Friday, March 8, 2013

Interview with Tara Conklin, Author of House Girl

House Girl by Tara Conklin: Margie's Staff Pick 

Sometimes you read a book and it clicks on every single level. That's what happened when I read House Girl by Tara Conklin. It's got that perfect combination of history, social justice and art that I love and that should be a big hit with our book clubs.

House Girl has two intertwined plots: one is the story of a young slave, a "house girl" named Josephine Bell, and the other is the story of Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer assigned to a high-stakes class action lawsuit for reparations payments to the descendants of American slaves.

The two stories merge into one when Lina Sparrow's search for the perfect representative plaintiff leads her to a brewing controversy in the art world. It turns out that the famous paintings of the antebellum artist LuAnn Bell, a Virginia slaveholder, may have instead been painted by her house slave, Josephine Bell. Lina begins an urgent search for Josephine's possible descendants, in hopes that the truth will remedy the wrongs of the past.

Both threads of the story complement each other in a way that makes for an intriguing and thoughtful novel. Although many early readers seemed to enjoy Josephine's story more, I have to say I loved Lina's story just as much. Lina is the link between the past and the present. Her story shows us just how complicated the search for long overdue justice can be. 

I recently had the chance to chat with Tara Conklin to ask her some questions about the book. It turns out we are both retired litigation attorneys with an interest in historical fiction, so a lot of my questions were about Lina's part of the story and how it came to be. We get a little law-geeky, hope you don't mind!

Margie:  How did you get the idea to write about a slavery reparations lawsuit? Did you ever get to work on a pro-bono case while you were practicing? If so, how did your experience affect Lina's story

Tara: Before law school, I worked for a human rights NGO called the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First) that was very involved with international justice issues - the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the International Criminal Court, etc. I was fascinated by these efforts at addressing, through law, these periods of violence and repression - how does a society repair itself?  How do individuals heal? This interest continued while I was a lawyer - I did a fair amount of pro bono work around human rights issues. While I was writing the historical sections of The House Girl, I started looking at the antebellum period through my lawyer's lens. I knew that slavery reparations suits had been tried in US courts before, without much success, so I started to envision a new one for Lina to take on. . . . My main sources of inspiration/experience came at the Lawyers Committee and then also in law school where I took a human rights clinic and an immigration law clinic. . . . [I had] this faith that legal rituals could really address, in a substantive, meaningful way, the individual harms suffered by victims of human rights abuses.

Margie: Which came first, Josephine's story or Lina's story? How did you get the idea to pair them together?

TaraJosephine came way before Lina. I wrote Josephine, Caleb and Dorothea and put the stories aside for many many months - maybe even a year.  But I couldn't stop thinking about them. I really wanted to bring them into the present day - to make Josephine's story resonate in the modern world - and so that's where Lina came in. 

Margie: I love the art angle in House Girl. How did you ever get the idea to have art be the big connector between past and present, slave and master, father, mother and daughter, Lina and her future? 

TaraJosephine was always an artist - that was clear to me very early on in the writing. She was inspired in part by an African-American artist named Mary Bell - I wrote an essay about her for - here's the link: But, it didn't happen in a truly linear way. I didn't think: oh, I want to write a story about someone like Mary Bell, and I think I'll call her Josephine. Josephine appeared in Caleb's story and, as I was getting to know her, I remembered my interest in Mary Bell and thought: oh yes, of course! Josephine is an artist too.  

Margie: What was your favorite part about litigation? (I was a Legal Writing TA in Law School, so I loved writing briefs!) How did your legal writing help or hinder your attempts to write a novel?

Tara:  I LOVED writing briefs! Particularly in international arbitration (my primary practice in London) because I had a lot more freedom to play with form and language than in straight corporate US litigation. I often say that being a litigator isn't all that different from being a fiction writer - you've got your protagonist/client, antagonist/opposing side - your're trying to persuade an audience to believe in the truth of your narrative, your version of events. Very similar to writing a novel! That said, it is still a lot more fun to write fiction. Now I don't have to worry about all those pesky "facts".  


Margie's Note:  Did you go to the link that Tara refers to at she You really should - it's a great story about the inspiration for House Girl.  How fun that it all started with a part-time job at an art gallery over 20 years ago. Don't you just love the way that art enters your brain and stays there until it finds a new creative expression?