Lynn Rainville and I met at a meeting of the Central Virginia History Researchers, where we – along with the other members of the group – meet to discuss our research and interest in the history of enslaved African Americans in our area. Lynn is astute and funny and one of the most generous and kind-hearted researchers I know. She regularly donates her time to families looking for information about their ancestry, and she has tromped through the slave cemetery at Bremo with me just to help me understand more about it. She’s wonderful, and I hope you will take the time to read about her new book and her perspectives on writing.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
My very latest project is an article for the Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society titled “Learning from God’s Acre: locating and preserving historic African American cemeteries.” That article will be out later in 2014 in their annual magazine. But this article represents a small portion of the theme behind my latest book, Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia (due out in mid-January by University of Virginia Press).
This book is based on over a decade of searching for and researching about historic, black cemeteries. (This site includes of list of historic African American cemeteries in Albemarle and Amherst Counties in Virginia.) These sacred sites range from antebellum graveyards that contain enslaved families to postbellum churchyards and modern-day memorial “gardens.” It has been a labor of love to find and document these important memorials to the lives of past women, men, and children who are otherwise often ignored in formal histories.
Twenty years ago, I studied colonial-era cemeteries up in New Hampshire. A decade ago, I moved south of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time in my life and realized that I had no idea what choices enslaved individuals had over their mortuary monuments. Did they purchase gravestones? chose the location of their burial grounds? return to mourn at antebellum plantations after emancipation? I thought I could find a book that answered these questions, but there had been very little written about African American mortuary practices back in 2001. By the time I wrapped up research into 150 historic, black graveyards in central Virginia there was more literature on the topic, but nothing that spanned 200 years, from antebellum to contemporary times.
And while my research began with a study of the dead, I have broadened my interests over the past decade to the lives of enslaved individuals on antebellum plantations (notably the 120+ enslaved men, women, and children who once worked on the Sweet Briar Plantation, today the College where I work), segregated schools (especially Rosenwald Schools), town poor farms, and local history (with a focus on the material culture left behind by average folks, like old homesteads).
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I was always reading as a kid, under the covers with a flashlight if necessary. One of my earliest reading memories is getting to the end of Charlotte’s Web, weeping, and thinking “how can it end like this”? (no spoilers here, you’ll have to (re)-read it to know what I’m referring to).
I started volunteering in libraries when I was 8 (putting away books with moderate success at my elementary school during a free period); continued working in them during the summers until I was 17; and then went on to work in archives until I was 22 (where I read bad, 19th-century handwriting in documents instead of bound books).
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
When I was in college I thought I could wait to begin writing papers when the clock struck midnight (nope); in graduate school I thought that surely red wine would help (nope); as a neophyte assistant professor I tried multi-day marathons under tight deadlines (absolute nope); and now, as a seasoned quadragenarian, I find that the only thing that works is starting in the morning and quitting before the hard-to-stay-focused afternoon hours. I wish I had a more sophisticated plan than that to share, but it’s basically limited to Monday through Fridays (when my twin toddlers are at school), 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
4. Who are you reading now?
Craig Wilder’s latest tour-de-force about the complicity of institutions of higher education (especially within the Ivy League) in slavery and its legacy, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.
The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason which is based on her father-in-law’s experiences in WWII as an American aviator, shot down by the Germans over France and subsequently hid and saved by the French Resistance.
Because it is the centennial of the outbreak of WWI and because I am working on a project with American teachers to incorporate lesson plans about an American cemetery in France (the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery) into their classrooms, I am reading Stephen O’Shea’s very readable (and tongue-in-cheek) Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I. This engrossing narrative illustrates the power of place and how important it is to preserve historic sites.
And for comic relief, Toilet Training in Less than a Day, seeing as my girls are on month four with no reliable success rate in sight.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Dorothy Dunnett’s epic (6 volumes, very densely written) series about Francis Crawford of Lymond, set in 16th-century Europe and the Mediterranean. It is a tribute to her writing prowess that she can make 1000s of pages about a troubled Scottish nobleman a page-turning experience.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. While I did not grow up in a graveyard like his protagonist, I have been frolicking in and studying them since I was little.
John Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic. This is a life-changing book about the power of place and how careful observation of sites and sounds around us can enrich our enjoyment of everyday life.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
As soon as I figure out what a “writing platform” is I’ll let you know.
7.What is a typical day like for you?
On a good day: getting up at 6:20am (every minute counts) in order to get to a nearby cross-fit gym by 7; drinking coffee; eating steel-cut oatmeal that my husband, not I, has the patience to make each morning; walking the dog; starting to write (or research, or write emails, or make calls, or count down the days until the next Downton Abbey episode); picking up my girls from school; reading about Olivia the pig five times in a row, by request; eating dinner (hoping that aforementioned spouse has come home in time to make it); and getting in a couple more hours of work after my kids go to bed.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
In an old, abandoned mining community (i.e., a ghost town), high up in the Colorado mountains with beautiful views, solitude (except for the occasional curious mountain goat), and one old shack that has been transformed into an eco-friendly “small house.” That way I can focus on writing and the nearest distraction is 8,000 vertical feet below me.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
It’s hard to narrow this down to one, but I think I’d have to go with my father who, to this day, thinks my writing leaves a lot to be desired. As to handling that critique (which began when I was 13), smile and nod.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Read advice from someone other than me (like Stephen King’s book On Writing). My own writing is very much a work in progress. My favorite way to communicate ideas is to give talks or lead public tours at historic sites. Writing does not come naturally to me, and it always takes lots and lots of revisions before I have a workable product. So I guess the only real wisdom that I can impart is that it helps to share drafts of your work with multiple people. You won’t be able to incorporate all of their suggestions but multiple perspectives helps ensure that your message(s) are clearly expressed to a wide audience.
Lynn Rainville – http://www.lynnrainville.com/ – is an archaeologist who specializes in the study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in historic Virginian Communities (European-American, African-American, and Native American) and ancient Assyrian cities. She studies everyday life in past communities, using archaeological, ethnographic, and historical sources to produce inter-disciplinary models of social interactions.