Hello, Michelle, and welcome to Passages to the Past! To begin, can you tell us a little about yourself and your novel, Essie’s Roses?
Thank you, Amy for this opportunity to share more about my historical novel, Essie’s Roses. I’m an author, actress, and musician from St. Louis, Missouri. I worked as a professional actress, a member of Actors’ Equity and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists for almost twenty years, doing theater, voice-over, and commercial work. Currently, I’m working on my second book, an art-related historical novel.
Essie’s Roses is a sweeping historical novel that spans twenty years before the Civil War and follows the secret relationships of four women at Westland, a plantation in Alabama. Essie’s Roses transports the reader into one of the most elegant and horrific times in American history: the Antebellum South.
A story about a black slave who frees a white woman, Essie’s Roses is an inspiring story that focuses on the power of love and those childhood friendships that stay in our memory forever. But it also takes a look at history in a unique way, and will remind us all to treasure the precious gift of freedom and the power and hope that comes in doing a dream. In their efforts to save each other, we wonder if the women of Westland will ever find the true freedom they desire.
What inspired you to write Essie’s Roses?I developed the story of Essie’s Roses first as a screenplay. Essie’s Roses the novel has taken an usually long journey. An interview I saw with Halle Berry after she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball initially inspired me. During the interview, I heard this statement, “It took seventy-four years for an African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actress.” This statement really affected me.
A few minutes later, the first scene for Essie’s Roses popped into my head. I was working on other projects at the time, so I said aloud, “I’m not paying attention to you.” The way I am and how I work, I knew if I did, it would be dedicated hours of getting it out on the page…and I had never written a novel!
Next, I heard the first line, “This be the day Evie set me free.” It was one of those strange moments where I had no idea where the line had come from. I saw a scene play in my head, hashed it out, and instantly decided to switch gears. The story I wanted to write focused on an intelligent, intriguing African-American woman as the lead set during a period in history where this point of view is often missed.
I put the screenplay in a drawer for several years while I worked on other projects until it was time to pick it up again. The novel was my desire to tell more of the story, introduce unique tidbits of the history of slavery to the reader, and provoke thought toward a different relationship present during such a horrific time: the family relationship between whites and slaves.
What was the hardest scene for you to write?
Essie’s Roses had some tough emotional and historical scenes to write. I instantly thought of the nineteenth century train scene that took so much research it was silly, as most of the scene didn’t even make it into the book. However, I would have to say the first chapter.
Developing Essie’s Roses first as a screenplay presented a huge challenge for me. My writing process for a screenplay is completely different from a novel, though I can’t help applying the visual aspects of movies into my stories. It’s how I write. It’s what I see. A screenplay is very succinct. It made it difficult for me to translate all of the action of an opening scene of a movie into the opening scene of a novel simply and organically. I couldn’t get it to flow organically as say, the novel I’m working on now.
Ironically, my first chapter in my new novel has been the easiest to write! I spent a lot of time back and forth on the first scene for Essie’s Roses, until I simply had to set the story aside for a long time. When I came back to it, I was open for anything, but I couldn’t stop hearing the novel’s original opening paragraph, I had cut several drafts back, and here I was coming back to it. The time away from the novel inspired a new scene and things worked themselves out from there.
What was your favorite scene to write?Without giving any spoilers, one of my favorite scenes is chapter 17. It is a hillside scene at Westland, an Alabama plantation. The two girls, Essie Mae and Evie, now thirteen, have one of their first discussions on race in relation to the realities of the times and world in which they live. Their sheltered world at Westland.
It is a lighthearted discussion between two naive girls, yet the words they share are so powerful and poignant. It was one of those beautiful, simple scenes on the page, and such a lovely surprise, yet with a powerful message.
The girls are dancing and singing an old slave spiritual, and in the midst of their joy there is a brief moment when they first realize—amidst the dictates of the society and laws of the times—their friendship should not be. Yet, they defy all convention, and perhaps out of necessity, mostly out of love, they are open to viewing the world differently.
What do you want readers to take away from Essie’s Roses?I hope Essie’s Roses entertains readers. After all, that is why we read fiction… to escape… to be transported somewhere else. And when that happens, even for a moment, it’s magical. It’s wonderful! But I also hope readers are encouraged and inspired.
I have a passion for creativity, history, and encouraging and inspiring others. I can’t help writing a story that, though my goal is to entertain a reader, my heart hopes the story inspires them in some way. In a personal way. Whatever it may be. Whether it’s to lift their spirits. Touch their hearts. Teach them something new about history that makes them ponder or want to learn more.
Stories and history have a way of coming together to inspire us, perhaps make us look at things differently. Look at ourselves. I chose to explore the diverse meanings of freedom in my first novel because ironically, living in the freest country in the world, freedom can be so allusive for many.
