Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Genres, Complex Characters, and Healing Our Wounds

Dolen Perkins-Valdez follows the rabbit hole of historical footnotes, adds robust, nuanced characters,  rhythmic dialogue, and intricate subtexts, and produces some of the best historical fiction around.

The inspiration for her first book, Wench, came one day when she discovered a reference to Tawawa House, in Ohio, where white slave-owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses in the 1850s.

Her second book, Balm, takes place in Chicago shortly after the end of the Civil War, and follows the stories Hemp, who has just been freed from slavery, Madge, a black woman who grew up free and has the gift of healing, Sadie, a War Widow who’s creating a new life for herself as a medium, and Michael, a German-American doctor mourning the loss of his brother.

Dolen took the time to speak to me about both books over the phone, while she was visiting her home state of Tennessee.


[Judy Oldfield]: There’s tons of people writing historical fiction, but you seem to focus on details that other people might brush over. What draws you to your topics?

[Dolen Perkins-Valdez]: It’s a case-by-case thing. The thing that drew me to Wench is different than what drew me to Balm. With Wench I was really drawn to this place in Ohio that no one was really talking about and not just that place, but not talking about those kinds of places, and they weren’t having those kinds of conversations, which had to do with the psychological trauma of slavery and the physical abuse of women.  So I was really drawn to figuring out for myself what it was like for those women who were staying in that place.

For Balm, I was much more attracted to a broader conversation about how people were putting their lives together after the Civil War. I was also very intrigued by the continued, imagined hold of the Civil War over Americans and what that war continues to mean for us as a country.

[JO]: Despite taking place in the past, your themes are extremely relevant today. Do you intentionally put in a lot of parallels or do they naturally come about when you’re writing about race or gender in the past?

[DPV]: I think they naturally come about. I think any historian or aficionado of history or historical fiction writer believes there are clear connections between the past and the present and that’s why we’re captivated by the past. When I’m writing, I’m really trying to stay in that particular moment. I’m not trying to draw contemporary parallels because the characters wouldn’t have been able to draw those. And I think that my initial attraction in the first place is that these are questions that are still important now.

My hope is that by reading Balm we can reflect upon that moment and its connection to current day controversy, such as the continued presence of the Confederate flag on state ground. The flag continues to be present on dozens of state capitals and not just Charleston, South Carolina. There are monuments to Confederate generals all over the country. I think the country needs to think about this history and continue to contemplate what it means for us as a nation. I hope that this book is kind of a healing space for people as we think these things through.

[JO]: There’s so much nuance and complexity in your characters. There are times when the audience loves, hates, and forgives a character. How do you strike that balance between lovable and very flawed people?

[DPV]: The very first thing any author has to do is to love their characters. I love all my characters. I have a particular fondness for them even with those characters that I struggle to understand. In Wench, the character that I most struggled to understand was Drayle [a white slave-owner] and even though I had a difficult time understanding him, I tried to paint him with a compassionate brush stroke. Valerie Martin, the author of the book Property among others, wrote a blurb for Balm that said I “look to the past with a compassionate eye”. I think that’s what I try to do with my characters, to have compassion for them even when they’re really wrong. That’s the key for people who are writing about unlikeable characters.

[JO]: The New York Times recently took some heat for using the term “slave mistresses” but the description for Wench uses basically the same term, “enslaved mistresses”. How do you feel about using that term or is there a different term that you’d like your characters in Wench and the people that this really happened to described as?

[DPV]: The word “slave” is a very inadequate word to describe people, so scholars tend to prefer the term “enslaved people.” The word “slave” defines a person whereas “enslaved” defines a condition.

But the importance of The New York Times’s acknowledgement of that problematic phrase was that the history of rape of black women has largely gone unrecognized in this country. What makes these terms even more difficult is the lack of acknowledgement. If we had more direct, truthful acknowledgement of what happened (which is a very terrible history but it is our history as a country) I think there would be less anxiety around how we term it.

But it’s very difficult and my editor and I struggled with how we would phrase it when I published Wench. I think there are some people who maybe read the front jacket and thought well they weren’t mistresses they were raped. I understood that sentiment but I think after they read the book and understood that the title of the book, Wench, actually is a good connotation of the kind of sexualization that black women underwent at the time.

[JO]: Let’s talk about some of the mechanics of writing. I love your dialogue. You don’t use a lot of apostrophes, you’re not dropping the ‘g’ at the end of an ‘ing’ word, but you focus really on the rhythm of speech and it’s one of the things that translates so well into audiobooks. How were you able to capture historical dialects so well?

[DPV]: If I were to try to capture the dialect in its absolute authenticity, it would probably be unreadable for the contemporary reader. I try to paint a sound. But I did just try and capture the flow, the rhythm, the sound of how maybe my grandparents talked. My grandfather was born in 1904 and my grandmother in 1909 and I remember how they sounded. I tried to use that as my guide.

