I read Tara Conklin’s THE HOUSE GIRL at a pivotal moment in my own writing, when I was floundering with the structure I’d chosen. I had two protagonists, one living in the modern era and the other in the 1930s, and interweaving their stories in alternating chapters was giving me fits. Then THE HOUSE GIRL came out, and it was a revelation: the stories of two women living in different times woven together seamlessly, each narrative thematically enriching the other. Tara made it look so effortless.
THE HOUSE GIRL tells the story of Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer given the difficult task of finding the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for the descendants of American slaves. An unexpected lead comes from her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, who tells her about a controversy currently rocking the art world. Art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of slaves from her plantation Bell Creek, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the firm’s lawsuit—if Lina can find one. But nothing is known about Josephine’s fate following Lu Anne Bell’s death in 1852. Searching for clues in old letters and plantation records, Lina begins to piece together Josephine’s story—a journey that leads her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother’s mysterious death twenty years before.
Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and ask whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.
If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of THE HOUSE GIRL here, or RETWEET/SHARE this post to enter to win one! (US only; details below.) Now here’s Tara in her own words:
Which talent do you wish you had?
Time travel. I would go back and tell my 20-something stuff to stop complaining and sleeping so much and just put my butt in the chair and write. Until I became a mother, I had no idea how much time I wasted. Now, I value every spare minute.
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I thought I would be a writer. I wasn’t sure what kind – I imagined some kind of journalism, maybe magazine writing – but I got to college and realized I was way too shy to be a good journalist. The very idea of asking a stranger tough questions in an interview made me break into a sweat. At my university, there was only one fiction writing seminar open to undergraduates. I tried every semester to get into that seminar, but no luck. In the dramatic way of a 19 year old, I decided that I was not fated to be a writer and then went on to do other things (working at a human rights non-profit, law school, law firm). But I always kept writing.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
It’s been said far more eloquently than this but the essential advice is: butt in chair. That’s all that really matters. Some days it will be harder than others, some days you will produce only drivel, but you need something on the page before you can make it better.
What three things would you want with you if stranded on a desert island?
Definitely my three children. They are very entertaining – my youngest loves to sing but he can’t say the letter “L” which makes for some interesting lyrics. And my oldest is an excellent tree climber. I’m sure she would knock down enough coconuts to keep us fed until help arrived.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
One summer I worked as a dealer at a small hotel casino in Quepos, Costa Rica. It’s a looong story about how that came to be, but it turned into one of the most amazing, instructive, fun summers of my life. I had never set foot in a casino before that summer and I’ve never been in one since.
Has anyone ever thought a character you wrote was based on them?
No, thankfully, although I have received many emails from readers who believed Josephine Bell (my protagonist in The House Girl) was a real historical figure. In the book, she’s a talented but overlooked artist and readers often ask where today they can find her art work. These are the best kind of emails because they show that I did my job well.
GIVEAWAY: RETWEET on Twitter, and/or SHARE on Facebook by noon (EST) Friday, May 20th to win a copy of THE HOUSE GIRL (US only). We’ll select and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Tara Conklin is a writer and former lawyer currently living with her family in Seattle, WA. THE HOUSE GIRL, her first novel, was a New York Times bestseller, #1 IndieNext pick, Target book club pick and has been translated into 8 languages. Her second novel, The Last Romantics, is forthcoming in 2017 from William Morrow/Harper Collins. Before turning to fiction, Tara worked for an international human rights organization and as a litigator at a corporate law firm in London and New York. Her short fiction has appeared in The Bristol Prize Anthology and Pangea: An Anthology of Stories from Around the Globe. Tara was born in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands and grew up in western Massachusetts. She holds a BA in history from Yale University, a JD from New York University School of Law and a Master of Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School (Tufts University).
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