Interview with Vanessa Riley - SISTER MOTHER WARRIOR

Interview with Vanessa Riley - SISTER MOTHER WARRIOR

In this interview, Vanessa and I discuss Sister Mother Warrior, providing the historical context for her book. which character was the hardest to write, having 2 books publishing so close in time to each other, the lasting implications from the Haitian Revolution, and much more.

In this interview, Vanessa and I discuss Sister Mother Warrior, providing the historical context for her book. which character was the hardest to write, having 2 books publishing so close in time to each other, the lasting implications from the Haitian Revolution, and much more.

Vanessa's recommended reads are:

  1. The Last Days of Barcelona by Chanel Cleeton
  2. In the Face of the Sun by Denny S. Bryce
  3. The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Check out my Summer 2022 Reading List.

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If you enjoyed this episode and want to listen to more episodes, try Natalie Jenner, Judithe Little, Renee Rosen, Adriana Trigiani, and Geraldine Brooks.

Sister Mother Warrior can be purchased at my Bookshop storefront.    

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[00:18] Cindy: You are listening to the Thoughts From a Page podcast, which is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books with anyone and everyone. While listening to my podcast, you will hear author interviews, behind the scenes conversations about various aspects of the publishing world, theme discussions with other book lovers, and more. For more book recommendations and a complete list of all of my interviews, check out my website, Thoughts From a, and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at Thoughts From a Page in 2022. I would love for you to join my Patreon group. I offer at least two bonus episodes a month and a monthly advanced read and pre-publication author chat. For those on Facebook, I host a special Patreon Facebook group where we all chat books. Thanks so much to those who already participate, and I hope you will consider joining us. Today I am chatting with Vanessa Reilly about sister mother warrior. In addition to being a novelist, vanessa holds a doctorate in Mechanical engineering and a masters in Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management from Stanford University. She also earned a BS and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University. She currently juggles Mothering, a teen, cooking for her military man/husband, and speaking at Women's and STEM events. She loves baking her grandma's cake recipes and collecting Irish crochet lace. You can catch her writing from the comfort of her porch in Georgia with a cup of Earl Grey tea. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Welcome, Vanessa. How are you today?

[01:48] Vanessa: I am doing fine. How are you doing?

[01:51] Cindy: I'm doing well as well, and I'm so glad you're back to chat with me.

[01:55] Vanessa: I'm so glad you have me back.

[01:57] Cindy: Before we start talking about Sister Mother Warrior in depth, would you give me a quick history lesson about the events that are the background for this book, please?

[02:05] Vanessa: Absolutely. Sister Mother Warrior is going to take you back in time to between 1758 to about 1804. This is a very dynamic period in world history because you have all the wars that are happening the American War, the French Revolution, mini battles with Spain, etcetera. And then you have the mass transport of Africans through the transatlantic slave ships that are all happening in the middle of all of these wars. One of the places, Santa Domingue, which is present day Haiti, has one of the most transports of Africans of stolen labor because the climate is horrible, but it's the richest colony. I think Adam Smith was saying how wealthy this colony is, so it's one that everybody wants. The British, at different points, have tried to take it over from France, France trying to take it from Spain. Even when us Americans got active, we even wanted a little bit. But that's a whole other story. But around 1790, 1791, everything explodes. The enslaved who have been horribly abused, wanting their freedom. They make a push for it, and they begin to. Forces align, at times the French, at times Spain, at times Britain to enable these forces to move forward for freedom. And in 1804, Jean Jacques Dessolines, who was born a slave in Haiti or in San Anton, he leads these forces. You want to picture them as rabble, but they're not rabble. These are people who come from Africa or have been enslaved in incentive, and they are joined together. It's a coordinated and military effort, and they literally overthrow the French. It should be an exciting time frame when you see people who've been so oppressed to gain their freedom. But the way it's been told in history is very controversial. So many pieces are left out, and then the heroism is often diminished. And you got to ask yourself why? Why don't we know more about the first nation of enslaved individuals becoming free by their own design and building a nation? Why don't we know more about that? And the roots of it is in this history. We should all know, but we don't. And the heart of it is women. Women coming to the forefront, deciding that they've had enough and wanting to be liberated. And so Sister Mother Warrior takes you through all of this, gives you great movements of the politics of the time. You can see all of the various players because it is a complicated revolution, but it's one that's happened, and it's important, and I think the world should know more about it.

