Wake Not the Hangman
Deborah Leigh is an author from Los Angeles, CA. We have conducted an interview with her about her debut novel "Wake Not the Hangman".
Who is the recommended audience for Wake Not the Hangman?
I think a wide variety of readers can enjoy Wake Not the Hangman. On the one hand, it’s ideal for readers who typically appreciate historical novels that sort of air-drop them into a time in the past and keep them there with atmosphere and story, but because the protagonist is a teenager, young adults—high school seniors and beyond—are also a well-suited audience. And, I think Thornton’s relationship with William, Ronan, and Henry, the three slaves with whom he joins forces, has a “bromance” feel to it that appeals to men and women alike because of the brotherhood aspect and the sensitivity necessary for the camaraderie between the men to develop. Women factor heavily, though, so my hope is that Wake Not the Hangman depicts a story that is more about the human condition than any one plot point and that it resonates with many readers.
What is it like to dissect the concept of slavery in storytelling?
It’s interesting that you say, “…the concept of slavery” because I think, in a way, that gets right to the heart of the issue. For those who are the descendants of slaves, it’s not merely an abstract concept. It’s a reality that, even in this day, can require a processing. And yet others may feel it happened so long ago, it is now more a concept than a tangible construct that still affects lives.
I didn’t want Wake Not the Hangman to be “about slavery”, and it isn’t. Slavery does not even form all of the backdrop. It’s just part of it. There’s more going on. So, if looking at the question as one strictly about how to depict slavery in writing, the answer is that, as a writer, you strike a balance between keeping your characters as your centerpiece while still addressing slavery in the proper way. I wanted to be sure to depict not just the obvious circumstances of slavery but to portray the lives and souls and spirits of those trapped in it, to show their personalities and desires and character strengths and weaknesses and to reveal “the whole person”, so that slavery would be more than a story concept.
I love this question because it gets right to the heart of storytelling, every writer’s favorite subject! It’s a great question: What keeps the reader interested if escaping is out of the question? The answer is sort of the crux of Thornton’s entire plight, which is to see if he has what it takes to do what is “out of the question”—meaning he wouldn’t consider it ever because of the dangers—versus what is impossible. He’s gone fifteen years putting up with a threatening father and an estranged mother, and we see his courage and true character when we realize that it’s not until his father introduces three more innocent people—William, Ronan, and Henry, the slaves—into the wretchedness that he feels it’s worth the risk to try to end everyone’s misery. The problem is that his fears have been real. The threat to his life and his future, if he takes this risk, is real. It’s not just a matter of his jumping an internal barrier, of overcoming a mental roadblock, a fear, to reach his goal. He may summon his courage and still not get what he wants. Hopefully, that question, that journey, that uncertainty keeps the reader “chasing the story”, as you say.
Wake Not the Hangman has some suspenseful moments. What made you choose a story like this for your debut novel?
I think in order to portray the magnitude of what the characters are attempting and to reveal along the way what’s at stake, you have to include the peril that’s involved. By definition, that’s going to be suspenseful. Ironically, if escape were easy, it would be akin to saying abuse, estrangement, loneliness, isolation, and slavery aren’t difficult. But if, as a writer, you show just how hard it would be for a fifteen-year-old to mastermind a grand escape from something brutal, that would have to be suspenseful, if you tell it right. So, the suspense was really just part of my hoping to treat the reader to a story that makes sense.
What inspired you to write Wake Not the Hangman?
As a small child, I experienced an isolation different from Thornton’s. It lasted for five years, and during that time, I witnessed and was the beneficiary of a lot of unexpected camaraderie. People are so much better than they are worse, and I wanted to kind of honor that in my story. I have also spent almost fifteen years in the legal world, and, unfortunately, some of the questions of how people treat each other in the book remain today, when thinking about child endangerment and domestic issues. As my author bio says, I enjoy putting things thought to be intrinsic to modern urban life in rustic stories. I think, I hope the average reader’s present—their life, their knowledge—makes Wake Not the Hangman relatable and not some abstract thing of and about a strange and distant past. Ideally, you should be able to change the facts a bit and slot the story into today’s terms if you want the reader to be all the way in the room, watching the story unfold. For example, if you wanted to write an edge-of-your-seat story about a heist, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s a sixteenth-century queen’s jewels or a modern-day bank that is the target. The stakes for the characters should be basic, human stakes. I think it’s crucial when writing in historical settings to keep the story relatable to today’s reader.
By your early twenties, you had lived in three different countries on two continents. How, if at all, does that play a role in your writing?
[Laughs] It taught me to accept failure! When you’re a fish out of water in another place and you have to make your way through on maybe limited resources or iffy language skills or dicey job prospects, you are bound to face some failure moments. Those are great lessons for a writer to learn. And it gave me exposure. Having spent a lot of time in many other places, and having been fortunate to call other places “home” for a short while, gave me a much broader sense of what’s possible and many perspectives to draw on in my writing. Too, if you see yourself doing something that’s not easy in one arena, you kind of carry it over and use it as fuel to do things in other areas. Somewhere inside me, leaving home at such a young age gave me the courage to dive into finishing not just Wake Not the Hangman, but the three works I now have in progress.
Web site: darrowpublishing-losangeles.com
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