Author Diane C. McPhail’s upcoming visit to Columbus won’t be any ordinary book tour stop. For McPhail, an alumna of Mississippi University for Women, it also serves as a homecoming.
McPhail is traveling across the South in support of “The Seamstress of New Orleans,” her second work of historical fiction published by Kensington Books. Her first book, “The Abolitionist’s Daughter,” was released in 2019.
“The Seamstress of New Orleans” takes place in 1900 in the titular city famous for its Mardi Gras traditions. As McPhail told The Dispatch in an interview, the book was inspired by her opportunity to ride with the all-female Krewe of Iris in their annual parade.
Upon further research into the history of women in Mardi Gras, she learned about an all-female group dating back to the turn of the century called Les Mysterieuses, which she wove into her novel. While the Les Mysterieuses ball is an opulent celebration of New Orleans society, the book also delves into the seamy underworld of the city, complete with Mafia intrigue.
McPhail will headline a dinner event on Friday with Friendly City Books at J. Broussard’s Restaurant. Tickets are required and can be purchased at Friendly City Books.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is one of your favorite memories of attending MUW?
Oh, my. This one changed my life — literally. I started out my first semester taking secretarial electives. By mid-semester, I realized I would never be a typist.
For no discernible reason, I felt a yearning to major in French, never having had a day of it in my life. I ate, drank, slept French for the remaining weeks of the semester, including holidays, and managed to pass the exam. Actually, I made an “A.”
As a result, I majored in French, went to live in France my junior year and am still the “American sister” of the family I lived with. My 20-year-old identical twin grandsons are even now visiting with the family in Paris, and during a small break in this book tour, I am meeting my French “little sister” in Chicago, now that we can risk post-COVID.
Before you became a writer, what professional and personal endeavors did you pursue?
I started out teaching French and English in junior college, then high school. After I had two children very close together, I stayed home with them, but began taking art classes while they were in daycare. Once they were in school, I entered Georgia State and earned a Master’s in Studio Art and became director of a wonderful gallery in Atlanta.
About 10 years later, I had a passionate urge to be a therapist and went to Vermont to earn a Master’s in Art Therapy. I designed the outpatient art therapy program for a major hospital in Atlanta and worked there for about 10 years.
We moved to Highlands, North Carolina, where I had a private practice, after which I went to California to do a doctor of ministry degree and ordination training. Since then I have spent my time leading years of sequential retreats and beginning my writing career. It’s a classic case of never knowing what you want to be when you grow up!
What led your career toward writing, and specifically historical fiction?
My mother died when I was only two months old. In my middle adulthood, I yearned to know more about her and went to visit my uncle, the one remaining relative who had known her all her life. Among the many photos he showed me was an old newspaper article about “the Greensboro feud.” Part of the legendary history of Webster County, where “my people” originated, I had grown up disturbed by this story and the woman left to bury the men of her family. What I had never known until then was that she was my great-grandmother.
With that knowledge, I began to dig into history and research, writing constantly from a therapist’s viewpoint, to understand how this could have happened and its impact on this woman. The work evolved into my novel “The Abolitionist’s Daughter.” From there I have been constantly eager to delve into little-known history and to write it creatively.
During your research process, were there any discoveries that surprised you?
There are always so many surprises in doing historical research. That is one of its delights for me.
The first female krewe of Mardi Gras, the “sanctioned” red-light district of Storyville (named for city councilman Sidney Story, who proposed it), the proliferation of orphanages and children designated as “half-orphans” — I could go on.
But let me focus on one surprise in particular: horseless carriages. I was stunned to discover that cars would have been electric, run like a boat with a tiller to steer and a throttle for speed.
Is there anything particularly meaningful to you about writing books with strong female characters?
From childhood, reading “Jane Eyre,” I have been drawn to female characters of strength. Not necessarily the strength that puts a woman on the throne or at the head of an organization, but the kind of strength that all women are called upon to find in themselves to manage their lives, the strength that women in all sorts of difficult situations must find in themselves to endure and overcome the various hardships life may throw at us. These are the female characters with whom we can identify, who can inspire us, with whom we can relate as we work to find our own strength in life.
Emily Liner is the owner and founder of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.
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