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“Family Identity and Second Chances”: WU’s Take 10 with Harriet Cannon

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We are pleased to introduce you to author Harriet Cannon today! We were recently introduced to Harriet by the women’s fiction writing association, WFWA. From her bio:

Harriet Cannon is a writer with Southern roots and Wanderlust. Thirty years as a multicultural psychotherapist, a consultant to the Boeing Company, International Schools and the US State Department in Chile influenced her writing. Harriet is co-author of Mixed Blessings: A Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships. Exiled South is her debut novel. Harriet and her husband live in the Pacific Northwest and have two grown children.

Harriet’s author story has a unique texture to it, and she worked for years to home in on and honor the pith of her debut novel–a work that asked her to confront a nation’s past though a complex lens, and dovetailed with her own occupation as a healer/psychotherapist specializing in historical shades-of-gray. Intrigued? Read on.

Q1: Please tell us a bit about yourself, Harriet. How long have you been writing? How many books have you published?

Both my grandmothers were gifted storytellers full of family history and adventures from their diverse social classes and cultures. Wanderlust took me around the United States and to South America with my portable first career as a psychotherapist. I wrote non-fiction professionally including co-authoring the self-help book ‘Mixed Blessings: a Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships’ and then, a decade ago I joined a writing group and began classes to learn the craft of writing fiction. I’ve had a few essays and stories published. Exiled South is my first novel.

Q2: What’s Exiled South about? What inspired it?

HC: The roots for a novel about the Southern civilian experience during American Civil War began with family stories about my great grandmother, her mother, and sisters during the siege of Charleston. The bone-chilling stories involve nearly starving, having their house confiscated to house troops when Charleston fell, and friends who disappeared during Reconstruction. The breadth and depth of the stories I heard were certainly not what was in my US history books. I assumed my grandmama, a suburban storyteller, was spinning for effect. It was the late 60’s and Martin Luther King was my hero.

Twenty-five years later while living in South America, I learned of the Confederados, around 8,000 people who fled the American south after the Civil War. I knew someday I’d write a story about the courage, sacrifices, and ethical challenges of everyday Southern civilians during the Civil War.

My nineteenth century protagonists were typical of their era. Loyalty went to family and the place/area/state in which they were born. In 1861, the USA was less than 80 years old, but some colonies had separate identities for two hundred. When the Civil War broke out, most people remained loyal to their region even if they thought slaveholding was immoral. The shame of losing the war has affected generations of families. With the aid of research, family stories etc. we in the twenty-first century have the opportunity for reconciliation and healing broken or lost parts of our families.

Q3: Once you decided to write this story, how did you begin to gather the research needed to bring it to light in an authentic way?

Having family in Charleston has given me a lifetime of loving history and the venues for library, museum, books, and experts on South Carolina history. I had a busy career as a psychotherapist, but over time, when visiting family in Charleston, I did research that revealed shocking suffering of Southern civilians at the end of the Civil War not unlike what happened to German citizens when the Russians entered Berlin in 1944.

My Civil War era Gordon family were middle-class merchants before the Civil War. They were not slaveholders nor, like many southerners, did they believe the institution of slavery was a moral institution. However, being me, and wanting to be true to history, my protagonists—Laurette, an herbalist who becomes a nurse, and her brother, Robert, who becomes a blockade runner—live true to the POV of educated nineteenth-century people in Charleston. During Reconstruction they become pariahs and join the diaspora to Brazil that became known as Confederados.

Q4: These are difficult topics. Did they pose any special challenges for you as you worked through the draft?

By 2017, I had a decent draft of a historical novel. But times had changed. Tolerance for the POV of nineteenth-century values, gender roles, social class rigidity and racism was abrasive to many twenty-first century readers. Politics had become nasty and polarized. Cancel culture had no name yet, but social justice was up-front and center.

In that hyper-sensitive environment, I realized that using the Civil War to evoke empathy for citizens caught up in war, charged with impossible choices not of their making, was not acceptable at this time. A couple of readers said tone it down, soften the nineteenth-century voices to be more like the thoughts of people today. I couldn’t do it.

Q5: What did you do? How did you make the changes that felt right to you? Or did you leave it as was?