My desire is that the message of Essie’s Roses will inspire readers to be everything they have ever dreamed to be. To revisit dreams. Dust them off. Pay attention to them. Do them. To step out of fear. Silence critical, harsh, maybe even abusive voices. Stand up tall and be free.
No matter who is screaming, you are not. You are. You matter. Your dreams aren’t over. And if anything in your life is holding you back, you can face it, knock it down, banish it, release it, and never look back.
What appeals to you most about writing in the historical fiction genre?Research! I love it. Ironically, I didn’t appreciate my history classes in college. But I absolutely loved researching periods and characters in history for the roles I played on stage. A true passion and appreciation for historical research came later in my life while writing Essie’s Roses. It’s an interesting process to research a historical period, person, or event in history, with its traditions, slang, customs, and dress, and to retain it all while you’re creating worlds and characters. When I’m steeped in research on my next book, sometimes remembering all of those historical tidbits I knew backward and forward for a previous title is a little fuzzy. Thank God for OCD notes!
What are you working on next?I just finished producing the book trailer for my novel. You can watch it on my website or Facebook page. It was amazing to me how much learning and time went into creating a one minute video! I had fun writing the music and adding my voice-over so now I hope people enjoy and share it. Many readers have asked about a sequel to Essie’s Roses. I think it’s up to them. If the interest is there, I have a few more stories in mind. I think these women have more to say.
As a new author with a debut novel, I am hopeful Essie’s Roses finds its audience. I have a young adult novel waiting in the wings. I am researching and working on my next book, an art-related historical novel. I’m very excited about it and think it will be another unique historical novel for my readers. I also finished writing a gift book series: Every Day Grateful, Every Day Joyful, and Every Day Peaceful which will be published soon. I wrote and developed a musical preschool television series that garnered attention from the producers of Bob the Builder and Angelina Ballerina, which has a music CD I sing on for the series I may release. The show needs a bit more development, but I’m hopeful it will find the right opportunity at the right time.
What historical time period do you gravitate towards the most with your personal reading?First, I have to admit I am a nonfiction junky. And it’s mostly how-to and history books. I mean, if I put The ProTools Manual, Recording Studio Mixing Secrets, and Premier Pro CC Classroom in a Book on my Goodreads page, people would wonder about me! I love learning. Currently, I’m steeped in all things nineteenth century researching my next book, so when I need a break I love diving into some recent women’s fiction titles. Of course I have a penchant for historical fiction. Overall, I always love any story that can magically transport me into its world no matter the century.
If there was a soundtrack for your novel, what songs might we find on it?Great question! I think I better stick to dream composers and recording artists. Wow, did you make me think. Many slave spirituals of the time inspired me. I love opera singer, Kathleen Battle, and it would be heaven hearing her sing “Come Out the Wilderness,” a song from Essie’s Roses. I’m a bit of a music production/movie soundtrack geek, so a CD filled with one of my favorite composers, Hans Zimmer, (Man of Steel, 12 Years a Slave) a dream. I loved how the movie Gatsby took modern songs and produced them with 1920s sound. Florence and the Machine, stirring Annie Lennox, and a beautiful song by Mary J. Blige.
Wouldn’t that be nice?! As long as I’m dreaming, I wrote a snippet of music for the Essie’s Roses book trailer, let’s add the expanded version too. Throw in some Sting, the angelic voice of Alison Krauss, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Like that! I want this CD.
What is your favorite thing about writing?I love meeting new people, connecting with other writers, and hearing what readers have to say about the story. Writing is such a solitary process, so at this stage it is exciting when you see people are enjoying your book and connecting with you.
I’m always amazed how stories come. How pages get filled. How characters magically appear on the page. How they speak. And the stories they tell. I love being surprised by the direction a story takes. I love when the characters teach me something.
One of my favorite, most memorable, and humbling experiences came about while doing research in Richmond, Virginia for Essie’s Roses. I went to the Richmond Valentine History Center to see authentic antebellum ball gowns in person. I wanted to take some photos and study the details of the fabric and styles. There was a mix-up with my appointment, and the curator wasn’t there to show me the gowns. I was devastated. I had flown in from St. Louis, and though I had plenty to do, I really wanted to see those gowns.
The curator at the time said if I wanted to I could look at some nineteenth century documents in the document room. I was curious. I remembered seeing a slave receipt in one of the museums, and on a whim asked him if they had any. A few minutes later, he came out wearing a pair of white gloves. He handed me a pair and said, "Please put them on… just a moment."
Meanwhile, sitting across from me, an older African-American gentleman was looking through a box of antique photos. I didn’t really pay attention because I was wondering what the curator was going to bring me that I needed to wear these museum style white gloves for.
