EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Delia Sherman on “The Freedom Maze”

Delia Sherman writes stories and novels for younger readers and adults. Her most recent short stories have appeared in the young adult anthology Steampunk! and in Ellen Datlow’s Naked City. She’s written three novels for adults: Through a Brazen Mirror, The Porcelain Dove, and The Fall of the Kings (with Ellen Kushner). But now she’s turned her hand to novels for younger readers.  Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen are both set in the magical world of New York Between. Her newest novel, The Freedom Maze, is a time-travel historical about ante-bellum Louisiana.  When she’s not writing, she’s teaching, editing, knitting, and cooking. When not on the road (one of her favorite places to be), she lives in a rambling apartment in New York City with partner Ellen Kushner and far too many pieces of paper.


Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I want to focus on The Freedom Maze. What was the inspiration for this novel and what made you decide you needed to write this book?

Delia Sherman: My original inspiration for the novel was a dream.  I dreamed I was sitting on the window seat of the house I was living in, looking out the window at a formal garden and a hedge maze that were nothing like my actual half-wild New England shrubbery.  When I woke up, that scene, and especially that maze, stuck with me.  I found myself wondering where the maze was, who had made it, and how it might be used in a story.

Why that dream should have inspired a book about slavery and race and gender is a little less clear-cut. I don’t remember deciding to write about those things—I just found myself in the middle of doing it, without quite knowing how I came to be there. Once having committed, however, I couldn’t (wouldn’t) back out, although I had many reasons to do so.  Something drew me into those deep waters, and I had to explore them.

Here are some thoughts, long after the fact, about why.

When I was growing up, most of the characters in all the books I read were both white and Christian.  Every once in a while, there would be a kindly Indian manservant or a kindly Magical Negro manservant or an evil Chinese manservant, or a king or queen or prince with dusky skin and doelike eyes and magnificent black hair.  Even when I was a child, it was perfectly obvious to me that these characters, both good and bad, were mere devices, like the wicked witches and helpful crones of fairytale, who existed only to help or hinder the hero in his quest.

Like all children, I wanted to read books that reflected my own reality, even if in a magic mirror.  And my own reality included real people who were neither white nor Christian.  I grew up in New York, surrounded by people of all colors and backgrounds—people whose thoughts, actions, and emotions were every bit as real and valid as mine.  This had a profound effect on me.  My first children’s book, Changeling, is all about the rich diversity of New York life—my northern experience, as it were.

The Freedom Maze explores the Southern side of my upbringing.  My mother and most of the Louisiana and Texas relatives were unselfconsciously, casually racist, in an “of course those people aren’t as good as us” kind of way—“those people” being Catholic and Jewish as well as people of any color other than white.  It also reflects the social upheavals of the 50’s and 60’s, when civil rights were in the news nearly every night, and the only family I knew who didn’t discuss Martin Luther King and school desegregation and freedom marches over dinner was mine, because Mama didn’t think politics a fit subject for meal-time conversation.

Now I come to think about it, probably one of the main reasons I needed to write this book was because I’ve never been comfortable with talking about politics.  I think the arguments of racism are stupid and short-sighted, that the justifications of the prejudiced are irrational, that oppression of any kind rots the souls of the oppressors, and that people are much stronger when they work together than when they work against each other.  But I don’t often say so, not in so many words.  I don’t actually say any of that in The Freedom Maze.  But I try to show it in every way I could think of.

CT: Since racism and prejudice is part of the novel, what kind of research did you have to do to get it right? Did you ever feel afraid about writing such topics, since in some ways you are one of the privileged?

DS: Oh, I was terrified.  I’m not only white, I’m a WASP, with plantations on my father’s side of the family if not (as far as I know) on my mother’s. I’ve always known where my next meal was coming from, and when I decided to become an academic and an artist instead of marrying a successful man the way my mother wanted me to, nobody had the legal right to stop me.  And yet I wanted—needed—to write about life in the slave quarters

It’s not an easy topic to research.  The basic texts on the subject were written by white historians (at least when I began the research back in the late 80’s), and much of the material they presented came from the cotton plantations of Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, and the Carolinas rather than the sugar plantations of Louisiana.  And when I went down to Louisiana to research plantation life there, most of what was easily accessible concerned the people who were being cooked for, not the people who were doing the cooking.  The guide at one plantation we visited, when I asked what people ate, went into glowing detail about the hams, the syllabubs, the white cakes and roasts.  “The slaves,” I said.  “I want to know what the slaves ate.”  She looked blank.  “I don’t know.  Leftovers?”

