Sweetsmoke, David Fuller, 2008
Historical Fiction, 309 pages
Hyperion Books, ARC Edition
Synopsis taken from the author’s website:
The year is 1862, and the Civil War is in full flame. Cassius Howard, a slave and carpenter on a tobacco plantation, risks everything – extreme punishment, sale to a cotton plantation, even his life – to learn the truth concerning the murder of a freed black woman, a woman who secretly taught him to read and once saved his life. No one gives a damn about her small, rude, unimportant death in the midst of a brutal and hellish war. No one but Cassius, who braves unimaginable dangers to escape the plantation and avenge her death.
Sweetsmoke is Cassius’s journey into knowledge, knowledge that tests him and very nearly destroys him, ultimately guiding him toward freedom.
I like the above verbiage better than what was provided on the book jacket. It more accurately touches on what I think is an important aspect of this story. In fact, it is that last sentence that sticks with me the most, as it is this impression that still remains long after I turned the last page.
It is such a strong undercurrent, that the solving of his friends murder is almost anti-climatic when you realize that so much more was accomplished by Cassius’ quest. In seeking vengeance for another, he found a way to free him from that which enslaved him, physically and emotionally.
I received an advanced reader’s copy of Sweetsmoke through my membership in the Early Reviewers group at LibraryThing. Upon opening the package from Hyperion Books, I was impressed. Presented in trade paperback form, the cover is well done and appropriate for the story within. For me, a book cover is as much a part of the overall package as the contents, and neither failed to disappoint.
As I stated earlier, the main plot is a murder mystery. But as the story unfolds, so do the intricate layers of characterization and storytelling, which clearly display the skill of the author not only in the research needed to set the environment, but the understanding of the lives of the various peoples caught up in one of the most tumultuous times in American history.
From the first chapter onward, Fuller offers an easy to read, informative story that at times is uncomfortable, but not because of his writing. Slavery was a brutal institution, and the author does not shy away from the atrocities committed. However never are they presented gratuitously or so graphic, that one must pull their eyes and minds away in horror or disgust.
One of the passages that truly struck me was one in which a slave owner had a thought, a daydream if you will, which offered an insight she brushed aside, but I could not:
A strange and fleeting image entered Ellen’s mind, that of a large cage in a small room. The cage was filled with slaves while their masters were outside the cage squeezed and immobile in the narrow space between the cage and walls. This was a queer image indeed as both master and slave were unable to reach the fresh air that beckoned through a wide open door.
For me this represented the quandary that faced the South at this time. That this institution that many felt they could not do without, had in fact become a “responsibility” they could no longer handle, and in a sense, imprisoned them as much as those who they enslaved.
Freedom and a better life lay just within reach, but were inaccessible because of a belief system that few refused to acknowledge as inhumane and unacceptable.
I would love to go on and on about this book, but if I did, what incentive would be left for you to go out and get a copy yourself and read it. And you should. I could have read this book in one sitting, but started it much too late in the day to do so: it was that good.
For this reason it is getting 5 Stars.
Below is an interview the author kindly consented to provide for a writer’s group I co-host over at RedBubble. I hope you enjoy it – as well as his book, which I highly recommend you read.
I was intrigued by this comment you made in your Q&A: “Imagination and empathy are the tools of the writer.” What importance do you give these ‘tools’ over such things as research? Or are they simply parts of a whole, and should be used together to create not only an accurate story, but also one which has feeling and substance.
First of all, thank you for inviting me to take part in this interview.
When speaking of imagination and empathy versus research, it depends upon the project, of course, but a balance is needed, particularly in historical fiction. With SWEETSMOKE, research was essential so that the reader could comfortably enter the world of Civil War Virginia and slavery, and feel safe in the hands of the writer. If the reader intuits that the writer is faking it, then the reader will dismiss the book out of hand. Research was also my net. I would not have been at ease writing this story if I did not feel like I knew the world in which Cassius lived. I want to say up front, I am not a historian. I’m a storyteller. I did the research not to understand the whole of the world of 1862 America, but to be able to tell this particular story.
Once the world is established through research, you then have to tell your story, and the writer needs imagination and empathy to see through the eyes of his or her characters. Once I put myself into Cassius’s world, I could then attempt to see and experience that world through his prism. It begins with his attitude. I was interested in seeing Cassius, who is wholeheartedly not a victim, navigate his way through a world in which he is savagely oppressed. He must find cracks and corners through which to accomplish his journey to knowledge, and then, hopefully, to some form of freedom.
You’ve also stated that “We all must pay a great debt of gratitude to the writers who have come before us.” Do you feel that now that you have written a novel (and hopefully a successful one), that the pressure is on you to provide a positive influence for others?
I don’t think of it as pressure. I have tried always to support other writers. Many hopeful young screenwriters have come to me with their work. I often spend two or three days reviewing the work and giving extensive, written notes. Sometimes the writers just want to be told it’s great and will sell for millions. But I believe you do a young writer a disservice if you don’t offer your most candid thoughts. How do they get better, otherwise? I had the benefit of a number of excellent writers, particularly in prose, who kicked my sorry butt, and eventually, gradually, painstakingly, made me better.
To what extent did you consider writing for the existing market in order to get published? Or did you strictly write for yourself, listening to your own voice, allowing the story to develop regardless of external considerations and pressures?
I have tried to write to please the marketplace. Whenever I do, that piece of work dies an ignominious death. When I am personally driven to write out of affection for a particular story, I often sell those pieces. But I know a lot of writers who understand the zeitgeist and feed it, and I respect that more than you can possibly know. I just haven’t been very successful at it.
