The reverberations from Robert Hicks’s bestselling first novel, The Widow of the South, are still being felt in his beloved Franklin, Tenn., where he spearheaded the historic preservation of the McGavock plantation (on which that book is based), home to the largest privately owned military cemetery in the United States. “The book came out in September of 2005,” he says, “and by the next year, attendance to the plantation jumped from 7,000 visitors to 15,000. The following year it went to 45,000, so it’s been increasing over the years. That’s the best part of the story to me, because how many times in your life do you set out to do something and really make it happen? It’s kind of like deciding to get married and then getting to see your daughter graduate from Harvard. So, wow, I got to see this! Last year, we had 125,000 visitors. They come from all over the world.”

His third novel, The Orphan Mother (Grand Central, Sept.), will doubtless keep visitors coming. His latest book imagines the life of Mariah Reddick, the real-life former slave to Carrie McGavock and one of his favorite characters from his first book. He tells Show Daily, “At the end of The Widow of the South, I wrote this epilogue for the publisher and I said that of all the characters, I find her the most intriguing. As I went out on book tours, I almost universally found people coming back to that comment by me and they would agree that she’s the most interesting person.”

Asked what made her so appealing, Hicks says, “Just that someone can have the worst of lives—a life of loneliness and loss—but by all accounts know who she is, someone who could do things and that she could triumph in this world.”

Hicks was able to speak to two of Mariah’s surviving granddaughters, one just over 100 years old, one just under. “They had cognizant memory, which was great. They talked about her being stoic, her fierceness, and her great vision for the world. So that’s what I wanted to do, write a story about transformation and redemption, and about how people in the hardest of situations somehow find themselves becoming more than their circumstances—that to me is the story of Mariah Reddick.”

Hicks shares how he would like readers to respond to his novel: “If there’s anything I could hope for, it would be that people would wish it never ended, one of your great dreams when you’re a writer. But beyond that I would want them to sit there and say, ‘What a great life!’ That’s my biggest wish.”

The author will be in the Autographing Area at Table 4 today, 10–11 a.m.

This article appeared in the May 13, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.