Please join me in welcoming author K. Willow to Let Them Read Books! K is celebrating the release of her debut historical fiction novel, Ice Whispers: Book One in the Hidden Hills Saga. I was honored to work with K on a copyedit of this dark and twisty tale of the Antebellum South, and I designed the book's cover! I am so thrilled to be able to share this book with you and feature K here today talking about the inspiration for her characters and the portrayal of slavery in fiction. Read on and then grab yourself a copy. The ebook edition is only $3.99!
Slavery of a different kind, beyond physical chains, leads to a different type of escape . . .
Marissa Kristofferson can taste freedom. Her long years of suffering at the hands of her sadistic husband, Lance, are coming to an end as he lies dying. But she is stunned when he reveals the contents of his will and what she must do to keep Kristofferson Plantation, and how he plans to keep her bound to him even beyond the grave.
The beautiful slave Lolley has always envied Marissa’s life, and after learning that the master has also ordered her freed after his death, she is determined to reach for the life she wants by becoming the mistress of Marissa’s son, Shane, though she does not realize the lengths Marissa will go to to prevent the match, or the far-reaching consequences that will follow.
And Shelby, the plain and dutiful slave of free blacks, is unwittingly caught in the shocking drama that unfolds as a family is torn apart. Used as a pawn in a game of rivalry, deception, and betrayal, hers is a fight for survival while attempting to remain true to herself.
Three women—so very different but each carrying dark secrets that are closely intertwined, caught in a world between slave and free, a world which is becoming more fragile and precarious as war threatens and alliances shift, and each harboring seemingly impossible dreams of a better future.
In this first book of a dark historical saga, K. Willow paints a lush, emotional portrait of scandal, murder, injustice, and the ties that bind in the antebellum South.
Hi K! Welcome to Let Them Read Books!
Thank you so much for inviting me as a guest author on your blog, Jenny! I'm excited to share the story behind The Hidden Hills saga.
Where did the inspiration for your Hidden Hills saga come from?
I love stories, whether they are found in books, on TV, in movie theatres, or on stage! But I am often tired of seeing the same stories told over and over again. As a result, throughout my career as a writer, I have always been interested in telling different stories, especially from characters whose experiences and perspectives are rarely told. I love historical dramas and am an avid lover of shows like Downton Abbey, House of Eliott, etc. And I am a huge Jane Austen fan.
However, every time that I've seen stories about slavery in the American South, I feel as though I see the same story. Yes, I love Gone with the Wind, and the harsh realities that are depicted in Roots and most recently 12 Years a Slave are necessary as part of American history. But there were other stories, those that are often unheard. And don't those types of characters have the right to also be heard? Aren't their stories worth telling?
It is strange for me to sit back and really analyze the reasoning behind the stories that I write. But here goes...
I was inspired by the idea of free blacks, who did exist before the Civil War in the North and the South, including in places like Louisiana and South Carolina. I was inspired to write a story about freedom and slavery, and the way both of these states of being play out. There are certainly physical forms of slavery, but there are forms of mental and economic slavery. There are people, even today, who may be physically free but still mentally enslaved. And I wanted to explore this. I think people need to empathize with each other and understand that everyone goes through struggles and pain, that people share the same emotions, and though we may not all experience the same exact experiences, we can certainly relate to how it feels to be misunderstood, rejected, and mistreated. Although the three women on whom this saga focuses are so very different, they all are in some way enslaved. Though they are not perfect...none of my characters are ever perfect. In fact, they are often a hot mess! I'd like for people to try and understand them. The wives of plantation owners could often themselves feel imprisoned.
Lastly, I think what also propelled me to write this story was my desire in a way to push back against the depiction of slaves as just victims. They were victimized. Absolutely! But despite that, they found ways to be victorious. They could figure out ways to secretly defy the horrible system of slavery. They found ways to survive and subvert the system. For example, the spiritual songs that they would sing while they worked on the plantations often had secret codes embedded within them, as did the quilts that they crafted. And no one suspected. It was quite genius. In The Hidden Hills Saga, Lolley is also a character who finds a way to use the system to her advantage, to take control of her destiny rather than allow her destiny to be shaped by the circumstances in which she is born. She uses her brain to rebel against a society that sought to imprison her. And just as slavery was not just a physical state, the act of rebelling could and can be done in different ways, including mentally. The three characters may not be heroines in some ways and they may not be villains in some ways, but they are survivors, women who were trying to free themselves from the chains that have been thrust upon them.
Ice Whispers features several strong women of different backgrounds and social statuses. Can you talk about how you shaped these characters and how you envisioned them complementing each other?
I wanted to not write a slave story. In fact, before I wrote Hidden Hills, I was pretty opposed to writing anything about slavery. Why? Because honestly, I felt like I had heard the stories before, which read like this: slaveowners are evil, and slaves are good. This makes human beings very one-dimensional. People are more complex than that. I didn't have a political agenda when I wrote Hidden Hills. I just wanted to tell the story of a few people who would have lived during that time. And I wanted to explore their perspectives. Yes, Marissa can be seen as mean in some ways and maybe even cold, but I wanted people to maybe understand that the women at that time were often themselves treated as property and, of course, less intelligent than men. Their lives weren't easy. And even though some people may not like her as a person, we have all met people who may be difficult and harsh, but you can understand them. You may love to hate them, but you still can find compassion for them.
