One of our first events to get cancelled was our book talk with TaraShea Nesbit. Her newest book, Beheld came out on March 17th, the day we closed to the public, and we are completely bummed that we didn’t get to celebrate this amazing work of historical fiction with all of you in person.
But we did connect with TaraShea via email and asked her some questions about the book and her writing process to tide you over until we are able to reschedule! Enjoy her answers here!
Beheld is about Plymouth and the Mayflower colonists, and specifically about the first murder in Plymouth; did you research history while writing this book? What did that look like? How close to the source would you consider your narrative?
Thank you for taking the time to consider the novel and for posing these thoughtful questions, Megan!
I was finishing up my PhD coursework at the University of Denver when, in an early American literature class, I read an editor’s footnote that said William Bradford, the long-standing governor of Plymouth, doesn’t mention the cause of death of his first wife, Dorothy. So I started by reading William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Dorothy perished when the Mayflower was moored near what is now Provincetown, MA. I could not stop thinking about this mysterious death aboard the Mayflower that NO ONE had told me about! How could it be that a woman died on the Mayflower and that wasn’t a part of the oft-repeated myth of the Pilgrims?
First, I tested out writing from the consciousness of Dorothy Bradford. I read primary and secondary texts for the class—like Michael Wigglesworth’s diaries, Anne Bradstreet’s poems, and Perry Millers’ analysis of the separatist puritans—and wrote fiction from Dorothy’s perspective, with that information in mind.
I’d read letters from Bradford to financial backers in London, then imagine what his home life was like. I’d look at maps, like the Foster Map, and research native trees and plants in the northeastern woodlands, then write some more. I took trips to Plymouth for research and inspiration. I visited the living history museums, the Pilgrim Hall Museum, walked along the beach, took the ferry to Provincetown. I finished a draft, set it aside, wrote a second draft from multiple perspectives on the ship. Years were passing. I talked with knowledge holders, historians, literature scholars, friends and colleagues. I cycled through research and writing with primary and secondary sources for a few more years.
When I was teaching a creative writing course in London, a few summers into writing the book, the voice of Eleanor Billington, a fed-up indentured servant, came to me. When I read the two sentences devoted to the first murder trial in the Plymouth Court Records and learned that the person who was convicted of the crime was on the Mayflower, I felt frantically energized. I’d unlocked the final door to shelter the book’s ideas within the right frame! It was like I had all of these ingredients in my kitchen—half an onion, two carrots, chard, chicken stock—and I finally could see how to make the soup.
I wrote the third draft from multiple points of view and an expanded timeline, while researching the Wampanoag people and neighboring nations, Indian deeds, the history and economics of trading posts, as well as about childbirth, childrearing, and indentured servitude in this time period. So much is not known about the stories the book tells. There is Dorothy’s signature on her marriage contract, but nothing else from her that I could find. But I found everything I could related to the novel’s stories and referred to that information as a wrote and revised. Much of the book is true and refers directly to something I found in my research, but much of the book had to be imagined, because of either gaps or conflicting evidence.
I was researching until the last five minutes before I had to turn in the final edits of the book! The Advanced Review Copy (ARC) that bookstores and reviewers received, in fact, is about ten to fifteen percent different than the published version.
What drew you to this early period of America?
When I learned that William Bradford didn’t mention how his wife died, though he goes in great detail about many other causes of deaths that first winter in Plymouth, I suspected he was leaving other important things out of his seminal account of the Mayflower passengers. I wanted to know the extent of these omissions.
I’m drawn to stories about turning points in history, such as the creation and detonation of the atomic bomb, as I wrote about in The Wives of Los Alamos. I am intrigued and often bewildered by what people do with power, so I write into those feelings through research. I feel compelled to tell stories of historical turning points from the perspectives of people that aren’t given a great amount of attention for their roles, but who have important roles, nonetheless. The Wives of Los Alamos examined the creation of the atomic bomb from the collective experience of the nuclear scientists’ wives, who were integral to making a community with which the scientific inquiry of atomic energy could flourish.
In Beheld, I was drawn to this often-told narrative of American history: that Mayflower passengers, those immigrants who initiated a great amount of future settlement, came to the northeastern woodlands because they stood for religious freedom. But many of the puritans aboard the Mayflower actually had freedom to practice their religion in Holland, where they were living. As immigrants in Holland, they found it difficult to increase their economic standing. Bradford had had a few failed businesses. They worried their kids were “intermarrying”—marrying Dutch people rather than English people—and becoming too Dutch. Holland was, in their view, too permissive!
The Mayflower passengers were actually not a unified group of people seeking freedom from persecution, for instance. Twenty percent or so of the passengers were indentured servants to the puritans. Indentured servants were people who signed up for seven years of labor in exchange for the cost of their journey, sometimes land, as well as freedom when their servitude was over.
But the people on the Mayflower were hopeful they could create a better place for themselves and for their families, and I’m drawn to that hope, and what happens to it. Also, I fell in love with these women from the 1630s and they started talking to me, so I listened.
