A Conversation with Sarah Smith
"Q: How did you decide to write Crimes and Survivors?
SS: It started as two books smashing together.
My son-in-law is Brazilian and looks somewhat Arabic. When September 11 happened, he and my daughter were newly married and living in Jersey City, where the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center had come from. He had a really tough time. My Muslim friends had tough times.
His America, I realized, was different from the America I'd known. I got interested in writing about different Americas, America seen through different cultures.
Originally, I thought I’d write a novel about a Muslim dentist and a rather conservative white woman secretary. They’d live in Jersey City—which is an amazing multiethnic place, a really interesting place. They’d be affected by 9/11.
That book never went anywhere. The only parts left of it are the New York/New Jersey setting, the aftermath of a disaster, and the fact that Dr John is a dentist.
At the same time I was thinking of the Titanic book, trying to figure out what it was going to be about. I knew I didn’t want the typical Titanic story.
Q: The typical Titanic story…?
SS: Two lovers don't appreciate each other. The iceberg hits. “Oh, my darling, how can I leave you?” she says. “You must,” he says heroically, “I’ll see you in New York.” "Farewell, my darling!" Over the side she goes, AND THAT’S THE END OF THE STORY.
Sure it is. What happens the next day?
Q: What really happened to the survivors?
SS: Mileage varied, of course, but a lot of the women had PTSD. Some of the men suffered from lifelong shame, like Bruce Ismay. There were suicides, like Frederick Fleet—the man who saw the iceberg too late.
Some survivors never spoke about it; their families didn’t even know they’d been on Titanic.
But the people who survived because they couldn’t be on the boat? They were quiet too, but they were pretty happy about it.
Q: Who couldn’t be on the boat?
SS: Jack Johnson, to begin with.
He would have been the heavyweight boxing champion of the world if he weren't black. He wanted to go on the maiden voyage of Titanic. The management of the White Star Line clutched pearls. Jack Johnson in first class? He’d eat at the same table with Guggenheims and Astors… Oh nonononono.
But they didn’t want to refuse Jack Johnson a ticket, because he’d sue them.
So they said there would be no black people aboard Titanic.
And then the ship went down.
Later, Langston Hughes wrote an article about the black reactions to the wreck. All the churchgoing ladies agreed it was sad when that great ship went down, “but at least none of our people died.” The leading Black newspaper in New York City virtually ignored the wreck. And in barbershops and bars, men began singing about Shine, the ultimate black survivor.
For the white folks, Titanic was the end of an era. For the urban culture that was beginning to take shape in New York and elsewhere? Titanic was an occasion to celebrate survival.
One wreck. Two cultures.
Were there any black people aboard Titanic?
There were four. Joseph Laroche, nephew of the president of Haiti, stayed in his cabin for the whole voyage. His two daughters passed as Japanese.
Ben Guggenheim’s valet, Victor Giglio, was distinctly a man of color. (His mother was Ethiopian.) But he was Ben Guggenheim’s valet, so he was “just unusually dark for an Italian.”
(In Cameron's Titanic he’s played by a white actor because the single picture of him hadn’t been found yet. Here he is, very young, as an English schoolboy.)
Q: So you put these two stories together? Black people on Titanic?
There was no Titanic story at that point. It was “Reisden, Perdita, Titanic, put 'em together, see what happens.” Who goes on the boat? (It would only be fun if both of them did.) Do they survive or die? (Dying on Titanic would be that story.) How does this story feed into the arc of their marriage, her search for artistic freedom, his attempt to keep a family?
And, um, is there a murder here?
Then I made a mistake. A big, self-protective mistake. You writers out there? Don’t protect yourself. It just wastes time.
I told myself I wanted to write this story:
"Caroline Church, a friend of Perdita’s in Paris, is the daughter of John Church, an expatriate American horse trainer. He dies of a heart attack. As his body is prepared for burial, it’s discovered that his back is covered with whip scars and his arm is branded ES, Escaped Slave. John Church is black.
"Callie Church has always thought she was white. She comes to Perdita and to Perdita’s husband, who has a bit of a reputation for solving things discreetly, and asks them to prove she’s not black.
"Perdita goes to America (on Titanic, of course) and attempts to prove it. But her investigation goes disastrously wrong…"
But but but.. Titanic wasn’t really involved. And why would Callie stir up things? Nobody knew her story; why wouldn't she keep quiet? Does Reisden have anything to do? Why would Callie choose Perdita? Nobody chooses Perdita to be a detective, do they?
I tried to ignore this.
But Callie just wasn’t holding the story. Whenever she appeared, the book squealed to a halt. She felt false and all the story around her felt stupid. She wasn’t even on Titanic.
And then one day I realized I had it all backward.
And I was terrified. What? She can’t— I mean, no. That would be awful--
But the book took off.
Q: In this book, some characters of color want to be white. You’re very frank about that prejudice.
SS: In 1912? Everyone wanted the advantages of being white. Wouldn't you? Eating at any restaurant you please. Touching clothes at a store without having to buy them. Being safe on the street.
Garnet Williams wants to be a model; to be a model, she has to be white. Louis Johnson wants Garnet to be interested in him; he’d have that as a white man. Even Miss Lady Church does what she does to get the advantages of white male power.
25,000 people a year changed races to get those advantages.
