This is a question and answer session sent to me by David Fuller, author of the fantastic Civil War novel “Sweetsmoke If these questions and answers interest you, you can read my review, or preorder this book on Amazon.
Q: What brought you to write this novel?
“Sweetsmoke is a story I was driven to tell. That there was an African American slave at its core was simply the factual basis upon which to build the story. Cassius is an outsider to his world, and it was but a small step to tell the story from his perspective, as writers tend to be outsiders to their worlds. Research taught me to understand his environment, to know the hardships he had to endure, but being a fellow human being allowed me to see the world through his eyes. Imagination and empathy are the tools of the writer. I’d like to think that the fact that a writer can empathize with another man in dire circumstances is a small step to understanding and brotherhood. Lest that sound naïve and uplifting, let me just say on a personal note that I had just as much difficulty imagining his courage and strength as I did seeing through his eyes as a slave in the 19th Century.
Good stories on big topics don’t come around very often. There are a few lucky writers who seem to continually come up with them, but for me, they are few and far between. When I initially imagined a slave acting as a ‘detective’, a great landscape opened up inside of me. The story was immediately evident even without the necessary specifics. I was not interested in telling a detective story. I was interested in discovering the world of a slave. I was also curious as to how a man who does not have the personality of a victim survives in an environment where he has no power. But by using a loose detective story structure, I was able to touch on different aspects of a world that intrigued me. I was able to visit the world of slaves spying against the Confederacy; I was able to imagine an important Civil War battle; and I was able to examine the idea of how one seemingly unimportant death, occurring against the enormous canvas of a violent war, can take on great significance.
Q: How did you research the story?
I figured I had at least five years of research ahead of me before I could even write an outline that I would dare show to anyone. I already knew the rough shape of the story, but so much of the novel required historical details that would drive the story forward. I also knew that if I was to tell the story from such a specific point of view, I had damned well better get it right.
I wound up doing at least eight years of research on the novel. I attempted at one point to put together a bibliography, and found that I had read at least fifty books on the subjects of slavery, America in the 1800s, the Civil War, particularly Antietam, and other related subjects like tobacco and the currency of the time. To this day I am coming across books I dipped into for some tidbit of information that did not make the list. I traveled to hundreds of Internet sites, and watched countless hours of documentaries and other related programming. I found that children’s books were helpful, as they come with pictures.
Q: What kinds of surprises did you discover during your research?
Since I was a boy, I have heard that Confederate General Turner Ashby is one of my ancestors. My great grandmother, Ida Reid Ashby, wrote a lengthy passage about him in her book Ashbys, Reids and Allied Families. I have recently received information confirming the link via DNA evidence. Turner Ashby was such an interesting and dashing fellow that I knew early on that I wanted to include him in the novel. It was not until I was well under way with the research and outlining of the book that I discovered that he had been a slave owner. I had suspected as much, but it was not confirmed until I found a copy of Thomas A. Ashby’s 1914 biography Life of Turner Ashby.
Many of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, on both sides. Major Gilbert Trusler, my great, great grandfather, was a Major in Company H of the 36th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and fought at the Battle of Chattanooga under Ulysses S. Grant. Nelson Trusler, my 2nd great grand uncle, brother of Gilbert Trusler, was Colonel in the 84th Indiana Regiment. John Hankinson Ashby, my 2nd great grand uncle, was a corporal in the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, involved with Morgan’s Raid, where he was killed. Henry Thomas Ashby, my 2nd great granduncle was one of the first volunteers from Indiana and was in the 7th Indiana Regiment. He fought at Gettysburg and was later killed in the Battle of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. He mentions in his letters that his Virginia kindred were fighting on the other side. Leander Bradshaw Ashby, my 2nd great granduncle, was in the 9th Indiana Cavalry of Indiana Volunteers, serving in the Col. Eli Lilly regiment in the Civil War. In a bloody battle near Franklin, TN, “Uncle Lee” was one of the men who carried Lt. Burroughs to the rear in a dying condition just after Uncle Lee’s own horse’s head had been shot off. The above Ashbys were all brothers of my great great grandfather, James Samuel Ashby.
