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Ann Weisgarber
What was your inspiration for your first novel THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE? Indeed, what initially inspired you to write?
Iíve always been a reader, but I hadnít thought about writing a book until I happened upon a sod dugout in the South Dakota Badlands. There was a cookstove inside the dugout. Some woman, I realized, depended on that cookstove to feed her family. In turn, her family depended on her. A few days later, I saw a photograph of an unnamed African-American woman sitting in front of a dugout. I couldnít stop thinking about her, and I started to imagine her story. I gave her a name, Rachel DuPree, and began to write. The first draft was three pages.
The book is ambitious in its coverage of issues such as racism (to and from the African American family) and feminism, which you handle very subtly. Did you go into the book with a clear idea of writing from this perspective or did it emerge during the research?
When I started the novel, I wanted to write about a power struggle between a man and a woman who came from different social and economic backgrounds. With each draft, the power struggle branched out to include the greater world around Rachel and Isaac. That led to writing about prejudice between blacks, between blacks and Indians, and between blacks and whites.

Isaacís prejudice against Indians made me uncomfortable, but he was a man of his times. I had to allow him his opinions especially since he had been a soldier. Isaac was also a man of the West. His determination to keep the ranch at all costs was not unusual.

I didnít see the feminist aspect until after the novel was published and a reader -- a man -- pointed it out to me. Iím pleased with this layer of the story and am happy my sub-conscience allowed this to happen.
How did you put yourself into the heart of Rachel, a young, 19th century African American pioneer, struggling in the Badlands of South Dakota?
Emotion was the common bond. For example, I pictured Rachel in the Badlands, and I felt her longing for her mother. When Rachel realized Liz was lost, she panicked. I considered Isaacís determination to conquer nature, and I knew that beneath this determination, he was scared of failure. The charactersí personalities then dictated how they responded to those emotions.

My challenge was to see the world as people saw it in 1917. I had to shake off modern ideas and vocabulary about marriage, childrearing, race, and prejudice. Rachel and Isaac were people of their time. I wanted them to be ordinary people who had to make difficult decisions.
The book hasnít yet been published in the US. This seems crazy considering the subject matter. Why do you think that is and how did it come to be published first in the UK?
I had an agent in the U.S. who tried to sell Rachel DuPree but none of the publishing houses were interested. I was told the novel was too quiet, and the agent and I parted ways. In my heart of hearts, I wondered if editors were uncomfortable with the idea of a white writer assuming the voice of an African-American woman. I didnít know but I was determined to give Rachel DuPree one more try. I made revisions and sent it to Macmillan New Writing in the UK, an imprint willing to consider new writers who do not have agents.

Three months later, Will Atkins with MNW offered me a contract. He and I eventually talked about the white writer/ black narrator question, and Will didnít consider it an issue in the UK. The longlisting for the Orange Prize and the shortlisting for the Orange Award for New Writers validated that opinion. Those honours opened the door, and Viking Penguin in the U.S. will release Rachel DuPree in August 2010.

Iím pleased the book will be available in my home country. However, I am most grateful to the team at MNW and to the readers in the UK who support the novel.
How did it feel to be shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction?
I still get chills when I think about it and although itís been months now, I find it hard to believe. When Macmillan New Writing submitted Rachel DuPree to the competitions, it didnít have any blurbs or reviews. The eight judges read it anyway. MNW was a new imprint, but that didnít matter to the judges. Iím very proud to have been shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers. Iím most proud, though, of Rachel DuPree being in the company of nineteen critically-acclaimed novels. It was an honour I never imagined.
We look forward to your next novel. Can you tell us something about it?
Thank you. Iím working on a story about a woman who lives in Galveston, Texas. It takes place during the Great Storm of 1900 that killed over 6,000 people. Although it was a terrifying hurricane, Iím having fun with this project.
And lastly, who are the writers that you admire?
I admire many writers but at this point in my life, I especially like the novels written by Ellen Feldman, Sebastian Barry, Cormac McCarthy, Jeffrey Lent, and Thomas Cobb. These writers know how to use language to evoke mood, and they never lose sight of what for me is the most important element: plot.
Ann Weisgarber

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