I discovered how absorbing research is for me, and how much it informed my work. I also discovered that all I needed to say was, “I’m writing a novel…” and people were more than ready to share their knowledge and experiences; all I did was show interest in their lives and they were more than happy to sit down for a long chat.
Catherine Gentile – 29 September 2021
The Back Flap
Set during three days in July of 1930, Sunday’s Orphan is the story of a trio of lifelong friends entwined in the first racial murder to occur in twenty years on Martons Island, a remote island off the coast of Georgia: Promise Crawford, an orphaned young white woman with an unorthodox yet successful ideology for training unruly horses; her closest friend, Fletch Hart, a brilliant young Negro (by way of clarification, the term, “Negro”, is used in keeping with the 1930 time frame in which the story occurs.) man destined to become an influential psychiatrist; and his mother, a respected midwife known as Mother Hart, keeper of a deadly secret with the potential to undo them all. They live on Promise’s farm, Mearswood Plantation, under the compelling influence of the deceased Reverend Taylor Crawford, a utopian social reformer from Harvard University who had transformed Mearswood Farm, a former slave plantation, into a working farm on which Negro and whites live and labor as equals, undisturbed by the Jim Crow activity that surrounds them.
Within weeks of Taylor’s death, that peace is shattered when Daffron Mears, a feared Jim Crow enforcer, threatens to draw untoward conclusions about how Fletch came to work on the farm. To protect her best friend from fearful insinuations, Promise hires Daffron.
Thinking she’s dealing alone with Daffron, Promise struggles to contain her fear in her attempt to avenge those she loves and uphold her commitment to rise above violence, both political and personal. In the midst of all that ensues, quiet acts of decency surface and ordinary citizens act with the most profound human love.
Years later, surrounded by her racially-mixed, cell-phone dependent children, ninety-year-old Promise reveals the outcomes she and Fletch had guarded amidst a culture of lofty idealism, and family secrets.
About the book
When did you start writing the book? How long did it take you to write it? Where did you get the idea from?
These three topics are intimately related and, if you don’t mind, I’ll merge my responses:
While vacationing in 2003 in Georgia, I became enchanted by the natural beauty of this Southern state and the easy way in which African Americans and whites moved about together. One day on the beach, I had occasion to watch an African American man build an enormous, architecturally intricate sand castle. I wondered how he felt about having a crowd of white vacationers watch him. I took notes, made entries in my journal, and did some research, all of which inspired me to write a ten-thousand word story entitled, Seduction. The story was published later that year in a literary journal called, The Long Story. Subsequent to its publication, a prominent New York literary agent contacted me to ask if the story was an excerpt from a novel. Unfortunately, it was not.
Between the agent’s call and two newspaper reports, one reviewing a grand jury’s finding of “insufficient evidence” to bring a manslaughter indictment against C. B. Donham, the white woman whose indignation against Emmett Till led to his brutal murder, my interest in the role race has played throughout human history was reignited. The other newspaper report, news of Senator Strom Thurmond’s racially mixed daughter, launched the research that got me thinking about a story set in the South.
Life with its many demands intervened, and I worked sporadically on the novel, but was unable to finish it. Fast forward, sixteen years, and after much cajoling from my ever supportive husband, I contacted editors who helped me revise the novel that is now entitled, Sunday’s Orphan.
Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
Yes!! First, how best to capture the voice of a dead person, Taylor Crawford, who features prominently in each chapter, and whose words form the epigraph/chapter. Initially, when exploring the character of Promise Crawford, I depicted her as a simple country woman who thought and spoke in one-syllable words. I had yet to come to terms with her character, but sensed something was terribly “off” about her. To soothe my frustrations, I considered what her adoptive uncle, the Reverend Taylor Crawford would have said and done; slowly, his words emerged, and I wrote them down.
Soon after, I realized the character of Promise was much more complex than what I had originally envisioned: Promise, was the adoptive niece of Taylor, a brilliant man, who had tutored her, alongside Fletch Hart and his brother, in all subjects. At that point, she emerged: bright, logical yet intuitive, and articulate. A lover of nature and gifted healer of wounded creatures. This discovery opened the door to delving into a more satisfying version of Promise Crawford, who became the protagonist of Sunday’s Orphan.
