Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unmentionables - David Greene

Unmentionables is about two pairs of lovers in the 19th century in the American Civil War south. One couple is straight, white, and wealthy. The other couple is gay, black, and enslaved.
Field hand Jimmy meets Cato, a house servant from a nearby plantation. Jimmy, who despises whites, mistakes Cato for a white man. But soon he learns that Cato is only half white. Cato is the illegitimate son of plantation owner Augustus Askew. With time, Jimmy's fascination with Cato grows into romantic love.
Unmentionables is also the story of Dorothy Holland, whose parents own Jimmy. Dorothy does not want any man to control her life. When she falls in love with Cato's half-brother, William Askew, she must persuade him to agree to her terms, and to betray his role as a Confederate army officer.
My creative life has evolved from film to photography to writing. In college, I wrote and directed the film, Pamela and Ian, in which the characters grapple with the fact that they are shadows of light and that the film must end.
Later, my collection of photographs, called Shameless, was exhibited in galleries in Berkeley, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Zurich. 
I also created photographs for a book entitled Men Loving Men. Two of these photographs are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Unmentionables is my first novel.

What will readers like about your book?
I hope that readers who enjoy 19th & early 20th century novelists (Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Hardy, Lawrence) will like the writing style, which uses 19th century vocabulary, and a convention from 19th century novels: there is some epistolary story telling through the inclusion of letters between the characters.
I hope that dog lovers will like the character of Venus, the slave's dog. Chapter 9 is told entirely from Venus's point of view.
Why did you self publish?
The novel is long. It is an epic story. I found that neither literary agents nor publishers would consider a debut novel manuscript of this length. In fact, none of them would even look at the manuscript. From their perspective, the printing costs for a 561 page book make it a harder sell to the public. The profit margin is smaller when the printing costs are higher--so it is too great a risk for them to take on a very long book from an unknown writer.

Since eBook publishing eliminates the print production costs, I was able to self-publish and price the novel below $5 for Kindle and other eBook channels. But the print book list price is $19.78--due to the printing costs. The cost difference has affected sales. I've sold 748 eBooks but only 116 paperbacks as of this writing.

How long does it take you to write your first draft?
I spent 18 years writing the first draft of this story. I did a lot of research.
By contrast, my new book, a romantic thriller, is much shorter and has only taken a year to write. I will publish it later this year.

What inspired you to write this particular story?
I first began writing Unmentionables as a result of an unexpected experience. I attended a “past life regression” study run by a writer named Dr. Helen Wambach, who was compiling statistics about past life memories for a book she eventually published called Life Before Life. I went with two friends of mine as a lark. We were skeptical but curious.

When we arrived, we were instructed to lie on the floor of the vast meeting room at the Holiday Inn in Elmhurst, Illinois, along with about fifty other subjects. Dr. Wambach droned away hypnotically with the intent of putting all of us into a trance so that she might guide us into a memory of a past life. At the end of the session, we were awakened, at which point one of my friends said to me, “What a crock!” He had been lying on the floor for an hour wide-awake. He had no past life recollections whatsoever.

My other friend recalled himself to be a Buddhist monk in the 4th century. I too experienced a trance, which felt like a dream. It was in that hypnotic state that I imagined a past life as Ella, a slave on a small family farm in Madison County, Tennessee. I filled out Dr. Wambach’s questionnaire. My answers there about who I was, who my family members were, and where I lived, were the genesis of this novel.

Of course, I cannot know for certain whether or not I may have had a past life as a slave. But I am certain that these characters became a vivid part of David Greene’s life for eighteen years while I researched and wrote this book.

Chapter 1

Sammy Speaks

“Stop your fussing, Ella,” Wally said.

“Just swat a fly, mama.”

“Must be the sugar. They smell that sugar you spilled on your dress. Now you’ll have no end of flies.”

The sugar was for a bowl of raspberries that Wally picked from a bramble. The raspberries were in a new bowl she bought in town with her Sunday money. Slaves were not obliged to work on the Sabbath, but if they did, it was the custom to remunerate them with modest pay. Over the years, Wally had devoted most of her Sunday money to the purchase of wooden bowls, which she prized especially because they did not break if someone should drop one.

Ella settled back with the bowl, and pondered whether to eat one berry at a time and make them last or just …. She stopped, and turned toward the sound of a horse’s hooves behind her. Mr. Holland maneuvered the buggy into the yard from Christmasville Road, towing a clapboard utility wagon. He whistled to Willis to come unhitch Maple. Ella and Wally went to see what Mr. Holland had in the wagon. There in the back, wrapped in a gray blanket, was a small dark boy, a stranger.

Wally was the first to speak, “Well I’ll be ….”

Willis ran up alongside Maple and took the rein from Mr. Holland’s hand. He looked at the boy in the back. “And who’s that you brought along here?” he asked.

The boy clutched the blanket around his shoulders. He turned and shot a glance at Wally, Ella and Willis, who stood around the wagon to inspect him. He turned his eyes away and stared straight ahead at a spot where no one stood. For a moment no one spoke. Leaves rustled from a light breeze in the courtyard.

“This is Samuel,” said Mr. Holland at last. “Boy of five years old. Regrettably, the boy’s mother passed away in June. So his people sent him up to Memphis with traders. And when I got into town, I ….”

He stopped. Aroused by the sound of the buggy, Mrs. Holland had come out of the big house with Sarah and Dorothy. They walked quickly toward the wagon. From the other direction, Jimmy strode out of the slave cabin and joined the group. In the twilight, Mrs. Holland squinted at the boy bundled in a blanket.

“George, what in the world …?” Her hand waved.

“I was just saying,” said Mr. Holland, “that this boy is named Samuel. His mother passed away in June and ….” He paused, trying to anticipate his wife’s reaction as he considered his words.

George Holland’s wife wore a pale blue dress with lace trim, which she often wore in the evenings, but which was nevertheless insufficient for the cool night air. She put one hand around her bare shoulder, and the other firmly on the wagon’s sideboard. She scanned the wagon’s contents. “George, did you purchase this …?”



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