James Herbert Smith creates historical fiction by looking through the eyes of a young Seneca woman during the Revolutionary war.
When did you decide you wanted to publish a book?
After I read “Old Yeller” in 4th grade. I tried when I was 25 then I tried and succeeded when I was 53, though it took me 10 years to complete it.
What was your inspiration for the story?
We spent time every summer on Canandaigua Lake. As a boy I listened to my grandmother, aunts and uncles talk about the Seneca Indians on the lake. I day dreamed about how silent it must have been back then, just the lapping of their canoe paddles in the water. So the lake itself is my inspiration.
In your own words what are the book’s main themes?
It is a true story with fictional characters told from the Native American point of view through the eyes of a 17-year-old Seneca woman — Wah-Say-Lan — about how her people had lived on Canandaigua for eons but their life is about to be turned upside down. Through Jamwesaw, a slave fighting for his freedom in the Continental Army, the story also examines the contradiction of the Founding Fathers birthing a nation based on freedom and independence, yet many of them were slave owners. Jefferson and Washington are key characters in the book. There are lessons, but fundamentally it is a love story and an adventure story that readers tell me holds their interest.
How did it feel to write in the voice of your main character, Wah-Say-Lan?
She is a young, smart, strong, independent woman. I raised four young, smart, strong, independent daughters and so I had good role models for my character. I worried sometimes that I wasn’t smart enough to keep up with Wah-Say-Lan. That was a challenge.
Which character from the story do you identify with most?
That’s a tough question. One reviewer wondered aloud that Jamwesaw is similar to my own name. He is unquestionably the most noble character in the book — vowing to find and free his mother from slavery, willing to entirely change his life because of his love for Wah-Say-Lan. When you create characters (and have them interact with real historical figures) you really get inside their heads; and so I think I’d have to say that I identify with Wah-Say-Lan as much as with Jamwesaw.
What was the best part of writing this book and what was the most challenging?
The best part was finishing it and getting it published. My B.A. from SUNY Brockport is in American History and there are seven pages of bibliography and so the research was challenging, yet also a marvelous trip into Iroquois and American Revolutionary War scholarship. There is an awful lot of excellent scholarship on the Six Nations of the Iroquois, but not a lot of fiction. Creating the story and seeing people turn the page to see what is happening next is the most satisfying feeling.
“Wah-Say-Lan” is available through NH Booksellers for $19.95
Purchase the book here -bring your questions and your copy to be signed at the festival!