WAG: How did you come upon Toussaint Louverture's
story? When did you realize you would need multiple
volumes to tell his story satisfactorily?
I was doing general research on terrorism
for an earlier novel (Waiting for the End of
the World) while at the MacDowell Colony...so
I was using the Peterborough (New Hampshire) public
library. There was a chapter on the Haitian Revolution
in a terrorism book I found there. I was curious,
and the Peterborough library also had Ralph Korngold's
Citizen Toussaint. This work is a bit dated
but still probably the best biography of Toussaint
in English. I saw at once that there was a great
novel in the material and as far as I knew no one
had written it. That was back in 1983.
As for as the multiple volume
thing...I meant at first to write one book and had
started on that basis (in 1990 or 91). By the time
I had about a hundred pages, I realized it would
be several thousand pages long—an unpublishable
I had before me the example of
George Garrett's brilliant Elizabethan trilogy.
Garrett was a teacher of mine, and I had interviewed
him later on with close concentration on writing
historical novels, as I became more interested in
my Haitian idea. [Editor's note: click here
to read the interview.] I knew that George had more
or less inadvertently written a trilogy. He cut
about half of Death of the Fox out in order
to publish it. Then wrote another book based on
the outtakes—The Succession. Then had
to cut out half of that book in order to
publish and so found himself writing the third.
I figured I would suffer less
if I admitted I was writing a trilogy right up front.
I had written a novel before (The Year of Silence)
where the formal goal was for each chapter to function
(and be published) as an autonomous short story,
as well as being part of a larger whole. The plan
for the trilogy is similar—three autonomous
novels that add up to a larger whole—and actually
simpler in design than The Year of Silence,
though a hell of a lot bigger too. My overarching
title for the trilogy, by the way, is Four Hundred
Toussaint's story is beautifully tragic in
its arc, and it seems like an obvious subject for
Yes. I noticed that right away.
Were you surprised that another novelist
hadn't already claimed Toussaint's story as his
At first. When I realized how complicated
and difficult it was to tell that story at any reasonable
length, I understood a little better. There are
some other novels, though—one by a Soviet
writer, Vinogradov. Another, Papa Toussaint,
was first published on the Web by Richard Gillespie,
who coincidentally lives here in Baltimore. Probably
the best known is The Kingdom of this World
by Alejo Carpentier. I look forward to reading some
of these when I'm finally done with my own.
Could you elaborate a bit on the meaning
of Master of the Crossroads' title? Clearly,
Toussaint is himself at a crossroads in his career,
just as Haiti is at a mid-point in its bid for independence.
But you are equally clearly suggesting something
much more complicated and compelling with the Vodou
figures of Legba and Mait' Kalfou.
Well, I have a sort of mini-essay on this
There are several different stories
about how Toussaint Louverture, known during slavery
time as Toussaint Bréda, came by his revolutionary
surname. One story has it that French Commissioner
Polverel, hearing of Toussaint's string of victories
for the Spanish, exclaimed "Cet homme fait
l'ouverture partout!" (That man makes an opening
everywhere!). Another story goes that the nickname
was applied because of a gap in Toussaint's front
teeth, caused by a spent cannonball that struck
him in the face. Others say he assumed the name
deliberately for reasons of his own. The first time
he is known to have used it is in his proclamation
from Camp Turel, issued, probably not by coincidence,
the same day as Sonthonax's proclamation of the
abolition of slavery.
The proclamation from Camp Turel
was intended to place Toussaint at the head of the
struggle for general liberty of all African slaves
in Saint Domingue. "L'ouverture" (opening)
suggests that lunge for liberation. At a deeper
level, the word also suggests the figure of Legba,
the loa of Haitian Vodou who is keeper of the crossroads
and who must be invoked, at the beginning of ceremonies,
to open the passageway between the world of the
living and the world inhabited by the spirits. Attibon
Legba is a beneficent deity of crossroads, gates
and passages. In the Petro rite, which is "hotter,"
more violent, more closely associated with the violence
of revolution, Legba appears in the aspect of Mait'
Kalfou—in French, Maître des Carrefours,
or Master of the Crossroads. Kalfou, however, is
a less benign figure than Attibon Legba, being capable,
of guile, trickery, maleficence and the release
of demonic forces.
