I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to be hosting this blog post. In a departure from anything I have done before I’m handing over the blog to author Jason Hewitt so that he can interview Vanessa Lafaye all about her new novel At First Light. Both Vanessa and Jason are writers for whom I have the utmost respect and I am genuinely thrilled to welcome them both to Linda’s Book Bag.
At First Light is published by Orion today, 1st June 2017, and is available for purchase through the publisher links here.
At First Light
1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.
1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what’s right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town…
Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history.
You can watch the trailer video for At First Light here.
Vanessa Lafaye in Conversation with Jason Hewitt
Jason Hewitt, author of The Dynamite Room and Devastation Road (both Simon & Schuster) interviews Vanessa Lafaye about her second novel, At First Light (Orion 1 June). Set in 1919 Key West, Florida, it dramatizes the true story of a violent episode involving a mixed-race couple when the Ku Klux Klan installed themselves in the town. Her debut novel, Summertime, was published by Orion in 2015.
Good morning, Vanessa. I’m so excited to be chatting to you about At First Light, which, as you know, I loved. I’ve got a whole heap of questions that I’m dying to ask about it. Firstly though, the main narrative is based on the real life story of Manuel Cabeza and his mixed race lover, Angela. Tell me, how did you come across their story, and how much of it did you end up using in the novel?
Great question. I really enjoy dramatizing real events, but they need to have several elements: drama, interesting people, and relevance to today. It’s also important that the events have been mostly forgotten. Such events are very, very rare, and difficult to find, because the most exciting stories have become part of our collective memory. Sometimes I feel as much like an archaeologist or a treasure hunter as a novelist! So when I come across an event which ticks all the boxes, I get very excited. Still, it can’t just be a retelling, it has to have more than that. I was actively looking for another true story to follow Summertime, ideally set in Florida’s history. I didn’t want to go forward into the 1940s or later, because there have been so many books about those decades.
This helped me narrow my search. I came across the story of Manuel and Angela about a year before I decided to take it on. It ostensibly had all the right elements, but I couldn’t see how to bring it to life, and make it more than just a retelling. Then I learned that the last KKK rally in Key West took place in 1993, far more recently than I realized. This made me wonder what Angela might do, if she were still living in the town when that rally occurred, which gave me the missing piece that allowed me to take the story forward. At First Light follows what is known about Manuel and Angela’s story closely, in terms of their relationship, how they came to the notice of the Klan, and what happened to them as a result. Where it differs is in their back stories, how I have imagined Manuel’s childhood, and Alicia’s Cuban background. Almost nothing is known of the real Angela, which left me free to create her former life. All the events surrounding the Klan’s arrival are based on research. Even the demise of the ‘walking dairy’ came from a real event. It’s interesting that readers sometimes find the passages based on real events more difficult to credit than those which I invent.
Ha, yes! That always makes me laugh. Quite frankly some of the small details I include in my novels I simply don’t have the imagination to make up, and yet, you are right, they’re the ones that readers question! You, of course, mention the KKK which forms an important and quite terrifying thread to the novel. Some of the characteristics of the Klan have always seemed totally ridiculous to me, playground nonsense even, and yet they were a terrifying force at the time. Why do you think they took such a hold on American society in the first half of the twentieth century?
Their mixture of buffoonery and murderous efficiency is very odd, isn’t it? It’s quite astonishing to think that they had 850,000 members at their height, which included many law enforcement and public officials. Their message resonated with a lot of disaffected whites, who suffered enormously during the reconstruction period after the Civil War of 1861-65. (Interestingly, these same disaffected whites have much in common with Trump’s core support base—different geography, similar grievances.) The Klan’s message was ‘Take America Back for the Real Americans’. Sound familiar? Americans have a high tolerance for buffoonery if it’s combined with policies which appear serve their interests. The early 20th century was a period of enormous upheaval in the US—mass migration to the cities, and WWI which gave blacks their first taste of equality. White Americans were terrified of them returning home, and the Klan promised to act as guardians for white, Protestant America. Of course, the public didn’t see inside the Klan organization, or witness all the ridiculous rituals and arcane lore. They only saw pictures of bodies hanging from trees, and hundreds of white-robed men marching with burning crosses. Stetson Kennedy, whose books I used for research, infiltrated the organization and exposed its bizarre, laughable inner workings. The Klan, like the current President, was very sensitive to ridicule. It started to hemorrhage support after Kennedy shared their secret password with the makers of the ‘Superman’ radio program in the 1940s, and the show mocked them mercilessly in several episodes.
