Drunk on Ink Q & A with Rachel May and ‘An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery’
Read Jaggery Issue 11 Spring 2018
Rachel May is the author of two books of fiction, The Experiments and The Benedictines, and two books of nonfiction, Quilting with a Modern Slant and An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, just out from Pegasus Books. She’s an Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University and has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio, VCCA, and Millay Colony.
Following the trail left by an unfinished quilt, this illuminating saga examines slavery from the cotton fields of the South to the textile mills of New England?and the humanity behind it. When we think of slavery, most of us think of the American South. We think of back-breaking fieldwork on plantations. We don’t think of slavery in the North, nor do we think of the grueling labor of urban and domestic slaves. Rachel May’s rich new book explores the far reach of slavery, from New England to the Caribbean, the role it played in the growth of mercantile America, and the bonds between the agrarian south and the industrial north in the antebellum era?all through the discovery of a remarkable quilt. While studying objects in a textile collection, May opened a veritable treasure-trove: a carefully folded, unfinished quilt made of 1830s-era fabrics, its backing containing fragile, aged papers with the dates. The quilt top sent her on a journey to piece together the story of Minerva, Eliza, Jane, and Juba?the enslaved women behind the quilt?and their owner, Susan Crouch. B&W illustrations throughout
Soniah Kamal: First author/book you read/fell in love with?
To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?
Coffee, coffee, and more coffee…that doesn’t really lead to unwinding but gets me writing. J My students tease me for my coffee habit.
A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?
Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?
War and Peace? I wish I’d been a better student freshman and sophomore years of college, when I was in all those survey classes.
A favorite quote from your book ?
“I look to the past and seek the people whose stories enliven a world I didn’t know but can still feel in present. I reach for the tactile—the clothes, a quilt, the thin paper on which loops of cursive huddle to fill the page…I learn about the food people made in the past, their daily habits, the authors they might have read, speakers they’d have heard—and this past seems to exist around me in the present, informing my days, changing the places I thought I knew.”
Your favorite book to film?
Alice Munro’s short story “Chance,” from Runaway, which was turned into the Spanish-language film Julieta. Also, Stuart Little (it’s impossible not to love that cartoon mouse).
Favorite Indie Book Stores?
The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?
How lonely and uncertain it is—we do all this work for years on end, with no promise of it coming to anything—and, on the flip side, how many deep friendships I’d find through writing, how much I’d come to love interviewing people, how rewarding it can be to focus on stories in the world around me.
Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?
Everything requires patience, which I have to work very, very, very hard to cultivate. Maybe that’s my life’s work—gaining patience! The more I’ve invested in a book, the more daunting it feels. I’m lucky I’ve gotten to publish, and I’m grateful for it. But it still feels like standing naked on a stage and offering up a baby to the world, with all this hope and fear that they’ll make it. I’ve learned to seek help from wiser people, which makes the process easier.
Dog, Cat, Or?
I love and own both. Also horses and goats. Here is Penny, my cat, and Piper, my dog.
A favorite book cover?
The new Little Women cover embroidered by Rachell Sumpter
A favorite song?
Recommend a Small Press and Literary Journal?
Last impulse book buy and why?
The Phantom Atlas, by Edward Brooke-Hitching. It’s a book about all the mistakes maps and atlases held—places that didn’t exist, impossible monsters—and it’s beautifully made with heavy pages and glorious illustrations.
More Drunk on Ink Interviews:
Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel
Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography
Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel
Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography
Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir
Elise Hooper: The Other Alcott, a novel
Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction
Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction
Kristen Miller Zohn: The Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book
Vanessa Hua, A River of Stars, novel
Chaitli Sen, The Pathless Sky, novel
Sonya Huber, Pain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir
Kathy Wilson Florence, Three of Cups, a novel
Sara Luce Look, Charis Books and More, independent book store
S J Sindu, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel
Rosalie Morales Kearns, Kingdom of Men, a novel
Saadia Faruqi, Meet Yasmin, children’s literature
Rene Denfeld: The Child Finder, a novel
Jamie Brenner, The Husband Hour, a novel
Sara Marchant, The Driveway has Two Sides, memoir
Kirsten Imani Kasai, The House of Erzulie, a novel
Thrity Umrigar, The Secrets Between Us, novel
John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel
Lisa Romeo, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss
Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery
Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel
Jamie Sumner, Unbound: Finding from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood
Falguni Kothari, My Last Love Story, novel
Tanaz Bathena, A Girl Like That, YA novel