And then there was Zachariah. Zachariah Ashby enlisted as a private on the first of October, 1864 at the age of 18. He deserted Company K, 15th Iowa Infantry on the 5th of November, 1864. A month in the army was enough for Zachariah. The above information has been graciously supplied by my uncle, Samuel Ashby Fuller.
Q: How much of the novel is true? Did you base the characters on actual people?
Out of necessity, I have included the names of real people in the novel: Turner Ashby; Robert E. Lee; Peter Longstreet; and Sir Percy Wyndham. But Hugh McClaren and the other soldiers are figments of my imagination, along with everyone else in the novel.
That said, most of the incidents that happen to Cassius did in fact happen to slaves at one time or another. The most surprising to me was that there were slaves who refused to be beaten or whipped. They would stand up to white overseers, and get away with it. There is at least one story told of a slave who would not be beaten, the white man let him be. but told the other whites that he had beaten him terribly in order to save face. I worried that readers would not believe the moment when Cassius faces Otis Bornock in the rain, but that incident is based on fact.
Who were your influences on this book?
One of the important influences on Sweetsmoke was Zhang Yimou (director), Tong Su (novelist), and Zhen Ni’s RAISE THE RED LANTERN. I had been thinking about how to present the ongoing lives of slaves in the quarters, and when I watched that film and saw the wives of a Chinese Master scheme, connive and battle for power, I saw a way in. I wanted to show the slaves as completely human, flawed, irritating, kind, petty, generous and foolish, just as I wanted to show the whites as completely human, flawed, irritating, kind, petty, generous and foolish. It was important to me to show that the whites were as trapped as the blacks in the institution of slavery. Whites created and maintained the trap, but a man like Hoke Howard is also trapped by his heritage. Without the expectations of his family, he might well have been a very different man. Hoke Howard does terrible things, but I hope the reader comes to understand him, and perhaps will share the strange affection that Cassius has for him. Cassius does amazing, clever things, he has learned to use his mind to survive, which was a necessity of survival for slaves, but he is also flawed and can be maddening.
We must all pay a great debt of gratitude to the writers who have come before us. I count as my obvious influences on this particular book Mark Twain and Toni Morrison. In no way do the flaws in this novel reflect back on Ms. Morrison or Mr. Twain, as it is my imperfections alone to be blamed for any and all mediocrity, but I did at times find myself reaching for BELOVED, HUCK FINN and PUDDINHEAD WILSON to hear rhythms in speech and dialogue.
I am also indebted to Patrick O’Brian. Any devotee of his Aubrey/Maturin series will recognize my occasional homage to him, through words and phrases that rang true for me and helped keep me in the 19th Century. While I was unable to physically read Mr. O’Brian when writing Sweetsmoke — he was a brilliant writer, and reading him would drop me into a deep well of envy — I revisited him by listening to audio versions of his books, via the wonderful voice of Patrick Tull. A fellow writer and mentor of mine, Carter Scholz (RADIANCE), spoke of having a writer on your shoulder watching you as you work. O’Brian was the writer on my shoulder.
Q: You also work as a screenwriter?
I had intended to become a painter, but gave it up in college. I hunted for another outlet for my ‘talents’. I enjoyed photography, but once I picked up a super 8 movie camera and made a couple of short movies, I was hooked. I knew the way in to that world was to become a writer, so I put my butt in a chair and wrote. Along the way, I took a job working for a game show company. My work there ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.
I eventually sold a script, and soon after partnered with Rick Natkin. Rick and I had a long and excellent run. For seven or eight years, I think we sold everything we wrote. We had six projects made, some of which we even put our real names on. Rick once said that his best stuff was gathering dust on the shelf in his office, his okay stuff was sold but not made, and the bad stuff was up on the big screen for everyone to see. Our most commercial script sold for a lot of money, and then was rewritten so that not one word we wrote ended up in the film. But every screenwriter has horror stories, so I will leave it at that. The important thing is that screenwriting is a surprisingly difficult skill and is significantly undervalued. It teaches you structure and pace, and it teaches you to focus your stories. I’ve written over fifty screenplays, and I’m still learning.