Ann E. Burg is the author of the new children's historical novel Unbound, which focuses on a community of people fleeing slavery, known as maroons, who escaped to the Great Dismal Swamp, located in Virginia and North Carolina. Her other books include Serafina's Promise and All the Broken Pieces. She lives in Rhinebeck, New York.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your main character Grace, and how did you first learn about the history of the Great Dismal Swamp?
A: I was actually researching for another story when I came across an NPR article about the work of Daniel O. Sayers, a professor at American University, who has been leading research teams in the Great Dismal Swamp since 2004. That was my first encounter with the maroons.
The idea that an artifact can help us determine what someone ate, how they clothed themselves, or built their homes fascinates me. But it can never tell the whole story. Away from my computer and books, I began to wonder about the people. This connection is always the next step.
My imagination stretches across time and place and begins to stitch together vague shadows. These shadows knock about in my mind until they become infused with life, until they become so substantial that I can even hear them speak—that’s when I begin writing.
There is always more research to be done, but once a character begins to speak, I listen and start writing. From that point on, my characters become as real to me as my neighbors and friends.
Q: You’ve noted that you work with experts when you research your books. What were some of the things you learned that particularly surprised you about the runaways in the Great Dismal Swamp?
A: I think the very existence of the maroon community in the Great Dismal Swamp surprised me the most. I continue to be amazed by the courage and ingenuity of the individuals who forged their freedom there.
The research about this community isn’t new, but it doesn’t seem to be widely known. Dr. Sayers’s work shed light on the history for me and I wanted to learn more.
Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf's in-depth exploration of maroon society in her book Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, was invaluable to me; I pondered over every known details of the maroons’ existence.
I’m so fortunate and grateful that Dr. Diouf fact-checked Unbound and hope my book will shed light on this rich history for young readers and lead them to learn more about the maroons.
I’m excited that the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on the Mall in Washington, D.C., [opened] Sept. 24, and will display artifacts that Sayers and his team discovered in the Great Dismal Swamp. I can’t wait to go see them!
Q: You tell Grace’s story in verse. What do you think this format contributes to the narrative?
A: Verse allows a character to tell her story in her own words without any third party interference. When I write in verse, I become totally immersed in my character's world. Hopefully, this allows my readers a more direct connection to a character's thoughts and feelings.
Q: As someone who’s written for different age groups, does your writing process change depending on the type of book?
A: Unless I am writing for the very young child where rhythm dictates words, my writing process is pretty much the same.
Each story begins with the discovery of something I hadn't known or contemplated. I research, take notes, and let thoughts and feelings simmer together until the thread of a story and a possible character emerge.
Eventually, if it is a story worth telling, that character startles me out of my imaginings with a distinct and insistent voice. That's when I begin to write.
A targeted age group or word count isn't really something I think about until after my first draft. Then I rely on my editor to determine what readers might be most interested in what I've written.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on something but am still in the gathering-simmering-waiting-for-a-story/character-to-materialize stage so I can't be too specific. I can tell you that for the past few weeks I've been researching the history of ship scrapping...
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just that I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers! Thank you!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb