I’m delighted to talk to Piper Huguley, author of By Her Own Design, and to celebrate the launch of this absorbing and beautifully written novel about Ann Lowe, a Black woman and granddaughter of slaves, who rose above personal struggles and racial prejudice to design and create one of America’s most famous wedding dresses of all time for Jackie Kennedy.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? I’m a scholar and professor of 20th century United States literature. My areas of expertise are autobiography and African American literature.
How did you chose writing as a career? I’ve been writing fiction off and on since I was 12 years old. It’s not my career yet, but I hope it will be one day soon.
What path led you to By Her Own Design: The Story of Ann Lowe, Society’s Best-Kept- Secret? My editor sent out a tweet on Twitter asking if someone would be willing to write a historical fiction novel about Ann Lowe. I knew who she was and when I looked into the trajectory of her life story a bit more, I knew I could write a novel about her life.
What themes are you exploring with this novel? The themes are quite universal. How far someone is willing to go to fulfill their dreams, the importance of work in a woman’s life and how women support one another.
What would you like readers to understand about Ann’s experience and its relevance for today? She was very determined to reach her goal of becoming a fashion designer, but she paid a price. She also persevered under some extraordinary circumstances. People need to understand what those circumstances were like so that we never have to revisit them again.
Can you tell us how you did your research and a bit about your writing process? Because she is a Black woman in the south, there aren’t that many conventional sources to look to. Fortunately, Margaret Powell wrote her thesis and many blogs that helped to give me some facts about her life that I could create a narrative around. The writing happened over a period of months in late 2020 and 2021. The prologue, something I had never written before, was written first in order to show my editor that I was working on an Ann Lowe novel. The prologue and some of the pages of her younger years were what sold the novel. It was also fortunate that Ann Lowe came from a place in Alabama that was in the same region where my great-grandmother came from. Also, my work as a Zora Neale Hurston scholar (who was born in Alabama) helped me to understand what her childhood would have looked like.
What aspects of character, setting, plot, conflict, dialogue, world building, and theme do you try to emphasize in your historical fiction? In a biographical historical fiction novel about a Black woman, I believe that getting an audience to relate to the protagonist is the most important aspect. All other literary concerns arise from that. So I started the novel on what a backward looking Ann Lowe would consider the worst day of her life–the day the dresses for Jackie Kennedy’s wedding were ruined. Many of us have had terrible days and I hoped people would connect to her as she weathers this horrible situation.
You’ve also written contemporary fiction. Can you tell us how that writing differs from writing a novel like By Her Own Design? Well, one way it is the same is that you still have to do research. It’s important to make sure that any references are timely. The setting of the novel has to do with present day considerations and technology and there are ways to convey that that don’t play out the same as in historical novels. Instead of a letter, for instance, characters can text one another. I enjoyed writing Sweet Tea, but my heart is in writing about historical Black women.
What’s your next project? American Daughters–the story of the secret interracial friendship between Portia Washington and Alice Roosevelt, the daughters of Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt respectively.
Many thanks for sharing some thoughts about your writing, Piper. I’m sure that like me, many others who read A Writer of History will be cheering you on to success with By Her Own Design. I had the privilege of reading an early release of Piper’s novel and highly recommend it. Click here for my thoughts on the story.
The incredible untold story of how Ann Lowe, a Black woman and granddaughter of slaves, rose above personal struggles and racial prejudice to design and create one of America’s most famous wedding dresses of all time for Jackie Kennedy.
1953, New York City – Less than a week before the society wedding of the year where Jacqueline Bouvier will marry John F. Kennedy, a pipe bursts at Ann Lowe’s dress shop and ruins eleven dresses, including the expensive wedding dress, a dress that will be judged by thousands. A Black designer who has fought every step of the way, Ann knows this is only one struggle after a lifetime of them. She and her seamstresses will find the way to re-create the dresses. It may take all day and all night for the next week to accomplish the task, but they will do it.
1918, Tampa – Raised in Jim Crow Alabama, Ann learned the art of sewing from her mother and her grandmother, a former slave, who are the most talented seamstresses in the state. After Ann elopes at twelve with an older man who soon proves himself to be an abusive alcoholic, her dreams of becoming a celebrated designer seem to be put on hold. But then a wealthy Tampa socialite sees Ann’s talent and offers her an amazing opportunity—the chance to sew and design clothing for Florida’s society elite. Taking her young son in the middle of the night, Ann escapes her husband and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.
Based on the true story of one of the most famous designers of the twenties through the sixties who has since been unjustly forgotten, By Her Own Design is an unforgettable novel of determination despite countless obstacles and a triumph celebrated by the world.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.