Irene Latham and Charles Waters are “Poetic Forever Friends” first and collaborators second. They are the writing team behind Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, which was awarded a Charlotte Huck Honor, and Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z, an NCTE Notable Poetry book. They share a passion for poetry and are committed to creating meaningful books for young readers. African Town is their first novel together.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
In this case, the characters were already established (since they are real people), as was the basic storyline. But of course there were a lot of holes in the research, particularly concerning the women onboard Clotilda. That’s where we got to use our imagination to create agency and to build relationships and motivations.
How do you conduct your research?
We used a combination of many different methods, including but not limited to reading books and articles, youtube videos, current news articles (we set Google alerts for ourselves), reaching out to descendants, on-site research in Mobile, visiting various landmarks like the church and cemetery the Clotilda Africans founded, and hiring a fact-checker to make sure we used Yorùbá words and phrases correctly.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
We were lucky in that there were scholarly works available to us which not only provided something of a skeleton for events, but also pointed us to other primary sources—like the captain of the Clotilda William Foster’s personal journal. We spent some time in the Mobile Library of Local History and Genealogy, and the librarians there, Ann Biggs and Valerie Ellis, were so great to help us out in person and via email when later in the process more questions emerged.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
In our case we started reading chapters in various books and started drafting shortly thereafter as we continued reading, putting the initial draft together piecemeal. Even though our editor, the esteemed Stacey Barney, saw the “1st draft” of the manuscript it was actually our 4th full draft which took about seven months to put together. We are so grateful to author and teacher, Kathy Erskine, who read an early draft before we sent it to Stacey and gave us vital feedback in terms of—among other things—telescoping the story to give it more clarity.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
One of the difficulties for us was sifting through conflicting information in the research, and ultimately being forced to decide which to use in our book. This is where an Author’s Note can be so helpful—we used it as a place to share with the reader the choices we made, and why.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
It was fascinating to learn the actual location of the remains of the Clotilda, which had remained a mystery for decades due to the faulty information Timothy Meaher provided—his aim was to evade the authorities, as his actions were punishable by death. Many years later, William Foster, who manned the Clotilda, set the record straight by revealing the actual location in his journal, which helped Ben Raines find the ship in 2019.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
One of the big decisions we had to make was when to get out of the story, where to end. It’s important to us (and to readers) to end on a hopeful note, but what we found was that the tragedies continued for many of the shipmates. We were able to find this one pocket of time just after the death of both our antagonists (Timothy Meaher and William Foster) but before more deaths in the community of African Town in which our main characters are all flourishing in the home they created for themselves. That allowed us a truthful happy ending, and we were able to include what happened after 1901 in our back matter.
Why is historical fiction important?
When looking back at stories from history such as African Town, Black Wall Street, and Japanese Internment camps—to name a few—it baffles us as to why we weren’t taught this growing up. In this watershed moment in publishing and the world, it’s vital as the blood coursing through our veins to learn about these hidden stories of our country’s complicated past, to shed light on them and hope as humans we grow from reading of these experiences which shape us all, whether we recognize it or not.
Thank you so much, Irene and Charles. I wanted to add that African Town is a verse novel, told in the voices of a number of characters — even the ship Clotilda. I look forward to sharing my review of this incredible book in April, during National Poetry Month.