A Conversation with Deborah Larsen, author of THE WHITE
Q: How did you discover Mary Jemison's story? What captured your interest?
A: When I moved to Gettysburg I heard that a valley nearby had been the scene of the capture of a young white woman by a Shawnee/French raiding party in the eighteenth century. Then a friend told me that the true story of Mary Jemison's subsequent adoption by the Seneca had been published and that we had a copy of it in the Gettysburg College library. I read the book (by James Seaver) and was incredulous: a fabulous life lay beneath the stiff prose in that account.
Q: How did you research the life of Mary Jemison? Was it difficult to recreate her story given there are so few accounts? How did you capture her voice?
A: The Seaver account of Mary Jemison's life was my mainstay source: after all, she sat in his presence and gave him her story, which is amazingly detailed. I read other histories for this book. Of course, I transformed the material. My novel is an invention, not a recreation.
Her voice was a gift, pure and simple. I just listened for the voice that wasn't obviously there, for the voice that lay between the lines in the narrative.
Q: What made you decide to write your first novel now, when you've already established your career as a poet and short story writer?
A: I first wrote this story as a screenplay. Then I decided to try a completely different treatment. The White became a novel shot through with poetics. The material itself really demanded a prose narrative, but you could say that the form of this book chased after me. It had very little to do with career.
Q: Do you see any parallels between Mary's captivity and your personal experience as a nun?
A: Well—former nun! I'm happy to say that there are no parallels between the sexual scenes and convent life. But seriously, yes—there is a line in Scripture about "leading captivity captive." What I call the circumscribed life is always fraught, dangerous, but also full of potential richness and beauty.
Q: Why do you think Mary chose not to return to her birth culture?
A: The Mary of history was plainly concerned about her children's welfare. My Mary—for The White is not a "history" as such—chooses to remain on her lands for complicated reasons which accrue throughout her life.
Q: Why is Mary's story interesting to readers today?
A: In the settling of the new democracy which became the United States, both violence and beauty were thrown into high relief. My character, Mary, was at the center of this maelstrom and became strong by evading none of it. Now, perhaps more than ever, a story about a fascinating American—in this case, a woman—who actually flourishes psychologically in a tumultuous time, can provide entertainment, meditation, and hope for readers.