[05:06] Cindy: Well, that's what we talked a little bit about before we started recording. I was saying I was embarrassed I didn't know more about it. And I think being able to put the story in context and understanding the parties and what happened before we start talking about your book would probably be useful to a lot of people.

[05:20] Vanessa: No, I learned so much in this process. Unfortunately, we get snippets in our textbooks as we grow up, and depending upon who wrote the snippets, you get different projections that may not necessarily be factual.

[05:35] Cindy: Absolutely different interpretations or different people's perspectives or just not wanting to include the story at all.

[05:41] Vanessa: Exactly.

[05:42] Cindy: Well, now, let's talk about the wonderful Sister Mother Warrior.

[05:45] Vanessa: Oh, I'm so happy to talk about this book. I'm very excited about this book.

[05:49] Cindy: Well, why don't you give me a quick synopsis for those that won't have read it yet? And then we'll dive into my questions.

[05:55] Vanessa: Everyone who went and saw Black Panther remembers the Dory massage, right? These women warriors who protected the king, that's actually based on a true African tribe. That's a group called Aminos, which were the warrior women for the Dahomey tribe. I was fascinated. I had to know more. And I stumbled upon a woman named Grand Toya. She was one of the leaders of these feared women. She gets enslaved, brought to Santa Doming because she has talented healing and nurturing. She is over the children, and she begins to teach these children the things that she learned as a warrior. So they are understanding troop movement and astronomy and defense mechanisms. And one of the people that she pours into is a young man named Jean Jacques Dessolines As I said earlier, he is the man who liberates Haiti from under the French oppression. So that, to me, was very exciting. And then I learned as I studied Jean Jacques, I learned about this woman named Mary Claire Bonnaire. Mary Claire Bornaire, in my opinion, is the first battlefield nurse. There's this historic moment in 1800, the city of Jacques Mel is being bombarded by fighting. No food is getting in. And Mary Claire, since an early age, that was her mission, to always feed the hungry. There's a devastating earthquake, I think 1770, that tears apart her village. And she and her mother are going out there, making soup, feeding people. So it's been always part of her DNA. She and a group of women on a mule train go into this battle. People are fighting, but they stop for her. And she's able to bind the womb. She doesn't care what side she's binding wound. She's feeding people. I think she's the first battlefield nurse, predating Mary Secold and Florence Nightingale, but we don't know her name. We should. And she ends up being the wife of Jean Jacques Dessolines. So Jean Jacques has both power and peace on both sides of him. And that is the story that I'm moving you through in System of the Warrior.

[08:05] Cindy: How in the world did you do all of the research to get all of this down on paper and then translate it into a novel? Was there so much you couldn't include?

[08:14] Vanessa: Yes. My editor, Rachel, will tell you there's a lot that we didn't include.

[08:19] Cindy: She kept saying, no, one more thing that needs to come out.

[08:23] Vanessa: She's Vanessa, we can't have another 200,000 word book. We just can't do that. And she's right. You need to be able to tell a story as impactful, as powerful, but also succinctly, because people are busy. And this is needed knowledge that people need to understand. So you have to pick and choose the moments. And I did an incredible amount of research. I had to do a lot of translation in French, and that was very difficult, but it was well worth it because I want to take the readers there. You're on a journey, and you need to be insane to me, and you need to feel what these people are feeling so that when they win, in the end, it's your victory, too.

[09:05] Cindy: And you're rooting for them.

[09:07] Vanessa: Yes. Maybe not all the time, because there is some foolishness in the book. Right. But for the most part, you're rooting for them.