There’s a phrase in Balm when Madge asks her mother about using a Hoodoo trick on the soldiers that violate her house. Madge says, “I thought you didn’t cast those kinds of tricks on people.” Her mother answers, “don’t ain’t can’t.” Once you get into a rhythm you can hear what your characters are saying. But it is a contemporary representation of the speech. It’s my own interpretation and isn’t an authentic characterization.

[JO]: In Balm, there’s all this talk about Hoodoo, root medicine, root doctors, and mediums. There’s a bit of the fantastic about it. It’s a little magical, gothic, yet it’s classified as historical fiction. Where do you stand on genre classification?

[DPV]: I have a lot of MFA students who are huge fans of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. They’re really torn because they’re in these MFA programs and they want to write what they believe is literary fiction but their hearts are with these genre writers. I think those classifications are beginning to fail us because the genre writers are so good. That line between literary and genre is blurring and I’m glad. I grew up in the 70s and 80s watching I Dream of Genie and Bewitched and reading Stephen King, so I am not really concerned about classification.

I do think there are still some readers out there that might come to Balm and want it to be one thing or the other. But I’m not interested in that divide. I just try to write where my heart is.

I researched every plant that’s mentioned in Balm and everything that they do is actually in the realm of the real; those are things that people actually did, those are actual healing properties of those plants.

But then it came to me that Madge had an extra gift and that drew her to Sadie. Early on someone was talking about the mediums who were very popular during and after the Civil War (these were women who said they communicated with the dead) and said, “Well you know those mediums are false right?” And I said, “Well how do you know they were false?” Maybe some were and maybe some weren’t but it was just really important for the book to take a stand on that and not be ambiguous. I decided that Sadie would be a genuine medium. If I was thinking of those divides I would have been creatively hampered.


Sign up for our newsletter to hear more about your favorite authors!

Life After Life

Ursula Todd was born in a blizzard in the year 1910 just outside of London, England. Gone before she can take her first breath, Ursula dies in a complicated childbirth. On the same snowy winter night, she is born a wailing, healthy baby girl, her little fingers grasping for her mother’s embrace. The story unfolds and Ursula dies repeatedly, in numerous ways, with each passing leading to an alternative life.

Kate Atkinson’s dark and poignant novel, Life After Life, captures life’s uncertainties and the power that one moment can have over an entire life’s story. Every one of Ursula’s deaths brings her closer to the tumultuous time of the 1940s where she is faced with myriad choices, myriad paths. Atkinson’s novel captures the fragility of life, the sorrow and power of death, and most importantly the strength everyone possesses over their story.


What would you do-over if you could? Let us know in the comments.


Life After Life - 1

Summer Sales for Summer Reading

Whether you’re going on a long run in the sun or a long road trip from coast to coast, whether you’re digging in the garden or prepping for a big family barbecue, audiobooks are a great companion for summer activities. To help you out, we discounted a few for the month of June. And don’t forget to check out our Book of the Month, Where’d You Go Bernadette.


Showtime

Showtime

By Jeff Pearlman

In Showtime, Pearlman relates the facts, figures, and behind-the-scenes accounts of one of the most-loved (and some might say the most-hated) teams ever: The 1980s L.A. Lakers. Great for those who closely followed the Lakers at the time as well as those who know them by reputation only.


Kill-Switch

Kill Switch

By Neal Baer & Jonathan Greene

Before writing Kill Switch, Baer and Greene produced the wildly popular television show Law & Order. In using a novel format, they are able to tell a longer, more involved story. Claire, a forensic psychiatrist, faces dangerous killers; one is locked up, but the other has been following her for some time.


The-Beautiful-Ashes

The Beautiful Ashes

By Jeaniene Frost

The things Ivy has always seen, the things she has always thought of as hallucinations, are real. When her sister is taken, she teams up with Adrian to find her. Adrian has secrets he’s keeping from Ivy, but they’ll have to face them eventually. But those secrets could lead to a war that would doom them all.


Brothers-Rivals-Victors

Brothers, Rivals, Victors

By Jonathan W. Jordan

In Brothers, Rivals, Victors Jordan tells the story of Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley, whose teamwork, friendship, and leadership led to victory in World War II. Jordan uses the Generals’ own accounts to tell this story as you’ve never heard it before.


Masters-of-the-Air

Masters of the Air

By Donald L. Miller

Masters of the Air is a long but engrossing nonfiction account of the American bomber boys in World War II. With the style and flair of a gifted storyteller, Miller recounts the real turbulence the bomber boys faced in and out of the air.