Beheld focuses on the women of Plymouth, which is a much-needed change from most stories set in that time period. What did this new perspective teach you about the period? What can it teach us about the present?
The Mayflower passengers were an early experiment—a “successful” experiment, depending on how you define success— in settler colonialism. They made the way for other people from England to settle here. We are a country partly established atop a grave-site, Patuxet, but the story reenacted in primary schools throughout America omits the violence and other unsavory aspects of the Pilgrims. One of our origin stories is rife with inequity, xenophobia and a want for economic gain. Violence against women is ahistorical and ongoing. Real people make decisions in their own best interest, to at times devastating communal effect. But friendship, intimacy, and bonds between people can make a difference. Reframing our nation’s history in these ways might change our historical perspective. Who we say we are as a country matters very deeply. I’m hopeful that acknowledging these unsavory aspects might inform the decisions we make in the present and in the future. Also, as Eleanor Billington says in the novel: “All I had to protect myself was my mouth. So I spoketh.”
Beheld is told in alternating chapters; how was it to jump from Alice to Eleanor and back? Did you write all of one character’s chapters and then the other’s or interweave as you went? What was difficult about the shifting perspectives? What was easy?
I went back and forth between voices as I wrote, but not strictly chapter by chapter. I’d write, for instance, the scene of Eleanor speaking out against William Bradford in the center of town, and then as I was easing out of her voice, after she’d finished what she had to say, I’d start to think, But who was around her?, and Who was in the audience?, and then Alice would become visible to me. I was worried in the beginning that the voices wouldn’t be distinct enough, so I tried writing Alice’s sentences in iambic pentameter: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable five times. Like in William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73”: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”. I wasn’t strict about the use of iambs but it gave an even pace.
I hooked the even pace onto Alice and thought of Eleanor as speaking more in spondees—two stressed syllables back to back—which is a common combination for commands like “Sit down!” and “Come back!” If we attend to the sounds our words make we will indirectly attend to meaning. I look for little ways of tricking my organized, logical mind into letting in strangeness and awareness that it can’t access through certain patterns of thinking, and attending to sound does this for me. It also gave me a kind of formal constraint to write the voices of Dorothy and Eleanor in a way that differentiated them.
What was your favorite weird historical fact you learned in the process of writing Beheld?
The specific details of violence weren’t exactly a favorite but they were striking to me in a way I will never forget, like that in 1623 Myles Standish murdered Wituwamat, unprovoked, by many accounts, and then erected Wituwamat’s head on a pike above the meeting house.
When Phineas Pratt inquired in 1622 about where the other half of the Mayflower passengers were, he reports the elders said:
They sed that God had taken them Away by deth,& that before thayr second ship came, thay weare so destressed with sickness that thay, feareing the salvages [“savages”] should know it, had sett up theyr sick men with thayr muscits upon theyr Rests [breasts] & thayr backs Leaning Aganst trees.
In other words, in lovely, odd, irregular spelling, Pratt tells us that the Mayflower passengers were so terrified of what was beyond their settlement that they propped up their dying passengers against trees, with muskets, to look like a forest sentinel.
What advice do you have for aspiring historical fiction writers? What’s the balance they should seek between fact and fiction–or is there one?
You have to feel your way through it. Different projects require different relationships to veracity. For Beheld, the only primary sources that exist from the women are: a few wills, a few very brief court records, a felted beaver hat, and a signature on a marriage certificate. You often have to cross reference and imagine around the archives. And at some point, if you are a person that has self-doubt, trust that you know enough to write the story you find yourself writing. There is always a middle period of doubt; know that is part of the process. There is a range of how much research writers do: I have a friend that researches once she has a first draft and I know other writers that research for years (like Marlon James) before they write a single word. Trust you will find a way that works for you and your stories.
While you live and teach in Ohio, you’ve spent a lot of time in Colorado–and we love Colorado authors, even tangential ones! What is your favorite thing about our magnificent state?
When I lived in Boulder, the foothills were a few blocks from my house. I hiked and camped with frequency, and because of the number of clear-sky days, often saw the stars. We are small objects held down by gravity in a far vaster world, with planets beyond that, and I love how this is made tangible in a daily way in Colorado.
I talk a lot about Colorado and writing Beheld in this interview with Westword, if reader would like to know more!
Any tidbits you can share about what you’re working on next?
It is a pillow fight right now between an early 1900s story set in the Pacific Northwest and a story of a matrilineal line set in a valley in Ohio in the 1990s.
What author, dead or alive, would you most want to have dinner with?
If I had that kind of magic, I’d want a dinner party: James Baldwin, William Shakespeare, Leslie Marmon Silko, Dorothy Allison, Sei Shōnagon, and Toni Morrison.
Thank you so much, TaraShea! We are excited to meet you in person once we’re open and allowed to have events again!
You can order Beheld on our website, or call the store between 10 and 2 to have us ship it to you!