A Conversation with Karen Hesse [about her book Witness.]
How did you become interested in writing this story?
In 1997, while returning from a speaking engagement, I spent the last moments of my flight skimming the airline magazine and came across a short piece about the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont in the 1920s. I read the item, shaking my head in disbelief. Back home I wasted no time in attempting to disprove the article, but to my surprise it was correct. I read Maudean Neill's book about the Klan in Vermont, wrote to her about her research and tried to imagine how I might take this episode in history and craft a compelling story from it.
Did you know from the beginning how you wanted to write it?
No, I hit one dead end after another, so I finally tucked the idea away and worked on something else. A few years later I received an e-mail from my editor with the subject line: "Book Idea?" The message, which followed, read simply, "Remember Spoon River Anthology?" Suddenly the back corner of my brain flooded with light. I had performed Spoon River in high school. That was it! The path to the Klan project had been there all along, blazed by Edgar Lee Masters.
How much of the story is based on actual happenings in real life?
I do a lot of research for my books. I borrowed microfilm from libraries across Vermont and read seven or eight newspapers of 1923 and 1924 to get a sense of how much attention Vermonters paid to the Klan and what other events were going on at the time. One story in Maudean Neill's Fiery Crosses in the Green Mountains caught my interest, about a Klan family that had taken in a man and a child. The man and his son were not Jewish but certain people in the community thought they were and told the family they would have to leave the Klan because they were "harboring Jews." Many events in the book were inspired by news articles I came across, but that story gave me the human hook I needed to land the book.
Were some of the voices easier to write than others?
My gut knotted as I wrote from the point of view of characters whose lives were rooted in bigotry. But there were also narrators who made my heart soar. Disabling my censor, allowing each character to speak his or her mind, I have, in Witness, attempted to piece together a mosaic of a community giving birth to its conscience.
Interview from discussion guide written by Connie Rockman, children's literature consultant and adjunct professor of literature for children and young adults at the University of Bridgeport, Sacred Heart University and Manhattanville College, and editor of The Eighth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators (H. W. Wilson, 2000)