The Key West portrayed in the novel was actually quite slow to welcome the Klan and was in fact more tolerable of blacks than other parts of the US. Why do you think that was? And what finally prompted the city fathers to invite the KKK to the Keys in 1921?
Yes, you’re right, Key West was very different to the rest of Florida, and the American South, in its tolerance of, well, just about everything. Since it was first discovered by the Spanish in the 16th century, it’s been a haven for every type of eccentric, including pirates, bootleggers, and people traffickers, with a proud tradition of ignoring official controls that don’t suit the lifestyle. The town retained much of this tolerance as it grew, with a few exceptions, such as when the Jewish peddlers were taxed out of business. Key West calls itself The Conch Republic, as there were moves long ago to make it a sovereign territory. Even today, the people who live there are the ones who want to get on with their lives without interference. This mostly involves drinking and fishing, preferably at the same time. Anything that interferes with either is quickly despatched. The island is the end of the chain, closer to Cuba than Miami. It’s very much the end of the line in other respects. I don’t know what prompted the invitation to the Klan, but the organization was strong elsewhere in Florida at this time, and Key West’s tolerance would have been abhorrent to them. The original Klan of the Keys Charter carries the signatures of the local officials who sponsored it.
Wow, that’s fascinating. I love the Key West mentality. It sounds very relaxed. And, actually, talking about dodgy dealings, in the novel John smuggles in alcohol for his bar The Last Stand. This is, of course, against the backdrop of Prohibition being introduced in 1920. I’m assuming that the Prohibition laws weren’t particularly adhered to in Key West either given the laid-back attitude of most of its inhabitants. Was this something that you were keen to include in the story as well? Also, I have no idea how Prohibition worked. Was it well policed and did it actually have much affect on life in Key West, or was it just a mild inconvenience that in reality did little to lessen consumption?
I think you would love it there. If you ever want to visit, I’ll be happy to be your guide! The cemetery alone is worth a trip, it’s like a city in itself, with named streets and its own guidebook to some of the more colourful residents. Key West still has lots of bars that remind me of John’s bar, The Last Resort. You’re correct that Prohibition did not have much impact in Key West, unlike the rest of the country. Elsewhere, it was strictly enforced, but the authorities were so corrupt that there was a healthy black market trade. Did you see the series, ‘Boardwalk Empire’? That’s set during the period. Key West got away with ignoring a lot of statutes by virtue of its remote location. The federal authorities did try to enforce Prohibition down there. Everyone paid lip service to it, then bribed or intimidated their way around it. Bootlegging such as I describe in the book was rampant, using any containers available. Suitcases and, yes, coffins went empty to Havana and came back sloshing. The smuggling tradition goes back centuries, as does the tradition of ignoring the government. Key West is a party town; it runs on alcohol and always has.
Oh, it sounds wonderful. I’m going! And consider yourself booked as my local guide! Actually, I loved all the little details you include in the novel about the more colourful characters and activities that were going on there at the time, not just the bootlegging, but the walking dairy farm and Percy the gorilla who works on the dock. Can you tell us a little bit about how you researched everyday life in Key West? I presume you know the area pretty well but did you carry out some ‘essential’ research trips there as well?
Unfortunately, I did all my research from my armchair in Marlborough. I know the area well enough to make a research trip hard to justify. I found all the details of daily life in the books that I’ve referenced in the Further Reading in the back of the novel. Some of it is probably legend, of course, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s the kind of place where so many outlandish things have happened – like the town siding with the Union in the Civil War, when the rest of Florida was with the Confederacy—that anything seems possible. There was a lot of wonderful material that I had to leave out for reasons of space, like the local doctor who preserved the corpse of his beloved when she died of TB and kept her in the house for years. As a keen scuba diver, I’d love to write a novel about the sunken treasure that still lies off the coast.
Oo, yes, that sounds amazing. And there aren’t enough novels about diving in my opinion. You could clean up! Of course, you’re originally from Florida. Do you think that is what drew you to write about it in both Summertime and now At First Light? Do you think you’re writing gains something by having some distance to the location you are setting the story? And would you ever consider writing a novel set in Marlborough where you now live, or is that a little too close to home?
Well I’ve never heard anyone say that before! I think that you may be my target reader for any diving-related novels. Ironically, I didn’t learn to dive until I had been living in the UK for a long time. Living here opened my eyes to a lot of things, including the history of WWI. It has been forgotten in the US. I wouldn’t have written either book if I had not left the country and come to live here. For one thing, I had to be educated about the war, which happened through reading fiction by Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker and others. Second, as you say, the distance and perspective gained from living here was necessary for me to write about my home country. I would not have had the interest in the WWI veterans, or the background to write about them. In future books, I am planning to move around, in terms of settings and periods, which will include England at some point. Not sure about Marlborough itself, although the research certainly would be easy!
