Friday, February 19, 2010

Q and A with Leonard Todd author Carolina Clay

Born in South Carolina, Leonard Todd was educated at Yale College and the Yale School of Art and Architecture. He is a former Fulbright Scholar to France. Leonard lived for many years in New York City, where he was a graphic designer and a writer. His writings include travel articles, short stories, and two novels for young adults, published by Knopf and Viking. Both of his novels, which were set in areas of the south that he knew well when he was growing up, were optioned for film productions.

Leonard's newest publication is an adult book, the true story of one of the most intriguing figures in southern history. It is entitled Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave. It was published by W. W. Norton. Newsweek, in a full-page review, called it “a fascinating account.” Publishers Weekly described it as “a sweeping tale of the South itself.” It was a finalist for the National Award for Arts Writing, given each year for the best-written book on the arts. It won the South Carolina Center for the Book Award for Writing.

What inspired you to write Carolina Clay?

Dave was an extraordinarily gifted slave potter who lived in South Carolina during the first three quarters of the 19th century. I first learned of him ten years ago, when I was living in New York City. I opened The New York Times one morning to find an article announcing an exhibition of his work. It described the handsome pots he had made and told how he had written original poems on many of them. Such writing by a slave was unheard of, because in South Carolina at that time it was against the law to teach anyone in bondage how to read or write. Dave even signed his work, taking responsibility for what he had done. At the end of the article, one final bit of information took my breath away: Dave's owners were the Landrum and Miles families of Edgefield, South Carolina--my ancestors. I had always had a vague sense that there were slaveholders among my forebears. Busy with my life, however, I avoided the issue. Faced, now, with a real person who had been owned by my family, I couldn't do that anymore. I visited the exhibition, where I saw Dave's impressive jars and jugs and churns. Though utilitarian, they were true works of art. I also saw that little was known about his life. In the weeks that followed, I was unable to forget this amazing man and my troubling connection to him. I decided finally to travel to Edgefield, where I had never been, to find his story. 2

Please give us a brief overview of Carolina Clay.

The book tells in detail of my search for Dave. I narrate it in the first person, describing how I piece together the events of his life. I follow Dave from his days as a young worker in the clay pits through his middle years as a master potter and on to his difficult life as a free man, always firmly setting the story within the context of South Carolina's turbulent history. Many small discoveries permitted me to do this: biographical details in his poems, his name on the voter registration rolls during Reconstruction, a mention of his wife in my great-grandfather's papers. Even with the information I unearthed, the archival record of Dave's life, like that of almost all slaves, remained sparse. I often had to make informed guesses about him and his family. Speculation can be risky, but I believe it worked in this case because I always told the readers what I was doing. In this way, they were able to join in my search.

What special challenges did you incur in the writing of Carolina Clay?

Finding the right tone for the book was a real challenge for me, especially when it came to describing the actions of my slaveholding ancestors. In early drafts, I judged them harshly. I slowly came to understand that my job was not to judge but simply to tell the story in a clear and unbiased way. Readers, then, could make whatever judgments they felt were necessary. An unexpected outcome of this was that my writing, freed from any agenda, became more powerful.

Has Dave's story changed you in any way?

Coming upon Dave's story in The New York Times literally changed my life. It gave me a subject I was passionate about, and it gave me a new home: A few months after I began my research, my wife, Laurel Blossom (a writer also, a poet), and I decided to leave New York and move to Edgefield, population 4,000. A leap of faith, it has turned out to be a happy choice.

Who are some of your literary influences?

I have been influenced not by individual writers but by a kind of writing: great storytelling. I can remember being completely caught up in The Secret Garden when my mother read it to me during my childhood. Later in my life, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Anna Karenina, White Mischief, The Architect of Desire. As a writer, I just want to tell a good story.

What's next for you?

While researching Carolina Clay, I discovered many fascinating characters among my ancestors. One of them in particular seems to be calling to me. I'm beginning to map out a novel based on his life before and after the Civil War. It's a very good story.


Anonymous said...

This book sounds fascinating to me. Can't imagine how I missed hearing about it.

Karin Gillespie said...

Thanks so much for the interview. I'm anxious to read the book. One day we'll have to talk about your move to Edgefield. It's a pretty little town but it must have been a real transition for you.

TOM said...
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