In the words of its creator, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree (Viking, $25.95) “came to the U.S. through the back door.” This tale of an African American woman homesteading in South Dakota in the early-twentieth-century frontier was published in the United Kingdom and named Best Work of First Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters before it got picked up by an American house. Weisgarber currently lives on the Texas Gulf Coast.
What attracted you to the early twentieth century as a setting for your first novel?
During that time, there was a stark contrast between city life and rural life. In cities, people had access to trolleys, electricity, and indoor plumbing. This was not so in many rural areas. Ranchers and farmers relied on horses, they ate supper by kerosene lamps, and the outhouse was downwind. This contrast within America’s borders has always fascinated me. That wasn’t the only division. Many Native Americans lived on reservations. Rivers and railroad tracks often served as dividing lines between white, black, and Hispanic neighborhoods. Women managed households, and men attended to finances. I wanted to write about these contrasts and what can happen when these lines blur.
Dugout homes in the Badlands sound awfully hardscrabble. How would these families sustain themselves?
I visited the Prairie Homestead, near Badlands National Park. The dugout was built in 1909; the owner was Keith Crew and his grandparents were Badlands homesteaders. The dugout was built into the side of a small hill. The roof sagged and foot-long prairie grass grew between the roof’s tin plates. Inside, the three-room dugout had a dank, musty smell. The dirt floor was so hard-packed that it felt like standing on cement. Sheets of yellowed newspapers were tacked on some of the interior walls to cover the rough-cut sod bricks. On the walls that were bare, shoots of grass grew between the sod bricks. Mr. Crew pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket, flicked it, and started burning the shoots. “Got to do it nearly everyday,” he told me. “If you don’t, the prairie takes over.” I copied that quote on the back of a postcard. The sentence developed into an undercurrent throughout the novel.
The bedroom was just big enough for a low-slung bed that stood a few inches above the dirt floor. There was a potbelly stove in the parlor and because wood was scarce, hardened cow patties, or cow chips as ranchers called them, were stacked in a bucket ready to be burned for fuel. I asked Mr. Crew if they smelled bad when they were burning. “Not much,” he said. The dugout leaked when it rained and was infested with insects. It was a momentous occasion when a family raised the money to build a wood house.
This is your first novel. What inspired you to try your hand at writing?
It wasn’t until I saw that sod dugout that I thought about writing a story. The cookstove in the kitchen was the spark. Some woman, I thought, stood at that cookstove, cooking three meals a day, seven days a week. She must have felt trapped, her world reduced to the kitchen. And yet, on the oven’s door, there was an embossed ring of ivy making it an object of beauty. It might have been the woman’s albatross, but the cookstove was hers and hers alone.
A few days later, I saw a photograph of an unnamed African American woman sitting in front of a dugout. This photo surprised me; I had never heard of African American settlers in the West. But the thing that really struck me was that she was alone. No husband, no children, not even a dog. Just this woman. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and I started to imagine her story. Eventually, I gave her a name and began to write. I wanted to do a good job of it, so I took noncredit writing classes from Houston’s Inprint program. On my own, I studied Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, analyzing it sentence by sentence. I also took a mentor course from San Antonio’s Gemini Ink. At some point, I’m not sure when, I realized I was writing a manuscript. It was liberating to write without the goal of publication. It allowed me to take the voice of a woman different from my own. Eventually, I decided to see if I could get it published.
How did it happen that Rachel Dupree was published in the U.K. before the U.S.?
My agent tried to find a publisher in the States, but no one was interested. Several editors said the story was too quiet, and I took that to mean the novel wasn’t ready. I did wonder if some people were concerned about a white writer assuming the voice of a black woman. No one said that, but I wondered. My agent lost interest, but we parted on good terms. I went back to page one and started another round of revisions.
Then I sent the manuscript to Macmillan New Writing, a division of Pan Macmillan in the UK that was willing to publish new writers who did not have agents. It was a long shot; the imprint received thousands of manuscripts and printed twelve novels a year. But they bought it, and eight months after it was published, it was nominated for the Orange Prize and the Orange Award. All at once, my e-mail box was flooded with queries from agents wanting to represent me.
Could you envision writing a sequel or even a series based on this novel?
Not at this time, but you never know. I’m currently working on a novel that takes place in 1900 on Galveston’s West End. The story revolves around a college-educated woman who marries a dairy farmer. The story begins a month before the 1900 Storm, which killed more than six thousand people. Many of us have heard the stories about the destruction in the city. The West End, known then as “down the beach,” was sparsely populated and sheltered by sand hills. The people there experienced a different storm.
Can you draw any comparisons between the Texas Gulf Coast and the South Dakota prairie in the early twentieth century?
Both regions have a wide-open feel where the sky is boundless. In much of South Dakota, the land rolls and dips, but like the Texas Gulf Coast—I’m thinking especially of Klegberg and Kenedy counties—there are few trees and the wind is merciless. Both regions share an “I dare you” attitude. In South Dakota, settlers gritted their teeth and hunkered down during the winters. Along the Gulf Coast, people faced hurricanes and hot, humid summers. Many gave up, but the ones who stayed were tough and determined. They carried themselves with quiet dignity. Today, their descendents describe themselves in terms of generation. “I’m fifth generation, and my kids are sixth,” is said with pride in Texas and in South Dakota.