Dreams of freedom that wouldn't die
Tara Conklin didn’t always think of herself as a novelist. Sure, as a kid she always kept a journal and was, as she puts it, “scribbling stories.” And as a corporate attorney living in New York City, she loved her job in part because it included so much writing. But she wasn’t a writer.
“I was still writing just as a hobby,” she says. “It was my dirty little secret—I was a closet writer.”
Conklin spoke with BookPage from her home in Seattle. On the day we spoke, she was busily packing her young family for a trip to London, where her husband is from. Even so, the gracious Conklin spoke passionately about The House Girl, the luminous debut novel she has been writing on and off for several years.
After she started early drafts of the book, Conklin wasn’t quite sure what would become of it.
“I didn’t think I was writing a novel,” she says. “It was just another story but it kept getting longer and longer. There were many times I set it aside. I had two young kids. I didn’t have time to be spending on this pie-in-the-sky dream of writing a novel.”
But she couldn’t get Josephine Bell out of her head—she even had dreams about the character. A teenage house slave on a Virginia tobacco farm, Josephine dreams of freedom and plots an escape to Philadelphia, away from the cruel master who permanently hobbled one slave who tried to run away by slicing his heels.
The House Girl intertwines Josephine’s story with that of Lina Sparrow, a modern-day attorney who is helping with a lawsuit seeking reparations for slavery. Her work leads her to Josephine, who may have been the real artist behind paintings attributed to her mistress.
Conklin's novel toggles between centuries and characters who are searching for love and meaning in their lives.
As Lina dives deeper into her research, she struggles not only to find out what happened to Josephine but also to convey the breadth of slavery’s intergenerational impact—the “nature of the harm,” in lawyer-speak. And Lina has some mysteries in her own past she needs to confront, too, like what happened when her mother disappeared so many years ago.
Conklin played with the story for several years, but it was only after she quit her job in Big Law and moved to Seattle that she decided to commit to being a writer.
“I was sort of done with big cities, and we wanted to think of a good place to live with kids and where I could write,” she says. “It was definitely touch and go for awhile. People thought we were crazy.”
As she got deeper into The House Girl, it wasn’t lost on Conklin that another young white woman—Kathryn Stockett—was getting some pretty significant pushback for writing about black women in 1960s Mississippi in The Help. That was part of the reason Conklin chose to write in the third person and not try to accurately capture the diction of a 19th-century slave.
“When I was writing this, first of all, I never thought anyone would read it. I was just interested in the person,” she says. “Josephine is a character with universal human experience—she is someone who wanted all the same things we all want: freedom and love and meaning in her life.”
At this point, Conklin loses her train of thought and can’t pluck the word she wants off the tip of her tongue.
“Can you tell my baby is teething and I didn’t get much sleep last night?” she laughs.
Though Conklin concedes that writing while parenting can be a challenge, “It’s one of the few careers that really lends itself well to being a parent. It’s not like you have to be in an office. I’m very unprecious about my writing time and space. I can pull the laptop out and write for 20 minutes while the kids play. I can write in a moving car. We have a very strict bedtime of 8 p.m. and then I sit down and write everything I thought about that day.”
The House Girl is the rare novel that seamlessly toggles between centuries and characters and remains consistently gripping throughout. It would appear that thoroughly modern Lina—self-sufficient, unattached—is everything the women in her research are not. But Lina feels a kinship when she reads a letter from a Virginia woman whose family helped slaves escape and run north, a woman who has realized she only wants a simple life full of love and kindness.
“Lina closed the biography. For a moment, Dorothea was present with her in the office, layered in skirts and petticoats, with her convictions and resolve, talking to Lina. Is it too much to wish for such a life? Is it too little? Lina laughed with tears in her eyes because the words written 150 years ago by a young woman she would never meet seemed truer than anything she’d read in her textbooks, anything she’d been told by her law professors. . . .”
Conklin’s debut novel is a quiet book; she never sends Lina breathlessly chasing down leads, and Josephine suffers her heartbreak not with The Color Purple-esque monologues but with unending dignity. But it is that very quietness that makes The House Girl so powerful.