BPM: When did you get your first inkling to write and how did you advance the call for writing?
DL: My dad had to leave school at an early age to take care of his mother and younger siblings and never got to finish his education. I’m his first daughter and from my earliest days he read books to me, bought books for me, and recited poetry he had memorized. He filled our house with books and magazines. I especially remember The Saturday Evening Post with its Normal Rockwell covers. I loved making up stories based on the covers. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. In college I worked as a journalist and later as a free lancer but my goal was to write novels. I started attending writers workshops, studied the craft, and finally began publishing in 1994. It has been a great ride.
BPM: Tell us about your passion for writing. Why do you write? What drives you?
DL: I love history, especially the history of 19th century America. It was a time when women were not allowed to vote and when they were discouraged from any work except teaching. The Civil War brought terrible hardships to Southern women who were left to fend for themselves against an invading army. Despite everything, many 19th century era women managed to accomplish great things that often go unnoticed. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to get an medical degree. Harriet Tubman became an abolitionist, an armed scout and a Union spy. Emma Willard fought for women’s rights and established the Troy Female Seminary for the education of women. Elizabeth Allston Pringle took over the running of her family’s rice plantations after the Civil War. There are countless stories like theirs. My passion is to dramatize those stories in a way that entertains and educates readers.
BPM: Can you share a little of your current work with us? Introduce us to your book and characters?
DL: I would love to! Mrs Lee and Mrs Gray is a biographical novel about the enduring friendship between Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee ( Mrs Robert E Lee) and Selina Norris Gray, an enslaved woman who became the head housekeeper at Arlington house. Mary was the only child of George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh, and the heir to Arlington and its contents which included many of George Washington’s belongings.
Selina was born at Arlington, a second generation slave whose parents, Len and Sally Norris, are said to have been favorites of Mrs Custis. Mary and her mother taught the Arlington slaves to read and write. At some point Selina was brought into the house to train as a housekeeper. Mary Anna Custis, who was fifteen years older than Selina developed a particular affection for Selina that continued after Mary’s marriage to Robert E Lee. Mary, who suffered from arthritis almost all of her life was often at Arlington with her growing brood of children that would eventually number seven in all, and during these times, presumably the bond between Mary and Selina grew even stronger. A letter from Selina to Mary written the year before Mary’s death expresses Selina’s desire to see her old friend, and offers hope that Mary will regain ownership of Arlington that was illegally taken from her during the war. It was the
discovery of that letter that served as the catalyst for this novel.
BPM: What was your primary quest in publishing this book? Why now?
I had two goals in mind. One was to introduce readers to Mary Anna Custis Lee, who has so often been portrayed negatively in biographies of her husband. She has been described as slovenly, self centered, unattractive, and dull. General Lee was famously known as the handsomest man in the army, a brilliant soldier, and a talented engineer. Why would such a man choose as his wife an unattractive, selfish, stupid woman? I set out to learn more about Mary and discovered that although she admitted to being less than punctual and that she cared little for fashion, she was in fact exceptionally well educated for a woman of her times. She mastered four languages, read four newspapers every day, and became an accomplished painter of the people and landscapes of Arlington. One of her paintings of a young enslaved girl was recently purchased for the art museum in Williamsburg.
After her father’s death she edited his “Recollections” and wrote a memoir that was published in 1860. She may not have been the most beautiful of the Virginia belles but she has been described as lively and flirtatious. Among her suitors were Robert E Lee’s brother Smith Lee, and Sam Houston who would one day become president of the Republic of Texas. Mary believed in emancipation for all enslaved people but felt that freedmen would not be treated fairly in America. She sold flowers from her gardens to support the American Colonization Society’s efforts to purchase slaves’ freedom and help them to immigrate to Liberia. The Society became controversial over the years, but even William Lloyd Garrison who became its most vocal critic, allowed that those involved sincerely believed they were doing the Lord’s work. At least one Arlington slave family, that of William Custis Burke, made the journey to Liberia. Both he and his wife Rosabella exchanged letters with Mary until at least the late 1860’s. A devoted wife and mother, Mary packed up her children to join Robert at his military postings whenever possible. She spent the last two years of the war in Richmond to be closer to her husband. This is the Mary Anna Custis Lee that I want readers to know.
Secondly, I wanted to tell Selina’s remarkable story. When the Civil War erupted, Selina, her husband Thornton Gray and their children were among the sixty enslaved persons at Arlington. Abolitionists were active at Arlington for several years, encouraging the Custis slaves to run away. In the years just before the war, many of them left. As the Union army approached Arlington, Mary and her daughters packed up as many of their belongings as they could and went to stay with relatives, leaving Selina in charge of Arlington. When the soldiers began looting the house, taking items that had belonged to President Washington, Selina confronted the Union general with the demand that they stop stealing “Miss Mary’s things.” He responded by packing up the Lee’s possessions and shipping them to the US Patent Office for safekeeping. Selina is known among historians as “the savior of the Washington treasures.” Without her extraordinary bravery, those treasures–which represent a part of our common history–would have been lost. Selina Norris Gray deserves to be more widely known than she is. With so few actual historical documents to rely upon, I had to imagine much of Selina’s story. I hope I have done her justice in the pages of this novel and that everyone who reads Mrs Lee and Mrs Gray will come away with a greater appreciation of both women, and of their friendship that
fostered a lasting American legacy.
BPM: What are you the most thankful for?
DL: I’ve been blessed with work I love, readers I cherish, with a loving family, and with good health. It’s so easy to take it all for granted. I try every day to be mindful of how lucky I am.
BPM: Do you have any advice for people seeking to publish a book?
DL: Unless you have a spouse with a great job and a dental plan, do not give up your day job. It is very difficult to make a living writing books, but if that’s your passion, then absolutely you must pursue it. I’d suggest taking lots of workshops, reading everything you can get your hands on, and most importantly, writing something every day. Your first draft and maybe your second and third drafts too will be awful. Embrace this awfulness as part of the creative process. Polish your work until you are deathly sick of it before you approach an editor or agent. Of course now anyone can bypass those gatekeepers and simply publish a book independently. But most of those that I’ve seen were prematurely published and would have benefited greatly from an editor and a proofreader. The most important thing must be passion. Passion for your subject, passion for the story, passion for the creative process.
BPM: How may our readers follow you online?
DL: My website is http://www.dorothylovebooks.com. I love chatting with readers on my Facebook author page or on Twitter.
Women’s Fiction > Biographical > Historical Fiction