistresses, living with them in near openness.

As she began to research to confirm this information, she had an epiphany. She could write a scholarly article about this, but her heart was telling her to do something else. As she imagined what those few weeks of near-freedom must have been like for slave women, she decided she could only tell their story in a novel.

Perkins-Valdez spoke of how “protective” she was of her first novel. “I knew I needed an agent, but this was my baby. How could I send it out into the unknown?” That someone might steal her book wasn’t her concern; rather, she feared someone might not understand or appreciate the intent of her work.

That was certainly refreshing to hear from a New York Times Best-selling author–that she could have the same fears as any of us who submit our work into that limbo of acceptance and rejection.

It turns out, she had nothing to worry about. Her agent was able to sell the novel to Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins. Wench is the story of four women who are slaves and the complex relations among them and with their masters, who are their lovers, rapists, and owners.

Perkins-Valdez’s down-to-earth presentation and openness to questions from the audience was refreshing. She told the story of being at a joint book signing with Terry McMillian, who wouldn’t sign her own books for people unless they bought Wench, too. But it wasn’t a boast. It was the “oh my god, oh my god” reaction any of us gets when someone we admire acknowledges us.

When I asked a question about her presentation at AWP, which I had attended, she asked me what I wrote and asked me to follow her on Twitter, “so I can keep track of your writing.” She was just as generous to every writer and aspiring writer in the audience and at her later book-signing, where she posed for pictures with young, African-American women from Mary Baldwin. For each person who was a writer, she made certain to ask about his or her writing.

I’m in the process of reading Wench, and so far it falls into the “hate to put it down” category. It’s very engaging and authentic, and having met Perkins-Valdez and heard her speak twice now, it is a far more meaningful read. Even without having finished it, I can recommend it.

Perkins-Valdez is working on her second novel, about African-American women in the Civil War. I’m sure that will be on my to-read list as well.