[09:14] Cindy: You're wanting them to be free.

[09:16] Vanessa: Yes.

[09:17] Cindy: Well, which woman was harder to write?

[09:20] Vanessa: They each had moments of being hard. Abidoria Toya's trying to figure out her origin story. That was very difficult. Many things are not written down. So I had to go on literally deciphering what her name meant and the origin of her name and figuring out that this name had to come from the orbit, people who are migratory people and having to pinpoint things, that's difficult. But to me, that sets up who this woman is. And from the snippets that you find in folklore, oral tales of this woman, trying to get all of that together, to embody her on the page, that had a level of difficulty for Mary Claire. Everything we know of her, except for this battle of Jacques Male, is typically rooted in her husband, Jean Jacques, which is to me, is a disservice, because she is a woman in her own right, she has power in her own right, but she also was in love with this man who changed the world. So to give her her full agency was difficult, but it was rewarding because I was able to explore other parts of the Senate of being culture that you once again, things you would not know, like opera and all these other different how culturally elite the society was, or even the aspects of how colorism played on the stage in the streets of the cities. I got to get that by trying to get to know Mary Claire better.

[10:55] Cindy: And she had a complicated romantic life.

[10:58] Vanessa: Yeah, she did. I told you there was foolishness. There was.

[11:03] Cindy: I agree.

[11:04] Vanessa: Yes. So she and Jean Jacques, they met very early on, but because he was still enslaved, she wanted to marry. They could not be together until he became free. And he gets sold off to a different plantation, so he's no longer able to come see her. And the boilers, the sugar boilers, if you get sentenced to work there, it's literally a destiny. Your people died within two to three years of working that. So when he gets sold off and is intended to be at the sugar boilers, she's devastated. She's with child. She doesn't know what to do. And there's a very nice man who has feelings for her, Pierre Lunac. She ends up marrying him. So it's a marriage of convenience that she tries to love him, but she's not enough for him because it's a good friend, and she never had those feelings, not the same as she has for Sean Shot. So painting her as this woman is not a victim, but someone who makes choices, they just may not be the right choices, is the frame of her youth. And then showing the world or the reader how she changes through time, how circumstances makes her a different person, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but she's always changing and evolving. That's her journey. And it was a pleasure to write.

[12:31] Cindy: Well, and I think it's hard to judge people, first of all, from that long ago, but also to totally understand the situations that they're in. Who knows if we wouldn't make the exact same choices?

[12:41] Vanessa: I mean, for a woman to have a child out of wedlock or early widowhood, if you were to accept her marriage, it's difficult. How is she going to provide for this child if she's shunned by everyone? What is she going to do? So it's a scary time, and she did not want that life for her children, for her child. So she made choices. And here's a very nice person, a friend. He is being the night in shining armor to her. I could see why a marriage of convenience would work. Yes.

[13:17] Cindy: And she thinks that this is the only choice she's going to have. And you can understand that?

[13:23] Vanessa: Absolutely. As a romance writer, I do understand that.

[13:30] Cindy: That's so funny. You're like, okay, maybe I'll wind that into one of my roommates. I love that you included such a lengthy author's note about the various people and events in the book. That's always one of my favorite things to do when I read historical fiction, is get to the end and then read about the actual people and what you incorporated, what you might not have, what really happened. I just loved that.

[13:52] Vanessa: Excellent. I like taking the reader behind the scenes and to help you see the choices that I made, particularly when they could be controversial, because there was literally there are at least two to three recorded dates of a marriage for Jean Jacques and Mary Claire, and they all seem plausible from locality purposes of where the people were. I can document to where they were, but I couldn't tell you which one is it, so I included them all.

[14:26] Cindy: But that's a great way to do it because that's harder to put into your novel. But it's wonderful to have that as a note at the end to understand that.

