Interview with Yvonne Battle-Felton
You won a Northern Writers’ Award for Remembered in 2017. Can you tell us a bit about the journey from before you got that award to what happened afterwards?
I came to the UK to pursue a Creative Writing PhD at Lancaster University. I wanted to explore what might have happened after the emancipation. I was curious about how families might have reconnected. I wasn’t convinced they would have. Honestly, I came in pursuit of happy endings. I wanted to write stories where families came out of slavery whole. I always knew it would be fiction.
Winning the award let me buy time to write. I know I’ve said that before but what I mean is: I have three children. I also have rent, bills, travel, food, life, and other expenses. I was teaching on hourly contracts, producing events, writing, and momming. I spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next and worrying about how I was going to pay for it. I’m a much better planner than worrier so I spent a lot of time applying, interviewing, and orchestrating things so that they would sooner or later fall into place. When I wasn’t working, I was looking for work. The award meant I could spend time writing the novel and less time writing applications. The award meant I could let out the breath I was holding. It meant I could breathe.
I met my wonderful agent, Elise Dillsworth, in person at the Awards dinner. Right there, she offered to represent me. I have to say, that made the entire experience even more magical. She had fallen in love with the characters, the writing, and she wanted to take me on. I’m not a big believer of love at first sight. I wanted to send her the full manuscript (in case she changed her mind). I sent it and she signed me. She has a great editorial eye. She read the manuscript and asked questions and recommended edits. Remembered is stronger because of her attention to story and her ability to recognize what I wanted to do. Elise thinks in terms of the larger picture. She knew Remembered would be at home with Sharmaine Lovegrove and Dialogue Books.
Could you talk a little about storytelling, both your technique and its importance in the novel?
Stories help me navigate the world. They remind me how connected people are and in some ways, how very different our experiences might be. I’ve always loved stories; they are how I get to know people; how I get to know myself. Through storytelling we can share our experiences in our own voices. That’s a powerful thing. The stories we tell about ourselves can shape how we view our own experiences, how we name our own struggles, how we wage our own wars. Stories help shape our memories and define our narratives. They just might shape how we are remembered or forgotten in time. It’s extremely important to tell your own story.
In Remembered all Spring has is stories. At one point she is practically bursting with them. Stories are her mother’s legacy; they are what’s left behind. Spring carries them with her. These stories aren’t the same as the ones in the newspaper. The stories that mark her life, don’t make the news or if they do, it isn’t in the same way. The stories told about her, her family, and her community, don’t feature people loving, living, and laughing. The life she lives does not make the front page. Her stories and those she carries with her are hers to tell; if only she will tell them. Other people have been telling versions of her story for Spring’s entire life. It takes a tragedy for her to tell them her way.
When I write, I write out loud. It may be because I love being told a story. I talk scenes out, in character, and then I write them. Once I have a scene or section written on the page, I read it out loud, in character, to see what happens next.
In terms of historical context, Remembered really telescoped time for me – it felt like a Beloved for the Black Lives Matter generation. In what ways did you want the novel to speak to the political situation today?
I was in the UK researching– writing, reading, editing—and back home, black people kept dying. It wasn’t heart disease, cancer, old age. Police shootings filled my newsfeed, alerts, posts. It looked like black people were being hunted in America. It felt like it too. I knew I had to do something but I really didn’t know what that something would be. What might my advocacy look like?
Police shootings of unarmed black people are not new. Excessive violence against people of color is not new. Talking about the violence is not new and neither is writing about it. What is new is access to the story and evidence. What was new, for me, was Freddie Gray.
Like a lot of people, I was tired of seeing black people sentenced to death without trial or jury, and often without probable cause. The events, though the names and faces changed, shared the same narrative. The versions of the same story were told and retold as they have been told and retold sometimes without witness, often without question. I wanted to ask questions.
I wanted the novel to speak to the pain and justified anger of generations. To implicitly show the parallels between our present and our past; to unpeel the legacies of slavery, oppression and hatred. I want the novel to open conversations. If we recognize that we are haunted by the past, maybe, together, we can exorcise it.
Remembered will be published by Dialogue Books – could you talk a little about how you came to connect with them, and your relationship with your editor?
I was fortunate that Elise knew exactly where to send Remembered. She knew Sharmaine Lovegrove and her imprint, Dialogue Books, was the publisher for this story. Elise submitted the edited manuscript and Sharmaine fell in love with the characters and their story. Remembered is at home there. More than that, I am at home there. Sharmaine, is amazing. She’s energetic, creative, supportive, experienced, passionate; she’s inspirational. She and her team asked questions and recommended edits that further developed the characters and made the book more complete. There were things that I had missed, like a character with two sons in one scene and only one throughout the novel, or various spellings of youse. It’s been a rewarding experience. Each round of edits has strengthened the novel.
One thing I appreciate is that the entire team at Dialogue is behind Remembered and behind me. It’s like walking through a door and knowing your crew is already there (well, walking through doors in the 80s/90s). As an imprint, Dialogue Books launched last year. Sharmaine invited her publishing family to join in the celebration. It was awesome! We got to meet other Dialogue authors and their agents. It felt like joining the Dialogue story. You know how much I love stories.