Toussaint Louverture stands at
the crossroads between Europe, Africa and the pre-Columbian
Indian world, controlling the passageway from slavery
to freedom, controlling even the pathway from feudal
and monarchical systems to the new sort of society
which the French and American Revolutions had just
begun to invent. He is known to have been a devout
Catholic, but in Haiti Catholicism is not inconsistent
with the practice of Vodou. In writing this book,
I have come to believe that Toussaint, as well as
being the avatar of French Revolutionary ideology
carried to its logical conclusion (equal rights
for all human beings, not just whites), also embodied,
even literally incarnated, both Attibon Legba
and Mait' Kalfou.
The middle installment of a trilogy is often
the most difficult to compose since it's denied
both a freestanding beginning and end. Was that
true of Master of the Crossroads?
Well, I had worked it out so that each novel
has both a fresh beginning and definitive closure
on the basis of what happens to the fictional characters.
The real horror of writing Master of the Crossroads
was the lack of a single clear dramatic arc in the
historical material—and this situation was
characteristic of the middleness of the historical
story, one might say. There was a whole slough of
political and military events that absolutely had
to be covered, and binding them all together in
a dramatic relationship was the hardest problem
I had to solve.
The third volume, whose historical
content can be summarized as "Haitian revolutionaries
defeat Napoleon's armies," is going a whole
lot easier in that respect.
You've said your intention is to publish
the trilogy's final volume in 2004, the bicentennial
anniversary of Haitian Independence. Five years
passed between the first and second volumes, and
four will pass between the second and third, if
your schedule works out. In the world of contemporary
publishing, that's a long time to wait. Are the
books appearing so far apart simply because the
research is so elaborate? Do you worry that other
projects you'd like to pursue might slip away?
The books take a long time to write. My pattern
thus far has been to publish a shorter novel with
a more contemporary subject in between the volumes
of the Haitian trilogy. Thus Ten Indians
followed All Souls' Rising and Master
of the Crossroads will be followed by a shorter
novel already complete, currently titled Anything
Goes, which Pantheon will publish in 2002. It's
important for me to stay in touch with my own time
in this way.
Also, I think that building an
audience for the Haitian Revolutionary novels over
what will finally be about a ten-year period isn't
a bad way to go...seems to be working okay so far.
What is the greatest challenge you face in
adapting history to fiction?
Failure of general knowledge. All background
details are unknown. What did the minor character
eat for lunch? How did she fasten her clothes? What
were her clothes, anyway? What was the news of that
day and how did the character learn it? Every last
bit of this you have to go look up or else you simply
don't know it. The huge fund of general knowledge
you have about your own time disappears.
How well—or poorly—do you think
historical fiction is being written today?
There's a minority of people who do it well—i.e.,
as something other than a fancy dress ball for characters
who are no more than modern personalities in period
costumes. George Garrett is way out in front of
most of them, and I probably have learned most from
him. I think Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian
deserves a mention. William Vollmann is probably
the most innovative in his approach to historical
fiction, and I think what he has done is very significant.
The Life and Times of Captain N by Douglas
Glover is also a great historical novel less well-known
than it should be. I would also include Russell
Banks' Cloudsplitter, about the career of
Finally, two related questions. Many writers
have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone
they think has been unfairly ignored by the general
reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who
do you think is the best under-appreciated novelist
Probably the most underappreciated novelists
are the ones who just can't get their books published
at all. As a teaching writer, I know about lots
of these! So I'll just pick (from lots of choices)
one great book that (maddeningly) has never found
a publisher: The Beating by Craig Bernardini.