Luckily, there is a Museum of Plantation Life in Baton Rouge, with an extensive library of documents and an entire rebuilt Quarter of shops and homes, furnished with period tools, looms, black moss stuffed pallets, home-made furniture, and kitchen implements.  It was there, and in the research collection at Loyola, that I found a lot of the information I was looking for about what Sophie’s daily life would have been like.  Finding out how sugar was made in 1860 was a bit more of a challenge, and including a (in retrospect) hilarious phone call to the Louisiana Sugar Board, and a fascinating and useful afternoon in the Jeanerette Sugar Museum, which I borrowed, in its outward form at least, for the Oakwood Historical Museum in The Freedom Maze.

Possibly the hardest thing to get even remotely right and certainly one of the hardest things to write about, was the part of the book that drew on Voudon.  As a writer, I’m used to playing with fairy-tales and folk traditions, turning tropes on their heads and generally wreaking havoc for my own artistic purposes.  But Voudon is a living religion, with powerful and chancy gods who I respect even if I don’t worship them.  I read every book I could find on the subject, and in New Orleans, I interviewed a Voodooienne—to very little real effect.  Luckily, one of my old Clarion students turns out to be a priest, and was kind enough to talk me through what would be proper and useful to say and what to leave alone.  There are phrases and images in the book that I added because he said to.  He warned me right up front that inserting that tricksy keeper of doors and time Papa Legba into the book was a dangerous choice, but I had to.  The logic of the book demanded it.  And with this book, I needed to follow that logic, or there wouldn’t have been any point in writing it in the first place.

CT:  How did you settle on Sophie as a character: her race, her age, her paradigm?

DS: This all happened 24 years ago, so my memories are not as clear as they might be.  But I do know that I was determined, from the beginning, to put a girl whose character was originally passive, shy, and physically timid in the middle of an story where being passive was both a survival skill and a liability.  That’s not quite true—I don’t think about characters that abstractly. Let’s say I wanted to give the kind of girl I was (passive, shy, physically timid) one of the adventures I read about when I was a child.

Sophie began life as a real author stand-in.  I gave her my glasses and my habit of mediating life through the books I read (not my asthma, though—that seemed excessive), my race, my privileged upbringing, my only-childness, my Episcopalian background, my allergy to emotional unpleasantness.  I even adapted my mother’s maiden name for the sugar plantation Oakwood (which is entirely made-up, at least as far as having one in the family is concerned).  Sophie’s mother’s divorce was suggested by the ladies in the writing group in Maine where I was living when I started the book.  Her age was entirely an artifact of its being a writing group for YA books.  I didn’t want to deal with sex and romance, so I wanted her to be pre-adolescent, but old enough not to be a child—14, seemed like a good age.  14 in 1960, though, (at least in the world I grew up in) was a lot less sophisticated and worldly than it is now, so I took her down a year.  At 13, she still reads young for her age, but then, she is.

As the book grew and developed, Sophie grew and developed with it, getting further from me as her life got further from mine.  The plot influenced her as she influenced the plot, as characters tend to do, in one of those chain reactions of decisions that—consciously or unconsciously—determine a novel’s emotional and thematic structure.  It surprised me as much as it surprises Sophie to discover her which branch of the family she’s descended from, although once that scene was written, it seemed inevitable.  Sophie’s discovery is the only logical explanation for why the Creature would haul so very unheroic a girl back through time to do a heroine’s job.

CT: If Sophie is our heroine, how did you decide upon your antagonists? Her ancestors in the past, for example, could have been crueler to Sophie (and some of the family members are spoiled and unfair).

DS: The antagonists kind of came with the territory.  In the children’s books I grew up with, adults were frequently the villains—cruel stepmothers, absent fathers, eccentric and autocratic grandparents, inattentive mothers give the protagonists someone to rebel against, fool, and otherwise overcome to drive the plot.

