Friday, May 21, 2010

Interview with Kathleen Grissom

 I recently had the chance to chat with Kathleen Grissom author of The Kitchen House (you can read my review here)

Me: Mama Mae. She seems almost like a combination of real people.  Were you tempted to add more of her back story at times? You almost get the impression she's a former Vodoun Priestess, was that on purpose?
KG: To me, Mama Mae was EVERY good mother. She would do whatever it took to make certain that her family survived. I wrote about her exactly as she presented herself to me. Strong. Reliable. Resourceful. Actually, I saw and felt her so completely that I forgot the readers were relying on me for description. I hadn't included any back story until it was suggested to me that I might want to do so to give the reader more insight into her character. 

Me: The subject matter is a harsh but realistic one, were there many objections to you writing this sort of theme from your family/editors?
KG: I was exceptionally blessed to have the parents that I did. They never shied away from looking at the truth and we were always encouraged to explore and embrace other cultures. My husband, Charles, my agent, Rebecca Gradinger, and my editor, Trish Todd, couldn't have been more supportive and encouraging.

Me: The character of Mr. Boran very much reminds me of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, were you at all influenced by Jane Austen?
KG: I have always enjoyed Jane Austen, and her writing was helpful for me in writing this book, most especially for the cadence of speech of that time period.  

Me: What made you decide to split the story into two voices? Why both female and not go with one of the girls and say Marshall?
KG: Initially, Lavinia was a single narrator. Then it was suggested to me that it might be helpful for the reader to hear more from the perspective of the slaves. I went to my characters and listened. Belle came through with the clearest voice. I might have gone with any of the others, but, as I said, Belle stepped forward, quite determined to have her say.

Me: I noticed in the novel you have taken on the themes of oppression in both the two biggest forms, Non-Whites and Women, was there a reason you decided to parallel both of these at once?
KG: I did not intentionally set out to write a story that involved themes of oppression. The story came to me after I saw a notation on an old map that said "Negro Hill". Then. one day, it was as though a movie began to play out and my pencil followed along. Throughout the process. my goal was to get myself out of the way so the characters could tell their story. 
Me: The one theme in the novel that had me scratching my head was the Captain's secret.  As a reader, I could not understand why the secret was kept, did you as a writer plan on revealing it at all when you started?
KG: From the beginning I was frustrated with him and I wished that he would tell the truth. Once, when I tried to change that fact, the story stopped. When I went back to the original story, it began again. Then, while doing research, I learned that in this time period a blind eye was turned and the subject of paternity of many of the more Caucasian looking slave children was never discussed.

 Me: Food. It runs through almost every page. Do you have a personal connection with the recipes you talked about in the novel? How do you view the new foodie movement and did that have any baring on your placement of food within the story? 
KG: While doing my research I often saw food prepared as Mama and Belle might have made it. My mouth watered as I watched roasts turning over an open fire or saw cornbread, pulled from the red coals, browned and hot in a cast iron pan. I would leave those sites hungry for those dishes and determined to recreate what I had seen prepared. That may well have have translated itself into the book.

Me: The character of Miss Martha at moments seems to choose her destiny of madness. Did you set out writing her as being just in denial or the pure victim of her surroundings?
KG: I saw Miss Martha as a victim of circumstance, someone who simply could not cope with what life presented to her. Of course she also suffered from untreated opium addiction.

Me: What was the significance of Jamie's bad eye?
KG: There was no significance other than that is the way he came to me.

 Me: The fact the Captain saved Lavinia and gave her to Belle instead of his wife, was that a gift of guilt?
KG: Lavinia was very ill on her arrival and to the Captain likely represented an inconvenience. I don't know that he considered Lavinia as anything but a problem...more like extraneous cargo.

  Me:Religion plays a minor roll in the story but Faith plays a major one. How did you make the choice to separate the two?
KG: Again, the characters acted from their beliefs and spoke their truth as they saw it. I often wondered how Mama Mae developed her strong faith but that was never revealed to me. Also, I was often moved by Uncle Jacob's quiet faith and I wondered if he practiced his religion when he was alone.


  1. Wow, how cool is that you got to interview the author. You asked great questions. And your summary below was really good.

  2. I enjoyed this as much as I have enjoyed reading the book which I highly recommended to many others that have read it and also loved it! It's my favorite book this year so far!

  3. Ms. Understood.... Thank you. It's always a cool thing.

    Anonymous... It's a very brave book, and she's a fabulous lady.

  4. I enjoyed this book very much and I found it very interesting to note that not only the blacks in the kitchen house were "slaves" but the wives of the "masters" were also slaves, just for a different reason, hence their addiction to opium to survive? Very interesting and a good read.