[14:33] Vanessa: Exactly. And truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and so I'm a firm believer in putting in the authors notes so that you can see truth from just an author sometimes will take license, because we want you to feel like you're there and understand the motivations of the characters. But I want you to know, what were those points? What were those motivations? Or if they're literally choices? I want the reader to understand my thought process. I love giving you a behind the scenes look.

[15:03] Cindy: I completely agree with that. I think it's a really great way to do it. Well, what surprised you the most when writing Sister Mother Warrior?

[15:10] Vanessa: Oh, my gosh. So many things surprised me. Going back from that very limited history of Haiti. I didn't understand the French cruelty. I had no concept. I think of France. I think of liberty for all. I think of them as being one of the most progressive societies. But then to see how they leveled almost to Holocaust level violence upon the enslaved, upon blacks in Santa Domingue is heartbreaking. As an author, you pick and choose the difficult moments you want to include. But there came a point where I had to include some of the things just so that people would give a context for why there was no other choice but to rebel, why this was the only way the enslaved could find their way to freedom. Because that context, it needs to be told just so that you can we have 21st century sensibilities. I needed to take you back to 1700, to 1800 so that you can feel what these people are feeling.

[16:29] Cindy: Kind of like we were talking about Marie Claire's choices. I think you just have to understand the time frame and time period within which you're working.

[16:37] Vanessa: Absolutely. And the best historical fiction writers do that. They almost divorce themselves of their own senses of right and wrong and inhabit the time frame so that you can really get that picture of what it was to live like there, what it is to have these kind of choices when everything is almost a do or die. Because if she had made the wrong choice, she and her child could have starved on the streets or even stoned in some forms or fashion because of the taboo of a child out of wedlock. So we have to really inhibit those spaces. And so an author makes choices, and once again, we go back to the authors. That's why I want you to understand the choices I made.

[17:24] Cindy: I love those authors notes as well, because there'll be times when you're reading something in a story, in historical fiction, and you think, did that really happen? Or is that something the author incorporated? And a lot of times it's things that seem like they couldn't have happened, and those are the things that actually did happen. And so the truth is stranger than fiction is helpful to see in those authors notes to be like, okay, that actually was something that happened.

[17:47] Vanessa: There's a subjoke about Bleach. Those are real conversations and requests. I do a deep dive in history, and I love reading the old correspondences or historians who began writing the history maybe ten years after the war. They're able to interview Mary Claire and they're able to talk to her. And so getting some of that color into the book, like the joke about Bleach, especially after you're dressed in white.

[18:18] Cindy: On a mule tray.

[18:19] Vanessa: Mules are not clean animals.

[18:21] Cindy: I'm sorry, they are not. And just traveling that way is not going to be clean at all.

[18:28] Vanessa: No, but I'm like, I guess that, once again, 21st disability was like, didn't you have a mall you could have gone to and get something different?

[18:38] Cindy: Just replaced that outfit.

[18:40] Vanessa: Yes. Okay. So those are moments you talked about things that surprised me. Learning about Bleach, learning that Jean Jacques Dessolines like to dance, that was, to me, one of these moments of, like, I got to figure out how to put that in the book. Somewhere.

[18:59] Cindy: And I'm sure that's a fine line because there's so many cool facts, I bet. And you're like, I can't just info dump everything into the book. So I have to be able to put in those things that maybe sound the coolest to you or appeal the most, but also that will be able to be integrated into your story smoothly.

[19:14] Vanessa: Absolutely. I think of the themes and for me, the choice of making Mary Claire's aunt, who is literally like almost her sister, so invested into opera and singing is because I found that Senator Ming was a cultural center and that at first, mulattos of colored women were allowed to sing on stage. They were allowed to sing on stage. That was interesting. And then the free blacks were allowed to come to the theater and enjoy it. But then as things began to tighten up, getting closer and closer to revolution, those privileges were taken away. That is something I think the reader needed to know. And the opera is just another way to reinforce it, to be a mirror to the codification of the law actions that are happening here in Santa Domingue.

