Tara Conklin’s law background directly influenced the plot of her debut novel The House Girl—one of its two main characters, Lina, is a lawyer—but Conklin’s former profession also affected how the story made its way onto the page.
“As a lawyer, you bill in six-minute increments,” Conklin says. “It’s amazing what you can get done in .2 of an hour.” Conklin wrote The House Girl in moving cars, as a passenger, pausing to hand her children snacks in the backseat. She wrote in the mornings, at night, and—don’t tell her bosses—sometimes even in the office. “I’m very un-precious about my writing time,” she says. “If I have 20 minutes, I’ll sit down for 20 minutes with my laptop.”
Eventually, the shorter stories and character sketches that later became The House Girl, which is featured on the cover of the February Indie Next list, consumed so much of Conklin’s thoughts and energy that she began dreaming about her other main character, Josephine, a house slave living in the antebellum South. But Conklin couldn’t afford dreams, she thought; writing was never a part of her career plan. Conklin says that although she has always jotted down stories in notebooks and journals, from childhood through law school and even into her work with corporate law and international arbitration, she assumed she wouldn’t be able to write full-time until she retired.
But the story haunted her. “I really tried not to write anymore,” Conklin says with a laugh. “But I remember a day when I was getting ready for work and I had my lawyer suit and my lawyer briefcase and my kids were running around; my husband was chasing my daughter to put a diaper on her. I remember having this flash of clarity and thinking, ‘If I don’t try to do something with this book, I will regret it.’”
So she quit her job in 2009, and three years later, she’s writing full time. Though she says being a lapsed lawyer is a little like being a lapsed Catholic—“I’m also Catholic; you don’t really escape it”—she has no plans to return to practicing any time soon.
That practice had a more direct influence on the plot of The House Girl, too. The book is told in two separate but interconnected narratives, one in 1852, following Josephine, a house slave on a plantation who is also a budding artist, and one in 2004 following Lina, a corporate lawyer who gets assigned a reparations case that eventually leads her back to Josephine. The case stems from Conklin’s longtime passion: Working with societies and international tribunals to attempt to address the atrocities of their pasts. Conklin says she is interested in how a society moves past mass atrocity, and the ways legal institutions can help.
So she brought the international home, creating for The House Girl a fictionalized high-profile slavery reparations case. “Of course nothing like that ever happened in the U.S,” Conklin says. “It’s difficult to imagine a lawsuit like the one Lina’s working on being successful or supported by a lot of people, but I think there’s a real place for legal institutions to address these periods of mass repression and atrocity and it has been very helpful in helping societies heal, like in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.”
The case sends Lina back in time, hunting for relevant primary legal documents like letters and diary entries, which Conklin inserts into the novel. And while some of the documents fall into Lina’s hands too coincidentally, or miraculously contain exactly the right information, they also provide an unusual look at the story: a lawyer’s-eye point of view. “That’s how you put together a case,” Conklin says. “You have this universe of documents, and you find the most important ones because your case is built on the evidence.” Lina also uses this same technique to search for answers about her own mother, who died mysteriously when she was young. “I was conscious of having a parallel process that Lina’s going through,” Conklin says. “That’s how her mind works.”
Conklin, too, referenced primary documents, like slave narratives and letters, as she researched The House Girl, in order “to hear the voice from that time and the language that they used.” It was important for her to get the details of the time period right. “But at a certain point,” she adds, “I had to stop reading, because the horror of slavery is so overwhelming, it became almost paralyzing to me. At the end of the day, I was writing about Josephine.”
Thanks to the L.D. Clark writer-in-residence fellowship, Jaime Netzer is at work on her first novel in the tiny town of Smithville, Tex. Her writing has appeared nationally in Variety and Cowboys and Indians.