Historia chats with Vanessa Lafaye, about her HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown shortlisted novel, Summertime.
The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Yes. I had an absolutely inspirational history teacher in high school, whose specialty was the American Civil War. He made me see that what’s written in textbooks is open to interpretation. It’s a beginning, not the final word. However, one of the great failings of American history education is coverage of WWI. The curriculum skips from the Civil War to the crash of ’29. I knew nothing of it until I read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, after I had been living in Britain for several years. That book set me on the path which resulted in Summertime. Without it, I would not have had interest in or understanding of the conflict. Then I went on to do a Biology degree, and didn’t return to the subject until I wrote Summertime.
How did the initial idea for Summertime come about?
I actually set out to write a different story, about the ‘spectacle lynching’ of Claude Neal in Greenwood, FL in 1935. Once I started the research, I stumbled on the story of the hurricane and the veterans, and it completely took over my imagination.
The book is set in a small community in the Florida Keys in 1935. What was it that attracted you to the period between the wars?
I was fascinated by the experiences of the African-American soldiers. During the war in France, they were treated as human beings for the first time, which gave them hope that things could change back home. However, on their return to the US, they found a white population terrified of any threat to the status quo. This led to violence all over the country. The veterans in the Keys camps were mostly white, but I chose to focus on the stories of a few black soldiers because I found them so compelling.
The atmosphere and descriptions in the book are very rich and evocative. You grew up in Florida. How important do you think your own background and experiences were to creating your fictional world?
Writing Summertime was like opening a time capsule in my head. I’d never written about my home state before, and all the sensory memories of the place just flowed onto the page. It definitely helped me to evoke the atmosphere, but I’ve never lived in the Keys. They’re very different to the rest of Florida, in terms of culture and lifestyle. So although I had the advantage of a Florida childhood, I still had to do the work to capture the authentic feel of the Keys.
I know music is important to you. How did that influence the book?
The song Summertime was performed in Porgy and Bess—the first opera written for an all-black cast—in 1935, when the book is set. It’s perhaps the most iconic song in all of American music, with over 20,000 known versions. It’s also very deceptive: the words paint a picture of bucolic ease, while the tune is in a minor key which says something completely different. It suits the novel, and the lyrics found their way into the plot: ‘your daddy’s rich, and your momma’s good-looking’, and when the storm hits, ‘you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take to the sky’. I’ve sung it many times (see video below), and conducted it for my community choir, who sang it for the book launch. Its haunting resonance was with me for a lot of the writing. I also love gospel music, and sing it often. So it was fun researching the traditional tunes of the time for the characters to sing.
You have a background in academic publishing and feature writing. What were the challenges of writing a novel in comparison?
I wrote two novels of women’s fiction first, which didn’t find homes. Summertime was my first attempt at historical fiction, and I realised soon after I began to write that it was better than my previous efforts. Working for 30 years in academic publishing, a lot of it in books, gave me a good grounding in production, marketing, and the book trade —which made it very interesting to be on the other side— but I had to learn all the basics of novel-writing. I did a lot of that learning on the two unsuccessful manuscripts, which I applied to Summertime. But it was a very different challenge because of the framework of real events which directed the plot. I had written short stories and features, but a novel is BIG. It takes so much stamina to maintain the energy and tension for so long. I read a lot of novels where it’s clear that the author just got tired about 80% of the way through, and now I know why! Another huge challenge was bringing the hurricane to life with only words, for an audience used to expensive CGI films. I had to feel everything that the characters felt, which was emotionally very draining.
What was your path to publication?
I was signed by my agent, Tina Betts at Andrew Mann, for my first book of women’s fiction. It came very close to being published by one of the ‘big five’, which encouraged me to write another. This one wasn’t taken up either. Then I had breast cancer for the first time. Debilitated by the treatment, and discouraged by my lack of success, I figured that the universe didn’t need my writing. Then, on a visit to my family in Florida, I opened the morning paper to find the story of the ‘spectacle lynching’, and was so outraged by it that I decided to attempt to dramatise it – having no experience of the genre! When I learned about the hurricane and the veterans, I knew that I had found my story. Tina submitted the manuscript, and Orion offered me a two-book deal, and then five foreign deals followed, all of which exceeded my expectations. I wanted it to be published, for all the obvious reasons, but also because I felt it was wrong that the events had been forgotten. It became my mission, and I now give talks about the history behind the novel. Summertime was the book that almost wasn’t. It only came about through a series of accidents.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Approach it like learning to play an instrument or master a sport. Study the mechanics of plot, dialogue, pace, sense of place, character, because not even the most brilliant twist can overcome weaknesses in these areas. Study how the greats in your genre do it, analyse their writing and learn from it. Then write your story. Unfortunately, no one can teach the special spark or magic ingredient which makes writing come to life. That happens when you’re totally committed to your story, totally immersed in your characters and setting. I would say that it also helps to be really passionate about the story itself. It’s that emotional connection which comes through to the reader.
Another top tip: leave the first draft for at least a month, preferably three. When you come back to it, you will see clearly what needs to change. And the best tip that I’ve been given: interview your main characters. This doesn’t mean Q&A necessarily, just get them talking and write down what they say. I do this at the start, and at other points when I need to understand them better. You not only get useful back-story, but actual text that you can slot into the narrative. My story, Fire on the Water, which won the top prize from the Historical Novel Society, started life as one of these interviews. The effort is never wasted.
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker are my heroes. I also love Helen Dunmore.
And what are you reading right now?
A big pile of research books for Book Three!
What’s next? What are you working on now?
Book Three is going to be set in France in WWI, featuring some of the characters from Summertime. It’s based on another amazing yet forgotten true story. The three books will form a triptych, which I never intended when I wrote Summertime. If I had, I could have made things a lot easier for myself, but books two and three just evolved out of Summertime. I will continue to look for the untold yet important episodes from history, and dramatise them to raise awareness for a new generation. It’s my thing.
Vanessa Lafaye grew up in Tampa, Florida, but absconded to France during her Zoology degree at Duke University, and was smitten with life in Europe. She has lived in the UK since 1987, working in academic publishing in Oxford, before moving to Marlborough in Wilts. She divides her time between writing and leading the local community choir. She lives with husband James and three furry children. Her second novel, At First Light, will be out in 2017.