Kathleen Grissom and the Story that Wrote Itself
Festival of Books author on Writing 'The Kitchen House,' 'Glory Over Everything'
By Ryan Woodard
Fiction authors are no strangers to writer's block. But occasionally, the story literally "writes itself." Kathleen Grissom knows what that feels like.
(Caution to fiction writers staring blankly at their computer screens: this anecdote may cause you to face-palm).
The 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books presenter worked hard to fulfill her dream of becoming a novelist. But it was an unforeseen sequence of events that led to her first book, the New York Times Bestselling novel, "The Kitchen House."
The Canada native, who drew an early interest in reading and writing from parents who encouraged reading and cultural discovery, unwittingly began her career as a novelist by renovating an old plantation home in rural Virginia.
From Renovating to the New York Times Bestseller List
While she and her husband were exploring the landscape, she discovered an old map with a notation that read "Negro Hill" and became "obsessed with wanting to find out what happened there."
"To this day, I am uncertain why those words captured me so," she said. Nevertheless, she dropped everything to research the plantation's history.
She consulted historians, pored over available information at libraries and court records in Colonial Williamsburg, and visited other renovated plantations.
Her research paid dividends. All that remained was transcribing the vivid imagery and storyline in her head.
"After intense research, a movie started to play out for me," she explained from her home in Virginia. "It started to come. As it started to come, I wrote it down."
What she wrote down was printed by a major publisher and ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list. It's now considered a contemporary classic.
The novel tells the story of a dark secret which "threatens to expose the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate at a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War," according to publisher Simon & Schuster.
The book club favorite put Grissom on the map as an author. Her initial research is still paying off, as it also spurred a highly-anticipated sequel, "Glory Over Everything," which features a character from "The Kitchen House," whose adventures were not finished playing out in her mind's eye.
"This guy showed up in my head," she said. "He was 20 years old and had left the first book when he was 13. He showed up in Philadelphia 20 years later."
The new, standalone novel opens in 1830. Jamie Pyke, son of a slave and master, is passing in Philadelphia society as a wealthy white silversmith.
Readers became so attached to the characters in "The Kitchen House" that they constantly asked Grissom during author appearances, "what happens next?"
She was more than happy to fill inform them in the sequel.
Meet Kathleen Grissom and hear more at the South Dakota Festival of Books
South Dakota Festival of Books attendees will discover these characters' stories and more during Grissom's appearance at the book fair event this fall. Grissom will describe what she learned from the experience, which, among other things, has opened her eyes to the origins of race issues that still plague America.
"I think it takes generations for people to overcome a past that slavery would have inflicted on African Americans," she said. "I think they are still playing 'catch up.'"
Remarkably, her novels create an open sharing process for ethnically diverse book clubs that might be expected to shy away from divisive racial issues.
"I'm personally finding that certainly with my book clubs they are very open to discussing the issue of slavery and all of the ramifications of that," she said. "Within the book clubs we speak openly about racism and slavery and the end result of slavery. And that's with us today."
Of course, she'll talk extensively about her two groundbreaking novels.
"The first is all about slavery," she said. "The second is slavery of the soul. He's a 'freed' slave or 'escaped' slave. We see through his life what it means to leave your family behind. For the price of freedom - being white - what that price meant. It was the sacrifice of love and family."