Dual Perspectives: Clara Silverstein’s Creative Challenge
As an English major specializing in southern literature, I read Civil War literature nearly every day. I’m fortunate to work at Mercer University Press where many of the publications are related to Civil War and southern history. One of our newest historical novels, Secrets in a House Divided, takes place in Civil War Richmond. Author Clara Silverstein, who has published a memoir, White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, and several cookbooks including A White House Garden Cookbook, captivates readers with “rich, poetic detail” as she tells us a story of a young Confederate mother who becomes pregnant out of wedlock at the latter end of the Civil War.
I had the pleasure of meeting Clara Silverstein this past weekend at the Decatur Book Festival. Earlier in the week she graciously agreed to an interview, and before I knew it I was sitting across from her in the downtown Decatur Starbucks waiting on my cinnamon dolce cold brew.
Elizabeth (E): To begin with a general question: what got you into writing?
Clara (C): So, I’m one of those people who always wrote. In third grade, we had this poetry journal in the back of the classroom, and whenever I had free time I’d go back there and write little poems. I created a newspaper that I called the “Doggy Gazette” for the news of dogs in the neighborhood. It’s just always something I’ve enjoyed doing. As I got older, I actually was trained as a journalist—that’s a way to make money as a writer (though, not as much anymore).
E: You went into journalism. Do you think that helped better prepare you for your creative writing?
C: Definitely. Two reasons. One, it keeps you facile with language. You’re always writing and using the language. The other reason is that it eliminates writer’s block. In journalism, if you have a story to write, you write your story! It might not be God’s gift to literature, but you write your story. Early on, I just got over myself. “Oh, I didn’t say it the way I wanted to.” Well, too bad! It had to get done.
With that piece of advice, my cold brew was ready, and we decided to trek down the sloping sidewalks together towards the quieter lobby of the Marriott where the conferences were being held. On the way, Clara ran into some literary friends and handed them a card with information about her book. I’m not sure I’d seen more friendly faces and tangible camaraderie in my whole life.
We hurried to the only empty table in the lobby. Once we nestled into our seats, I started recording, and we continued.
E: I feel my younger self would identify with Amanda. You explained her age, but we can even tell how old she is in the way she acts and responds—especially when it comes to Jeb. What inspired Amanda’s character?
C: Having been raised in Richmond, one of the things I saw were these pretty helpless and clueless white women who were not used to making decisions for themselves, to keeping house, and to really being in the trenches with their children day after day. They farmed all that work out to someone they hired (by the time I came along), but back in the Civil War era, it was to someone who was enslaved. And that would be their job: to do all the housework, to take care of the kids. Often there was more than one person in the staff, and so it created this whole class of [white] women who never really grew up and took charge of their own lives. I also was playing off the fact that people got married so young.
E: She’s sixteen when she gets married.
C: Yes, which is pretty young, but her [extended] family also wanted her out of their house.
E: Being an orphan really affected her need for acceptance.
C: Yes, that’s right. With Edwin [her husband], he’s certainly older and more experienced. Not a bad guy at all. He loves her, but he has his world, and she has hers.
E: Before I read the book, I thought it might have been an unrealistic representation of some kind of “sisterly love” between the two women, but it’s not like that. It differed from my expectations. Cassie is definitely more intelligent than Amanda. Which brings me to my next point. At the end of Chapter 8, Amanda learns a truth about slavery and separation of families. I thought at first that Cassie’s entire family had died because of the “shrine” she had made, but we later learn that’s not the case. Why did you decide to reveal the truth further on?
C: I wanted the reader to discover that along with Amanda. I wanted it to be important; what did Cassie talk about with Amanda? Cassie had to be very careful about what she shared. If something that awful has happened to you as the result of slavery, you’re not going to tell your owner that. It’s too personal. What could the owner do to make it better? Nothing, really. That’s the way slavery operated as a system, a complex system. We expect all the slaveowners to be really cruel. As a system slavery was horrible, though not every slaveowner was that cruel.
