Karin Tanabe is the author of the new novel The Gilded Years, a fictional version of the story of Anita Hemmings, an African American student who passed for white at Vassar College in the late 19th century. Tanabe also has written the novels The List and The Price of Inheritance. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Politico, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post, and she lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: How did you learn about Anita Hemmings’ story and how did you research this book?
A: Though Anita Hemmings and I share an alma mater, Vassar College, I was not familiar with her story when I was a student there. It wasn’t until 2013—when I was going through old alumni magazines at home—that I learned about her fascinating life at school and beyond.
As for research, I took many trips to the Vassar archives, which are an amazing resource. The scrapbooks and pictures from the students in her class were especially helpful.
Also, the historian at her high school, Northfield Mount Hermon, was wonderful and really helped me piece together her pre-Vassar life. I also spent a lot of time looking at census records and phone books of the era, along with her college yearbooks.
The writer Jean Webster, most well known for her book Daddy-Long-Legs, wrote a book about Vassar at the turn of the century called When Patty Went to College. It was a tremendous help as it really detailed the quotidian of the Gilded Age Vassar girls.
Q: Your other novels take place in the present time. Beyond the research you needed to do for The Gilded Years, was your actual writing process different this time?
A: It was very different! It wasn’t only my first historical fiction book, but my first book written in the third person, so it was out of my usual comfort zone on two fronts. I ended up doing heaps more rewriting than I did for the first two, but I’m really happy with the end product.
I also really enjoyed the freedom of writing in the third person and I’m now addicted to historical fiction; it really feeds into my background as a reporter. I’m writing my fourth book now and it’s historical fiction, too.
Q: In writing a historical novel, what did you see as the right blend of history and fiction?
A: For Anita, as she was a real person, I wanted to use as much fact as I possibly could, and then fill in the blanks with fiction. I was able to find out quite a bit about her life in high school and college, but she did not keep a diary or leave much of a public trace, so I did have to imagine much of what her daily life would have been like at Vassar.
The biggest liberty that I took was with her love life, creating a fictional romance for her, but she was such a beautiful girl that I have no doubt that many Ivy League men were trying to woo her.
Q: What do you see as Anita Hemmings’ legacy today?
A: I wrote The Gilded Years between 2014 and 2016, which was when the Black Lives Matter movement was getting a lot of press. While I wrote, Michael Brown was shot, Eric Garner died, then Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and so many more also lost their lives.
It made the book I was writing feel even more important, because it made me think, how much has really changed since the turn of the century for young African-Americans?
Anita was a pioneer in women’s education and African-American education and I’d love for her story to be much more widely known than it is. But, sadly, I think she would be disappointed to see the numbers today—particularly that the college graduation rate for black students is 20 percent lower than for white students.
Q: Can you say more about what you’re working on now?
A: I’m currently working on my fourth book, which is a love triangle set during World War II. It takes place in a U.S. internment camp in Texas, and then in Japan and Shanghai. It’s a different kind of historical fiction book for me, especially since two out of the three main characters are male, but the research is fascinating.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I had a baby seven months ago and I’m learning how to juggle life as a mom with life as a writer. It’s not easy! I have a whole new respect for mothers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Karin Tanabe, please click here.