April 2006

Colleen Mondor

features

An Interview with William Lavender

New issues of both National Geographic and Smithsonian arrived here the other day and both were full of earthquake stories. (National Geographic even had a helpful map that pretty much doomed me to a quake at some point in the future.) The timing is perfect for them; the 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake is upon us and it’s a chance to reflect on what happened and how things have changed. Of course it’s also just an excuse to give us all another reason to freak out.

Author William Lavender decided that the anniversary was a good excuse to look at aspects of the San Francisco earthquake that are barely remembered by most historians and are absent from popular fiction. In his young adult novel Aftershocks he views the quake through the eyes of teenager Jessie Wainwright, a daughter of privilege who struggles with both a monumental family secret and the impact of the tragedy on her search for the truth. In her explorations, Jessie finds herself in the midst of the large scale decimation of the Chinese immigrant community and must find a way to use the chaos to aid her quest. It’s a story that covers five years in the lives of the Wainwright family (1903-1908) and gives a fantastic picture of the San Francisco that most of us never knew. This sort of forgotten history is not new territory for Lavender though, in fact it’s exactly the kind of story that he loves to tell.

“…I do go looking for lost history, or at least history that has somehow fallen through the cracks and is not as well known as it should be,” wrote Lavender in a recent e-mail.

His interest in young adult historical fiction came about years after writing paperback originals for adults and it was when he turned to this genre (a field he “likes much better”) that he began to actively seek out “the more obscure subjects.”

“The setting of the American Revolution for my first YA novel, Just Jane, can hardly be called obscure. But Charleston and the South Carolina backcountry, where the story takes place, is where some of the most dramatic moments of the Revolution occurred and there I was definitely into obscure material.”

Aftershocks also takes place during an event that is popularly known, but Lavender’s focus on the unknown situations and people within it, makes it a story unlike any other written about the earthquake.

While the book centers primarily on Jessie and her family, early on readers learn that she is not the typical early twentieth century girl (she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and be a doctor) and also that she has a unique relationship with the Chinese servants her family employs. Both Ching Lee and his young niece Ching Mei-li are important to Jessie; in many ways they are the most significant members of the household to her. She builds a cautious friendship with Mei-li, who is uncertain where she fits in the social hierarchy, and considers Ching Lee, whom she has known all her life, to be like an uncle. When the two of them go missing prior to the quake Jessie is devastated and takes it upon herself to discover what happened. She has one clue and she uses it to try and find her friends in the maze that is Chinatown. It is only after the quake that Jessie realizes everything that happened to them, and resolves to do something that will set things right.

Lavender was drawn to a story involving Chinese immigrants because, as he puts it, “I have an instinctive sympathy for the downtrodden of the earth and at that time and place in the American past the downtrodden were definitely the Chinese.” He did not know before he began his research that Chinatown was completely destroyed by the fire that consumed the city in the days after the quake or what had become of the people who lived there and survived. Just as Jessie was shocked by the refugee camps, and the cold blooded dispersion of orphans to workhouses and factories all over the country (as well as ships back to China), Lavender was appalled as well, and determined to tell their story.

“I envisioned a person wandering through those refugee camps -- surely places of appalling misery -- searching for someone. And the most wretched victims of such a disaster I could think of would be a Chinese-American orphan. Besides being parentless, such a child would be shunned by both Chinese and American communties…”

Lavender also used the story to explore a bit of what almost happened to Chinatown, as the city fathers attempted to rebuild San Francisco without the Chinese neighborhood. Obviously, they failed in this respect, but his passages about the real estate speculators and rush to rebuild without forethought or respect for the previous owners brought immediately to mind the situation in New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast. Someone is always ready to take advantage of a tragedy, and by revealing that aspect of the San Francisco earthquake Lavender is certainly showing how easily history repeats itself.

The research required to construct historical fiction is always intense and valuable; it’s what makes one novel about the early twentieth century easily transcend another. Lavender’s wife, Mary, is critical in the research phase (something he easily credits her with unlike other writers we know) and in the case of Aftershocks she relied heavily upon contemporary reports.