E: They still owned a person, but they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.
C: Exactly. In the generation my mother grew up in, she was basically raised by household “help.” That’s the way it was. Nobody thought anything of it. I would tell her, “Isn’t it too bad that an African American woman who was really good at math couldn’t get a job as an accountant?” Those jobs were not open to her. She would probably have to be a domestic servant, and that’s a waste of talent.
E: What prompted you to make an illegitimate pregnancy the lens through which you write about Civil War Richmond?
C: I felt like it was a personal crisis taking place in the time of a national crisis. One crisis plays off the other. [Amanda] never would have gotten into this situation if it were not for the war. She’d still be married, and Cassie would be there. [Amanda] never would have been in a position to be tempted by this soldier. The whole world was in chaos for her, so it forced this situation.
E: I read your book as an intersectional feminist text. I feel like a lot of feminist texts aren’t intersectional. It’s refreshing to read a story in which we have a three-dimensional black female character and a three-dimensional white female character.
C: Interestingly, I was in Amanda’s head at first. But I wanted to see an enslaved person walking out on a slaveowner. Because that happened in Richmond—Richmond is in flames and out walks the servant! But, then I realized, no one would believe that. It just seemed too easy. I wasn’t sure I was going to create Cassie, but as I was writing, I realized that this story had another point of view. What would it be like to be the enslaved person in this situation? What’s the power balance?
E: That’s what a lot of southern literature is missing, a story from both perspectives. You either get the slaveowner’s perspective or the slave’s perspective. That’s something unique about your book. It shows both in detail. They both go on their own journeys. Whereas Amanda’s is at home, Cassie’s is a journey in an attempt at freedom. Cassie wants to leave, she has no desire to remain a slave. However, it’s such a dangerous feat and she has to be careful and patient.
C: She does.
E: There’s one particular scene in which there’s nearly a sexual assault. It made my stomach turn, but it was important to show that these things happened.
C: The soldiers were so horrible, on both sides [Union and Confederate]—by the way. They just did not value African American lives. That scene shows how that plays out.
E: You don’t shy away from the implications of miscegenation and passing. That’s something that isn’t shown as much in novels based in the antebellum/Civil War.
C: Cassie’s husband Clancy is very light skinned. But, obviously someone raped Clancy’s mother. Also, when you do pass, it’s dangerous, too. Your speech patterns, your mannerisms and clothing are all different. When that’s over, I think [Cassie and her daughter Julia] are really relieved that they don’t have to [pass] anymore.
E: In Cassie and Julia’s travels, you see the difference between the dangers for a white woman [Julia passing] and a black woman at the same time.
C: They have to play these roles. They can’t be who they are, because that’s dangerous, too. There’s one thing I want to address to my readers: Why as a white woman am I imagining all these things about enslaved people? That’s my charge as a novelist. If I’m telling the full story, I have to imagine characters that are not myself. As a white woman, I will never know what it is like to be an African American woman. But the imagination is a powerful thing. It’s important to do it with sensitivity, and I did a lot of research to try to understand the perspective of a slave woman. Novelists use imagination all the time to bring characters to life. Men write from the point of view of women, and vice versa. This is our creative challenge. People read history books to find out what happened in the past. Historical novelists try and show how people felt about it.
In both the interview and in Secrets in a House Divided, Clara Silverstein’s breadth of knowledge about the Civil War South is incomparable. She allows us to witness two perspectives of a shared history simultaneously unfold. As we follow Amanda’s inner journey towards redemption, we also follow Cassie’s physical journey towards freedom. Silverstein illustrates the horrors of slavery in a realistic fashion while maintaining the complexity that we do not often see in Civil War dramas. I was captivated by this story not only because of its gripping narrative, but also its intersectional feminist undertones. Readers are taken “into the worlds of women across the color line” and can fully expect this novel to be unlike any southern story they’ve read before.
Clara Silverstein’s Secrets in a House Divided is now available for purchase through our site.