How I Wrote It

Esi Edugyan's latest is the high-stakes historical fiction novel Washington Black

The award-winning author discusses how the themes of freedom, brutality and steampunk adventure fit together in her latest book.
Washington Black is the third novel by Calgary-born writer Esi Edugyan. (Tamara Poppitt/HarperCollins Canada)

Esi Edugyan is curious by nature. Her examination of life through a historical and racial lens has resulted in novels about the Black experience during Europe during the Second World War (the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning Half-Blood Blues) and racism and mental health in 1968-era Alberta (with the 2004 debut The Second Life of Samuel Tyne). 

Her third novel, Washington Black, tells the story of 11-year-old Washington "Wash" Black, a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation in the 19th century. His master is Englishman Christopher Wilde, who is obsessed with developing a machine that can fly. When a man is killed, Wilde must choose between his family and saving Black's life — and the choice results in an epic adventure around the world for Wash. 

Below, Edugyan explains how she wrote Washington Black.

Washington Black is on the longlist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Historical basis

"I didn't initially set out to write a slave narrative. Several years ago I came across a real-life story about the famous Tichborne case that happened during the Victorian era in England. I started digging into it and found this completely absurd story where Sir Roger Tichborne, a young aristocratic man from a wealthy household, was shipwrecked and missing at sea off the coast of South America. His mother refused to believe he was dead and put notices in newspapers all around the world. A man in Australia claimed to be the missing man and she sends a man named Andrew Bogle, a former slave from a Jamaican plantation and now a member of the Tichborne household, down to Australia to identify him.

"I started thinking about what Andrew's life might have been like, to have been born a slave and raised in such brutality — with a sense of this is your destiny — to be suddenly wrenched out of that life to live in a completely different way and to grapple with a completely different society and set of rules. That's where the interest came from."

Down the research rabbit hole

"I'm constantly researching and trying new things when writing. I do read and research widely before I start writing to figure about what's going on in the first quarter of the novel. My husband is also a writer; he might read half a draft and make a suggestion and that sends me off in a different direction. Because this book began on the plantation, there was a lot of reading about plantations and conditions in the Caribbean. I found a few detailed and interesting books that focused on Barbados.

"I'm someone who writes in many drafts. There are wildly differing scenes in each draft, where the first draft of the novel looks nothing like the last draft. In an early draft, Wash wasn't an artist and when I determined that he was, it set me off reading books about science, and about marine life and marine watercolours. It was a real pleasure to read historical accounts of science discoveries and inventions — things like airships — and I was reading this fascinating research while I was writing the book."

A good writing day

"My writing process used to look like getting started at 10 at night, writing until five in the morning and then sleeping during the day. It was great. But then I had kids! These days, I drop them off to school in the morning and then head to my desk around 9:30 a.m. I read for about an hour, to quiet my mind, and then I write. A good day is when you can get two pages — single spaced, 12-point font, on my computer. That's a solid day of writing."

Writing male protagonists

"I recently gave a keynote at a festival and had a woman come up to me irate because my published books mostly feature male protagonists. She wanted to let me know the lives of women are just as interesting as the lives of men, like that hadn't occurred to me.

"My published novels have been looking at things through the male lens, that has been because of the stories I seized upon. This novel was originally to be about the life of Andrew Bogle, whose gender I wasn't about to change to make the story happen. But I started to think about what she said. I think that, for me, writing male characters has given me a sort of freedom or latitude, particularly as someone who doesn't want to write about her own life."

Esi Edugyan's comments have been edited and condensed.

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