“Most of the research was done through reading of newspapers and looking at the large picture collections of the time, which are available at the San Francisco Public Library. We visited that library and were made aware of the huge amount of material available. If one reads the papers in detail,” though, notes Mrs. Lavender, “even the small stories, not just the big headline items, one can learn quite a bit and that is what I do for whatever subject I’m working on.”

This attention to the smallest details allowed Lavender to incorporate countless details in the book, such as when Jessie and her friend Hazel aid in the cleanup of area neighborhoods or visit the camps. Unfortunately there are few records of the conditions in the camps themselves and a certain amount of fictional license had to be used to keep the story rich and interesting. It was not difficult to recreate the general hardships suffered by the Chinese however, as Mrs. Lavender discovered in her research. “The hardest thing for me was the realization that the Chinese of that day had no one to speak for them and got their rights (such as attending USC) very slowly, bit by bit, as Henry [a character in the story] found out. It was a fact that Theodore Roosevelt had made it possible for the Chinese children to attend the public schools eventually, but even that was slow in coming.”

Using all of this research, Lavender manages to focus on the plight of the Chinese and the various attitudes of other San Franciscans towards them by having Jessie and her family and friends interact with them on multiple levels in the period after the quake. There are no sudden glorious interracial romances in Aftershocks, however, as Lavender painstakingly explains that type of boldness just want not possible (or even wanted) by most residents of the city.

“Speaking of Hazel -- working out her attitude toward the whole business of Chinatown and the ‘half-breed’ orphan, etc., required some careful work. I wanted her to reflect the attitudes common to her working-class background, and yet be a sympathetic character, capable of enlightenment.”

As Jessie’s best friend and confidant, Hazel is critical to the story’s success and her slow acceptance of the Chinese shows the reader how difficult such a shift in attitude could be and why there were so many problems between the races in the city.

Crafting a historical novel that manages to keep the reader’s attention from beginning to end is never easy, but Lavender puts a lot of time into his work and is careful to create the type of characters that leap from the pages. He has given us a great deal to enjoy with Jessie’s parents, her incorrigible brother Corey, who managed to surprise even Lavender a time or two, and certainly Wanda, her father’s nurse and Jessie’s close friend. The other characters that arrive and how they round out what quickly becomes a group dedicated to saving one child, all make the story so much deeper than one girl’s coming of age. In the end it is almost as if Lavender has created an entire slice of life for turn-of-the-century San Francisco -- he has in fact given us a solid look inside the humanity that he, his wife, and his daughter Debra (who lives in the Bay area) were able to discover as they researched the book.

I can not resist mentioning Lavender’s current project also, because it covers an area of history that is so unfamiliar to me and suddenly, in the 21st century, becoming more vital every day. “[My current project] tells the story of a California girl who goes to Washington in 1917 to visit her aunt and becomes involved in the street demonstrations for women’s voting rights. The brutal treatment meted out to her and her friends in the government’s efforts to silence them is a shocking chapter in American history that everyone, and especially every girl, should know about. But for some mysterious reason it has virtually disappeared from the national consciousness. We hope to remedy that in some small way.”

Far too many of us are unaware of how hard fought it was for American citizens to gain their rights, their equal rights, as guaranteed by the Constitution. Children go to school everyday and lose all faith in the system and in their futures as they are bored out of their minds in classes that seem to matter hardly and at all, surrounded by people more concerned by appearance than substance. If reading a book makes you think for a minute about both your past and your future, then it is a critical title that should be passed out to every young adult in America if only so they get that moment of clarity; that few minutes of deeper understanding about the world around them. Clearly, Bill Lavender and his wife are on a mission to shed some light on the nation’s past, so they can help illuminate its future. Aftershocks is just another stop on the path, as is Just Jane and his next book about women’s voting rights. They are good books that make us more aware of just what it means to be an American, a good, strong American. And now more than ever, regardless of your political inclinations, this is a time that we must all be spending some time learning just being an American is all about.