When I first came across Deborah Leigh’s book “Wake Not the Hangman” I was was immediately intrigued by her focus on a slave owner’s abused family and the son’s desire to “escape” along with the slaves. I live in Canada and though we learn about slavery in school, the focus is mostly on the Underground Railway into Canada and on slaves on the southern plantations. I was named after Melanie in Gone With The Wind and that is MY concept of slavery. I never knew there were slaves in Missouri and had no idea there were city slaves. This book was not only an entertaining story but it taught me an amazing amount of history I never knew existed.
I was also interested in Deborah Leigh’s Bio and her background, so I was thrilled to be able to chat with her about her career and her new book.
Melanie Rockett: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. I’m especially curious about all your traveling and residencies in so many different countries!
Deborah Leigh: Right after I graduated college, I spent a year overseas as part of a youth-professional exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Congress. Because it was a total-immersion experience, I was left to my own devices in terms of finding friends, hanging out with co-workers, and scrounging up the change to travel around Europe. Very early in the program, I met the Frenchman I eventually married, and the close ties to a native European resulted in years of toggling between the two continents and actually giving birth in France. In a lot of ways, we did what most young, married college grads do. We moved all over the place, took a lot of funky jobs, and fought with our landlord about repairs he refused to make in our apartment in the suburbs of Frankfurt! We “temped” in Germany, I was a work-from-home mother in a French village with a population of 500, and we “lived with our parents” on both sides of the ocean! We were broke all the time and constantly starting over, but it was a ton of fun. Mostly. Sometimes, it was rough being so far from family and frequently readjusting to a new setting. There were a million gorgeous cities we never got to visit because the budget just wouldn’t allow it. And…it took me probably longer than usual to settle into a real career path.
Still, I wouldn’t change the struggle and uncertainty that came with moving around so much. In a way, the ever-shifting ground gave me a great, solid foundation for knowing for sure what I wanted to do. I had no nagging longing to be somewhere else. Those itches had been scratched. The other irony is that I’m no longer married, but my ex-husband and I tapped into all of that earlier shuffling to be friendly co-parents as we raised our son. When you’ve driven over the Italian Alps with someone in a tiny, stick-shift Renault wearing a t-shirt and shorts in a snowstorm because it was 80 degrees where you were when you left and you had no idea it was snowing in those Alps, it’s pretty easy to wait 10 more minutes if they’re running late for a band performance!
Melanie Rockett: You were involved in the magazine business for many years. In addition to being an editor, did you also write? What was the most valuable thing for you as a writer that you learned while working in publishing?
Deborah Leigh: Yes, I wrote lots of copy for a travel magazine and had a column in a business magazine that focused on market trends in customer service. Over the years, whether I’ve worked in publishing or hospitality or as a temp or in the legal system, I’ve tried to find ways to incorporate writing into my job, even if it was just starting a departmental newsletter to help build morale. I think writing finds the author as much as the author finds writing.
The most valuable thing I learned while working in publishing was how to edit. You learn to cut 700 words down to 300 and keep the meaning. You develop the patience necessary to read the same copy a dozen times and make changes barely visible to the naked eye that nevertheless change the trajectory of that sentence or section or character. As you edit the work of others, you chop so much good material that, over time, you learn not to become too attached to any paragraph, sentence, or word. In my own writing, I’ll cut anything that doesn’t sound right. Anything. No matter how hard I worked for it.
One of the more esoteric writing assignments I had was to describe luxury hotels in 75 words without ever using the verb “to be” or, across the dozens of descriptions, without repeating a verb. It’s harder than you think! To avoid, “The Golden Gate Bridge is just down the street,” you come up with, “Situated just minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, Luxury Hotel offers harbor tours….” But now “situated” and “offers” have been used and can’t appear in any of the other descriptions. Since most hotels offer similar services, by the end, you scrape for things like “boasts five-star dining” and “provides six pillows” and “spoils its guests with a 200-item brunch.” It was great training and gave me the stamina to stare at text for long stretches until I found the words.
Melanie Rockett: Wake Not the Hangman is your first book, and is a historical novel set in the Midwest, Missouri to be exact. How did you come to write on this topic?
Deborah Leigh: I think we’re often exposed to Southern, plantation slavery-in school, on television, in movies-but I recently became fascinated with the lives of city slaves. All over the slave states, robust cities had business owners who used slave labor. I wondered what it would be like to be a porter in a hotel in St. Louis, for example, and be owned by that hotel. Or to work on a loading dock or as a custodian in a warehouse and to do so as a slave. You may move about the city, among free citizens, but your movements are highly regulated. That got me thinking about some of the farmlands near those cities and how slaves on those farms handled life in the Midwest, how they fought cold winters in threadbare conditions and how they may have been tempted to escape, living so close to big cities and seeing all they had to offer, and near free territories to the north and west, where it was wide-open country.
The setting turned out to be ideal in terms of creating both tension and promise in Wake Not the Hangman . My protagonists are trapped by circumstance and yet-and yet-if they can just make it a hundred miles to the west, they can be free. Their plotting an escape is both realistic since they don’t have to run through thousands of miles of slave territory and potentially disastrous because they can still be caught. That risk forms the foundation of an unusual camaraderie and a coming-of-age tale.
Melanie Rockett: .Your main character, Thornton, is as much a “slave” as the slaves his father buys. His brutal and uncaring father abuses him and his mother, and Thornton is determined to escape. What inspired you to focus on a slave owner’s abused son instead of (like most books) the slaves?
Deborah Leigh: When I sat down to write Wake Not the Hangman, I had a strong desire to focus on the unsung heroes of that era, people who refused to own slaves, who maybe turned the other way if they spotted someone on the run, who possibly provided shelter or safe harbor for an hour or a week. When slavery was legal, most people still didn’t own slaves, some, for financial reasons, but many, and hopefully most others, for moral reasons. I don’t think we tell their story often enough, or really at all. Meanwhile, unfortunately, not enough has changed since then when it comes to human trafficking, domestic violence, and abuse. But rather than writing about all of these concepts and issues on a macro level, I folded them into one young man’s story in way that is hopefully relatable for the reader. Thornton is fifteen years old and living in total isolation with an abusive father and an estranged mother, with whom he sympathizes. He can’t fathom any other kind of life, so he does nothing to change his circumstances. It’s not until three others are introduced into the misery that he looks around and says, “If I can do something to put a stop to this, for all of us, I’m going to.”
I was subjected to a different kind of isolation for five years as a child, and I know that people are capable of incredible compassion that sometimes shines brightest under the worst conditions. I think the plight of William, Ronan, and Henry, the three slaves, is very clear, and as a storyteller, I enjoyed plumbing for what it might be like for someone like Thornton, who doesn’t do much to defend himself, but who can find courage to come to the aid of others. Of course, I wanted be sure not to, in any way, gloss over the struggles of William, Ronan, and Henry. Through William, in particular, we see just how much any one enslaved life has at stake. And then we see the ironic plight of Thornton, who, but for his freedom in the eyes of the law, is, logistically, just as trapped, and we relish all the more the brotherhood that emerges. Captive/savior, to me, is less interesting than typical and atypical captives sharing a struggle and realizing their similarities for the sake of everyone’s good. While the work was in progress, I looked forward to writing those ideas and ideals every day.
Melanie Rockett: Do you have more books planned? Perhaps a sequel to Wake Not the Hangman?
Deborah Leigh: I’m working on a standalone sequel to Wake Not the Hangman. Very standalone. No one who forgoes the second book will feel like they missed tidbits from Wake Not the Hangman if they don’t read it. The sequel, if I can even call it that, will bring back a few familiar faces, but it will portray a very different journey.
I’m also laying the foundation for another historical novel set during World War I that is unrelated to Wake Not the Hangman. While overseas, I lived primarily in the area where World War I was a sheer horror, near the German, French, and Belgian borders, and I became fascinated by that war and by that entire era. I’m eager to combine into a novel the macro war with the micro experiences of the characters. Meanwhile, to keep the writer juices flowing, I write short stories as they come to me. Completing shorter, 5,000- to 8,000-word, fully arced stories gives me energy to finish the 95,000-word projects. I figure when stories or characters come knocking while you’re in the car, on the bus, or under the shower, you have to answer and write even just a few lines of them. So, sometimes, it’s not my intention to veer off and write a short story, but one will appear in my head, and I have to acknowledge it!
Melanie Rockett: I loved both the story and the characters in Wake Not the Hangman and can’t wait for Deborah Leigh’s next book.
If you want to keep track of Deborah and what she is doing . . .
Follow Deborah Leigh on Darrow Publishing
and on Twitter @d_leigh_writes