My debut novel, The Abolitionist’s Daughter, released in the spring of 2019, has been very well received and is now available in paperback. It is exciting to look back on great memories of a two-month book tour from coast to coast, an experience that would be impossible in this pandemic. The novel weaves together the lives of three strong women of different class and race in the Civil War era and after, their character growing as tragedy mounts. The novel offers a little-known view of Southern Abolitionism, the murder of a prominent judge, a deadly civilian clash, and the emerging role of women in a world depleted by the bloody conflict of men—a viewpoint far from prevailing stereotypes of the Civil War South, with themes of justice, racial relationships, and equality as timely as today's headlines.
What's your writing process?
Now that’s a good question. It is so varied, I’m not entirely sure I have one. Left to my own devices, I’m essentially what’s known as a “panster”, as in “writing by the seat of your pants.” I love the unexpected, love having characters simply take over and surprise me with actions and dialogue seemingly of their own accord. However, now that I am writing with deadlines to be met, I find that I actually enjoy planning and knowing where a narrative is headed. I won’t call it outlining. I’m still not there. But I will call it plotting. Now that has all the fun of a double entendre.
Are there themes you like to explore in your books?
Indeed there are, too many to list here. Because I am a therapist, I have a deep passion for exploring all aspects of human nature. Not one of us is a stereotype; all of us embody at some level every aspect of what it is to be human, so perhaps my major theme is looking at how those diverse qualities of each character’s personality play out within that individual, in their relationships with others, and in response to the unexpectedness of life itself. Another favorite theme is that of the unparalleled strength of the “weaker” sex and where history seems to be leading that often overlooked strength. Themes of social justice run strong, as you would expect, in The Abolitionist’s Daughter. The novel deals with the little-known history of Southern Abolitionists caught in the mire of legal snares passed during the conflict/compromise process leading up to the Civil War. For example: Laws had made it a serious crime to free a slave or to educate them. The questions raised are as timely as today’s headlines: What happens when what is morally right is made illegal? What does it mean to break the law to do what is right?
Do you listen to music while you write?
Interestingly, I don’t. Though I love music and, as a professional artist, often paint to music, I find that in writing I need a good bit of quiet in order to concentrate. And perhaps to hear what those characters are constantly trying to tell me about themselves.
What's your favorite genre to read?
Now that one is difficult. I have been an avid reader since I was old enough to hold a book in my hands. Most of my early reading, aside from Nancy Drew, was in the classics, so I am deeply attuned to them in all genres. Perhaps my best answer would be literary fiction of every sort. I am especially drawn to finely crafted writing and any unexpected style of expression regardless of genre. Among my favorite books of recent years have been Ursula Hegi’s Stones From the River and its companion volume, Floating in My Mother’s Palm; The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell; Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing; Deliverance by James Dickey; Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. There are, of course, many others, but these always come to mind first when I think of books that have had a profound effect on me.
What are you reading right now?
At the moment, I’m finishing Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes. I am also having a great deal of pleasure reading new work by fellow authors with whom I have become friends in the preparation and publication process of The Abolitionist’s Daughter. I have quite a stack now on my nightstand: Etiquette for Runaways by Liza Nash Taylor, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish by Tori Whittaker, and The Long Flight Home by Alan Hlad. One of my favorites, as you know, is your own novel, The Companion. I’m looking forward to your new one.
What's the next project and when can we expect it?
The title of my work-in-progress is The Widow’s Reckoning, a novel of historical suspense set at the turn of the century in 1900, a time of immense innovation and social change, especially for women. The narrative involves two women in different parts of the country, Chicago and New Orleans: Constance, a young mother, widowed in a questionable tragedy—accident? suicide? murder? —and a talented seamstress, Alice, abandoned and pregnant. Each has suffered the death of an infant son. When Alice flees the freezing winter of Chicago to make her way to New Orleans, the two meet and bond over preparations for the first all-female krewe, Les Mysterieuses, Mardi Gras ball, As their friendship grows, along with that of young Dr. Martin Birdsong, shocking secrets emerge from their connection that could destroy their lives. Was that death a murder? Who is the guilty one? Who was that man whose death is yet a mystery?
I am in the final stages of a first draft and preparing for revision. My hope is to see the novel in print perhaps within the next year.
Diane C. McPhail is an artist, writer, and minister. In addition to holding an M.F.A., an M.A., and D.Min., she has studied at the University of Iowa distance learning and the Yale Writers’ Workshop, among others. Diane is a member of North Carolina Writers' Network and the Historical Novel Society. She lives in Highlands, North Carolina, with her husband, and her dog, Pepper.