GETTIN’ LUCKY: An Interview with A.B. Westrick, Author of BROTHERHOOD

Today we’re joined by A.B. Westrick, who has managed to make history come alive in the vivid, gripping Reconstruction-set novel BROTHERHOOD, which is in bookstores NOW! I wrote a term paper in high school about Reconstruction, but trust me, this book is SO much better. The pitch:

17402594 The year is 1867, and Richmond, Virginia, lies in ruins. By day fourteen-year-old Shadrach apprentices with a tailor and sneaks off for reading lessons with Rachel, a freed slave, at her school for African-American children. By night he follows his older brother to the meetings of a brotherhood, newly formed to support Confederate widows and grieving families like his. As the true murderous mission of the brotherhood—now known as the Ku Klux Klan—emerges, Shad is trapped between his pledge to them and what he knows is right. In this unflinching view of the bitter animosity that stemmed from economic and social upheaval in the South during the period of Reconstruction, it’s clear that the Civil War has ended, but the conflict isn’t over.

Check out the stirring trailer for BROTHERHOOD, complete with historical B&W photos from the era.

We sat down to discuss her road to published author, BROTHERHOOD, and literary inspirations.

Welcome to OneFourKidLit! What’s been your favorite part of the road to publication?
My favorite part has been fulfilling a dream I’ve had… like… forever. I’ve always been a huge reader, and I considered writing when I was young, then dropped it from consideration because it seemed so… hard. So daunting to write a novel! But now I’ve done it. And not only one, but three. So far, only one manuscript (Brotherhood) has sold, and without enormous revisions, neither of the other two will ever sell, and that’s okay; they’re part of my process. (I’m letting go of them.) I’m now working on my fourth.

Any part of the process you found surprising?
Yes! Every time a character does something I haven’t expected, it delights and surprises me. I don’t outline. I dig deeply into characters, interviewing them, and putting them in situations and watching them react. When they do something that I would never do, I love it. They become real to me as people.

What inspired you to set your novel during post-Civil War Reconstruction?
I’d seen a bazillion books written during the Civil War, but not much fiction set during Reconstruction. Often Reconstruction is handled with heady discussions about the politics of the time and the landmark amendments to the constitution passed just after the war (freeing slaves, establishing civil rights for all, and giving African-American men the right to vote). While this is important stuff, I wanted to explore what it might have felt like for ordinary, impoverished Southerners (tradespeople, not landowners) to live through the political and social upheaval.

What kind of research did you do for this book?
I live just outside Richmond, VA, capital of the former Confederacy–a Civil War historian’s must-visit city. I toured every museum and the VA Historical Society here, read newspapers in the archives at the Library of Virginia, read books and websites about Reconstruction and the KKK, and walked or drove down every street mentioned in the story. I also interviewed descendants of Confederate soldiers (many of whom are my relatives). I asked them and many Virginians why some Southerners still harbor grudges against Northerners. Boy, did they give me an earful! Their comments helped me craft the characters.

BROTHERHOOD deftly handles touchy subjects (slavery, the rise of the KKK, postwar struggles). How did you approach writing about these topics for a teen audience?
My editor wanted the book to be suitable for middle school readers and up, so I toned down some of the language that appeared in an earlier version. I also refrained from showing graphic violence, but I didn’t hold back on bigotry or bullying. My protagonist has grown up in a family and culture that is painfully prejudiced against African-Americans. I tried to write each scene as honestly as I could, and often my characters made me cringe. Teens know what it feels like to be bullied and to treat others badly, and I hope they cringe when they read this story. If they know it’s a toned down version of what really went on, maybe they’ll cringe even more.

As this community is All for One and OneFour KidLit, we’d like to know what two or three books inspired you as a kid.
There were so many, it’s hard to name just a few! I’d have to go with… hmmm… in elementary school, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. In middle school, I read and loved GONE WITH THE WIND, and in high school, WATERSHIP DOWN.

Finish this sentence: If readers liked CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson, then they’ll love BROTHERHOOD.

Thank you so much for stopping by! BROTHERHOOD is in bookstores now, and it’s not to be missed. Add it to your shelf on Goodreads right this instant! You can find A.B. at her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Philip Siegel grew up in New Jersey, which he insists is much nicer than certain TV shows would have you believe. After college, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became an NBC page. Currently, he works in downtown Chicago and writes novels while sandwiched in between colorful characters on the El. His debut novel, THE BREAK-UP ARTIST (Harlequin Teen), about a girl who runs a business breaking up couples, hits bookstores May 2014.
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