Book clubs always want to know. Readers (as a reader I’m the same way) want to see the echo of the writer’s life in the writer’s work.
Sorry to disappoint. I’ve never lived in the South and I have (thankfully) no slave owners in my ancestry. I came to historical fiction as a historian. I got my Ph.D. in American history at a time when slavery was the topic of obsessive interest among social historians, and my fellow student and I spent an inordinate amount of time reading, talking about, and researching slavery.
But the idea for this book has a long history of its own, and it started with my first novel, which has gone into the drawer and will stay there. The story was about the sons of a Holocaust survivor whose mother was the daughter of a German Jewish belle from Atlanta. After I created Louise Kaltenbach and wrote her out of the story, I began to wonder how German Jews came to Georgia, and what they were doing there.
I wrote another novel—this one will come out of the drawer, I have plans for it—about a historian in Mississippi, researching a century-old massacre that reverberates in the present and gets her into a world of hurt. One of the subplots was about a Mississippi slave owner who married a white woman out of a sense of duty, but who fell in love with a slave and considered her “the wife of his heart”. I tucked that away, too.
When I decided to write fiction again, I knew I wanted to write about Jews and slaves in Georgia. The first image that came to me, before Sister of Mine had a title or a plot or all of its characters, was the image of a former slave named Rachel, her former master’s “wife of the heart,” standing on the steps of her northern plantation to persuade General Sherman’s army to spare the place. Not out of servility or loyalty, but out of pride and courage. The book began as the attempt to explain how that could happen.
I originally saw the book as the love story between the master and the slave. But as I wrote and thought and re-wrote, it became obvious that the real love story in the book was between two women—Jewish slave owner and black slave, half-sisters who become true sisters. Which is the essence of the book.