Grant Simpson was brought up in England. He went to the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1975, studying History and Journalism. He returned to England to practice Law (under his real name), commencing work as a barrister in 1979, which is still his day job. He lives in London, England, and St Andrews, Scotland.
Q&A With Grant Simpson
Q: What inspired you to write Free Spirits?
A: When I was at the University of North Carolina, I took a course from Professor Joel Williamson called ‘Race Relations in America’. Williamson was an inspiring teacher, who took us from slavery, through Reconstruction and up to what was then (the 1970s) the ‘Present Day’. The pre-Civil War world of the Patrol and the countervailing resistance to slavery was an absorbing subject which got me reading further. The story of the West Point Cadet who discovers his true origins as the son of a slave entered my consciousness then. I also studied under Blyden Jackson, the first black faculty member to be a full professor and a grandson of slaves. That was a consciousness-raising experience.
Q: When did you start writing Free Spirits?
A: In about 2007. There were many drafts. I am a full-time lawyer in England, so the periods of intensive writing were spaced out.
Q: Did you have help?
A: Aside from my research, my principal help came from Hillel Black, a great editor and former publisher. I took many trips to his apartment on the Upper East Side and received much criticism and encouragement from him. Alas, he has since passed away. The process of writing a novel, as opposed to legal opinions, involved steep learning curves.
Q: What was the big lesson you learned from him?
A: There are too many to name and rank, really. I suppose the best was to be ruthless in killing the bits you write which you like, but which do not move the story forward.
Q: Does your experience as a lawyer help or hinder you?
A: I think it helps. I must say that, I suppose! But for a historical novel to be credible requires it to be based upon reality – the hard facts in the history books and primary sources. A lawyer must deal with and understand the evidence. Those hard facts are the basis upon which you start. The story takes off from there, but framed in the reality of what actually happened at the time. A lawyer, like a general, must be able to write. But that is only a beginning as Hillel taught me.
Q: Isn’t the story a little far-fetched? A West Point man being the son of a slave is a bit of a stretch.
A: Not really – actually, not at all. There are two basic and grounded premises to this. One, that masters (and their sons) raped their women slaves with the subsequent offspring being a bit of an embarrassment. Two, that during post-partum psychosis, a woman who has lost her baby could steal someone else’s. You add those two together and you get Jack’s situation.
Q: How real are the historical characters?
A: Some are imagined architypes. For example, Grace, the force behind the part of the Underground Railroad Jack deals with, is based upon Harriet Tubman. Others, like John Brown, Oliver Wendell Holmes snr, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ellen Emerson, are real. This story is inserted into the interstices of their historical record.
Q: Are there more books to come?
A: I hope so! That’s the plan – to take Jack’s situation through his descendants up to the Civil Rights movement. But whether there is more: that’s up to the characters. Grace is the first volunteer as a main character.