I bet if you peeped behind a few doors in Marlborough you’d find all sorts of stories to base a novel around. These pretty little market towns are usually rife with intrigue and polite skullduggery!
I’m sure that’s true. The town got its charter in 1204, and Cromwell stopped here during the Civil War. All around us in the countryside are much older monuments, long barrows and mounds and stone circles and henges of various types. Wiltshire is more mystical than many people realise!
One of the things I particularly loved about At First Light is the characterisation. Alicia Cortez, in particular, is a fantastic creation – someone who is vibrant and rich and that readers can really root for. Have you got a favourite character in the novel and do you have any secret techniques you could share about how you get under their skin and bring them to so vividly to life?
I’m so glad that you liked Alicia. I really enjoy writing gutsy female characters, and it gave me a reason to visit Cuba! She’s based on a real Cuban faith healer, Maria de los Reyes Castillo Bueno, known as Reyita. She married a white man to give her children a better future, and encouraged her children to do the same. She practiced ‘Santeria’, the ancient religion/healing arts outlawed by the government but prevalent throughout the country, and was a very fiery person. My favourite character is young Dwayne, and the same was true in ‘Summertime’, because it gives me the challenge of making him sympathetic although he does very bad things in both books. That complexity really appeals to me as a writer, exploring how basically good people can lose their way, whether through their upbringing, or prejudice, or traumas they have suffered. I don’t believe that there are many genuinely evil people in the world. It was my first time writing a teenage male character’s POV, but it was great fun – all those hormones, all those conflicted loyalties.
Ah, yes, there’s nothing like writing about the complexity of teenage years! Did you know when you first came up with the idea for At First Light that Dwayne would be in it again? You must have enjoyed revisiting him in his youth. I never want to let my characters go when I’ve finished a novel, I always go into mourning for them, but have never found a way of resurrecting any of them. Did the way you had already portrayed Dwayne in Summertime throw up any challenges in writing this one?
No, I didn’t know that I would be revisiting Dwayne again, although I’m like you, I find it hard to let go of my characters. I had in mind that At First Light could work partly as a prequel to Summertime, but hadn’t decided which character(s) from that book could be included. I also needed a catalyst for the events which engulf Alicia and John, and a vulnerable, impressionable boy fit the brief. I worked out that the timeline fit Dwayne’s life, and that he could have grown up in Key West, but I hadn’t imagined his back story in much detail, beyond that he had an abusive father. Then I came across the story of the shoe shop delivery boy, who took his wares to all the business, including the brothels, and benefited from a glimpse or two of ‘girlishness’. For me, that put Dwayne in the scene. In Summertime, Dwayne’s wife gives birth to a mixed-race baby boy, who has grown into the police chief in the opening of At First Light. This seemed like a nice way of linking the two books, and showing the roots of a very conflicted character. I really enjoyed this ‘reverse engineering’; however, I wish I had thought of it when writing ‘Summertime’, as I could have made things easier for myself! Luckily, Summertime was still in production when I decided to use Dwayne again, so I was able to make a few little changes right before it went to press, but I could have done some things differently if I had planned it. In book 3, I plan to re-use another character from Summertime, but that will be the last one in the set.
Well, I don’t think you have anything to be worried about. Although, of course, you will worry, because you’re a writer and writers, in my experience, are very good at worrying about their work. It shows that we care. So, can I ask, are you working on something new now, or are you having a well-earned breather? Is it going to be that diving novel?
I agree. And we’re such needy creatures, because we care. The exceptions are the icons who write for themselves, or for their art. I can’t see myself like that, can you?
Oh I’d so love to set a novel around diving! But I’m not sure that the British reading public would really go for it. I had no idea that you and I shared this interest, but I fear that we’re not very representative. Maybe I’ll do it some day just for fun. In the meantime, I’m working on dramatizing another set of historical events. Although I’ve focused on 20th century US history in these first two books, I’m keen to cover other places and periods. It all depends on finding the right stories, buried in the past.
Ooo, intriguing! I can’t wait! It all seems very organised. In the novel itself you cleverly craft all the pieces of the story together so well, with nothing wasted and every action impacting another. Are you a planner or do you discover the story as you write it? And, research aside, what do you do to prepare before you start writing your first draft?
