Tanya Landman on writing outside of one’s personal experience

In 2010 Tanya Landman‘s Mondays are Murder won the Younger Readers Category at the Red House Children’s Book Awards. Her latest book, however, is for older readers: Buffalo Soldier, out next month, is set at the end of the American Civil War and follows a freed young African-American slave from the Deep South called Charley.

It is not long before her freedom is met with tragedy after her adopted mother is raped and lynched at the hands of a mob, and Charley finds herself alone with no protection. In a terrifyingly lawless land, where the colour of a person’s skin can bring violent death, Charley disguises herself as a man and joins the army. Trapped in a world of injustice and inequality, it’s only when Charley is posted to Apache territory that she begins to learn about who she is and what it is to be truly free.

Today I have a guest post for you from Tanya, where she explores how she as a white, middle class, middle aged British woman writes about a black African-American slave girl.

“As any author will tell you, writing a novel involves a high degree of strange and obsessive behaviour! There are some ideas that take hold of you, some characters that seize you by the throat and don’t let go. Charley O’Hara is one of them.  

This particular obsession started while I was writing Apache (a novel set in the American west in the late nineteenth century).  I was researching – reading the first person accounts of Native Americans who had lived through truly terrible times – and kept coming across references to what they described as ‘Negro soldiers’ who rode in the ‘Blue Coat’ uniforms of the US army against the Apache nations.  

I was intrigued. And I was confused.  

It was just after the American Civil War and African American slaves had been freed. What were these so-called ‘Negro soldiers’ doing? Why were recently emancipated men fighting to take the freedom away from people who had always had it? What were they thinking? Feeling? How did they come to be in Apache territory?

I followed my curiosity and further reading led me to the Buffalo Soldiers; in particular the men of the 9th and 10th United States Cavalry Regiments. Many were former slaves who found that, when liberated, there were few opportunities open to them.  To survive there was no choice but sign up. When I discovered more about their background and history I was struck by the bitter irony of the situation.

And then I came across Cathy Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and joined the US army as William Cathay. Her true identity was revealed two years later but I began to think that if she had done that – if she had been desperate enough to take that risk, surely there were other women who had done the same and got away with it?

That was when the idea of Charley O’Hara took hold of me. It was as if she’d walked in, sat down and refused to leave.

I had many sleepless nights asking myself what I thought I was doing. Who was I – a white, middle class, middle aged British woman – to write about a black African -American slave girl? I was all too aware of the pitfalls.

I consoled myself with the thought that Michael Morpurgo isn’t a horse and George Orwell wasn’t a pig:  that fiction isn’t autobiography.  It’s an imaginative process – thinking yourself deep into someone else’s head. Surely who and what the author is should be irrelevant?

Cathy Williams opened the door to a world that I felt compelled to write about. It’s taken a long time to complete this book. I headed up dead ends, blind alleys and took a lot of wrong paths. There were times I put the manuscript aside thinking it would never be finished, but every time I gave up, Charley was there at my elbow, nudging me along until I’d finished writing her story.”

Tanya Landman, author of Buffalo Soldier, published by Walker Books.


One response to “Tanya Landman on writing outside of one’s personal experience”

  1. I am a friend of Tortie and your book came up on Facebook this am. Congratulations. I think its brilliant you have tackled this. A long time ago I though of writing of the Navajo nation and went back to Canyon de Chelly two years ago…what research you must have done on the subject..chapeau as the French say..Best wishes, Linda