An inspiring interview with Gayle O’Brien the author of my latest read, Underground. Extracted from the website Female First.
What can our readers expect from your current novel Underground?
GO: With Underground, I tried to write the kind of novel that I love to read. I’m a big fan of books that are part-historical and part-modern, that have strong female characters, that have a little thread of mystery running through the story, and that leave the reader feeling like the world might not be so bad a place after all. If I’ve succeeded, then hopefully the reader can expect all of the above.
The novel is set in the Civil War, so tell us a little bit about your research process.
GO: I grew up in the States, where any and every aspect of the Civil War is instilled at an early age. My research was actually minimal – most of it was just a reiteration of facts and double-checking my memory. I read a lot of novels that took place in and around the Civil War as a child and teenager as well, so most of what I needed for the Underground I already knew.
Where did your inspiration for the novel come from?
GO: Underground came at me from three different directions. First, my hometown in rural Massachusetts is soaked in folklore about its part in the Underground Railroad (for those who have never come across it, the Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses that helped slaves escape to Canada before the US Civil War, where they couldn’t be recaptured). Houses I played in as a child had concealed rooms and removable stairs where their owners hid slaves on the run, and I’ve never forgotten the feeling of hiding behind a bookcase and wondering what it must have been like for the slaves who had sought refuge there. Second, there was an instance several years ago where at a house owned by one of my teachers. Her house was clearly part of the Underground Railroad – it even had an underground tunnel that connected the barn to the main house. While I was there, she showed me some markings on a beam in her barn. It was a date, something like 4/2/61. She said, and I remember this vividly,‘That could have been left in 1961, but wouldn’t it be amazing if it was 1861? What if it was a slave on the Underground Railroad?’ Finally, a few years ago I re-read a novella called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, where a 19th-centruy woman suffering from post-natal depression is prescribed isolation as her cure. The longer she is in confined, the more insane she becomes, eventually hallucinating and ripping off ‘the yellow wallpaper’ in the room and revealing the room’s history – ie. the paint and wallpaper left by those before her. That got me thinking about what rooms and houses have to teach us, and what one would need to find in a house to spur you into finding out more about who might have left it there. And then the idea for the novel all came together – I would have a girl, with her own secrets, discover a letter in a concealed room, and endeavor to find out more about who wrote it.
The story centres around friendships, is friendship something that is important to you?
GO: I think I tried to show friendship at its best – where there is honesty and openness, and where one can learn more about his or herself through the friendships one maintains. The friendships I value most are the ones that have no ulterior motive – the kind that make m me a better person and keep me in check, while also sharing a lot of laughter and fun.
Female First Lucy Walton
To read the full article, follow the link below.