[20:10] Cindy: I think it's fascinating if you look back at history and the idea that history repeats itself, which it clearly does. But it's so interesting how so many things are similar in a build up to a revolution. Wherever it is that rights are taken away, people lose what they have. All of a sudden things start to tighten it a lot, which in the end ends up hastening the revolution.

[20:31] Vanessa: Absolutely. There were a lot of enslaved rebellions across West Indies. This one is particularly successful and I think that is because of the women. This is one of the few revolutions that I see in the West Indies that women played such an active, lively role in the progression of the war, in the prosecution of the war, in the victories of the war, leading troops, et cetera. But if you look at women, women were involved since the early fifties. They were the ones poisoning people on these habitations, also known as plantations. They were active, they were making a stand, they were tired of abuse, they wanted their freedom and so they had begun the fight. But no one actually ever really focuses on the early times. They only focus on 1790s, when you start getting Tucson to the tour, the various black generals that are now leading the fight and leading to freedom. But it was those women, those women taking a stand early on that made it all possible.

[21:43] Cindy: I love that in recent times, so many wonderful stories about strong women and women who've made such a difference are now coming to the forefront and we're getting to learn about them.

[21:53] Vanessa: This is an exciting time because, honestly, five years ago, I would not think these stories would be being published, being put into the mainstream, given the attention that they have now. I think we're at a great moment in time where stories that needed to be told are getting told, and they're being told in ways that are exciting the imagination, that are making people stand up and realize, you know what? There's more to the past than what I've been told. What can we learn from it? What mistakes can we avoid making because we see how this population or those people or et cetera, and then for women to have courage, to take heart that this moment in time might seem dark, but we have survived worse. This moment in time might take away your hope, but no, you're not hopeless, because they did it. You can do it. We can all move forward.

[22:55] Cindy: I think that's exactly right. And also that we can use those as examples, and we can look back and be like, okay, there were so many strong women before us. They are unhappy with their lot in life or the way the world is around them. They fought back. We need to do the same.

[23:10] Vanessa: Absolutely.

[23:12] Cindy: So you have two books coming out in a short amount of time, which must mean you're quite busy, and this is a historical mystery, your other book, correct?

[23:20] Vanessa: Yeah, it's my first mystery. It's my first hardcover mystery. I'm extremely excited about that. And you asked me about research earlier. I had found this fact that stuck with me when I was doing this research that all the abolition movements in the world stopped when Haiti becomes free. Stopped? We're talking about Wilbur Force and Clarkson and so many others around the world who were righteous and stepping forward and saying abolition now, etc, Like, well, the whole world stops because Haiti is now free.

[23:56] Cindy: Really?

[23:57] Vanessa: Yes. I blew my mind.

[23:59] Cindy: That blows my mind too.

[24:01] Vanessa: Yes. It's like, we were good with you all being free, but now you all want to run stuff.

[24:04] Cindy: No, that's completely different than what we had in mind.

[24:09] Vanessa: Exactly. So that stuck with me, and I was like, well, if you are a free person, what does that do? So I envisioned a heroine, a Regency sleuth who's living in these times in London, and she wants to use her privilege lady Worthy wants to use her privilege to figure out how to get the movement started, but then all these dead bodies keep popping up around her, and so she's got to figure those mysteries out so she can get back to fighting the fight.

[24:39] Cindy: Well, I can't wait to read that one. I have it from that galley, and it's up soon for me.

[24:44] Vanessa: Excellent. I hope you enjoy it.

[24:46] Cindy: But that has to be kind of crazy for you two books coming out in a small amount of time.

[24:50] Vanessa: Yeah, I think it's a little crazy, but I am living in a timeframe where I'm getting to tell the stories of my heart who could not want to be that, even if they have to come a little close together stories.

[25:06] Cindy: Of my heart shoved a little closer than I'd like but just stories of my heart.