The-Mission-The-Men-and-Me

The Mission, the Men, and Me

By Pete Blaber

Pete Blaber has used his extensive military training both in and out of combat. In The Mission, the Men, and Me, he recounts stories of survival and teamwork from dangerous war zones to the everyday experiences of modern life.


Dan-Gets-a-Minivan

Dan Gets a Minivan

By Dan Zevin

Marriage, dog, kids, minivan . . . that’s the path that Dan Zevin finds himself on in his memoir Dan Gets a Minivan. His hilarious take on his own life makes for laugh-out-loud fun, and his ease creates a relatability that parents and nonparents alike can connect with.


The-Extraordinary-Dad

The Extraordinary Dad

By Made for Success

It’s often said that children don’t come with an instruction manual. But if you want to raise your children well, this is about as close as it gets. The Extraordinary Dad lays out easy steps for parental success.


Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to hear more about great sales!

10 Strange Things I Learned from What If?

Randall Munroe describes himself as “a guy who draws pictures on the Internet. I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind.” If you actually took some of his advice, well, it would be entertaining for the rest of us, but might work out poorly for you. That being said, here are some of the strange facts I learned from What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

1. One Foot Per Second

One fan wrote in to xkcd to ask, “If you suddenly began rising steadily at one foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first?” As usual, Munroe doesn’t just answer the question. He also notes that your (dead, frozen) body would take 200 million years to reach interstellar space. It’s really not all that fast when you think about it.

2. Apricity

Apricity means the “warmth of sunlight in winter.” Isn’t it a lovely word? I’m still waiting to casually drop it into conversation.

3. Dying in Rhode Island

Not much would happen if the whole planet’s population gathered in Rhode Island and jumped at the same time. Getting out of Rhode Island, however, would be a nightmare, and most people would die trying to leave.

4. Water on Mars

Whether there is or was water on Mars suddenly became even more interesting when I heard that a cup of warm water on Mars will “try to boil, freeze, and sublimate, practically all at once. Water on Mars seems to want to be any state except liquid.”

Quote-What-If-1

5. Genetic Abnormalities

Spinal Muscular Dystrophy is the most common genetic abnormality found in inbreeding (in humans). The chance of finding it in a non-inbred human is about one in 10,000. If scientists were able to take a woman’s ova and make them sperm cells so that she might impregnate herself, the likelihood of Spinal Muscular Dystrophy jumps to one in 400. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

6. Neutrinos

Munroe writes of neutrinos, “Neutrinos are ghostly particles that barely interact with the world at all. Look at your hand—there are about a trillion neutrinos from the Sun passing through it every second.” That being said, you don’t want to get too close to a supernova.

7. Orbital Speed

If you are on the International Space Station, listening to the entirety of the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers, you would travel about 1,000 miles by the time the song ends. And now we all have that song stuck in our heads.

8. The British Empire

Technically, the sun has never set on the British Empire, thanks to the Pitcairn Islands, a very tiny settlement in the Pacific still under British governance.

9. Submarines in Space

If you were to find yourself on a nuclear submarine in orbit, try reversing its missiles. You might make it back. Or, pieces of you might.

10. Base-Jumping

If your phone started ringing as you jumped off of Mt. Thor in Canada, you could miss the whole call, with three seconds to spare. It is a 26-second fall. This thought is terrifying to me, and I now have to go sit quietly but firmly on the ground for a while.


Have a fun fact from What If? or xkcd? Let us know in the comments.

April Showers Bring May Book Specials!

May is a fun time. The world wakes back up, and we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day. As you dig in your garden, prepare for your first barbecue of the season, or engage in some vigorous spring cleaning, try out an audiobook. As a special offer, we’ve discounted the following audiobooks all month long.


What-It-It-Like-To-Go-To-War

What It Is Like to Go to War

By Karl Marlantes

If you haven’t read Karl Marlantes yet, you’re in for something special. In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes comes to terms—as best as he can—with his experiences in Vietnam, and the effect these experiences have had on his life.


Doughboys

The Last of the Doughboys

By Richard Rubin

In making The Last of the Doughboys, author Richard Rubin tracked down the last living men and women who lived through World War I. Though these veterans have all passed away now, their stories of the homefront and battles overseas live on in this book.


Beyond-Band-Brothers

Beyond Band of Brothers

By Dick Winters & Cole C. Kingseed

Dick Winters commanded his company, the “Easy Company” at the Battle of the Bulge, Foy, and just outside of Munich, where they liberated a death camp. In his book, Beyond Band of Brothers, Winters, with coauthor Cole C. Kingseed, tells his and his men’s tales of World War II.


The-Mexican-American-War

The Mexican-American War

By Jeffrey Rogers Hummel

From Blackstone Audio’s “The United States at War” series comes this examination of an oft-overlooked war. Whether you can’t quite remember what you learned in school about this point in time or if you want to dig into all the details, The Mexican-American War by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is a great listen.


