After finishing the book, I sent Lisa Wingate some questions! Busy with her cyber-launch (due to Covid-19), I was grateful to nab some of her time. What follows is our exchange…
Q: I read this idea “spark” originated from a researcher in Louisiana, who’d read Before We Were Yours and thought you might be interested in the “Lost Friends” advertisements. For those who don’t know, what is “The Book of Lost Friends” and in reading about it, what specifically caught your attention?
A: The century-old history that sparked The Book of Lost Friends came to me in the most surprisingly modern of ways. I opened my email inbox while on the back porch writing, and there was a note from a reader named Diane. She’d just finished Before We Were Yours, and she thought there was another, similar piece of history I should know about—a story of children taken from their parents and disbursed into the world, of families torn apart, and the surprising means by which some of these families found their way back to one another decades later. As a volunteer with the Historic New Orleans Collection, Diane had been entering old newspaper advertisements into a database for genealogists and historical researchers. The ads ran in the decades following the Civil War in a column called “The Lost Friends,” and were written by formerly enslaved people, now free, seeking news of their long-lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers, husbands and wives.
“When I was reading your book, I was thinking about these families that were sold, traded or killed. Their identity taken away. Their constant love of family and their continued search for loved ones, some they had not seen in over 40 years,” Diane wrote in her note to me. “There is a story in each one of the ads.” She shared a smattering of advertisements from the museum’s Lost Friends database—gripping, heartbreaking letters to the editor preserved in the faded, uneven newsprint of hand-crank printing presses.
After reading the samples from Diane, I followed the link to the database itself, a collection of over 2500 original ads, and tens of thousands of names. I tumbled down a rabbit hole for hours, lost in the lives of these long-ago people. It was both strange and powerful to realize that their voices and quite probably their names had faded into history generations ago, and yet, in old filing cabinets and dusty university archives, these small bits of their stories had survived.
I knew that very day, as I took in dozens of the Lost Friends ads, meeting family after family, searcher after searcher, that I had to write the story of a family torn apart by greed, chaos, cruelty, despairing of ever again seeing one another. I knew that the Lost Friends ads would provide hope where hope had long ago been surrendered.
Q: I often hear from readers who want me to tell the story in their head, or of their own family history. How do you typically respond?
A: I hear many, many amazing stories that are heartwarming, fascinating, life affirming, and important, but I know when I hear them that I am not the right storyteller for that story. Storytelling is a little like speed dating—only every so often is the chemistry right to generate a longer, deeper conversation. When it doesn’t happen, it’s just means a match hasn’t been made. When it does happen, there’s really no explaining why.
Q: That’s a good way to put it! I always feel badly when a story doesn’t resonate with me as much as it clearly does for the person sending it to me! Just like if you were dating, not everyone is going to be a “match.” But you never know until you try! On another front…I just wrapped up a series set in the 1770s, and slavery was a vital aspect. I can tell you that as a historical author writing in a world that expects you to be PC, it almost strangled me. How challenging was that aspect for you?
A: The retelling of history can be a challenge these days, and of course in this case, it was. Above all, though, I think it’s important that we continue to do the work of bringing the past to life, and that we be honest to the history and voices that existed. They still have lessons to teach to a modern generation.
Q: As a white woman, how did you get into Hannie’s POV, and create her voice?
A: Even more than history books and maps, I delved into historical narratives—in this case, the authentic voices of people who had survived slavery and the tumult of Reconstruction, and related their experiences firsthand. Books written during the time period and the WPA slave narratives, recorded during the Depression, opened intensely personal windows into the lives that might have been lived by the writers of the Lost Friends advertisements. I poured over hundreds of them, seeking the voices of lived experience — the everyday thoughts, emotions, and endless work that would have filled Hannie’s years before emancipation, and what her life would have been like afterward, as the plantation economy turned to sharecropping and tenant farming, which more often than not amounted to economic bondage. Everything in Hannie’s story came from historical narratives of the time period.
Q: Were you ever a teacher or do you know teachers? Benny endeared herself to me—with her earnestness as a first-year teacher and trying to find her way. How’d Benny take shape for you?
A: I’ve never been a teacher, but because I was working at home writing through my boy’s growing-up years, I spent tons of time in schools as a volunteer. Aside from that, I come from a family of educators and I have heard stories, and stories, and stories, which provided great fodder for the book. Names and details have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. 😉
Q: Obviously, research sparked the whole novel. But what were a couple of other surprising things that emerged out of your research for The Book of Lost Friends that made their way into the novel?
A: So many things from the narratives of the time period made their way into the book—ordinary and extraordinary things. I don’t know that I could even narrow it down, but every time I drop into the Lost Friends database online and read the ads, I’m struck by the uniqueness of each family’s story, their heartbreak, their love, and the extraordinary lengths they went through to find one another again. These life experiences have not only been preserved through the Lost Friends letters, but are available via the Internet to anyone from genealogists to teachers, to researchers and historians, to those who simply seek to learn true history from the people who lived it.
Q: What an amazing resource! Why did you set your novel in Louisiana?
A: The original Lost Friends ad that inspired Hannie’s story in the novel was a Louisiana/Texas ad. Louisiana and Texas became characters, in the novel, in some ways. Both states have such unique histories, personalities, and mixtures of people from different places. In particular, the Civil War and reconstruction history of Texas and Louisiana is unique. Being a Texan, I relished the chance to dig into the history of places I know and love.
Q: I like to choose my favorite book of the year. In 2018 it was Before We Were Yours. In 2019, it was Where the Crawdads Sing. Both were because of their captivating characters, moving stories and evocative settings. What was your favorite read from 2019 and why? What’s your current fave for 2020?
A: I had too many faves in 2019 to pick just one. Because 2020 is new and book release has kept me from doing as much reading, my current fave is an early copy of Mrs. Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
Q: Thanks so much for taking time out of your crazy launch schedule to join me, Lisa!
A: My pleasure! Thanks for inviting me to share a little time on your cyber-porch.
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