In 1848, an educated slave girl faces an inconceivable choice — between bondage and freedom, family and love.
On one side of the Mason-Dixon Line lives fifteen-year-old Willow, her master’s favorite servant. She’s been taught to read and has learned to write. She believes her master is good to her and fears the rebel slave runaways. On the other side of the line is seventeen-year-old Cato, a black man, free born. It’s his personal mission to sneak as many fugitive slaves to freedom as he can. Willow’s and Cato’s lives are about to intersect, with life-changing consequences for both of them. Tonya Cherie Hegamin’s moving coming-of-age story is a poignant meditation on the many ways a person can be enslaved, and the force of will needed to be truly emancipated.
(Book Description from Candlewick Press)
1. I have to get really wrapped up in the work.
I guess most writers get all emo about their characters but I know now more than ever that it is a vital part of the process. If I don’t feel the character as though I am living through them, nothing will work. I wanted this to be a love story because love changes humans so deeply. Familial relationships for slaves in the 1840s were bleak and unlikely, and so was romantic love. I wanted to know how that would translate for someone who had the choice between the two, a painful place to be in emotionally. I love authors who get me emotionally wrapped up in their work, and usually it’s because of those deep connections that I often read an author’s entire work, at least until I feel a disconnect. Then I know it’s time to break up. It’s like having an intimate relationship with another person’s brain.
2. Just like being in love, I like beginnings better than endings.
It’s easy to fall in love. I like to believe that all humans are loveable and deserve love. The hardest part is staying in love and knowing when to let love go. Like I said, love changes people, yet we are all resistant to change. So when I’m writing I get caught up in this person I created, in their world. I’m in love with it because I birthed it, I loved it into existence. I don’t want to let it go sometimes, although there are moments I want to chuck it all into a skillfully built bonfire. And then just when I think I can’t stand it anymore, and there’s the temptation to let it all go, I can’t think of how to put an end to this thing I’ve created. I want to live in the world I know so well, where I know there are more discoveries and challenges that I could create and experience, but everything must end. As long as the letting go is treated as a lesson in bravery, gracefulness and compassion, it has possibility. Willow has been with me for years; it was hard to let the ending happen, to tie it up finally. Perhaps subconsciously my relationship with Willow isn’t over; I have dreams of what her children would be like.
3. I really do have to read it out loud. And I really do hate that.
I often tell my writing students to read their work aloud. It helps to vocalize your vision, to feel it vibrate as it hits the air. I sing my poetry sometimes, but I’m a reluctant performer. In fiction there are a lot of words that could always have been sliced, phrases that get clunky. It’s an organic living thing in some respects, so there’s always a new layer or microscopic world view. Things you only see after draft and draft and draft, there’s always things that make you cringe and seem to only surface when you’ve had some space from the work. Lucky for Willow, I had the blessing of having my dear friend E.B. Lewis, who also illustrated the cover, as an audience. He heard the first pages and demanded more. Then he made me read it to other people. Of course, it was the best thing for me and for Willow.
4. Nobody cares that you’re “writing a book.”
It’s sad but true. Not that people don’t want you to succeed, or that they don’t think you’re a good writer. It’s just that they may underestimate the amount of brain space required to download creativity from the cosmos. No two writers have the same process, so sometimes not even a fellow writer can give one hundred percent of a damn. You have to be ok with that. People in your life need you for different things, and inadvertently they will pull you away from writing, or stroke your procrastinating tendencies. I don’t just mean haters, I mean the people you find it hard to say no to the most because they do genuinely love and need you. You have to care the most about your work, what you’re trying to so artfully express. I’ve tried living in isolation and for a while that works until life happens. I went through some serious life lessons and struggles while writing Willow, things that threatened my commitment to even continuing as a writer because it does require so much raw energy. Unless you’re a narcissist, it’s hard to say NO and to deal with those consequences gracefully, to articulate “loving boundaries” for yourself and others, but it has to be done.
5. Be willing to throw in the kitchen sink.
I like to play “What If.” I make up stories and reasons for everything, it’s a habit. I also have a habit of holding on to memories; I’m an archivist. Doing historical research can be addicting because you can make up stories about small details or re-envision whole time periods just by inserting your own perspective; it’s easy to overindulge. There are so many roads and avenues to take with your imagination but only a few can sustain a novel. There was a point that I had to allow myself to put in any idea, just because it kept me writing. Even if it didn’t go with the original storyline, I just put it down in a journal or made a comment to myself on the margin. I keep multiple journals that have mostly random ideas and notes that might become useful or inspiring. Although Sylvia Plath said self-doubt was the enemy of creativity, I think self-censorship is the worst.