“As a young writer, I was stunned to realize that what we write can have a real-world impact on the lives of our audience.”
Triple-threat Patrick Gabridge writes novels, writes plays and grows vegetables on his own farm. From his Facebook posts, I know that Patrick takes as much care weighing his crop yields as he does tracking his daily word counts!
- What’s the surprising inspiration behind one (your choice) of the characters or stories you’ve created?
I remember exactly where I stumbled across Robert Smalls, whose story is the basis for Steering to Freedom. My family was new to Boston and our daughter was attending St. Patrick’s School in Roxbury. They had a long-unused library in an adjacent convent, and since I’m a writer and my wife is a librarian, we thought helping rehab that library would be a way to help out at the school. So one or two mornings a week, I’d pack up my son, who was only about a year old, give him a bunch of toys and Cheerios and try to create some sort of order out of the chaos of this room filled with stacks of books that hadn’t been touched for years. Just by luck, I happened across a book entitled Captain of the Planter, by Dorothy Sterling. And I said, “Who is this guy?” And the story was just incredible. In addition, as a white parent of two black kids, I’m always on the lookout for stories about black heroes. From that day forward, I was determined to explore Robert’s incredible story and try to share it with as much of the world as I could.
- If you could rescue one obscure book and make it more widely known to the world, which book would you choose and why?
In doing research for Steering to Freedom, I read many fascinating histories and autobiographies from the Civil War era. One that stood out was Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley. Keckley (which is properly spelled Keckly) brought herself out of slavery to freedom, through hard work and perseverance, and eventually became Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and fashion advisor. Her book is frank about the pain she suffered as a slave and gives us a first-hand view into this extraordinary time. She crossed paths with Robert Smalls when she had him give a speech to her Contraband Relief Association in Washington, which was a bit of wonderful serendipity for me, because it let me include her as a character in Steering to Freedom. In Behind the Scenes she gives both a horrific and nuanced view of slavery—she was violently abused while a slave, yet after the war she spent a five-week visit with the women of the family that had owned her, of which she wrote “were five of the most delightful weeks of my life.” Her strength of character was truly astonishing.
- You can ask one question to any author, living or dead. What would you ask and why?
I’d want to talk with William Tyndale, who was responsible for the first printed English translation of the Bible. Outside of Shakespeare, he was the one man who had the greatest influence over our modern English language. He operated in exile in the 1520s and 30s and helped smuggle thousands of contraband Bibles into England, where possessing or reading a Bible in English was illegal. (I wrote about Tyndale and his friends in my play, Fire on Earth.) I’d ask for his English translation of the psalms—he died before they were published and they are lost to us. I’d ask how he felt when his friends were being rounded up and burned at the stake, knowing that his turn would come eventually. I’d probably ask him stupid real life questions, too, like what was his favorite flower and what did he like to eat for dessert. Because I want to know the human side of what made him tick.
I actually have a whole list of historical figures about whom I’ve written that I’d like to talk with. So if you could arrange a lunch with Tyndale, John Tewkesbury, Johannes Kepler, Daniel Sharp Ford, Auguste Ciparis, and Thomas Hutchinson, I would very much appreciate it.
- What’s the best (or your favorite) feedback you’ve received from a reader?
After my novel, Tornado Siren, came out, people would say that they thought about the book whenever they saw a news story about tornadoes plowing through a town, and couldn’t help thinking about Ben and his wanderings. It was pretty cool to think that one of my books made them look a little differently at the sky and severe storms.
After my very first full-length play, In a Glass Cage, was produced in New York, a friend of ours let me know that watching the play led him quit a job that he hated and start a new career. As a young writer, I was stunned to realize that what we write can have a real-world impact on the lives of our audience. I was completely hooked after that.
- What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received from a teacher?
When I was an undergrad at MIT, I wrote a feature-length screenplay for my undergraduate thesis. I’d worked and slaved over it for months. And when I turned it in, my advisor met with me and she said, “About this thesis. Maybe you should try writing some short stories instead.” That was probably the toughest critique I’d ever had (or hope to have). Luckily, I kept on writing scripts, both for screen and stage. I wouldn’t be the writer or person who I am today, if I had retreated. It was a good lesson in standing strong in the face of criticism and being willing to plow forward and keep trying to improve my writing.
For more information about Patrick Gabridge and his books:
Visit him online at: http://www.gabridge.com/
Follow him on Twitter at: @patrickgabridge