Leonard Pitts Jr.'s fiction with Before I Forget. Now he's out with a new one, Freeman, coming in May (available for pre-order now). His publisher (which, full disclosure, is set to publish a book by me for writers) sent me a copy. It's a beautiful book, and I highly recommend it.
Set after Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, it's the story of Sam, a runaway slave who sets out on a long journey to find his wife who was still stuck in slavery. Freeman is a love story, as you can tell when you read the first line: "His first thought was of her."
Following is part of a Q&A with Pitts from Agate's press kit on their website. At this link you can read the entire interview and Chapter One of Freeman. I'm excited to see the tour that Pitts and Agate have put together to
promote this book. Pitts will follow the same route that Sam does in the
book. Go here to see if he's coming to your city.
Q: What was the genesis for Freeman? Where did the idea first come from?
A: Years ago, I read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Been In The Storm So Long, by Leon F. Litwack, about the lives of the slaves during and immediately after the Civil War. One of the most poignant things I learned from that book was the ordeal freed slaves went through to find their lost and separated family members. Men and women wrote letters, haunted the offices of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and walked hundreds of miles in search of their mothers and brothers and sisters and sons and husbands and wives. The quests were rarely successful; it was not uncommon, for example, for a man to find his wife only to discover that she had given him up for dead and taken up with another man. The idea that freed men and women would strive to be reunited that way, against such impossible odds, struck me as a profound and inspiring statement about the importance they attached to family and to loved ones. It also struck me that this is an aspect of history about which most of us have no clue. It’s something I’ve always kept in the back of my mind. I always thought it would provide the framework for a compelling novel.
Q: Why did you write Freeman? What were you hoping to accomplish with this story?
A: Well, obviously, the first goal of any novel is to entertain. Beyond that, though, there were a number of things I was out to accomplish. I wanted to write a love story that I thought would have a particular resonance for African-American women. I think there is something inherently affirming in the idea that a man would walk a thousand miles in a nearly hopeless search for one particular woman. I wanted to question, albeit indirectly, the whole stereotype of African Americans as a people who are frivolous about family connections, particularly paternal connections. That was certainly not the case right after the Civil War. Finally, I wanted to deal with questions of identity. We tend to treat race as something obvious and immutable, a bright, hard line of separation that cannot be crossed. But from science’s point of view, race does not exist—it’s a myth—and if you look at the history of race, you find it’s a lot more complicated and self-contradictory than we typically believe. I liked the idea of characters grappling with identity in the context of a country that was forced to do the same.
Q: What kind of research did you do in working on the book? Did you learn anything
that surprised you?
A: Researching a historical novel is less about finding out what happened when than about trying to unearth the small details that will help you recreate the physical look of a given time and place, i.e., a grocery story in 1865. I spent a lot of time in the Library of Congress. I also toured a railroad museum and a place that uses horses to help rehabilitate the physically handicapped. I should mention, also, that some of the minor episodes in Freeman—for example, the woman who approaches Sam and Ben in the courthouse, looking for her long lost baby—are fictionalized renditions of things that I learned had actually happened.
Note to readers: I recently signed a contract with Agate to publish a book for writers. The reason I signed on with them is because I admire their list. I was telling folks about their books long before I became one of their authors, but I thought I ought to make it public.