Sophie’s 1860’s family was harder than her 1960’s family. It would have been easy to make her ancestors pure villains, heartless, cruel, and decadent—as indeed I did make Old Missy’s late husband, Mr. Charles Fairchild.  But it wouldn’t have been historically accurate.  In the course of my research, I read a lot of diaries and articles written by slaveholders.  What struck me was not how awful these people were, but how ordinary, how clueless, how defensive, how self-deluding.  Like human beings throughout history, they told themselves lies to justify doing things that, by any truly objective measure, must be judged as morally reprehensible.  Many slaveholders seem genuinely to have believed that they were doing their slaves a favor by raising them from their barbaric state, clothing them, sheltering them, feeding them, teaching them religion and useful skills.  They told themselves that Africans did not feel pain or grief as acutely as Europeans did, that they were not as smart or as moral or as conscious of duty.  They told themselves that slavery had been around a long time, that everybody understood that it was necessary, that those abolitionists just didn’t understand the situation the way they did, that their slaves were better housed and fed than most peasants in Europe, despite being naturally lazy and irresponsible and prone to vice.

Which is very much the reasoning behind the corporal punishment of children—“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a familiar phrase even as recently as my own childhood, even though we were spanked rather than caned—and the beating of women. And, on a larger scale, the witch trials and the Inquisition.

Anyway, to me, it’s a lot more horrible when an ordinarily nice woman like Mrs. Fairchild, who considers herself a good Christian and genuinely tries to behave responsibly towards every soul under her care, finds herself punishing a child she thinks is her granddaughter by sending her into the cane fields because the system demands it, and the system is more important than the child or her own feelings, or even being fair.  She tries to be a good mistress, but, as Africa says in the book, “There ain’t no such thing as a good mistress, on account of a mistress ain’t a good thing to be.”

CT: Taking a step back, how do you currently see yourself as a writer and an artist?

DS: I’ve been asking myself the same question for the past year.  This seems to be a time of transition for me, as I look at the books and stories I was excited by writing over the past few years and the ideas I’m excited about tackling now.  The inner eleven-year-old I channeled in Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen has grown into the thirteen-year-old Sophie of The Freedom Maze and the teenager of stories like “Flying” and “The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor.”  I still have and love that part of my imagination–the book I’m currently working on is a novel-length version of “The Wizard’s Apprentice,” about a runaway boy who becomes the apprentice of an evil wizard in rural Maine.  But my inner young adult is clamoring for equal time.  I’ve got a novel about a young girl and a mysterious older man in New York during the Depression that is currently colonizing the back of my brain, and another about magic and automatons and Sherlock Holmes that’s in the thinking stages.  And I want to keep writing short stories.

The thing is, there’s a difference between being a writer and having a career.  Being a writer is more about following your heart, taking the time it takes to write the book you want to write, worrying more about pleasing yourself than following a trend.  Having a career is much more outer-directed, goal-oriented, and fast-paced.  You need to write a book every year or eighteen months, you need to keep an eye on the market, on what’s selling and what’s sellable.  Both approaches can produce excellent fiction (both approaches can also produce dreck), and there’s no law saying that you can only take one of them in the course of your writing life.  I’ve had to turn things in that didn’t feel finished to me.  Temperamentally, I’m far better suited to being a writer.  But I like the increased visibility of having a career.

In short (like writing), how I see myself as a writer and an artist is an ongoing process.

What I do know, however, is that I’m in this (however “this” is defined) for the long haul.  Writing is not like being a ballet dancer.  You can keep doing it all your life.  Which is what I intend to do.

CT: What inspires you?

DS: Everything. No, really.  Interesting faces seen in subways and cafes or met walking down the street remind me of characters I’m already writing about or made me think of new ones.  Non-fiction gives me incidents, backgrounds, social structures, themes. Plays, paintings, photographs, decorative arts give me details, ideas to play with, faces and costumes and props for my characters to interact with.  Fiction entertains me at the same time it contributes to the conversation I’m always having with other writers: What are you doing?  How do you do it?  What can I learn from you?

CT: What are you currently reading or what currently interests you?

DS: I’m reading Connie Willis’s Blackout, and loving it.  It’s a meta-portal fantasy and a soft-SF novel that manages to be almost entirely plot-driven while still paying full attention to creating wonderfully real characters.  And I’m reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, which is making me perfectly happy because it’s a story about stories written by a man who knows his folklore.  And I’m reading Wind in the Willows before I go to bed at night because it’s like drinking of a magic well:  No matter how many times I return to it, it’s still clear and refreshing and new.  And I see a lot of live theater.  It’s art that breathes and changes and responds to its audience in a way no other art does.  Recently I saw War Horse, all animated drawings and puppets and theatrical magic.  Also a brand-new Baroque opera pastiche based on The Tempest (with a little bit of A Midsummer Nights Dream mixed in) at the Metropolitan Opera.  And The Seminar, a hyper-realist play about a writing seminar led by a truly nasty ex-bad boy author played by Alan Rickman.

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