Natasha Boyd is the author of the historical novel The Indigo Girl. Her other books include the novel Accidental Tryst. She was born in Denmark and lives in the United States.
Q: Your novel The Indigo Girl is based on the life of an actual historical figure, Eliza Lucas Pinckney. What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote this book?
A: I set out to follow history as closely as possible while still allowing Eliza’s remarkable story to shine through; her fortitude, her resilience, her perseverance in the face of adversity and pitfalls. I was lucky that her struggle to bring indigo as a commodity to bear is a remarkable story, complete with allies and villains, setbacks and resolutions.
She spent most of her time on the plantations, especially during the indigo years, which is the scope of this novel, so it was natural that the people she would interact with most would be on the plantation, and not in the drawing rooms of Charleston society.
While I’ve been lucky to come across records of actual slaves and personnel attached to the plantations, there were also lots of blanks I had to fill in.
Those added characters and also the fleshed-out personalities of people who before now were simply a name on a bill of sale or lading, really allowed me to explore some of the issues of colonial South Carolina and the issues facing an idealistic young girl bound by societal expectation.
Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I researched the novel by reading the meticulously recorded letters that she wrote, anecdotes written down by her descendants, as well as visiting the archives of the South Carolina Historical Society and reading surrounding historical documents of the time. I also visited places I knew she’d been, visited and lived.
I was also fortunate that scholars and historians who studied the time period, Eliza and/or indigo as a commodity have been able to find references that were otherwise missing from the main body of history. For example, I’m especially thankful for the work that was done to trace the names and records of the slaves that worked on her plantation.
There were so many things that surprised me. Firstly, while I knew she must have been a spirited and determined young person in order to accomplish what she did, it was only by reading through her letters and prayers she wrote throughout her whole life that I got a real glimpse into her personality. She was passionate and had a wonderful sense of humor.
I especially loved learning about the slave, Quash, and learning what became of him. Eliza freed him in the 1750s and he ended up becoming an architect, building the home that Eliza and future husband Charles Pinckney lived in on East Bay Street. He bought his daughters out of slavery and became a landowner himself. Which in those times meant he probably also became a slave owner himself.
Q: What do you think Eliza's experiences say about the role of women in 18th century South Carolina?
A: As much as we like to imagine a TV world where women were but expensive decorations corseted up in silk and feathered finery in the 18th century, Eliza’s story reminds us that women were very much involved in the menial running of houses and plantations, and worked hard despite having little agency of their own.
Of course, Charleston society was genteel and there was indeed silk and feathered finery worn by both men and women, but in the end 18th century South Carolina was a place of pioneering spirit, but also many sociological tragedies.
Many women who were capable farmers’ wives would be left homeless and destitute when their husbands died. Their only hope would be to remarry. I was surprised to learn that Eliza taught herself rudimentary law and will writing, in order to help local women in case their husbands died.
To put an 18th century women’s worth in perspective though: a male slave might be freed and could therefore go and buy land if he had the means. A woman like Eliza, a planter’s daughter, might be technically “free” but could work tirelessly and never be able to own even the vegetable patch over which she toiled. That made female slaves, of course, the worst off.
Being a woman in 18th century South Carolina was not for the faint-hearted. In my view, Eliza’s station, pioneering spirit, education, and empathetic humanitarian nature was exactly why she was able to garner so much respect and accomplish so much.
Q: The novel also focuses on the issue of slavery. What do you hope readers take away from your depiction of the plantation in your book?
A: You can’t write a book in 18th century South Carolina and not deal with slavery. And it just so happens that Eliza’s story is one of a planter’s daughter. Planters owned slaves. There’s no getting around it. Slavery wasn’t a focus of the book as much as the story cannot be told without it.
Slavery needs to be talked about, not skirted around. The slaves who helped her should be named and appreciated as part of the story, not be faceless allies. Eliza was a product of the world in which she lived, with no agency or means to take on a crusade to end slavery.
Nor should we assume, just because she was a kind and empathetic slave owner (which in modern terms feels like an oxymoron but is based on the writings of her life and her recorded actions) that she would have taken on such a cause.
Many of the planters who owned land were unable to pay for labor, it would have bankrupted them, and they were taught that this was just the way things were done. They truly believed it was economically necessary and unavoidable. When the colonists tried to begin issuing their own notes from their banks to ease up their economy, the British Crown was swift with punishment.
I hope readers take away from my book how integrated into the fabric of colonial existence it was and that it can’t be wished away. I hope it makes visitors visiting old plantations just as interested in the decrepit slave cabins and the people who lived in them, as in the grand ballrooms. I hope it makes them think of the often faceless and nameless people who were so much a part of the building of America.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a romantic comedy called Inconvenient Wife, which is a follow up to my recent romantic comedy Accidental Tryst. I have two other writing projects planned for this year that I’m not able to share anything about yet.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My goal in writing The Indigo Girl was to reintroduce readers to a real-life historical figure who shouldn’t have been forgotten. It was an absolute honor to write her story, and my hope is that Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s determined spirit and her important accomplishment are what people remember most when they finish the book.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb