Author Ann Weisgarber flew in from Texas to talk to our St. Louis Publishers Association about the publishing journey for her debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. The book is fiction, but its story has value for memoirists, too.
While on vacation in South Dakota, Ann saw a photo of a young black woman standing in front of a sod dugout. Something about this woman haunted her – who was she, was she alone, what was it like being black on the frontier? Ann felt a story was there, and she wanted to tell it, even if she didn’t know it. Unfortunately she soon discovered she didn’t write very well! (Yes, her husband gently broke the news to her.) Did that stop her? No.
Ann wanted to honor this unknown woman’s courage, perseverence and sacrifice, common traits all pioneers had to have, but here was a black woman whose life must have been all the more difficult. So Ann took non-credit writing classes. She also did a lot of research about pioneer life in South Dakota and spoke to residents there about stories they had heard from their parents or grandparents. She researched other places of that time period (Buffalo Soldiers, Chicago stockyards, Ida Mae Wells-Barnett) that she wanted to include. And she did all this with no intention of being published! Until, that is, a writing teacher told her she had something special.
I won’t talk about how hard it was for Ann to find a publisher; the main point is that she did not give up in her quest to tell a story she felt was historic, important and forgotten. It had to be fiction, but a lot is based on real history, real hardships, real personal stories from those she interviewed. I think she is an inspiration for those of us wondering about the stories of relatives now deceased. Ann let me know that even people who have passed on have traces of story left. All it takes is a little research.
If there are any genealogy fans out there mixing stories into their lists of family names, let me know your experiences doing this. I’m thinking of posting how to combine genealogy with stories.
By the way, Ann’s book is very good – lots of drama, dust, and determination.