Patricia McKissack: We traveled to Aix-en-Provence, France a few years ago. While taking a tour through the old part of the city, the guide told us about "companions." Immediately I created Zettie in my mind. (Please note that Lozette in French is spelled Losette. But I Americanized the spelling of the name in order to create the nickname Zettie.) Our travels have also taken us to Canada, upstate New York, Buffalo, Niagara, and the Great Lakes region. All along the way, I gathered information that I used to tell Zettie's story.
RFA & EST: In "About the Author," credit is given to Doug DeCroix of Fort Niagra for getting you started on the project and Susan Dischun of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation for helping you finish. How did these two individuals help?
PM: No real person inspired Zettie. She is a composite of many personalities created from women I've read or heard about. Zettie is unique in many ways, yet she is like so many other little African girls who came to the Americas and lived and died as slaves — property.
RFA & EST: Your have written two other Dear America books, A Picture of Freedom and Color Me Black. What challenges did you encounter in writing Zettie's diary, and how was this novel different from the writing of the other two books?
PM: The other two Dear America books were set in Virginia and Chicago. I knew those places very well. Zettie's story began in France, then moved to Cadiz, Spain and then Cape Breton, and ended up in Fort Niagara. That is quite a journey. I had to research each place, rather than just one or two. Getting the time, place, season, etc. was not an easy chore. I wanted to include so much more, but the story was getting too long and too complicated. But I have plenty of leftover research on this subject, so I might write another novel with new characters.
RFA & EST: Zettie's life as a companion often is depicted as a life of privilege at least compared to the horrible existence of slaves in Haiti during this same period. Are there different degrees or different types of slavery?
PM: I think this is the most important part of the story. It appeared that Zettie lived a life of privilege, but she was still a slave — treated like an animal. The only difference between a field slave and a companion (house slave) was that one was treated like a mule and the other was treated like a cat or a pooch. Both positions were demeaning and cruel albeit in different ways. The field slave was often physically abused. The house slave was lulled into believing they were "special," until they were, as Zettie was, faced with the harsh reality that they were property — no more or less than a table or chair. That is mentally confusing and just as cruel as a slap across the face. The French bragged that they practiced a more civil form of slavery because they issued the Code Noir. This document, signed by Louis XIV, addressed the rights of French slaves and the responsibilities of French slave owners. In the "Sugar Island" of the Caribbean, the Code Noir was nothing more than "paper rights", meaning the laws were written but impossible to enforce. The laws were meaningless in the wilderness of the Caribbean and the Americas as well. No, French slavery was different but just as cruel as any practiced anywhere in the world.
RFA & EST: Other than Zettie and Marie-Louise, who is your favorite character in Look to the Hills? Why?
PM: It is hard to say, but I like Saint Georges. He is an historical character with an amazing story. I'd like to do a whole book about this master swordsman, because at one time I was involved in competitive fencing. Foil was my weapon of choice and I placed in several city and state tournaments.
RFA & EST: Freedom and education are of paramount importance in your work. Is one more important than the other?
PM: Freedom and education are equally important. One cannot exist without the other.
RFA & EST: What is one question you'd like to ask children after they've finished reading Zettie's diary?
PM: The question I'd like to ask children who read Zettie is why did I name the book Look to the Hills? Do they think I was talking about "real" hills or "hills" of another kind?
RFA & EST: What would you like readers to remember most about Zettie?
PM: I would like readers to remember Zettie's determination. She was not one to give up or to give in when her mind was made up. She adapted to her new environment and made the most out of the opportunities with which she was presented.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.