Perdita’s already experienced prejudice. As she says, she can see colors and shapes, but she’s been tagged with the label “blind” so people assume she can’t see at all. And, as she says, "if she can’t see, she obviously can’t hear," so people talk round her.
She knows the value of taking every advantage you can. Wouldn't she want those advantages for herself, and even more so for Toby?
Everyone wants the advantages. And everyone should have them. Without having to disguise themselves. That was a dream in 1912. It shouldn't be a dream now.
Nothing wrong with taking advantage, until people get killed.
Q: And everyone’s embarrassed around issues of race, even Reisden.
SS: He thinks of himself as very cool when it comes to black people, because he spent several years in Africa and hung round with black Africans. But he finds himself in a different culture in America. He doesn’t know the rules and he’s not at home.
Talking about race does make people awkward and embarrassed. And stupid. Perdita debates whether she should ask someone she’s fairly sure is a murderer to leave her house, because it looks as though she’s being prejudiced. Louis Johnson has to call her on it.
Q: How did you do your research for African-American New York? You’ve said you’ve read a lot of African-American literature.
SS: I'm a devotee of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's Writing the Other. I took their advice about reading. For several years I read only books written by African-American authors, to get a sense of the range of African-American voices.
In New York in 1912, there’s a huge range. May deMay talks like a British actress. Jane Church uses formal language to indicate her social status, but switches context when she talks about her children. Otis Church talks like a workingman; Arbella deMay (who probably isn’t black) imitates him because she wants to be a horse trainer like him. Garnet talks like Perdita sometimes, sometimes like her New Orleans grandfather, and occasionally like Monsieur Édouard, who’s really Eddie Cohen.
Nobody’s a “representative African-American.”
Q: How accurate are the scenes in Harlem? The party scene is wonderful.
SS: It’s hardly even Harlem yet; it’s a changing neighborhood. But the population of New York in 1912 was only about 1% black, so it seemed to everyone in New York that Harlem was blacker than it perhaps actually was.
As for the party? Thanks. I’ve been to parties like that.
Q: How did you research Titanic?
I know a lot of Titanic buffs. Don Lynch, Ken Marschall, Tom McCluskie…. They write wonderful books. They come to Titanic Historical Society conventions and give speeches. They document everything, down to the details of the tile. Thank you, and thanks to many more Titanic buffs!
Cameron’s Titanic is almost completely accurate. I bought the DVD with all the extras and pored over the additional shots of the background. The only major thing Cameron cheats on is the Grand Staircase, which he made 30% bigger. Ken Marschall got the staircase right and made the people smaller.
The women on the balcony and the one going down the stairs in the foreground are about the right height. The woman going down the main stairs is sooo much smaller. So is the man waiting for her. Titanic's actual Grand Staircase had 12 steps; this has 13, and so does Cameron's. (Painting by Ken Marschall, who usually doesn't cheat at all, but wanted the staircase to look grand)
For actual liner experience, I spent a night aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach and got lots of good details. The staterooms have space for a steamer trunk, with chains to secure the trunk so it doesn’t skate around your cabin in high seas. The corridors bend upward (“sheer”) to maximize efficiency.
It was fun experiencing Titanic with Perdita. She smells fresh paint and freshly ironed napkins, she feels the size of the lounge near the Grand Staircase, and when the ship begins to tilt, she feels it earlier than anyone else.
Q: You've always been traditionally published. Why did you independently publish this book?
SS: My agent was having difficulty getting it published. No surprise: it's the fourth volume of a trilogy and it completely blows apart the other three. Big changes to major characters are notoriously hard to sell. Ask Lawrence Block with When the Sacred Ginmill Closes or Lois McMaster Bujold with Memory--both books that I admire extravagantly.
Finally I decided I should just take the responsibility, join the 21st century, and go independent.
I miss the wonderful collaborators I've had in traditional publishing. The editors, the designers, the marketing people add so much. (You I'm talking about, Bob Wyatt, Kim Hovey, Caitlin Dlouhy, Maggie Topkis.) I'm finding my own team, but it takes time.
On the other hand, I've got so much help and encouragement from people who've already made the move. Special thanks to Lisa Lieberman and Dale Phillips, my co-conspirators in Publicibuddies, Leigh Grossman for page design suggestions, Elizabeth Leggett for cover design suggestions, and all the people who share their insights through forums, blog posts, and cons.
And being more involved in talking with actual readers! Boy, folks, thank you for what you're saying.
Q: What's the future of publishing?
Oh, gee (whips out crystal ball). This is only the beginning. The people who used to come up through paperback originals are now coming up through independent publishing. They're bringing with them new expectations about publishing.
Independent publishing is changing rapidly. Branding counts. Quality counts. Readers expect more from independent authors than they did even five years ago. Writers expect to have direct contact with readers.
The professional organizations are moving with the times, the publishers are catching up, and new players will do really interesting things.
Q: What's next for you?
SS: I'm indulging myself with a big fat epic fantasy about pirates, talking eagles, and doomed love.
I've kinda-sorta become a publisher. Our next project is resurrecting, as far as we can, Thomas Disch's lost computer game, Amnesia.
As long as the little voices keep telling me what to write, it's all good.
Especially if it means something to you too. If you like the books, please review them on Amazon and Goodreads. If you'd like to ask me something or just want to say hi, please do!