HC: I literally woke up in the middle of the night with an answer. Ancestry research is all the rage.  People are finding out all manner of family surprises. For Exiled South, why not add a dual timeline, a modern-day protagonist who, after a personal tragedy, goes on an international quest to solve a family mystery and reconcile with multiethnic descendants of her ancestors. I rewrote Exiled South from the point of view of a twenty-first century protagonist with an epistolary middle section true to the voices of my nineteenth century protagonists.  It worked.

It was a huge disappointment to have to dump so much content from my original novel, but in the end Exiled South became much better and much more relevant in our current world.

Q6: Can you describe one place in your story that using the dual-narrative timeline freed you to tell the story you wanted to tell?

HC: At a dinner in Rio de Janeiro, twenty-first century Lizbeth meets descendants of her ancestors who disappeared after the civil war. She is given copies of her ancestor Laurette’s diary and her ancestor Robert’s letters to his sister Laurette. Lizbeth stays up all night reading and re-reading what she has been given.  In the morning, she commits to reconciling with the past and reuniting her far-flung multiethnic family.

Q7: Were any novels a source of inspiration for you? What did they show you, teach you, free you to imagine? 

Learning something about history of a place and people is my all-time favorite kind of reading. I want to write what I like to read. I have loved dual-POV novels like ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ and ‘From Salt to the Sea,’ both about young adults doing things that would have been unimaginable had they not been caught up in WWII. They were inspirations in writing the variety of ‘truths’ in war or any intense situation.

I also went in search of dual-timeline novels and read a bunch of them to see the variety of ways a dual-timeline novel can be written. Most inspiring were ‘The Wine Maker’s Wife’, by Kristin Harmel, ‘The Past is Never’ by Tiffany Yates, both novels about family secrets and identity.

Those novels let me know it’s OK to be a bit edgy, challenge the reader to go beyond their comfort zone and appreciate points of view they might not otherwise consider.

Two amazing novels based on real events about women during the Civil War era are ‘Enemy Women’ by Paulette Jiles and ‘Varina’ by Charles Fraser.

Q8: Did anything about the 19th-century timeline continue to give you trouble—either via reconciling story with reality or through your readership?

HC: Exiled South had pushback from a few people. In 35 years as a psychotherapist, I have found we humans to be a messy species. It feels safer to have definite recipes to solve problems like racism and misogamy. We are uncomfortable exploring the gray areas of ethical dilemmas. I believe we have to talk to each other to try to understand another’s personal path rather than take a hard line to blame others without the benefit of full context. Bottom line, that’s why I wrote Exiled south.

Also, I had a great editor, Virginia Herrick, who was raised in the South. Virginia gave me a brilliant suggestion for a prologue that explained the trauma that sets twenty-first century Lizbeth on her international-roots quest. Virginia wrestled me to the ground when I got a little too wrapped around the axel using Southern slang or expressions that could offend contemporary readers. She reminded me my purpose was to reveal little known American history and the ethical decision of nineteenth-century civilians and twenty-first century citizens’ response to painful family history.  And I had beta readers who were very helpful in giving useful feedback about the story and characters’ POV.

Q9: Let’s talk about “shades of gray.” You mentioned those are important to explore when trying to take in/absorb the nature of humanity. How did that inform how you built your characters and the choices they made? Were they flawed? Did they make choices that might get a book club debating over them? Were you ever unsure if you could go as far as you did in trying to tell this story or force a character into a position that made you personally uncomfortable?

HC: I intentionally gave my contemporary and Civil War era protagonists flaws like self-righteous pride and flashes of out-of-control anger. For example, after being publicly confronted for having an antebellum slaveholding family, Lizbeth Gordon fled the South for the Pacific Northwest and reinvented herself. Twenty years on, after a scandalous betrayal, she returns to South Carolina to reconcile with her own and her ancestral secrets. Laurette, a headstrong Civil War Nurse dedicated to helping all people, smothers a patient, a Union soldier, with his pillow in a fit of anger, rather than admit he’s been sexually harassing her.

Through book clubs, there have been vivid discussions about consequences to civilians on the losing side of the Civil War and all wars. There is also lively discussion about US shame for having been a slave-holding country and the difficulty of facing historical slaveholding in our country and around the world.

Q10: What message would you most like people to take from your novel? And what’s next for you?

Any of us, at any time can take a position, make a statement, we think is the right one for us and our family/community that can be misunderstood or maligned by others when taken out of context.

I am deep into the weeds of a second international theme novel set in Canada and Scotland.

Learn more about Harriet and her works on her website.

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