By EMILY R. WEST
Hunched over a silver Macbook Pro, Robert Hicks plays with the comma structure in his sentence.
Diagramming the sentence out loud, Hicks weighs the pros and cons of the word arrangement, uncertain if he likes the edits returned to him for his latest book “The Orphan Mother.” It’s his third book to hit shelves, with a release date of Sept. 13.
Jake The World’s Greatest Dog lies on the rug outside of the office. Books are stacked everywhere. The coffee table has more than 36 arranged in three different stacks. Perusing his collection, I am removed from my looking.
“What do you think?” he asked me.
At first I jump in, relay my opinion on adjectives, modifying nouns and comma construction. But I am dumbstruck that this New York Times bestselling author of “The Widow of the South” is asking the reporter sitting in the leather chair about grammar changes.
But that’s just Hicks, a down-to-earth Southern soul who collects stories and spins them into captivating historical fiction.
Out in Bingham, an extension of the Leiper’s Fork area, Hicks manufactured the sequel of Widow, where he left readers on the grounds of Carnton Planation with Carrie McGavock and her slave Mariah Reddick.
In the sequel, Hicks strays away from the storyline of Carrie, picking up with Mariah and the slaying of her son Theopolis. Wanting to make a political change in the beginning of Reconstruction in Franklin, Theopolis dies in the town square in front of what is now considered the historic courthouse in downtown. But along the way to figuring out what happened, Mariah makes some new connections and meets new people in her path.
George Tole is one of those who enters onto the pages. A man from the North with a tangled past, he nudges Mariah forward to deal with the truth she doesn’t want to find.
Without revealing any spoilers, we sat down with Robert Hicks and asked him about his newest book.
Why did you choose to frame Reconstruction in Franklin through the main lens of Mariah versus Carrie McGavock?
In “Widow of the South,” I said at the end of it I found her to be the most interesting of the characters in that book.
So although I wanted to go and write about a book about New Orleans, I still wanted to come back to Franklin. As I was thinking about who that should be there was really never another choice in my mind other than Mariah.
I am a Southerner, and I have to write about race. It’s something so intertwined with who we are whether we are black or white. I needed to address. Mariah gave me the opportunity.
The reality is I am a fiction writer and that means Mariah is not simply about Mariah Reddick. Mariah is about all voices and people who live in this world, whether they be in the South or this country or lived long ago or lived today.
It’s about a woman finding her voice. It’s about a woman who wants to know why her son died, who wants a level of justice. And as we find out at some point, we aren’t seeking revenge. Her son’s life had value and purpose.
I never knew Mariah Reddick. I was writing about something bigger than just one person. I was writing about fairness and justice. My plea would not be black lives matter, but it’s that black lives have always mattered, and that all lives matter. That’s what I am trying to speak to. My claim to being able to write about what a woman of color thinks is that I try to figure out how a human thinks, a human feels. And that I do have in common with everyone. That’s why I wanted to write about it.
On the back cover of the book, you reveal Theopolis dies. Why do you tell readers that immediately?
Well, it’s almost from the very beginning it happens. You’re going to know it quickly, and I tell you what the problem is and it’s a ‘who done it.’ It makes you wonder how did that happen and why did that happen. You the reader and Mariah know from the beginning that Theo is gone.
So why? That is the question she is pulled by. It’s not whether he’s dead. It’s who did him in and why. Those are her obsessions.
Tell us how you structured her and Carrie’s relationship in this book versus the last.
The deal is there are two levels of who Mariah is and who she is trying to become. The micro relationship is she is trying to separate herself from Carrie, who has nothing but good intentions. That is a real struggle because Carrie wants to protect her.
The macro issue is Mariah wants to be heard. She’s doing something completely unheard of. As a woman of color, she demands to be able to speak at the tribunal, and women aren’t supposed to speak at tribunal let alone a woman of color. And in many eyes, she is a nonperson.
That’s the bigger picture of her life. That’s her demanding her right to personhood.
One of the characters in the book describes Mariah as a slave who doesn’t know she is free. Talk about that.
Mariah becomes that woman, that individual, that person she wants to be. She is no longer enslaved to anyone.
George Tole is a completely new character. Where did he come from?
He is named after one of my great grandfathers, George Tole.
Tole represents a different form of voiceless people. You would think he has the strongest voice. He’s a murderer, yet in so many ways, he’s come to Franklin to escape the world he’s lived in. I wanted to show a person who came from a completely different background from her, but who was also becoming his own man, too. He is the most conflicted character.
In the beginning of the book, we see Mariah giving away a large sum of money for education. She and those accepting it fight about her having her leave her name off of it. Why is this?
I think that she just thought it was bigger than simply having anyone’s name on it.
Think about the confusion that would have happened in Franklin if this old broken colored woman in people’s minds gave a large amount of money. I think she is at peace about Theo’s life, and what this money will do for people, and that’s the answer. Everyone’s life has meaning, and I truly believe that.
For you, what is writing like?
I am with people all of the time, who say, ‘I want to write a book.’ And let me answer that. Everyone wants to have written a book, but no one wants to write a book. Writing is a hard thing for me, and I think for most people it’s a hard thing. It pulls so much out of me. I am not a greatly disciplined person so its even worse.
What’s your process like?
The writing process is to come up with an idea, to create an outline and to build off that outline. It’s like reconstructing a dinosaur. The good news is along the way, if you’re lucky, the outline goes off on its own. Things happen, and you realize it’s not going to work, but you realize what will work.
Was the book a smoother process than ones before it?
It was a rough, choppy ride all the way through. The biggest hiccup in so much of what I do is self doubt and fear. But I still push ahead. It’s not necessarily fun.
How long did it take to write “Orphan Mother”?
With all of my procrastination and delays – four and half years. In reality as far as solid writing, maybe a year. I just couldn’t figure out what to do at times. I was trying to make it make sense, and I couldn’t exactly make it make sense.
What was the this research process like in comparison to “Widow of the South,” or did you have most of the pieces in place?
The research was about Reconstruction, and Reconstruction in Tennessee is different than the rest of the nation. They are the first state allowed back in, but you have to remember the Civil War didn’t end and Reconstruction just begins.
There are two years in between and Andrew Johnson is able to run the defeated areas, and because he’s from Tennessee, he’s trying to bring it back into the union as smoothly as possible.
When this book takes place is when Reconstruction is just beginning. So that’s what I needed to understand.
Plus, midwifery, which I was clueless and I can’t think of a more unappetizing position. I had to learn a lot of detail to not go into a lot of detail. Ultimately, I needed to know how it happens.