In Trisha R. Thomas’s What Passes as Love (Lake Union Publishing), a mixed-race daughter of a plantation owner passes as white and escapes enslavement. Thomas spoke to PW about balancing verisimilitude with storytelling; the photograph that led to the development of her protagonist, Dahlia Holt; and the art of connecting our collective pasts to the present.
Have you written historical fiction before? How does the creative process differ from writing fiction set in the modern day?
Historical fiction offers a chance to create multiple layers of a time frame. Modern, present-day stories are easier to navigate. Regardless of the landscape, I’ve always given my characters back stories with timelines to fill in the blanks. It doesn’t matter if they’re protagonists or villains; I like them to be whole and well-drawn. Where they come from and how they became that person are important facts to add. I want the reader to feel every detail so if they pick up one of my books 20 years from now, whether it’s written from a historical point-of-view or present day, they are in the moment. The only way you can do that is to paint a complete picture.
What was the initial spark of inspiration for writing What Passes as Love?
A historical novel based in the 19th century was always in my future. While I was researching, I found an archived photo in the Library of Congress. The picture was taken in 1861. Three enslaved sisters who could easily pass for white were photographed in their dresses and bonnets. I had so many questions. How were the three of them raised, and by whom? If they were slaves, why were they dressed pretty as dolls? Dahlia Holt became my reimagined character, a mixed-race daughter of a plantation owner determined to find her place in the world and to be free of the legacy of being owned by someone else.
Did your writing direction change at all as a result of new historical details you might have uncovered?
It’s thrilling to learn as much as possible about my characters. Shaping them into who I want them to be often turns them into something else entirely. While researching, I look for any small detail to enrich the experience. Quite a bit gets tucked away. I don’t want to force feed information in the book. If it matters, I put it in. For example, in this story, Dahlia meets two English brothers who set their sights on her for their own gain in very different ways. I wanted them to be the bad guys, but the more I explored their histories, where they came from, and what they believed in, they became less the villains and more just flawed individuals. I wanted to add in so many details about their lives and secrets, but I had to decide whose story I was telling.
Was it ever a challenge to maintain levels of relatability and emotional resonance when writing in a historical setting?
It’s easy to be caught up in the historical details and forget about the characters’ relationships. There was gross injustice in American history in the 19th century, but there were also substantial loving relationships between the enslaved people who lived through this brutal time. An entire group of people who shouldn’t have survived, did, and I think it was because they had each other.
I personally feel connected to all of the characters. When Dahlia gets confirmation of who her sisters are and who she is—that was hard to write. I feel like we’re all connected in terms of lineage, and I know that’s a big statement, but after constantly hearing about friends and family getting the results from their DNA tests, it became something I wanted to address. The connectivity of a small thread of DNA running through our veins comes from unexpected places. If that thread could talk, I believe What Passes as Love would be that story.