Stephen O’Connor on Writing the Season’s Most Controversial Novel
The author of “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” in conversation with Melody Nixon
In Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings — Stephen O’Connor’s newest book, and most ambitious to date — the choice of subject matter is deeply problematic and deliberately problematized. At a time when discussions of representation, identity politics, racial privilege, and authorial authority are waking up the publishing world, O’Connor wades into this territory full knowing that his own identity is overrepresented and that his viewpoint is, in a sense, not welcome. In short, he does what should not be done when he imagines himself into the lives of Sally Hemings, an enslaved young woman, and her power-wielding master, Thomas Jefferson, then figures the shape of their sexual relationship — all along writing while white, while male, while an employed academic, while a writer and not a historian, archivist, activist, or scholar of racial justice. He does this with his eyes open.
Over the course of our conversation, I’ve come to understand that he has not written this book to provoke or to engender a self-serving sense of shock; he has written with a belief in the possibilities of liminal space and in the revelations that occur at the point of tension. The result is a book that jars, unequivocally, and that disquietingly brings to the surface the anguish of past and present America. This is not a book that can leave you untouched. Its fine-point poetic sensibility and vivid description combine to haunt, to create a sub-dermis itch that begs relief — while offering, at last, a subtle but searing indictment.
— Melody Nixon
Melody Nixon: There’s a constant tension in this book, a sense of deep unease. Can you talk about what drew you to write this story?
Stephen O’Connor: It all started almost by accident. A student asked me for a 300-word contribution to a literary magazine he was editing, so I sat down and wrote the first sentence that came into my head: “Sally Hemings is sleeping.” I didn’t know much about Hemings at that point, other than that a genetic test had showed that Jefferson had fathered her children, but the sentence led to a short surreal scene that I ended up rather liking. I sent it off, assuming I was done with the topic, but then found I couldn’t stop thinking about Hemings and Jefferson, especially about the incomprehensible fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence had a long-term sexual relationship with an enslaved woman thirty years his junior.
My initial assumption was that their “relationship” was nothing other than a horrifically prolonged rape. In fact, the next thing I wrote after that first surreal story was a realistic scene in which Jefferson forces himself upon Hemings. But once I started doing research, I came across a host of details suggesting that some sort of emotional bond might have existed between Hemings and Jefferson. The most striking piece of evidence was that when Hemings left Monticello after Jefferson’s death, she took his spectacles, inkwell, and shoe buckle with her, and when she herself was near death, she gave them to her and Jefferson’s son, who passed them on to his daughter. It seemed highly unlikely to me that Hemings would have even wanted these intimate items, let alone that they would have become treasured heirlooms, if her life with Jefferson had been nothing more than unending torture.
MN: Victimhood can be a complicated space. Do you feel this was evidence of a positive attachment?
SO: Possibly. At the very least it is evidence that the relationship was not nearly as grim as I had first imagined it. Another striking fact is that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, whom he loved dearly, and whose death threw him into such a profound depression that his friends appointed him ambassador to France, partly because they thought the change of scene might preserve his sanity. Three years into his term (and five years after Martha’s death), Hemings escorted his and Martha’s youngest daughter from Virginia to Paris. It seems perfectly possible that at this point Jefferson would have been struck by Hemings’s resemblance to his much missed wife, a supposition supported by the fact that, according to the only description we have of Hemings by someone who actually saw her, she looked “mighty near white,” with “long straight hair.”
Once it occurred to me that Hemings might have felt some sort of emotional attachment to Jefferson, I naturally began to wonder what that attachment might have been.
Was it love? The Stockholm Syndrome? Something in between?
And if it was the latter, should we see that attachment as differing from love only by degree? Or might we better understand it as an entirely distinct and even pathological attachment? I found such questions terrifically inspiring because they meant that by exploring the ambiguities of Hemings’s feeling in regard to Jefferson, I would also be able to explore the netherworld of that bond often considered life’s greatest blessing, but one that can, of course, also leave us vulnerable to pain and abuse — sometimes horrific abuse.
MN: Are those the questions that kept you motivated to write?
SO: Absolutely, especially at first. But one of the reasons why I found this story so fantastically inspiring was that it constantly brought me face to face with extremely complex and significant ambiguities — the sort of ambiguities that I think James Baldwin was talking about when he said that art’s purpose “is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” One of the most inspiring of those ambiguities concerned the notion of “race.” It is hard to imagine a clearer illustration of the barbaric absurdity of both the institution of slavery and the definition of race it depended on than that one sister should end up enslaved while the other became the master’s wife. Almost every aspect of Hemings’s position at Monticello was ambiguous: she was a Black woman who looked white, a member of the Jefferson family and an outsider, an enslaved servant and a lover — all of which must have given her an extremely perplexing and possibly tortured sense of her own identity.
MN: What about her personality? How did that play in, and how did you seek to render Hemings as an individual?
