I have outrageously big feet.
Underground is the story of two young girls rising to the most unwanted of challenges.
The idea for the novel was, unbeknownst to me at the time, decades in the making.
Growing up in rural Massachusetts, it was common folklore than my town and many of the buildings in it had been stops on the Underground Railroad. Houses I played in as a child held concealed rooms and hidden doors, which always made for great games of ‘hide and seek.’
One day, as a teenager, I was visiting the house of my high school science teacher and she was anxious to share its history. She took me to her barn and showed me a whitewashed wall where someone had written a date. I don’t remember the exact number, but I remember it ended with ‘61’ and my teacher said: ‘This could have been 1961, but wouldn’t it be amazing if it was 1861? What if a slave on the Underground Railroad left it on his way through?’
Years later, as sleep-deprived and delirious mother of two boys under the age of three, I re-read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It was one of the first books by a woman that tried to put a voice to what eventually became known at post-natal depression. The protagonist is a writer and a mother of a small baby. When she becomes inexplicably depressed, the ‘cure’ prescribed is to shut her away in the attic without pen, paper or books. Over time, she starts hallucinating – the wallpaper becomes alive. To ‘kill’ it, she pulls it off, revealing layers of other paper and paint left by those who came before her.
In the months that followed, I remembered my science teacher’s house and how fortunate it was that the date had never been painted over so we could all have the privilege of trying to imagine who left it there. I thought about The Yellow Wallpaper and what else might have been found underneath the layers. I eventually arrived at a girl in the present day who finds something that had been hidden, and wondered what would drive her to want to know more about what she’d found. I realized how much I’d wanted to know about the date in the barn and tried to conjure a story around it.
Underground took me two years to write. Laying down the structure and working out how the two narratives could complement and converse with each other took six months. Samantha’s story came fast and clear; Annie’s took more time.
I’ve heard it said that a writer’s characters can become like friends. I definitely found this with Annie, Samantha, Theo, and even Royal. They are people I could happily spend time with and write for again, and again.