Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's emotionally wrenching, character-rich debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, spans three generations in New Orleans, a city deeply impacted by segregation, economic inequality, and racial tensions. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing through Hurricane Katrina, each generation comes with new possibilities and deferred dreams blossoming with the hope that this time, finally, those dreams may come to fruition. Sexton discusses the novel's long, winding path to publication.
I always wanted to be a writer but it wasn’t until I began to enjoy writing that people wanted to read my story.
I started out as a lawyer and I liked it at first, the mental precision that the legal questions required, the fulfillment that came from rounding out an argument. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else I was supposed to be doing, and as the years went on it began to feel more urgent that I do it.
So when the associates were offered a paid incentive to leave, I accepted. I wasn’t as relieved as I expected to be. I finally had a chance to spend significant time writing, but I felt like I had failed somehow in not continuing on the track my peers were steadily climbing.
I had started a manuscript in 2005 about an African-American girl helping a community in the Dominican Republic and I turned back to that. I read books on writing, I attended conferences, I told people the book I was working on was supposed to be a play off of The Sun Also Rises. I read that book over and over. Then I turned to Beloved and next some other staples of the literary canon, but I had trouble accessing my own voice. I struggled with telling a story. I wrote every day for hours at a time but there was a sense of panic behind my work, a desperate need to prove something through each frantic page. I was still hanging out with lawyer friends and I gave them unsolicited updates every time I saw them: I’m a few chapters from finishing, I’d assure them. Or I’ve sent it off to five agents and I’m just waiting for their responses.
Of course work produced under those circumstances cannot be great. My husband said to me once after reading about 30 pages that he wasn’t sure why he was still reading, that there was no driving force propelling him forward. I had gotten pretty good at descriptions by that time, and people said that when they read the manuscript, they felt like they were actually in the Dominican Republic. Then they’d close the book. One teacher told me he felt like he was in the hands of a very good storyteller who wasn’t telling a story.
I continued to work on the manuscript anyway. Two and half years in, I got an agent who promised we’d revise a bit and then send it out. I worked on many revisions with her but they never coalesced into a project she thought she could sell. Through all the effort I learned about character development though; I learned about plotting and pacing; I learned about voice. More than that, I learned about patience. When I signed with her, I assumed my deal was on the horizon but after all my work I was just where I had started. About a year into the relationship, we decided to part ways. I thought a clean slate would set me right, propel me forward in a different direction. I sent out more queries. By then, I had written and mailed close to 100.
One day, my sister in law introduced me to a local writer. Jane Vandenburgh ran a seminar called The Yearlong Novel. The idea behind it was that writers would send her 30 pages a month for 12 months, she’d edit them and then by the end of the year a book would be written. Jane invited me to join her and I wasn’t terribly excited about it. In my mind, I already had written my book, the book that would launch me, and considering another one almost felt like a betrayal. But I had nothing to lose so I said I would do it.
Around this time my father was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent two surgeries and 12 rounds of chemotherapy, and in the year he was sick I went to visit him in New Orleans eight times. Throughout it I started writing a new book under Jane’s guidance. This one was called A Kind of Freedom, and it was about three generations of a New Orleans family and its downward spiral spanning World War II to Katrina. Every month I gave her over 30 pages. I still fantasized about being published, and I still became bitter when I was reminded that I wasn’t. But during that time that I was tending to my father, the preoccupation with publication lost some of its heat. I often have wondered what exactly caused the shift. Of course watching my father beat death gave me perspective, but there was more to it than that, too. Through the ordeal I became acquainted with my own strength— I was in awe of it. I realized there was so much more to me than what it might feel like to be an author.
It also helped that Jane was all about letting the book write itself. She encouraged her students to sit back and receive the story, and the more I did that, the more the pressure I had put on myself began to subside. I was suddenly writing because I yearned to create, not because I was frustrated or insecure, or because I needed to prove that leaving my job had not been the wrong thing.
I was still sending out queries and still hearing nothing back, but I began to be comfortable with the possibility that I might never be published. At least, I began to understand, I’ll get to write. I’ll get to experience that special magic that flows through me when I am a vessel.
Four or five months into the yearlong process I finished the first draft. I gave it to Jane, and then doors I wasn’t even knocking on began to open. I remember the day I got the email that there was an offer to buy the book. I was on my way to pick up my children from preschool. Reading the offer, I was as satisfied as I always thought I would be. I was. But the mania I had attached to the dream wasn’t there. I calmly walked to my car, opened the door, sat down, put my seatbelt on. I didn’t have an urge to scream or cry out. In that moment so much had changed but nothing really had changed. I had to turn the ignition so I wouldn’t be late for school. The children ran to me. Every now and then I’d remind myself that I would be published and a wave of delight would flit through my core but then I would settle back down again, like the dream I had harbored for so many years had been something I’d expected all along.