Second, as a writer, I become so deeply engrossed in my characters that I sense their emotions and live with them as I write. This was especially true of Daffron Mears, the bigot, a deeply disturbing character. After spending weeks developing this character, I could no longer endure the weight of his bigotry. I needed a healthy dose of innocence to counterbalance Daffron’s negative, dare I say “evil” influence. Goodhearted but foolish Acey Baldwin, Daffron’s brother-in-law was born of that need.
What came easily?
A ton of research went into Sunday’s Orphan, and that research was my joy. I discovered how absorbing research is for me, and how much it informed my work. I also discovered that all I needed to say was, “I’m writing a novel…” and people were more than ready to share their knowledge and experiences; all I did was show interest in their lives and they were more than happy to sit down for a long chat.
Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?
My characters have been influenced by traits of people I have known. One especially was influenced by someone very dear to me whose experiences with Alzheimer’s dementia showed me what it was like to lose one’s sense of self to something they could not control.
Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
Most of my writing starts out as a melange of thoughts: disorganized, chaotic, sometimes appealing, and oftentimes, unsatisfactory. I’ve learned to respect the unformed quality of these initial bursts and have come to trust that from this rubble, the characters and their situations emerge. I spend a lot of time thinking, imagining, wondering about who these characters are and where they come from. I read about the settings in which I imagine them appearing, especially if the locations are unfamiliar to me. I put words to paper in fits and starts, paying close attention to the writing that “speaks” to me, that has potential for further exploration, particularly of emotional content. Sometimes I need to feel those words emerge from the tip of a pencil, and other times I need to fire off a burst on the computer. I write, revise, then share it with my writing partners. Feedback is an important part of my process; it helps me peel back the layers to learn more about who a character is and where he or she came from. I write a first chapter, and the chapters that follow, until I reach what feels like the ending. Then, I go back to the first chapter and based on how the story unfolds, I rewrite that. In between that I revise, edit, and revise again. Revision is as crucial to a successful story as an engaging character.
Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
I outline when I’m trying to capture a certain quality in a character, or when I need to sort out the details supporting a situation within a scene. I use outlining sporadically, to help clarify and support my thoughts.
Did you hire a professional editor?
Absolutely! Depending on the material, I will hire a developmental editor, a line editor, and a sensitivity editor. I engaged the services of all three for Sunday’s Orphan.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
My writing comes from a silent space deep within me that does its best to avoid anything that might pull me from my “writing zone.” I prefer silence, best accompanied by the clacking of the keys on my keyboard.
Did you submit your work to Agents?
Yes, and I have worked intensely with one in particular. She was smart and supportive in many respects; ultimately, we decided we needed to explore other options.
What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?
Between changes in the publishing industry, the burgeoning availability of excellent alternative options, and a shift in my writing goals, I found that Indie publishing met my needs.
Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?
I have a talented designer, Todd Engel, who has worked with me to create the covers for all three of my books, including Sunday’s Orphan.
Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?
I have a wonderful publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing and Publicity, who, after asking in depth questions about my goals and interests, developed a dynamic marketing plan for Sunday’s Orphan.
Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?
If you thrive on autonomy and enjoy exploring the many supports available for Indie authors, you will love the Indie path. Before engaging in those wonderful options, write, write, write. Read, read, read. Join a writers’ group and learn to get and give constructive feedback, then revise, revise, revise. My point is to do everything you can to create your best work. Learn more about your work by submitting it for publication in indies and journals. Be sure to submit your work to contests and awards as well. Yes, this is hard work, but enjoy the process. Have fun!
Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
I’m a native of Hartford, Connecticut and grew up outside of Hartford in Windsor. I now live with my husband and muse on a small island off the coast of Maine.
What would you like readers to know about you?
As a Master Gardener and amateur photographer, I design and photograph gardens. Yoga, biking, and cross-country skiing add variety to my daily exercise routine. I favor organic foods, live what is known as a “ketogenic lifestyle”, and often experiment with new recipes. Do I feel guilty about the time these interests take from my writing? Not at all. My hobbies feed my creative juices and inspire my writing.
What are you working on now?
I currently edit and publish a monthly ezine entitled Together With Alzheimer’s, which has subscribers throughout the United States. I have three additional writing projects in the works: two are non-fiction, and the other is my next novel, which is in its unformulated stage. I invite readers to visit my website for updates via my blog, to order and learn more about Sunday’s Orphan: www.catherinegentile.com.
End of Interview:
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