With SWEETSMOKE, I figured I had painted myself into a corner. I had what seemed to be a Big Idea, but I was researching heavily and going for accuracy and (oh my) maybe even hoping to write well. I was not consciously trying to be literary, as that is the kiss of death, but the book I was interested in reading would have to be as well-written as I was capable of at that moment, with characters to whom I could relate. So I figured it was almost certain to fall between the cracks. That’s a long way of saying, I wrote it the way I heard it in my head because I wanted to be proud of it, even if it ended up sitting in manuscript form on the shelf.
I had read where some aspects of your characters came about during the writing of your novel. How much do you allow your characters to evolve and change throughout the story? How important is it for a writer to be extremely flexible in this regard?
If I get to the point early on in the story where the characters come alive in my head, then I know the story is working, because they take over. They don’t change the plot, but they do add to the intimate details of their lives and make the story richer. Subconsciously, we put things together from our homework as well as from our daily lives, and these things emerge through our fingers onto the keyboard in sometimes surprising fashion. When I try to force those things to happen, I always have to cut that stuff out later. A certain wrong word or awkward passage will poke at me (after I finish work for the day), and will keep poking, sometimes days later, until I go back and fix it. I’ve learned to listen to that naggy little voice in my head; it shames me for being lazy, and forces me to eradicate pathetic attempts at humor that I’ve tried to crowbar into the story.
Did you write straight through, and then go back and begin re-writes/editing? Or did you write a little at a time, and re-write as you went along?
At the beginning I spent a lot of time reviewing and rewriting, trying to find a handle on the overall voice, so that once I got it, I could charge forward. I was also looking for the characters to settle in. Cassius’s voice came early. But making sure I found a style that echoed the 19th Century while still being accessible to a modern audience took a little more time.
How do you determine the intended genre for your work or should this even be a consideration for writers?
Again, it depends on the project. If you’re writing a sports story, there are certain formulas that are going to pop up, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. You can either follow the formula, or you can try to turn it on its head. You also need to know your audience. There are expectations that come with certain kinds of stories. If you’re going to shrug off a genre, you need to warn your reader or your audience early on in your story, so they know the new rules. Nothing annoys me more as a reader than a writer playing fast and loose with the rules without giving me a map so that I can follow along. There is no reason not to write using a well known genre, and sometimes we entertain ourselves by subverting the genre. David Mamet considers genre writers to be our finest writers, and gives particular kudos to John Le Carre, George Higgins and Patrick O’Brian. I love professionalism, and I respect professional writers who know how to do their jobs.
What sort of lessons have you learned from writing Sweetsmoke?
I learned that you have to trust your material, something I’ve always known, but it was particularly important to remember in a piece of historical fiction that might easily have slipped off the rails. I learned that it is sometimes easier to write from the point of view of someone who is very different from you, because you experience new things through a fresh set of eyes, all the while connecting to and exploring your common humanity.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that research can be a trap. At some point, you just have to give up on knowing everything and start writing, and remember that you can pick up the things that you need as you go along.
Do you plan to write another novel in the future?
Yes, I have already started a new novel. As I have yet to tell my agent and my editor anything about it, I think I will keep that secret here, as well.
Do you feel relieved you’ve finished a work, or a little sad that it’s done?
I am relieved when I get to the end in that it’s nice to have a finished piece. Of course, it’s never finished, and in the case of SWEETSMOKE, with the help of my excellent editor, Leslie Wells, the book just kept getting stronger. Someone once said that books are never finished, they’re abandoned. I could be working on it still. It’s strange to see it in book form, because that really means I have to leave it alone. I also miss writing Cassius. He was very much alive in my head for a long time. But his story is now told, and it’s time to move on.
How did you get a literary agent / publisher to read your work and pick you up?
I used every contact I had. I was not shy. I have been shy in the past, and watched work of which I was inordinately proud go precisely nowhere because I didn’t push hard enough. This time I thought I might be on to something and I called anyone and everyone I knew who might know someone. I am very lucky to be represented by Deborah Schneider, as she is not only a terrific human being, but a tough and ferocious ally. She liked the book and wanted to represent it, and she carried the ball into the endzone with publishers. Every writer should be lucky enough to have someone like her on their side.
Many of us have careers, families, etc. What tool or methods have you found that helps you work through and complete a project to meet a deadline?
In my early years, I wrote at the same time as working as an art director for a game show company. When things got tough and they let most of us go, I was lucky in the timing because I had just sold a screenplay. It went for $15,000, like all first screenplays, not quite enough to live on, but a first step.
I soon started working with Rick Natkin, and working with a partner taught me to compartmentalize. We often had four or five things going at the same time, all in different stages. You get good at jumping from one thing to another without dragging the first thing along. I have a lot of discipline when it comes to writing, discipline that I was forced to learn. I don’t have a set period of time when I write, but I know, when I’m working, that I will get my quality hours in. That flexibility has given me the time to spend with my sons, after school and on weekends, as they are growing up.
Is there any information you would like to share that has not been touched upon in the previous questions? Perhaps related to your experiences as an author or screenwriter?
While there are significant differences between screenplays and prose, there is much to carry from one to the other. One thing that does not carry over is respect. Screenwriters are given little respect in the movie world, which is unfortunate because it is a difficult craft to do well. In the world of publishing, my words, for better or for worse, are allowed to stand for themselves, and I can be judged on my actual work. This is something that I have really enjoyed.
Thank you again for allowing me to participate in this interview. I found your questions to be thoughtful and intelligent, and they challenged me to consider new things as well as to look at the work I had done in a fresh way.
It was my pleasure to take part.
I would like to add that it was my pleasure also in dealing with David for he is as gracious, kind, and generous as he sounds. His book was one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had this year, and I cannot say enough about how impressed I am at his first novel. I cannot wait until his next project hits the shelves.
My best wishes for success go out to him, and his family who, without doubt, supported him immensely through the entire process of bringing Sweetsmoke to fruition.