This final author spotlight on some of the authors featured in the HNS anthology, Distant Echoes, wraps up with the winner of the HNS 2016 contest, Vanessa Lafaye.
“Fire on the Water” is the story of Grace, a Haitian woman, who migrated to Florida with her husband and daughter so that he could get work on the railway project stretching from Miami to the Florida Keys in 1909.
The story is about changing fortunes, and a woman’s struggle to protect her daughter. It’s truly a wrenching story, impossible to not turn the page as Grace narrates the conditions of her life.
Vanessa is here to share with us the inspiration behind “Fire on the Water”.
Historical Fiction often draws parallels between the present and the past. Is this true of your story, and if so, how?
Vanessa: A lot of foreign workers from the islands helped to build Henry Flagler’s railway to Key West. Grace’s story of exploitation and greed is the mirror of modern-day projects of this kind. Flagler fancied himself as the great paternalistic employer, and indeed his workers were treated better than many at the time; but women always suffered, which is unchanged today.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Vanessa: I needed to get closer to the character of Grace, who is actually very minor in the novel. She’s the mother of a major character, and appears very hard, cold, and unforgiving, with a major belief in voodoo magic. I needed to understand what made her that way, and so I got her to tell me her story.
Your story originated as a character sketch for your debut novel, Summertime. What insights did you gain about the main character by approaching her this way?
Vanessa: I find it very useful to ‘interview’ my characters in the early stages of writing a novel. I get them to tell me, in their own voice, about themselves, where they came from, and how they got to be where they are. When Grace finished telling this amazing story about the floating brothel, I realized it could become a stand-alone piece and developed it into a full-length story.
There is a distinctive voice that comes through in the story. How did you develop this and do you have any advice for writers trying to find their voice?
Vanessa: This comes to me out of this interview technique. I feel more like I am transcribing the characters’ stories than I am directing them. I commend it to other writers. It really helps me to get closer to my characters. I’ve done the same thing for my current novel.
What are you currently working on that we can we look forward to?
Vanessa: I’m working on my third novel, which is set during 1918 in France, and Grace’s son, Henry, who is the unborn child in this story. It’s about how the black American soldiers interacted with the French during WWI. It’s another fascinating, untold story of the kind that I like to dramatise.
Vanessa Lafaye was born in Florida, but came to the UK looking for adventure 32 years ago, looking for adventure. She found it and now lives with her husband and three cats in Wiltshire. She is the author of two acclaimed historical novels, Summertime and At First Light. Her story in this collection, “Fire on the Water”, won First Prize at the 2016 Historical Novel Society Short Story competition.
A very sad update: Vanessa Lafaye passed away on February 28, 2018 after a battle with cancer. She will be greatly missed by family, friends and the writing community.
About Distant Echoes
Gripping and thought-provoking stories of people, places and times past by writers from the Historical Novel Society.
A new anthology of nineteen award-winning and acclaimed historical fiction short stories.
Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page.
This selection of winning and shortlisted stories from recent Historical Novel Society writing awards includes “The House of Wild Beasts” by Anne Aylor (winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014), “Salt” by Lorna Fergusson (winner of the HNSLondon14 Short Story Award) and “Fire on the Water” by Vanessa Lafaye (winner of the HNSOxford16 Short Story Award).
If you enjoyed this interview and wish to hear about another contributors to Distant Echoes and their inspiration, check out my author spotlights: