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Thursday, 5 May 2011

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

By David Fuller

I hold in my hands a hardcover copy of Sweetsmoke. It is real, it is solid, and when I open it, familiar words fill my eyes. The words seem to have a life of their own as they carry me into the 19th Century and into Cassius's world, and it takes a moment for me to remember that these words were written in this chair, here at this desk, in this office. The book rests in my hands as if it were inevitable, as if the future held its breath waiting for these pages to arrive.

Couldn't be further from the truth. There was nothing inevitable about the creation of this novel. Its birth followed a series of steps and missteps that played out over years of work, and if not for other supposedly "inevitable" projects that fell short of their inevitable status, Sweetsmoke would not have existed at all. My life could easily have traveled a different path whose final destination would have been far afield, yet appeared equally inevitable.

Let me take a moment to note the distinction I make between inevitability and Fate. Fate, to me, is Homerian. Fate suggests gods and goddesses with some soothsayer's sense of foreboding.  Fate determined the early death of Achilles, but first he had to make the choice to go to Troy. And it was a choice, offered by his mother, Thetis: he could live a quiet life into anonymous old age, or go out in a brilliant, explosive flame of combat that would cause his name to chime through history. Even in Homer's world, fate was not inevitable, although many would argue that Achilles could make no other choice.

In my definition, fate has a storybook sense of propulsion. The best writers foreshadow fate in their texts so that a reader is not taken by surprise when a character reaches his or her... inevitable end.
Inevitable is a different beast. Inevitable plays out in hindsight. By that rule, everything in life is inevitable. I choose not to see Sweetsmoke as inevitable. Certainly, key elements in my life guided me to Sweetsmoke. To begin with, family history. I have been told that more than 140 of my ancestors fought, on both sides, in the Civil War — also known as the War Between the States, or the Recent Unpleasantness. Among those ancestors was a famous Confederate general. I discovered, while doing research for the novel, that he was a slave owner. The fact of this history (including the slave-owning ancestor) does not make a book about a slave on a tobacco plantation inevitable, of course, nor does it make inevitable that I would write about the Recent Unpleasantness. But it is a marker by which you can track the decision to start the research (research that took over eight years) that led me to write the book. Here is another marker: when I was seven years old, my family moved to Europe and we lived there for four years. This gave me an outsider's perspective, one that allowed me to see the world through the point of view of other human beings. I'd like to think that I had a natural empathy, as well, but this experience certainly turned on that light. The most important outsider's perspective came to me in a stunning revelation when I returned to the United States: I suddenly saw my country in a different, unexpected, and unflattering light. This was a larger step to seeing through the eyes of a slave in Civil War Virginia. But again, it did not make writing the novel inevitable.

As a teenager, I worked for an African American production company and did illustrations, paintings, for a multi-media presentation about black history in the United States entitled We Are Black. Add that marker to the path, but keep in mind that it was by accident that I absorbed African American history. In college, I gave up painting as a possible vocation and took to filmmaking. I recognized I would need to learn to write if I was to become the filmmaker I hoped to be. Another marker, this time a step in the direction of eventually writing prose.

My screenwriting career touched many moments of inevitability while it was unfolding, at least from the point of view of friends and family. If certain movies had been blessed with better timing, more appropriate directors, different studios or producers or stars, it is possible I would never have written prose at all. If that big budget action movie had been better and sold tickets, I might have been typecast as an action writer, and possibly, inevitably, evolved into a director of action films. One television pilot seemed, at the time, so inevitable to everyone in Hollywood that my agent began to look for new clients so that he could start to build their careers, as my career (with my writing partner) was obviously set. The pilot had a fine script, a hot actor, a major studio, and one of the big four networks behind it. Agents of other writers were so certain we were on the air that a stack of writing samples began to arrive so we could build our writing staff. We did not make it on the air, and to this day, that pilot remains unseen. The reasons for its demise were so random, that as the fa├žade of inevitability fell away, I was left baffled by the entire experience.

Very well. Let's just say that Sweetsmoke stands on the backs of many failures. Had any one of those failures come to fruition, then that piece of work would have seemed inevitable and left Sweetsmoke somewhere out in the rain.

What is inevitable, if you know me and my writing, is that for this work to exist, Cassius could not be a victim, despite the fact that he lives in a world of extraordinary oppression. In order to be able to write Sweetsmoke, this was an absolute. It was my way into the story, through Cassius's strength, not the horror of his circumstance. It was also inevitable, if I was to tell the story, that I would not depict noble slaves toiling under the gaze of mustache-twirling, Simon Legree-like masters. Slaves and planters alike would have to be complex, conflicted, political human beings, as intelligent, stupid, conniving, and generous as every other human being. While this may connote an unfair use of the word inevitable, it is the only way I see it applying to my book.

The story of Sweetsmoke was born and evolved inside me, maybe from the moment I returned to the United States as a boy, or maybe from the time I learned African American history. When it emerged, it came fully formed into my mind. I knew it would have to be set in Virginia, on a tobacco plantation, during the war. I knew Cassius would be a carpenter, as carpenters had more freedom than other slaves. I knew there would be a mystery and a murdered woman, and I knew she would be a freed slave and a spy for the North. I knew that her back story would involve Cassius on a personal level. I also knew that the mystery would provide the bones that would allow me to apply the muscles, blood, and skin of historical fiction in order to explore the character of Cassius. I did not know that Cassius and his story would bother me, push me, and force me to continue until the book was done. It would not let go. It was as if, once the story came to me, seeing it through to its conclusion was inevitable. Or perhaps it was Fate.


Deborah Swift said...

Your passion for your subject matter really comes through in this post. I like your description of Cassius's strength driving the story. It takes a kind of strength to write a book, I always think, or at least a kind of dogged persistence!

David Fuller said...

You are very kind. I loved your piece, which I think is not up yet -- the image of coming upon a white tent in the middle of a path in the middle of nowhere is exquisite. There is nothing human beings will not do. That is about as entertaining a story as I have ever heard, particularly concerning the genesis of a novel.

Ann Weisgarber said...

What I especially like about your post, David, is the idea of your being an outsider in your own country. That's what gave you the ability to write Sweetsmoke instead of a memoir or anything that resembles your personal life. Let's hear it for the novelist's ability to step away from the present and into another century. I can't wait to read this.

David Fuller said...

I have a theory with which most teachers of writing disagree. I believe you should write what you don't know. I believe you should do research and learn about other things. Then, when you write, you come into the equation and fill up the work, as it emerges through your own prism. So there it is: Write what you don't know.

Ann Weisgarber said...

David, I'm with you on this. It's so much more interesting to leave my own life and to leap into a new place and new time.