Marissa is a woman who although she is considered "free" physically, she feels as though she has been a slave in many ways her entire life, and as a result, there is a deep burning desire inside of her to be free, to not be under the ownership and oppression of a man, but to be her own person. She is a slave who also wants to break free. And there are times that women may feel this way, even today. There are times that women, not just in other places around the world but right here in America, may not be able to free themselves from their circumstances because of economic factors or for other reasons. So although they may be physically free, they may be similar to prisoners. Marissa feels this way. But she is also a contributor to the imprisonment of another woman, Lolley.
Lolley finds herself in a limbo state between slavery and freedom. But even as she approaches a state of being physically free, to survive, she actually opts to enslave herself sexually as a mistress. In some ways, she is actually using her situation to empower herself. And the lines blur between whether it is Lolley who is a "slave" or is it actually the men in her life, Shane and Jonas? This is what is interesting to me--the blurred lines between slavery and freedom. Shelby and Aggie, both dark-skinned slave women, also make us question the reality behind who is actually pulling the strings in the houses in which they are both slaves. Again, I was interested in different stories and other sides of slavery. The slaves were smart and often underestimated, especially given how much secret power they had in the household. They knew so much and heard so much, so many secrets. And because they were mistakenly presumed to be intellectually inferior, they were able to use the ignorance of those who oppressed them against them. There are even stories of how slaves were frequently used as spies during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
I've seen a few readers express surprise at the idea of free blacks, like the Franklins in your saga, owning slaves. Can you tell us what you learned about this in your research and why including this in your story was important?
Yes, this story is hardly ever told. There were in fact free blacks before the Civil War began, who had been freed for different reasons. Some were freed after fighting in the American Revolution. Others were promised freedom but were lied to. Some were freed by plantation owners upon the owner's death. Some were born free. It was a system, a terrible system, but there were some free blacks who were pretty affluent despite the difficulties and dangers around them, and some chose to also own slaves. A little crazy. Yes. But true. They were human, after all, and prone to submitting to this system as well.
There were also Native Americans who owned slaves. Slavery, whether it is physical, mental, or economic, extends beyond skin color. Even today, there are people who keep other people mentally enslaved, telling them what they must think. And just like during that time when there were free black people who enslaved other black people, yes, there are some black people who keep other black people enslaved, just mentally, to a certain way of thinking. There are some, not all, who keep others believing that they are victims rather than victors.
I think it is important for all stories to have a chance to be told and heard. Too often, the same story about slavery is heard. I'm in no way discrediting those stories, but of course, there were other stories. Think of the quadroon balls in Louisiana. Think of the relationship that Thomas Jefferson had with Sally Hemings and the family they created. There were some free black families, and some who owned shops. There were some slaves who contracted their services out to people other than the men who owned them. And yes, there were some free blacks who owned slaves. And there are so many more stories that have not been told. And that can be frustrating, because this is part of the entire history of America.
Why can't slavery be seen in all of its complexities? Why were so many slaveowners having sexual relations with slave women? Yes, some were disgustingly doing this in order to increase the number of slaves under their ownership, since the products of these affairs were legally owned by the men. But there were obviously other reasons. And how did the wives of plantation owners feel about these affairs and frequent rapes that they could do nothing about? To have the children of these situations right under their noses? And what were the differences in how northerners and southerners viewed slavery? I was born and raised in Connecticut, but now living in the South and having lived in California, I often feel that the South gets a bad rap, as though everyone here is racist. I feel that you can find racist or prejudice people anywhere, and I've found there are a lot of wonderful, caring people in the South. The one-dimensional depiction of people in the media can be extremely frustrating to see. And it's pretty dishonest.
What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing this novel?
The most challenging aspect of writing this novel is the fear of what some may say. I was nervous that there would be people who would be upset that I was not just focusing on the physical brutality of slavery in America. I think we understand the brutality. I think people are smart enough to know that slaveowners could be violent to their slaves and often were. But if we are to be honest, there are different experiences that occurred during this time. And I think all stories are worth telling.
There is a diversity of experiences in America and even throughout the African-American experience. But too often, we are only shown the same experience on the media today. And when that is not your experience or the experiences of many African-Americans that you know, it can be frustrating that other stories are not told. And as there are different experiences that the over 42 million black people in America have today, there were different experiences that black people had in history. And again, all stories are worth telling. Not just one as representative of all.
As a writer who is a woman and who is African-American, it can be very annoying when people presume what you should write, the stories you must tell or want to tell. As a writer, there are a lot of stories that I would like to tell, a lot of characters, beyond skin color, who fascinate me. And this is the most rewarding aspect of writing any novel. For this one in particular, it was interesting to explore the perspectives and humanity of all the characters, including the plantation owner who is still seen as a bad guy in the novel but who also has been a victim of his wife's lies. In many ways, Master Lance and Marissa have betrayed and hurt each other. And none of the characters--Alexander, Marissa, Lolley, Shelby, Aggie, Shane, Blaire, Marissa, and Lance--are perfect. They all have good points and bad. They may not be extremely lovable, but they are truthful characters.
What can we expect from the next book in the series?
I'm glad you asked! In the next book of the Hidden Hills series, entitled Crystal Threads, we will see how Lolley implements her plan to achieve her ambitions and how Shelby copes with the changes in her life. The complications in the relationships between Blaire and Shane, Marissa and Alexander, Shane and Lolley and Jonas, and Shelby and Vince, will only increase! I can't wait until y'all have a chance to read it!
About the Author:
K. Willow is a novelist and award-winning writer with a background in television, film, theatre, and soap operas. She writes dark historical and urban fantasy and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband. Visit her online at kwillow.com or on twitter @kwillowwriter.