Ancient-Maya

The World of the Ancient Maya

By John S. Henderson

In The World of the Ancient Maya, John Henderson leaves no stone unturned when exploring the history of the Maya. From their interesting hieroglyphics to their mastery of their hot, wet, jungle environment to their meeting of the Spanish, Henderson covers all the details.


Mexico

Mexico

By Joseph Stromberg

Mexico is a great addition to Joseph Stromberg’s “The World’s Political Hotspots” series. Short and to the point, Mexico centers on what makes Mexico’s history different than its North American counterparts.


Sign up for our newsletter to hear about more great audiobook deals!

7 Books for a Stimulating Book Club Discussion

I was recently talking to some friends who are in wine clubs (read: book clubs) about the books that make the best book club picks. People’s tastes in books are all different, but that’s OK; each person’s pick doesn’t have cater to everyone. Rather, the best selections generate a lively debate, either because their controversy provokes discussion, their topic sheds light on a part of the world or lifestyle unknown to us, or their prose is layered with meaning and everyone’s individual views enrich the conversation.

Here are a few books that everyone agreed created a lively atmosphere in any book club and go well with a malbec. Not every book was universally loved, but each had something to offer.


I Am Malala

by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Not even the bullet of a Taliban member’s gun could stop Malala Yousafzai from completing her education. Determined to fulfill her dreams, and with the encouragement of her parents, she fought for the right to go to school in the Swat Valley, Pakistan. She has since become the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Why it makes a great book club pick: So often we watch the news, and see faceless violence, statistics, and fear. This book demonstrates the complexity of life in a war-torn country.


A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, and Kris Shepard

Twelve of Dr. King’s most famous, most moving, most thought-provoking speeches are gathered here, and bonus material includes commentaries by theologians and leaders. While the book is great, the audio edition includes the original recordings, and narration from the likes of Rosa Parks, Yolanda King, Ambassador George McGovern, and Senator Edward Kennedy.

Why it makes a great book club pick: King’s speeches, like his work, don’t just cover racial inequality, but social and economic inequality too. Everyone will leave with difficult thoughts, but it’s hard not to feel hopeful after listening to Dr. King.

And for fun, watch Dr. King tell a joke on The Tonight Show.


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

by David Foster Wallace

At moments licentious, at others tender hearted, and often both, the bulk of these short stories revolve around DFW’s imaginings of men’s relationships with and ideas about women. These meticulously crafted stories are like a trip through the labyrinth of David Foster Wallace’s brain. If you aren’t familiar with him, take a minute to read one of my favorite DFW pieces on Roger Federer in The New York Times: Federer as Religious Experience.

Why it makes a great book club pick: Much shorter and more digestible than Infinite Jest, this collection still oozes postmodernist longing while managing to be uproariously funny.


Have a Nice Guilt Trip

by Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella

Dozens of pithy stories make up this fourth collection by mother-and-daughter team Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella. Tackling everything from jury duty, to dog-grooming, to the benefits of central air, nothing is too ridiculous, too taboo, or too mundane for these ladies.

Why it makes a great book club book: Laugh-out-loud funny, everyone will have a different favorite. The best jokes and anecdotes will be flying all night.


Killing Lincoln

by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Bill O’Reilly’s presence on our cultural map. Here we meet him on neutral ground, discussing the assassination of President Lincoln. More like a fast-paced thriller than historical treatise, this book captures the imagination.

Why it makes a good book club pick: No doubt about it, this book is riveting. The conversation might stop there, but it also might go deeper, into the responsibility an author has to fact-check every small detail versus the author’s commitment to entertain, or whether or not the author has a broader agenda outside the narrative.


The Heretic’s Daughter

by Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent, a tenth-generation-descendant of the figures in this story, recounts the horrors of the Salem witch trials. This sweeping family saga, told through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl, brings new life to an oft-told American tale.

Why it makes a good book club pick: With prose that’s gritty yet luscious, it’s easy to mark this one as the best book-club books you’ll read this year. But the dynamic characters and attention to detail are what will really hold the conversation.


The Betrayers

by David Bezmogis

Part high literature, part political thriller, The Betrayers covers one pivotal day in the life of Israeli politician Baruch Kotler. When he fails to back down over the policies regarding the West Bank, his political enemies expose his affair, forcing him to flee to Yalta, where he runs into the man who sent him to the Gulag 40 years ago.

Why it makes a good book club pick: Baruch Kotler’s staunch principles are the stuff book club discussions feast upon. Everyone will be asking “Do you think he should have?” and “Why wouldn’t they?” and “Were you surprised when?”


Have a favorite book from your book club? Leave a suggestion or link to your review in the comments below.