With already 10 books under her belt, Sarah Bird is already a veteran author. But, somehow, her latest release Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is extra close to her heart. Lightly based on the life of the only known female Buffalo Soldier, Cathy Williams, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen shines a light on an inspiring, feisty woman.
In this author Q&A, Sarah talks about what inspired her new book, her writing process, and a little bit about what’s in store for her in the future.
Rachel: How did you decide to take on writing about Cathay Williams? What about her did you find the most compelling?
Sarah Bird: I first heard about Cathy Williams’ extraordinary feat of disguising herself as a man and serving for two years in the Buffalo Soldiers way back in the late nineteen-seventies when I was photographing and documenting African-American rodeos.
My imagination was seized by the tale of a slave who, at the end of the Civil War, made the singular decision to reject the life of servitude she would have had as a woman, and enlisted with one of the six new regiments formed by the U.S. Army. If this story were true, I thought, then Cathy Williams was the first woman to serve in the regular U.S. military. Though hundreds of women had passed as men during both the Revolutionary and Civil War, I had not heard of any who’d done so during peacetime.
Perhaps because I am the daughter of two warriors–a career Air Force officer and an Army nurse who served from Casa Blanca to Marseilles–who grew up on military bases around the world with an understanding of the power of a uniform, the power of the salute, I felt a special affinity with a woman who shared that understanding and tried to learn more about her. Back in those pre-Internet days, however, I found no trace of Cathy Williams, Buffalo Soldier, and assumed the fabulous story was apocryphal.
Cathy did not return to me until 1988, when, pregnant with our son, I attended a childbirth class taught by Pam Black, teacher at a predominantly African-American school. When she learned that I was a novelist, Pam told me I “had to” write a book about a forgotten hero that her students, especially the girls, needed to know, Cathy Williams. Before I had time to tell her that there never was a female Buffalo Soldier, Pam handed me copies of Cathy’s enlistment certificate, discharge, and her application for a pension. Thrilled to know that she was real, I quickly hunted down the rest of what little documentation exists about Cathy Williams.
The more I learned, the more “inhabited” I felt by Cathy and, with her slender archive as a trellis, her imagined life twined through me and, after many more twists and turns, blossomed into a tale as majestic as her decision had been.
R: How much research went to making this book?
SB: A ton!! Fortunately, I live in a city with a world-class university library system, including one library that specializes in the history of the West. They provided me with a wealth of material. I also traveled to Fort Davis, six hours away in West Texas, many times. I used this fully restored fort which had once been regimental headquarters for the Buffalo Soldiers as the setting for Cathy’s service in the West. I also benefited from visiting the Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston which allows visitors to handle artifacts.
R: What’s the biggest takeaway do you want readers to have from Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen?
SB: What has always inspired me the most was the example of a woman presented with nothing but horrible choices, imagining herself into a better life than any on offer. I am thrilled by the pioneers and heroes among us who find a way when there is no way.
Second, I’d like readers to take away the certain knowledge that, as far as we know, Cathy Williams was the first woman, of any race, to enlist in the regular, peacetime armed forces. One hundred and twenty years before the act that allowed women to enlist in the regular army was signed into law in 1948.
R: You’ve been writing historical fiction since the 80s, and while most of it is built on real events and people at its base you still add some things into the story. How do you decide what things to add into your stories and how do you balance this out with the historical foundations of your stories?
SB: Such a great question. I sort of think it as building a fire. The research is the kindling, the logs, the careful addition of the right material at the right time. The story is the flame. Too little fuel and it fizzles out. Too much and the fire is suffocated, buried beneath the weight of too much research. For me, one of the major dangers is falling in love with some juicy nugget or astounding fact that I’ve unearthed then, sort of, deforming the story to shoehorn it in. I won’t point to specific examples in my own work, but , as far as research goes, I’ve learned to kill my darlings.
R: Do you have another book in the works?
SB: Yes, I am researching the story of a doomed love affair set in the world of dance marathons during the Great Depression. And, boy oh boy, are there ever some juicy nuggets!
R: When you aren’t writing, what things keep you busy?
SB: The heart of Austin, for me, is Barton Springs, a three-acre, limestone-bedded pool where the water is 68 degrees all year round. I go there to swim, think out plot points, and abate anxiety.
R: Lastly, if you could described Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen in 3 words, what would it be?
SB: I can’t do any better than my friend, the wondrous Christina Baker Kline who described the novel as, “an epic page-turner.” I always imagined Cathy’s story as larger than life and attempted to write a book of that scope.
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About the author:
SARAH BIRD’s previous novel, Above the East China Sea, was long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Sarah has been selected for the Meryl Streep Screenwriting Lab, the B&N Discover Great Writers program, NPR’s Moth Radio series, the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and New York Libraries Books to Remember list. She first heard Cathy Williams’ story in the late seventies while researching African-American rodeos.
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To celebrate the release of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, I am, with the help of St. Martin’s Press, giving away a copy of this amazing book. Just enter the rafflecopter giveaway by clicking on the link below. This is open to everyone. (Yes, even you wonderful international readers! Yes, of course, you!)
Also, if you haven’t yet, please check out my review of the book.