Historical fiction holds a special place in my heart as it was the genre that captivated me as a young reader. Reading these types of novels was my first experience being transported to a new world via the magical pages of a book and I believe was the catalyst for why I’m such a passionate and enthusiastic reader today.
Before reading The Confessions of Frannie Langston by Sara Collins, it had been while since I read a book set in a historical setting. But I was quickly enthralled with this novel within the first few pages thanks to Collins’ beautiful prose, vivid and alive details and one of the most fierce female characters I have read to date.
Set in both a Jamaican sugar plantation and London between 1812 and 1826, we learn about Frannie, an educated servant and former slave who is brought to England. The story is told through Frannie's voice as she pens her confessions from her jail cell, after being accused of murdering her employers, renowned scientist George Benham and his eccentric French wife, Marguerite.
Collins has an incredible ability to build vivid, human and multidimensional characters on the page while addressing race, slavery, gender, sexuality, the psychological effects of servitude and science. This modern take on the classic gothic novel is one I have been recommending since the moment I finished it.
I was very excited to converse with Sara Collins via email where she answers my questions on how she approached writing this historical novel, creating strong and fierce black female characters, the power of education and how her experience practicing law has shaped the writer she is today.
I’m fascinated by the process of writing historical fiction. It seems so daunting to me! You ground us so vividly in time and place within your beautiful prose, making it feel as though writing this book was effortless. Can you take us through your process? Did you research first? How long did it take you to write this novel? What challenges did you face, if any?
Thank you! It’s always wonderful to hear that the prose seems effortless because I spent two doubt-filled years toiling away at it.
I spent my teenaged years obsessed with classic gothic romances, re-reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights every year. When I came to write my own novel one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to put a black woman center stage where I had never seen one before: in a love story driven by the same intense, addictive passions that had consumed those characters. For me, that seems to work best in an early 19th century setting.
The golden rule was that the writing always came first. I wanted to write about people who happened to live in the past, which is completely different from wanting to write about the past. Historians do the latter; they don’t lose sleep over the job of telling us what it felt like to be in love or angry or grief-struck at a particular time and place. But novelists do.
Because of this, I learned the hard way to question every detail, no matter how much time in it had cost me to find it. If it didn’t serve the characters or the plot, it had to go. One major breakthrough in writing the book was the day I chopped over 50,000 words of one character’s backstory, which had taken me three months to research, and started again.
Your novel touches on so many themes, from race to class to gender to sexuality to slavery to servitude. What sparked the idea for The Confessions of Frannie Langton?
I remember the image that came first. A young black woman being held on the steps of a Mayfair mansion where she worked as a maid, accused of murdering her mistress, with whom she’d been having an affair. I detected glimmers of a character I wanted to spend time with: a sense of simmering rage, and willful submission.
Then I read Michael Bundock’s biography of Francis Barber. Francis Barber was a young Jamaican boy brought to London in the middle of the 18th century and given as a gift to Samuel Johnson, the great essayist. I was struck by the idea of someone being given as a gift in England, but struck even more forcefully by the idea of someone who had been deprived of opportunity or education rubbing shoulders with the one of the great minds of the Enlightenment. I believe novels start with questions, and here was one: what if that person was black, female, and a former slave, but also happened to be the most intelligent person in the room?
The power of education is prominent through your novel as Frannie is a slave and servant that can read, write and was an apprentice of sorts to a scientist. All these things were unheard of in Frannie’s time and I love how self-possessed and strong she is. Do you think education gives her this confidence? Can you speak about how education has impacted your own life?
Education has been hugely important to me. There’s a line in the novel where Frannie says she loves two things: all the books she’s read and all the people who wrote them. I really wanted to explore the fact that we’ve swallowed this idea throughout the history of the world that genius was the preserve of only a few (white) men. But that’s only because they’re the ones who told us so. And they got to do that only because they kept the means of telling us to themselves. No one else got the chance. There’s immense power in the ability to tell your own story, and untold suffering caused by having that taken away. That has rarely been interrogated in fictional explorations of slavery (which is often more concerned with the more obvious ways in which people suffered).
Your novel is described as a modern gothic novel. What other works of literature inspired you?
The two I’ve named above and, among many others: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I love modern gothic writers as well, among them Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. The two writers I most admire: Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison. I’m inspired not only by their books but by how they talk about them, by their quiet but awe-inspiring confidence.
A TV adaption of your novel is already in the works. Congratulations! How has this impacted you? Will you be a part of the screenwriting/tv adaption process?
I’ve been hired to write the scripts which is hugely exciting and challenging! Now I have to break my own novel apart after having spent so long putting it together. I’m trying to strip it back to its essence and find new ways to excite myself about the story.
I was so interested to learn that you are a commercial lawyer and a human rights advocate. Are you still practicing today? What are some of the human rights issues you are advocating for? Have both these professions helped you become a better writer?
Law is a kind of storytelling. I think I became a lawyer as a way of doing something for a living that allowed me to work with words, but during the seventeen years I spent in a law firm I was a frustrated novelist. I gave up law a while ago and have no intention of going back, though I still do some volunteer human rights work. My main interest is in advocating for LGBT rights in the Caribbean.
Can you speak about your writing journey? What is some of the best advice you have received about writing?
I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been reading. I have always felt a kind of magic in books, and I have always been drawn them: as physical objects, as a means of escape and as a source of power and self-confidence. I believe if you read long enough, and lovingly enough, it flips a switch and you want to write.
As for writing advice, I always quote Annie Lammott quoting the coach in Cool Runnings: “If you weren’t enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough after.” That’s essential wisdom, especially for the first experience of publication!
What are you currently reading?
I just finished Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King, a magical realist re-telling of the formation of Liberia. I was lucky enough to be sent a proof copy of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous which I’m excited to read next.
Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent. She studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before doing a Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing. She lives in London, England. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is her debut novel, and was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Prize.
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