An interview with author Diane McPhail

Diane McPhail is the author of THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER – a novel of the Civil War South, which is based on true events and rooted in family history. Diane is an artist, writer, and minister who lives in North Carolina. Welcome to the blog, Diane.

Why did you choose to write historical fiction? That is such an interesting question for me. Interesting, because it is unexpectedly challenging. After much thought, my answer is that I think historical fiction chose me, rather than the other way around. The reason becomes clearer in answer to your next question.

What drew you to the world of this particular novel. The story of what is dubbed the “Greensboro feud” has haunted me since early childhood. My parents were both from Webster County, where the conflict occurred. In truth it was not a feud, but a single deadly incident of individual, family, and community violence lasting hardly more than a day’s time. I have a vivid memory of my aunt taking me to visit the “ghost town” when I was five and discovering only an abandoned graveyard. Where were the empty storefronts and windblown dirt streets depicted in the movies of the time? I was sorely disappointed as only a child can be.

My mother died soon after I was born, so I knew little about her—only that she loved to draw and sew and laugh a lot. As an adult, I found myself hungry to know more about her. I sought out my uncle and was listening to his delightful stories of their childhood, when I turned the page of a photo album to find an old newspaper article about “Bloody Greensboro.” I remarked how I could not understand the motivation toward such violence and, in the aftermath, how those women managed to live on with such trauma. He sat forward and said, “Don’t you know who that young woman was who buried all the men closest to her?”

Of course I had no idea. “That was our grandmother,” he said, “your mother’s and mine.”

That revelation astounded me. How had no one ever spoken of such a relationship? How had that young woman raised my own grandmother? As frequently as I had heard this tale, no one ever connected it to my family. As a therapist, I found myself in the grip of trying to understand the depths of this story. My novel, a fictionalized exploration of my questions, is the result.

Can you tell us how you did your research and any surprises you discovered along the way. Since all of the family who might have had any information were gone, I depended on two primary sources that were immensely helpful. A family genealogy surfaced, thanks to a cousin of mine, and that information led me to the archives at Mississippi State University, where the family papers were preserved. These two sources were a treasure trove of unexpected revelation. It was through those sources that I discovered how the judge had attempted to free his slaves, although it was illegal to do so. I had no idea that manumission became illegal after about 1853, as part of the compromises involved in the free/slave state negotiations prior to the Civil War.

The exact source of the family conflict—I had only heard it as “land greed”—became intriguingly complex. The death that led to that conflict revealed a fascinating mystery in itself. The more I delved into the family papers, especially the judge’s, the more intrigued I became. And the more enchanted by such details as an inventory of his cows, each charmingly named. An extensive inventory of goods conscripted by Union forces led me to research Grierson’s raid, a diversionary tactic to engage Confederate forces away from Sherman’s drive for control of the Mississippi River.

At the urging of my teacher and mentor, Jane Smiley, Pullitzer Prize winner for A THOUSAND ACRES, to take my research even deeper, I realized the major role weather played in the Civil War. I arrived at an astonishing, little known revelation that the war occurred just at the end of the Little Ice Age, during a period of global warming that brought deadly extremes of weather and temperature much like we are experiencing today. I am continually fascinated by the timeliness of history.

Which authors have inspired your writing? Can you tell us why? Perhaps I am most inspired by the writing of Cormac McCarthy. My writing is not like his, though I might wish it were. Two things in his work stand out to me: his ability to convey through language things that are almost beyond language and his refusal to gloss over that which is most painful to face. I am also profoundly drawn to Kazuo Ishiguro, especially his book, NEVER LET ME GO. There is something in his depiction of pure humanity that moves me deeply. Mary Doria Russell has inspired me with her scope, and specifically her exploration of how the best intended actions can lead to dire unintended consequences, as happens in my novel. And to Ursula Hegi, I am indebted for her depiction of the collapse of community and even family under harsh political pressures.

What is your writing process? I am what is commonly called a “panster”—that is “writing by the seat of your pants.” I find it almost impossible to follow an outline. I never know what a character may do or think next, or what may show up around a corner in the plot. I love the unknown of exploration and discovery in writing. My first writing teacher, Madeleine L’Engle, had one foundational premise: the work knows more than you do and you must trust it to lead where it knows to go.

Of course, writing in this way can lead you into chaos and a good bit of “after the fact” organization. Another great mentor, Darnell Arnault, taught me a wonderful technique. Every scene or character description goes on a 5” x 8” card. These can be shuffled, arranged, collected in groups, and laid out in varying narrative lines. I also covered a full sheet of plywood with a surface for dry erase marker. With this addition to my office, I could tape the cards, draw out character and narrative arcs, then shift and experiment. I can’t imagine writing any other way, although I now have an actual outline, very general, for my next novel. Who knows?

What is the subject of your next novel? My novel-in-progress is again historical fiction, involving a minor character from a sub-plot in THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER. Although this character plays a minor role, the beginning of her story is also the trigger that sets off the narrative in my first novel. I found that she simply did not want to let me go unless I committed to tell her story—a story I had absolutely no way of knowing. I simply felt that she would manage not only to endure a major catastrophe, but to flourish and find her true self as a result. Already the research has led to incredible surprises. I’m just waiting for the next!

How fascinating to have discovered and explored your family history, Diane. I wish you great success with your writing.

The Abolitionist’s Daughter by Diane C. McPhail ~~ On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily’s companion and often her conscience—and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan’s family arrives at the Matthews farm.

A young doctor, Charles Slate, tends to injured Nathan and begins to court Emily, finally persuading her to become his wife. But their union is disrupted by a fatal clash and a lie that will tear two families apart. As Civil War erupts, Emily, Ginny, and Emily’s stoic mother-in-law, Adeline, each face devastating losses. Emily—sheltered all her life—is especially unprepared for the hardships to come. Struggling to survive in this raw, shifting new world, Emily will discover untapped inner strength, an unlikely love, and the courage to confront deep, painful truths.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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