Get to know the main characters through Q &A with Ellie Mae.
Q: Can you tell me what to make of your main character, Stacy? At the beginning of the book she is a strong, independent woman and by the end she is someone else! She takes a beating from everyone and in the end capitulates into something that they would like her to be. How are we supposed to respect her and like the friends and family surrounding her?
A: I guess I should start with the fact that Stacy is the heroic character of the book who evolves from a self-centered independence (I think therefore I am) to a communal and other-empowering stance (Because we are I am). I do not understand this particular evolution as a weakening. I think the foundation of Stacy’s independence gets shattered and it frees her up to focus on her strengths without trying to be everything to everyone—which she clearly wasn’t doing well. I think she grows from being the dealmaker because she has power and resources into someone who empowers others with her resources and access. In the process, she becomes more human, more vulnerable, and also more effective as an academic and friend. The crumbling of her friendships, her self-identity, and the way she understands her career forces Stacy to dig deep and figure out who she is genuinely and the real boundaries of her contributions. I think this shows her as embattled, but not weak; confronted with truths she has ignored, but not bullied.
I think it is critical to understand that by the end of the book Stacy has become the person she imagined herself to be when we first met her. The community in which she is embedded provides the necessary friction for her transformation. I like each of the characters and their contributions, but perhaps the most fundamental reason to like them is that they usher Stacy from her idealized self into her preferred reality.
Q: You introduce Kimberly as the hip, soul-sista of the group. In fact, sometimes it seems that you present her as "real black" in contrast to Stacy's "not real black." With her heavy critique of Stacy's ways of being, is she even Stacy's friend?
A: I understand each of the characters as providing a unique instance of universal humanity embodied in whatever identity is present for that character. With respect to the contrast between Kimberly and Stacy, I can see how their differences may look like real versus not-real black, but I understand their distinctions as manifestations of many other things: economic class, musical tastes, personality type, work style, level of mentor investment, etc. I think the relationship between Kimberly and Stacy is the epitome of the best friendships. Each woman comes to the relationship open and honest about herself and her preferences. Each woman is committed to honoring the other's truth and supporting accountability with respect to that truth. The dynamics of the relationship allow each woman a protected space to be genuine without the pressures of the outside glare and public performance.
The risk in this type of relationship is the friends not allowing enough space for growth and evolution. The big tension here is not that Kimberly is real black and Stacy is not. It is more that Kimberly and Stacy have to find a way to let each other grow while also maintaining that sacred space of sisterly accountability based on expression of the genuine self and total acceptance. Kimberly's climb from utter poverty and naiveté into a world that Stacy already knows provides a clear case for Stacy to understand Kimberly's need for evolution. At the same time, Kimberly must embrace Stacy's vulnerability within their shared promised land. The hard work here is that each woman must accept 'dual-ing' versions of reality to support the transformative journey of the other, even as she tries to unify the conflicting parts of herself.
Q: Lauren is the first character we meet in The Secrets of Carter House. It is her voice that sets the tone for the book. Why do you begin with her, especially when she is not the main character of the book?
A: The Secrets of Carter House tells the story of Stacy’s journey from self to community, and Lauren’s voice provides an outsider reference that allows us to understand the distance that Stacy must travel. Lauren’s diary entry—which begins the story—alerts us that while she is in a certain place and involved, she is also removed and analyzing the world around her. Acknowledging this perspective is key to experiencing The Secrets because the focal characters of the book are scientists highly trained in observation and analysis. We experience Lauren splitting her attention between reality and analysis in the first few pages of the book, and when she finally decides to be in the moment we realize that her lens is one of judgement. Lauren provides a peak into the central conflict of the main characters: how to negotiate the world-of-intention (that is, the life in and of the mind) with the world-in-action.
We see Lauren, Stacy, and Kimberly at different places on this multidimensional continuum. In contrast to Stacy and Kimberly, Lauren has opted out of academia completely to start a private school for elementary and middle school students from impoverished families, a career choice that places her firmly in the world-in-action. Yet, she struggles to understand and respect the people and culture of a place that she does not call home, a world-of-intention dilemma. As Lauren calls on Stacy and Kimberly to help her make sense of poverty and place, we see how even their expertise and assistance are constrained by their locations on the continuum.
Q: Even though she is the primary antagonist in this story, you seem to defer to Dr. Brown. Was it your goal to create a likeable villain? Do you think that she is too grand a character for people to really embrace?
A: I admit to a certain level of deference to Dr. Brown as the elder in the story. It is done to honor the struggle and history of the breakthrough generation: There was no room for publicized cracks for that generation to be successful and I did not want to be the person who added them. I think it is critical to acknowledge that this particular generation is the grandparents’ era—a tad bit older than Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker—not the parents’ generation. I characterize the grandparents’ generation as way less committed to keeping power than the parents’ generation, but rather invested in propriety, respectability, and social climb. These were the characteristics that allowed them to survive, thrive, and develop lasting institutions in the face of indignity. These were also the limitations on their vulnerability and humanity. Dr. Brown is likeable and relatable, to me, because she is trapped by those limitations.
Without a doubt, Dr. Brown is the villain of this story from our heroine's perspective. Dr. Brown’s initial decisions, contemporary actions, and continued communication choices wreak havoc on Stacy’s life. Stacy’s dilemma, Lauren’s dissociation, and Kimberly’s disorientation are all natural outgrowths of Dr. Brown’s actions. Yet, fundamentally, the main characters—and most certainly Stacy—owe much of their success to our villain and her strategies. It was my hope that positioning Dr. Brown within history would elucidate the single source of both trajectories and also give Dr. Brown the humanity that her social position in the prime of her life could not.
The level of deference conferred to Dr. Brown comes in from other traditions as well, including academic practice and Southern culture. I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to rewrite those traditions as something other than they are or that doing so would enhance Stacy’s development. In fact, the goal of the book is to watch Stacy transform into a Dr. Brown appropriate for this contemporary time with contemporary institutional arrangements and resources.