Tag Archives: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Interview with Tara Conklin, Author of The House Girl

Interview with Tara Conklin, Author of The House Girl

The Author

The Author

Jaime Boler: Tara, thank you for letting me interview you.  I absolutely love The House Girl and feel readers are going to embrace both Lina and Josephine.

Tara Conklin: Thank you, Jaime!  It’s a delight to be appearing on your blog.

JB: You previously worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a large corporate law firm.  What made you want to write fiction?

TC: I’ve always been a huge reader and my love of reading morphed pretty naturally – at some point in grade school – into a desire to write.  But I never saw writing fiction as a viable career goal.  I decided it was something I would do for fun, to amuse myself, and so for many years I wrote stories, essays, rants but I never showed my writing to anyone.  I always thought: I’ll write more seriously when I retire.   Thankfully, Josephine and Lina forced me into early retirement.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for The House Girl?

TC: I came across the words “slave doctor” in a biography I was reading, and that term made me stop.   I started wondering about the kind of person who would occupy such a conflicted role – to dedicate your life to healing, but your patients were destined only for more harm.  From that initial spark of interest, I wrote the story of Dr. Caleb Harper.  The two women who appear in his story – Dorothea Rounds and Josephine Bell – grabbed me. I wanted to know more about them, so I started writing about each separately and I just kept writing, trying to discover how their stories connected.  Caleb’s is the last narrative now to appear in the book, but it’s where the whole thing began.

JB: What kind of research did you do for your story?

TC: I read a lot of slave narratives, letters and journals from the time period, jotting down unusual words and phrases as I found them.  This helped me use the right language for the historical sections.  I also read fiction and non-fiction about the antebellum south and the Underground Railroad and did a fair amount of concentrated googling as required to get the details right. You’d be surprised how much you can find on the internet about 19th century footwear, for example.

JB: The House Girl recently topped the Indie Next list for February and has been garnering lots of attention.  Early readers have compared your novel to The Help and are calling it the ultimate book club book.  How do you feel about this wonderful early praise?

TC: I’m thrilled and beyond grateful.  It’s wonderful to have such early support for the book.  Thank you!

JB: When you were writing the story, did you have any sense how big it could be?

TC: No, absolutely not.  I didn’t even think I was writing a novel – at the beginning, I was just writing stories that would live in my computer, like all my others.  But after I finished drafting the three historical sections, I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters.  Their stories felt very unresolved and so I decided to add a contemporary voice to bring some closure and make sense of it all.  That’s where Lina Sparrow came in.

JB: My favorite character in the story is Josephine.  Do you have a favorite?  Or is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?

TC: It is a bit like choosing a favorite child – I love them all, for different reasons.  I even have a soft spot for Dan, Lina’s boss. That being said, Josephine is, for me, the heart and soul of the story.  Everything revolves around her, so if I had to pick a favorite, she would be mine as well.

JB: The issue of slave reparations is an important part of The House Girl.  Do you think the descendants of African-American slaves should be awarded reparations?

TC: That’s a tough question.  I think now, for a whole host of reasons, it’s difficult to envision monetary reparations.  There are just too many legal and practical problems with it, even putting aside the complex philosophical and moral arguments on either side.  But I do hope the book prompts readers to think and talk about antebellum history a bit – not just the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln but the millions of individuals who lived and died for 250 years under an inhumane system, who struggled and hoped for something different.  It seems to me that their voices aren’t often heard in American history and it’s worth considering why that’s the case and what those voices might tell us.

JB: Is Lina based on you?  Are any characters in the book based on real people?

TC: No, everyone in the book is fictional, including Lina.  I admit that Lina and I share some similarities and experiences – Lina’s opening scene (she discovers that a case she’d been working on had settled days earlier) actually did happen to me.  And many of the law firm details – the secretaries’ email habits, the layout of the floors, the billable minutes – are taken from my experience. The historical characters are all pure inventions, although I borrowed some historical names – Benjamin Rust, for example, was the name of an actual slave trader.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing The House Girl?

TC: Making Lina’s story compelling was definitely the most difficult part for me.  Josephine is, I think, a tough act to follow, but I felt strongly that Lina needed to be more than simply the vehicle for discovering Josephine.   

JB: I have to say this story made me cry.  Did you ever cry while writing it?

TC: Constantly!  I’m a pretty easy cry, but there are certain places in the book that still make me cry – even while doing the final copy edit, I was weeping.

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

TC: I take care of my three busy kids, I read, I run, and I’ve gotten weirdly addicted to Twitter recently…

JB: If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

TC: Oh what a great question to imagine!   Do I have to just pick one?   I really admire Jennifer Egan – she is such a risk taker, with each of her novels pushing the envelope in different ways.  And Emily Dickinson – I’ve been fascinated by her since I was an angst-filled teenager so I’d love to sit down with her.  I’d opt for dinner with Jennifer and tea with Emily.

JB: What book is on your nightstand right now?

TC: My nightstand is groaning right now – I’ve got so many!  Some near the top are: Wolf Hall, The Yellow Birds, The Snow Child, and A Thousand Acres (one of my all-time favorite novels).  And I’m nearly done with Zone One – I’m a secret zombie freak, and this is a great literary zombie read.

JB: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?

TC: Resilient.

JB: Are you going on an author tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

TC: I’ll be on a short tour – I’m doing three events in the Seattle area, and then onto the East Coast, Lenox, MA (I grew up in western Massachusetts), New York, Atlanta, and Charlottesville, and later in Indianapolis and Gaithersburg.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The House Girl?

TC: I hope the book makes them think about American history and the voices we don’t hear in the textbooks; and also (because this is true about my most favorite novels) I hope it inspires them in some way, maybe to take a risk or ask a tough question or think about how they can be true to themselves.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

TC: Yes, although book promotion is not very conducive to working on new writing!  I am dying to get back to my new book.  It’s about sisters and family, death and love; it’s very different from The House Girl.

JB: I know this is going to be a bestseller, and I thank you for giving us such an emotional story rich in character and full of historical detail.  I appreciate you letting me ask you these questions.  Good luck with the book, Tara!

TC: Thank you so much for your support, Jaime, and for hosting me on your fantastic blog! 



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Filed under author interviews, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction

Book Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).


            Tara Conklin knows how to open a story.  “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl.  Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does.  “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows.  The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all.  And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed.  Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.

When was the last time you read a story like that?  A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist?  Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.

The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.

In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm.  She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves.  Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.

In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia.  At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation.  Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away.  Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North.  She seeks only to be her own mistress.

These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead.  The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves.  Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases.  Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.

You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story.  Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff.  The question is: what happened to Josephine?  Did she escape?  Did she have any children?

Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive.  There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.

Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life.  Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history.  Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration.  The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.

The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel.  Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance.  The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely.  Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible.  Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.

Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations.  Who should be compensated?  Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?

Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina.  It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go.  You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page.  Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

The Author

The Author


Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction