Marlen Suyapa Bodden was working at the Legal Aid Society in New York when she stumbled upon the story that would turn her from a lawyer to a novelist. She first published The Wedding Gift herself, but intense reader interest led to it being picked up by St. Martin's Press, who will re-release the novel next week. In a guest post, Bodden shares the inspiration for her compelling debut.
In 1999, I was reading a nonfiction book on runaway slaves and came across a few lines and an endnote about an Antebellum divorce case from the Circuit Court in Talladega, Alabama (the city’s lovely courthouse, built in 1836 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is still in use and is the oldest working courthouse in the U.S.). A slaveholding man sued his bride for divorce because the child she gave birth to was not his. The court ruled in his favor and granted him all the property his wife brought to the marriage, including a young slave woman, who was a wedding gift from her father.
The fact that a person was given to another as if she were china or a tea service is shocking to our 21st-century minds, but what I learned while researching slavery, historical and modern, is that dehumanization is the chief tool that slave owners have used throughout time to control people and keep them enslaved. It was common for wealthy Antebellum slave owners to give their daughters maids as wedding presents, so the brides would have familiar faces in their new homes.
Though the Talladega case captured my imagination, I did not begin drafting The Wedding Gift until 2003, when another real-life story shocked me into action. A social worker at a women’s homeless shelter in New York City contacted me about a resident of the shelter who wanted to sue her former employers for unpaid wages. I found out that she had been brought from an Asian country to New York as a slave, and eventually escaped with the help of police. It occurred to me then that, like most people, I had thought slavery was in the past—but there I was, looking into the eyes of a former slave.
When I started writing The Wedding Gift, I was not predisposed to write a novel that cast White people as villains and Black people as heroes. As a novelist and reader, I think characters who are either complete demons or saints are boring. Sarah Campbell, the young slave who is given to her half-sister as a wedding present, is a heroine, but she is not perfect. Similarly, Theodora, wife of master Cornelius Allen, may be kind to Sarah, but she remains a slave owner. Even Cornelius, the villain of the novel, engages in acts of kindness, although he is motivated by keeping his slaves in good health so they can reproduce.
I first went to Alabama in 1997 to work on a civil rights case (I am also a lawyer) and since then have traveled throughout the state, including Talladega, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. The people of Alabama, of all races, have Southern charm and could not have been kinder to me. In The Wedding Guest, I hope to have done their complicated history justice—and to have given voice not only to the more than 27 million slaves of today but also to my own ancestors who, beginning in the 16th century, were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the New World.
Thanks, Marlen! For more on The Wedding Gift, on sale September 24, visit her website.
Every author finds their calling—and their material—differently. Sarah Bruni, whose first novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, was published just last month, shares her path to publication in a guest blog post. Perhaps it's not surprising that such a fresh and unusual story—which blends the Spider-Man mythology with the story of two unconventional loners—didn't present itself in a normal way!
I didn’t set out to write a novel at all. If I had I known from the start that’s what I was doing, I probably would have approached the task very differently. I began writing a collection of short stories set in Chicago in 2006. In one of them, a lonely young woman working in an Iowa gas station, eager for escape, allowed herself to be kidnapped by a gun-wielding taxi driver who called himself Peter Parker. Making a pact to rob her gas station and drive to Chicago in his stolen taxi, these two outcasts were my collection’s only characters who behaved so oddly: borrowing identities from comic books, acting out on the fringes of society. I didn’t know what to make of them; neither did my readers.
"Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience."
The thing that’s struck me most about the novelist’s task this first time through is the incredible sense of commitment that it requires to spend so much time in a single created world. Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience. It was sometimes a challenge to stay committed to these characters I had first encountered nearly seven years ago, to continue to find new ways to move with them through their experiences. But being a long and imperfect form, a novel allows opportunities for digression and experimentation that are different from those available in shorter fiction. I was surprised by how much my characters were able to change and develop with me as a writer, how their behaviors shifted along with my interests—that’s in some way what made me stick with them for so long.
To celebrate the publication of his fourth novel, Last Days (St. Martin's Griffin) later this month, British horror writer Adam Nevill shares 10 modern novels that made him a better horror writer.
I have a very old-school approach to writing because it’s the only one I know: read the canon of the field you want to contribute to, acquire the craft of good writing and develop a voice. If it takes 10 years or longer, so be it. Here are 10 modern horror novels that just might inspire you to be a better writer.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
The author achieves an effective suspension of reader disbelief, and a triumph of quiet hero characterization. No book frightens me as much as this one.
The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
A dark and blackly comic descent into paranoia and surreal weirdness, by the English master of the modern ghost story. A testament to the power of suggestion over graphic description. Also, a fine rebuff to anyone who believes horror is merely pulp lacking high literary value.
The Terror by Dan Simmons
An extraordinary historical novel, horror novel, and crime thriller all in one story. A monumental feat of multi-sensory descriptive writing too, that actually made me feel cold while under a warm duvet in a modern heated house. Quality writing and epic storytelling.
The Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
One of the best horror novels I have read. An enigmatic, compelling triumph of great lyrical writing and storytelling.
World War Z by Max Brooks
This innovative concept novel that makes you wonder whether the Z war actually happened. I suspect it was the book that launched the recent “George Romero dead rise” subgenre in horror fiction, but I still haven’t read better. Don’t wait for the film, read it!
Every Dead Thing by John Connolly
Like Thomas Harris, I think John Connelly demonstrates, time and time again, the perfect blend of horror and crime fiction. This is the first of his Charlie Parker books.
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
I don’t think the author would thank me for regarding this as a horror novel. From the quality of the writing to the eye-wateringly loathsome villains, to the heartbreaking story, it is a great novel that also disturbs and horrifies and is swollen with a sense of dread.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Everything at stake on every single page. Fiction doesn’t get much grimmer, but nor does it matter as much. One of only a handful of books I have reread three times (and counting).
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
A powerful slice of domestic horror about orphaned children in an ordinary setting. Dark, perverse, and very disturbing, but exquisitely written.
The Shining by Stephen King
The daddy of modern horror novels, and one which all haunted house novels are compared to (usually unfavorably). Perhaps also the greatest family-in-peril horror novel.
Got anything to add to the list? Find out more about Nevill and his path to publication in a behind-the-book story, and visit his website for more information on Last Days, the story of an independent filmmaker whose comeback project takes a terrifying turn.