The curator came back into the room and handed me a few small thin pieces of papers. I held one gently in my hand. As I read it, I cried. I was reading a slave receipt that read:
"Received of Thomas E. Brown Eleven Hundred Dollars for a Negro boy named Lewis aged about twenty four years for which I warrant to be sound in body and mind and slave for life March the 6th, 1858. C.A. Heilig."
At the same moment the African-American gentleman, the curator was now helping, found a photo and said, "Well, I’ll be. There he is right there. That’s my great (great) granddaddy." I believe he was looking at a photo of former slaves. It was a moment I’ll never forget. Here he was searching for his family history, and here I sat looking at this history in my hand.
As I held this historical document, a receipt for the purchase of a human being, I couldn’t help feeling the weight of that period on my shoulders. I can’t think about it without being touched deeply. It changed me.
This is why I love writing. You hope to have fun, entertain your readers, but to me, it’s always about learning… learning about history, myself, and others. And it’s special when something as this unexpectedly touches your life and changes you forever.
Thanks to Michelle for a fascinating interview! Read all about Essie's Roses below and enter to win a copy!
Publication Date: March 23, 2015 | Publisher: Little Cabin Books LLC | Formats: eBook, Hardcover | ISBN-10: 0990938301 | Pages: 346
Genre: Historical Fiction
Growing up in the Deep South during the years leading to the Civil War, two young girls find freedom on a hillside overlooking Westland, an Alabama plantation. Essie Mae, an intuitive, intelligent slave girl, and Evie Winthrop, the sheltered, imaginative dreamer and planter’s daughter, strike up a secret friendship that thrives amidst the shadows of abuse.
Told from the viewpoint of four women: Katherine Winthrop, kind mistress and unexpected heiress to her father’s small, cotton plantation; Delly, her sassy and beloved house slave; Essie Mae, her slave girl; and Evie Winthrop, Katherine’s only child, Essie’s Roses tells of forbidden relationships flourishing in secret behind Westland’s protective trees and treasured roses.
After scandal befalls Westland, Evie and Essie, aged nineteen, travel to Richmond, Virginia, to escape their abusive pasts. There, they face the gross indecencies and divisions leading to the War Between the States. Though the horrors of slavery and discrimination prompt action, Evie and Essie’s struggles lie within. The secrets they hold and the pain of the past lead them away from one another and back home again.
A story about a black slave who frees a white woman, Essie’s Roses reveals the diverse meanings of freedom, the significance of a dream, and the power of love. In their efforts to save each other, will the women of Westland find the true freedom they desire?
Official Book Trailer
ESSIE’S ROSES BOOK TRAILER (HD) - A historical novel by Michelle Muriel from Michelle Muriel on Vimeo.
Praise for Essie's Roses"Michelle Muriel has penned a wonderfully moving work of fiction – and one that will leave no reader with a dry eye. I fully expect to see Essie’s Roses on the silver screen someday, but until then I will simply look forward to reading future works by this author. Five Stars (and then add some more)!" -Charline Ratcliff, Feathered Quill Book Reviews
“5 stars! Miss Muriel's novel is a thing of beauty. I loved the changing perspectives. It was refreshing to see various points of view of the same story, and the author did it seamlessly. I could tell the author took a great deal of time researching the era, and that is something I always appreciate in a historical novel. Overall, Essie's Roses will make you laugh and cry, but most of all, appreciate the innocence of children's friendship. Michelle Muriel should be very proud of her accomplishment in this novel and I will happily recommend it on to others.” -Heather Osborne, Readers’ Favorite
“In this book, I have found a great story and I am sad to have had to put it down. The book has made me laugh, get mad, and cry. I want to know more about these women and what happens in the next chapter of their lives. Usually, when about done, I have my next one already picked out. However, this time, I didn't want this book to end because I know these women have more stories to tell.” -Amazon Reviewer
Essie's Roses Available AtAmazon US (Kindle)
Amazon US (Hardcover)
Amazon UK (Kindle)
Barnes & Noble (Nook)
Barnes & Noble (Hardcover)
For more information visit Michelle Muriel's website. You can also find her at Facebook, Goodreads, Pinterest, Amazon, and the Historical Novel Society.
Essie's Roses Blog Tour ScheduleMonday, June 29
Spotlight at The Lit Bitch
Tuesday, June 30
Review & Giveaway at Unshelfish
Wednesday, July 1
Review at Book Nerd
Friday, July 3
Spotlight & Giveaway at Mina's Bookshelf
Monday, July 6
Interview & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, July 7
Review at Books and Benches
Thursday, July 9
Spotlight at A Literary Vacation
Friday, July 10
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
GiveawayTo enter to win a hardcover of Essie's Roses, please leave a comment below with your email address.
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