Ha! Well, I’m glad that it came across as crafted, because it was a matter of fitting lots of pieces together, whose shapes I only had moderate license to alter. You know what that’s like, when history doesn’t provide you with the most convenient elements for your story? I am somewhere towards the middle of the plotter-pantser spectrum. I have a set of 4-5 milestone events in the story when I start, what Chuck Wendig calls ‘tent poles’, but very little idea of how I will join them up. I wouldn’t be able to plan every chapter, every scene in advance, because I do discover a lot of the story as I write it, and as I get to know the characters. They say and do things that I didn’t expect, and this can change my plan. Sometimes beta readers will get really interested in a minor character, which can persuade me to develop them further. So I have to stay flexible, and for me that means having a skeleton plot, which is partly dictated by the real events, which only gets fleshed out when I reach the end of the first draft. To prepare for writing, I turn to the oracle of Google to track down the primary sources that I need, and trawl the internet for articles, interviews, and images. Once I feel that I have a grasp of the setting/period/story/characters, I compile in a notebook all the best points from the research materials, to remind me what I want to weave into the narrative. As I write, I tick off the items in the notebook. The problem with At First Light was deciding what to leave out, which is probably one of the hardest jobs when you’re really passionate about your subject. You want the reader to know EVERYTHING, and that’s not fair or feasible. Sometimes it feels like curating an exhibition, choosing which scenes will grab the reader, and how to make them work together.
I love that metaphor. It’s so true. I often think every novel should have a supplementary book of cut scenes, just as you get with films. Although I guess, there’s always a good reason why some things are not included. And, actually, thinking about it, I’m not sure that I’d want any one reading some of the dross that gets cut from my first drafts!
People love the out-takes from films, the scenes that didn’t quite work, the lines that got fluffed. Maybe there’s place for our out-takes? Or maybe we can find a use for them? I always do character sketches before I start writing, first-person accounts of their lives. One of these became the short story, Fire on the Water, which won the top prize from the Historical Novel Society. So I never throw anything away!
(Linda – Readers can find out more about Fire on the Water here.)
We’ve mentioned your debut Summertime quite a lot, which, of course, was a big success. It was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club and shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association’s Debut Crown award. Having had one book out already are you feeling a bit more relaxed about At First Light being published or are you more nervous now that you know what to expect? Do you think writing gets any easier?
The second novel, as you know, is vastly different from the first, especially in terms of expectations. People are generous towards debut novelists, because we still have our training wheels on, but by the second book we should know the job. It all adds up to a lot of anxiety, especially if the first had any success. Although I do know the job now, that hasn’t done anything to lessen the anxiety. With Summertime, I was just so thrilled to see it published, I had no anxiety, just happiness. Now the stakes are higher, because this is my career. I’m a bag of nerves filled with hyperactive butterflies right now. The writing does get easier, as your craft improves, but the rest gets harder, from what I hear. Every book is a risk, every book means exposing yourself to criticism. That’s the deal.
Finally, I’m always looking for a good read. What’s the best book you’ve read this year? And if we were still teenagers (but rather geeky ones) which author would you have on a poster on your bedroom wall?
As you know, the problem with being an author is that reading becomes part of the job, and it’s difficult to switch off the editorial analysis. So far this year, I have enjoyed The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which has had a lot of attention, and The Hiding Places, by Katherine Webb, which has not. I love Katherine’s writing, and her new one is based around a crime in a Wiltshire village in the late 19th century, like a fictional version of The Suspicions of Mr Wicher, which I loved. I also really enjoyed Essie Fox’s The Last Days of Leda Grey—so rich in atmosphere and period detail.
On my bedroom wall would be a poster of Kurt Vonnegut. He’s my hero, in so many ways.
(Linda – My enormous thanks to both Vanessa and Jason for such a fascinating insight into the writing process and At First Light in particular.)
About Vanessa Lafaye
Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida, where there were hurricanes most years. She first came to the UK in 1987 looking for adventure, and found it. After spells of living in Paris and Oxford, she now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband and three furry children. Vanessa leads the local community choir, and music and writing are big parts of her life.
About Jason Hewitt
Jason Hewitt was born in Oxford and lives in London. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and English and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University.
After completing his degree he spent a number of years working in a bookshop before eventually succumbing to the publishing industry and moving to London.
He is also a playwright and actor. His play, Claustrophobia, premiered at Edinburgh Fringe in August 2014 and was previewed at the St James Theatre, London.
As an actor he has performed major roles in a number of plays in London including Pericles, A Christmas Carol, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, The Merchant of Venice and King Lear.