SO: Well, to begin with, all of those ambiguities suggested a fascinating character, with very particular and significant struggles. But there were also ambiguities arising from Hemings’s innate nature. From the very beginning, I saw her as a terrifically intelligent and intellectually ambitious woman, and thereby Jefferson’s equal in every essential way. The Jefferson whom I imagined recognized Hemings’s intellectual equality — indeed, that was one of the main things that attracted him to her — but he still felt the need to maintain his superiority to her on all fronts. And so, throughout the novel, Jefferson and Hemings engage in a complex dance, in which her intellectual abilities are simultaneously affirmed and denied, and her life with him is a source of pride and shame, comfort and agony.
While the real Sally Hemings may well have been just as brilliant as I imagine her to be, it is, alas, unlikely that she could read or write. Had she been literate, she would almost certainly have been the one to teach her and Jefferson’s son Madison to read rather than, as he relates in his memoir, Jefferson’s white grandchildren. But the more I learned about the fierce and contradictory pressures Hemings was subject to, the more I felt the need to let her speak in her own voice. And so I imagined her as not just literate, but the beneficiary of Jefferson’s library (the best in North America, at the time) and intermingled her written “memoir” with the novel’s predominantly third-person narration.
In the end, this memoir radically transformed the book, partly because it enabled me to show with far greater precision how Hemings would have suffered, given her decidedly ambiguous position at Monticello, and how she might have come to see Jefferson as both her tormentor and her best hope for achieving her ambitions, but also because it gave the book a new and, I hope, much more powerful climax; one that shows how, among the many horrors of slavery, there was a capacity to transform the most ordinary feelings and aspirations into moral monstrosities.
MN: The idea that Hemings and Jefferson might have been in love is pretty troubling. Did your first readers dispute this possibility?
SO: I never really saw Hemings and Jefferson as being in love, at least in the way we normally understand that term. But I did conceive of them as having very similar hearts and minds, and so as having the potential for love, though that potential existed within the context of slavery, and so could only be realized as a warped version of itself — as another of the monstrosities I was just talking about.
My earliest readers didn’t so much object to the way I rendered the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson as fail to fully grasp it — especially when I got around to the first sex scene. In an early draft I showed to two friends, the “camera” panned away when it came to that scene. I had been imagining their sexual interaction as very complex morally and emotionally but fundamentally tender — which is what it needed to be if any sort of bond were to arise between them. But once that camera panned away, my friends both imagined what I, myself, had initially thought: that Jefferson had simply raped her. I realized then that with such strong preconceptions at work, I couldn’t leave that scene to the imagination, that if I wanted my readers to understand Hemings and Jefferson’s similarities, and therefore the doomed potential of their relationship, I would have to render that first sex scene in detail. But more importantly, I realized that if I couldn’t make that scene believable and real, then my whole enterprise was bogus. The only way I could get my readers into that insight-encouraging sort of confusion that I try to evoke in all of my fiction would be to construct a path of completely believable actions and emotions that would lead readers, almost without their knowing it, to a point where they would say, “What’s going on here? Is this good? Is this bad? What should I think?”
MN: — Which was very much my reaction. I couldn’t help but say aloud, throughout much of my reading experience, “I don’t know what to think!” That is to say, I found the experience short-circuiting. At the same time, however, this relationship was not treading totally morally ambiguous territory. There was right and wrong in their situation, wasn’t there?
SO: I never wanted to apologize for Jefferson.
He was a good man in some ways and an unmitigated barbarian in others.
And that sex scene was only the first phase of a long process. Despite all the disparities of power between him and Hemings, and the injustice that characterized their entire relationship, there was also considerable innocence in that first time together, and they both came away from it having experienced much of the ordinary biological chemistry that happens when people form a sexual attachment. But as the book goes on, our understanding of Jefferson and his relationship with Hemings goes through many changes, and he is presented from many radically contrasting perspectives. I hope that people will see the end of the book as a terrific indictment of both Jefferson and slavery, though I want the overall impression to remain complex. I want people wondering what they should think and feel all the way to the end of the book’s very last sentence, and even after.
Not long ago I ran into one of Jefferson’s biographers, who suggested to me that to understand all is to forgive. I told him that there are things about Jefferson I can never forgive, but that they do not erase his considerable virtues. The more I learned about Jefferson, the more I came to detest his blindness to the nature and consequences of his attitudes toward African Americans, but the more I came to admire his lifelong opposition to the concentration of power in any social entity, whether it be the state he helped to found, the church, or an economic elite. And just as I don’t think his worst qualities are in any way elevated by his best, his best qualities are not diminished by his worst. Jefferson’s most noble and repulsive characteristics exist side-by-side, indissolubly themselves — a fact that simultaneously makes him both the most vexing of conundrums and a particularly vivid image of the paradoxes of human nature, and even of this country, in which his self-evident truths really are held sacred, even as they are also trampled upon every single day.
[ Read the complete interview in BOMB. ]