[25:10] Vanessa: Yes, but I'm just excited to be able to tell a story and you're going to get a sense of history because the politics that are happening in London are unimaginable in the backdrop of a woman, a woman of color, of mixed heritage. She's both Scottish and Jamaican, you know, trying to find a way in the world and to do good in a world that doesn't think women should have that kind of voice. It's going to be exciting fun.

[25:40] Cindy: It is exciting fun and I love that time period, so I'm really looking forward to that one. What's it like with two publishers? And I know you've done that for a while, but what's it like writing books with two different publishers?

[25:51] Vanessa: A little chaotic, but it's kind of fun.

[25:57] Cindy: Yeah, because you kind of know what one does and they do things differently and you're like, oh, maybe I should ask for this at the other one. I can do it here. There's got to be an interesting way to learn about how different publishers work.

[26:07] Vanessa: Every publisher is very different and their processes are different, so you really have to understand it. But I love to write and Kensington is extremely well positioned in the mystery market and they were so open to this idea, so I'm excited about that. And William Morrow, they are one of the leaders in historical fiction, so I'm excited that they are behind my stories. I guess I'm saying it's all about me and that's how it should be.

[26:42] Cindy: Right.

[26:42] Vanessa: You're on team Vanessa.

[26:50] Cindy: I'm just glad it's working out for you. And I do think it's really cool that all these authors are able to start doing that to publish with two different publishing houses and there's got to be a benefit on both sides.

[27:00] Vanessa: And if you're like me, I love to write. I don't like downtime and the stories are always coming and so I'm finally able to keep up and have a good outlet to get these stories to the world. So I'm very blessed to be with William Morrow. I'm very blessed to be with Kensington, and I'm excited to get these stories into people's hands.

[27:23] Cindy: Well, I think that is wonderful. So, speaking about stories, what have you read recently that you really liked?

[27:29] Vanessa: Okay. What I have read recently is Chanel Cleeton, who never disappoints. Our Last Days in Barcelona is a masterpiece. Then we have Denny S. Bryce's In the Face of the Sun, great Hollywood kind of mystery and she takes you behind the scenes in some really great places in Los Angeles that I never heard of. And so I'm always excited about learning something new. Then of course, you have Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn who doesn't like a woman shooting and very nice military artillery.

[28:06] Cindy: Well, and that story is particularly timely with the Ukraine and the Soviet conflict.

[28:12] Vanessa: Absolutely. I think Kate has a crystal ball. I'm pretty sure. Yeah, she has a crystal ball.

[28:19] Cindy: Well, those are all wonderful selections and I'm so happy you came back on the show, Vanessa. It was really nice to chat with you.

[28:26] Vanessa: Thank you. Keep having me back. This is one of my favorite stops.

[28:29] Cindy: Oh, thank you. I enjoy having you, so I will definitely keep having you back. Thank you so much for tuning in today. I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to my podcast. I want to quickly share about this wonderful company I am now partnering with. I am always looking for entities that promote and highlight books and recently came across Bookclubs, a company who provides all sorts of resources for established and new book clubs as well as individual readers. My own personal book club recently signed up on Bookclubs, and the group has been impressed with all of the great tools the site and app provide. The Bookclub's website is linked in my show notes, and I hope you will check them out soon. Also, if you like my show, I would be so grateful if you would tell everyone you know about it and rate it on whichever platform you listen on. It truly makes a huge difference and really helps the show grow. The book discussed in this episode can be purchased at my Bookshop storefront, and that link is also in the show notes. I hope you will check out some other Thoughts from a Page episodes and have a great day.

Vanessa RileyProfile Photo

Vanessa Riley

Vanessa Riley

In addition to being a novelist, Vanessa Riley holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and a master’s in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford University. She also earned BS and MS in mechanical engineering from Penn State University. She currently juggles mothering a teen, cooking for her military-man husband, and speaking at women's and STEM events. She loves baking her Trinidadian grandma's cake recipes and collecting Irish crochet lace. You can catch her writing from the comfort of her porch in Georgia, with a cup of Earl Grey tea. Riley lives in Atlanta.