A woman kills an American bounty hunter on the northern end of the Underground Railroad in Thomas’s debut, In the Upper Country (Viking, Jan.).
How did the story evolve after your initial research?
I came across John “Daddy” Hall in a newspaper article and learned more about his life in the work of historian Peter Meyler. I was fascinated by the elements that came together in Hall’s story: his mixed Indigenous and African descent, his escape from enslavement via the Underground Railroad, his involvement in the War of 1812 and therefore in the complicated Indigenous and colonial politics of that moment, even the fact that he ended up as a town crier of Owen Sound, Ontario.
I originally envisioned the book coming fairly straightforwardly from Hall’s life. But I didn’t feel comfortable creating a fictional retelling of a real person’s story, and as I got deeper into the history I started wanting to use the possibilities of fiction—to juxtapose narratives, to read between the lines of the factual record—more fully. Many aspects of Hall’s life remain in the novel, they’re just not attached to a single character.
The book interweaves a variety of narratives, some emerging through dialogue and some from written texts, in nonchronological fashion. Did that pose a challenge?
It meant broadening my research, but that never felt like a drag on the creative process. The more I time I spent reading, the more comfortable I felt writing. I’m lucky to have great mentors and editors. I would present a draft that made sense in my own head, they would talk about what wasn’t yet fully realized or clear, and I would revise from there. That call-and-response process was crucial in helping me bring all of the pieces together.
Could you talk about the Black journalist Lensinda Martin, the book’s primary narrator?
Lensinda’s first name came from a line in the historical record that may identify one of Daddy Hall’s many children. Neither she nor Cash, the elderly woman [who shoots the bounty hunter], has a specific historical correlative. Female slave narratives were a hugely helpful resource in writing the novel. I also turned to books like Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which combine robustly researched history with a sense of Black women’s lives and voices.
Indigenous characters make vivid appearances, for example in the figure of Cash’s husband.
Thinking about John Hall’s mixed ancestry got me thinking about the ways the Black and Indigenous communities intersected during the 19th century. Both histories and fiction sometimes treat those peoples as though they weren’t significant. It was important to me to bring Indigenous experience into the novel and just as important to do that respectfully, without romanticizing or oversimplifying the people or dynamics involved.