I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the lovely Sharon Ewell Foster for my article in the January issue of FamilyFiction's digital magazine. I'm thrilled to share my complete interview with Sharon her on my blog ~ enjoy!
What was it about Nat Turner’s story that inspired you to write about him?
Nat Turner was a literate slave preacher who led a revolt in Virginia in 1831 that left more than 50 white people dead. Even 180 years later, groups see him differently. The arguments still rage today: Was Nat Turner a hero or a villain? Did he prophesy the coming Civil War or was he a religious fanatic? There’s a lot here for a writer.
But I remember hearing Nat Turner’s name when I was a child. I saw William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Confessions of Nat Turner, on my mother’s nightstand. Fast forward to my college years, I had a professor who told me that I should be writing the untold stories; she planted that seed in me.
As I researched, I became convinced that most of what we’ve been taught about Nat Turner isn’t true. Nat Turner, by most accounts was a faithful Christian. Prior to the revolt, he was known as a Christian who didn’t drink, who didn’t steal, who went all over the Tidewater area of Virginia preaching the Word. He could read and write at a time when most of the population of Virginia was illiterate. He was a family man.
His detractors labelled him a monster. But political spin wasn’t invented in 2011, it was happening back then. I needed to know what happened. I spent five years writing and researching this book.
So, here I am. As the nation begins to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Nat Turner is part of that discussion. As the two events intersect—Turner’s 180th and the Civil War’s 150th, I think it’s important to have a frank conversation about what really happened and how it happened.
The book is Roots meets The Da Vinci Code! LOL!
The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part I: The Witnesses is Nat’s story through others’ eyes, The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2: The Testimony is the same story through Nat’s eyes. What caused you to choose these two methods to tell his life and mission?
After realizing that the primary historical document, The Confessions of Nat Turner by the attorney Thomas Gray, was a fabrication, I began to search for the real Nat Turner in other places. I learned from local historians that his mother was a slave brought from Ethiopia, that he was supposed to have been friends with his owner, Sallie Francis Moore Travis. In the first book, we learn who Nat Turner was through the eyes of those who knew him—friend and foe, slave and free.
I never intended to writer from Nat Turner’s point of view, but he whispered to me—like melodies talk to composers—insisting that he be heard. There is so much that he knew that no one else knows. One of the first things he spoke to me was, “They were all heroes.” He taught me to see the slaves, all of them, as heroes. Like prisoners of war, their status, what they endured makes them heroes. After that, I was hooked. I told his story, gave his testimony, in Part 2. I suppose, Part 2 is Nat Turner’s day in court.
What do you hope readers take away from The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2: The Testimony?
Publishers Weekly called the book “fast-paced” and “riveting”. That’s gratifying; I do want people to be entertained. But I have been praying for something more. Recently, I have been having conversations online with people from the town where the uprising took place. As you can imagine, even 180 years later, they remain racially polarized.
But the most amazing thing is happening. They are reading The Resurrection of Nat Turner and having the most powerful, insightful, healing conversations with each other. You can feel the honesty and the love, even as they wrestle with this topic. They have welcomed me into the discussions as they are embracing one another. It’s astounding.
That’s what I hope will happen amongst other people and in other communities, across the land, around the world.
How challenging was it to bring Nat’s story, a real historical figure as opposed to a fictional character, to life?
It was very challenging! But, I love what I do. I’m grateful.
My challenge was to make Nat Turner’s story relevant to everyone, to tell the story so that all of us could see ourselves in him and in the people around him. It’s not just an African American story—it’s a story about the price of freedom, about a man struggling against overwhelming odds to protect his family and his community.
It was challenging because the history, as we know it, is a lie. I had to search for the truth—it was hard, but that’s also the fun of it. Once I had so much information, my challenge was to give myself permission to tell a different story than the one that’s been told. I felt such a burden to be true to the facts and to be respectful of the people I wrote about and of the town, it was a challenge to give myself permission to be creative in recreating the story.
But I think the challenges made me a better writer. I think struggle led to the creation of a better book. I love what I do!
How has writing these books impacted your own life?
Researching and writing The Resurrection of Nat Turner has made me even more aware of how precious and important the truth is. It has made me want to search history for other lies that have been told. It has made me realize how easily good, well-meaning people can be led astray by lies. But, most importantly, I am reassured by the enduring strength and power of faith, hope, and love.