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How a Novel Happens

I didn't know I was going to be a novelist.

Or a Civil War Enthusiast.

So how did this happen?

The embarrassing thing is that I now own both the Playmobil Civil War set,
and several volumes from that Time-Life Civil War set you see in the background.

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — I was a geeky academic-wannabe, sitting in my grad school library, reading a book of women's history. Buried in the book's 300 pages were a few paragraphs about Mary Bowser. Born a slave to the wealthy Van Lew family of Richmond, Virginia, Mary was freed by Bet, the headstrong (guess what that is code for) Van Lew daughter and sent North to be educated. But Mary returned to the South and, during the Civil War, became a spy for the Union... by pretending to be a slave to the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Wait a minute — I thought the Civil War was boring. A seemingly endless list of dates, battlefields, and names of generals we had to memorize in high school. Who knew it could be so interesting?

The real meaning of the Ken Burns effect.

I was already teaching and writing about race and what it means in America. Mary Bowser's story seemed like a way to communicate those things to people who would never wander into my classroom or read an academic article.

There was only one problem. Besides what I read in those few paragraphs, almost nothing was known about Mary Bowser. If I was going to tell her story, it wouldn't be a biography. It would be fiction.

Not that I made it all up. I did a huge amount of research, about black life in antebellum Richmond (which it turns out was nothing like plantation slavery). About life in antebellum Philadelphia. And, yes, about the Civil War.

Me, the day my agent auctioned my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser to HarperCollins.

Then I took all of that and imagined characters and scenes and dialogue, the way any novelist does (although I wove in real people, real events, even real letters and newspaper articles). I'm proud of the book, but I'm also terrified. Because you'd be amazed how many people respond to the statement, "I've written a novel," with the question, "Is it fiction or nonfiction?"

Not that nonfiction is so pure a genre. As it turns out, that first history book in which I read about Mary Bowser doesn't contain a single footnote or cited source concerning her. In fact, most of what appears in books and on the web about the real Bowser isn't true — or at least has never been proven. And I've already seen a few reviews of my novel that treat things I invented, and which I tried to make clear I invented, as historical facts.

So let me say it right now: just because you read it in a book, does not mean it's true. Even if it's a book about a real person who played an amazing role in the Civil War.

Mary Bowser may not have killed any vampires, but I still think she's pretty awesome.

÷ ÷ ÷

Lois Leveen is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and in literary journals and anthologies. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she lives in Portland, Oregon.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Secrets of Mary Bowser
    Used Trade Paper $7.50


Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser

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