Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Q&A with Piper Huguley




Piper Huguley is the author of the novel American Daughters. Her other books include the novel By Her Own Design. She is a literature professor at Clark-Atlanta University, and she lives in Atlanta.


Q: What inspired you to write a novel based on the lives of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, and Portia Washington Pittman, the daughter of Booker T. Washington?


A: No historical fiction had ever been written before about Portia Pittman. When I went to investigate her life more and discovered her friendship with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, I was intrigued.


Interracial friendships between white and Black women have long been a research interest of mine, but I wanted to think more about why we knew little about theirs.


These similarities between women are critical, I think, for fostering change, but they've not been given much treatment in historical fiction until recently so I wanted to contribute to this project, knowing that the factual information for it was scarce. Taking on this project, for me, was all about inscribing what was possible. 


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you? 


A: The marketing department at William Morrow chose the title. I had called it Portia and Alice during the writing of it. It's a frequently used title, apparently, but for me the title does signify that these two women represent a broad swath of the American story, but both are equal citizens of the country with very different experiences. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Much of the research involved looking at the existing sources about each one of them individually and then mapping out the natural places where their lives would overlap.


Of course there was much out there about Alice, including her strange autobiography, but there are only a handful of mentions of their actual relationship. Overall, most people don't acknowledge that they have friends of other races, because most of them don't have those friendships.


Looking at their individual lives, I was most surprised that Alice adhered to the status quo far more often than what people think. For Portia, I was surprised to see her appear in the census twice. I think that discovery casts an interesting light on what people take to be a truthful resource. 


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the book?


A: Well, for historical fiction in general, the story takes precedence. It's the reason why the genre has the author's note at the back of the novel to explain which parts of the story have been fictionalized.


There is no set percentage for any story, but given that this particular story has only those few mentions of the relationship in their biographies and in Portia's obituary, much of the story of when and how they overlapped was fictionalized. The parts of the story dealing with their individual movements is more grounded in fact. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Historical fiction is having a difficult time in this current environment. I have another subject I've wanted to write about and I'm hopeful I can sell the proposal of her story. Honestly, historical fiction authors tend to keep the specific nature of their work-in-progress under wraps, so I'm not going to name this person right now.


I only hope that I can continue to do the work that I have done with American Daughters and my previous book, By Her Own Design, of bringing the stories of these unsung Black women to the light. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My hope is that the themes of this book, that fully realized women must have a purpose in life and friendship between the races is possible, are talked about, acted out and are spread around in these uncertain times we live in. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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