AAuthor Diane C. McPhail’s upcoming visit to Columbus will be no ordinary stop on the book tour. For McPhail, an alumnus of the University of Mississippi for Women, it also serves as a homecoming.
McPhail travels 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”, came out in 2019.
“The Seamstress of New Orleans” is set 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 his opportunity to ride with the all-female Krewe of Iris in their annual parade.
After further research into the history of women at Mardi Gras, she discovered an all-female group from the turn of the century called Les Mysterieuses, which she wove into her novel. While the Les Mystérieuses ball is an opulent celebration of New Orleans society, the book also delves into the city’s sordid underworld, complete with mob intrigue.
McPhail will headline a Friday dinner with Friendly City Books at the J. Broussard 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 best memories of participating in MUW?
Oh my. This one changed my life – literally. I started my first semester by taking secretarial electives. Halfway through the semester, I realized that I would never be a typist.
For no apparent reason, I felt the desire to specialize in French, having never had a single day in my life. I ate, drank, slept in French for the remaining weeks of the semester, including holidays, and managed to pass the exam. In fact, I made an “A”.
As a result, I majored in French, went to live in France my freshman year, and am still the “American sister” of the family I lived with. My 20-year-old identical twin grandsons are still visiting family in Paris, and on a little break from this book tour, I meet my French “little sister” in Chicago, now that we can risk the post-COVID.
Before becoming a writer, what professional and personal projects did you pursue?
I started by teaching French and English in middle school, then in high school. After having two very close children, I stayed home with them, but started taking art classes while they were in daycare. Once in school, I went to the state of Georgia and got a Masters in Studio Art and became the director of a wonderful gallery in Atlanta.
About 10 years later, I had a passion to be a therapist and went to Vermont to get a master’s degree in art therapy. I designed the outpatient art therapy program for a large 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 doctorate in ministry and ordination training. Since then I have spent my time leading years of sequential retreats and beginning my career as a writer. It’s a classic case of never knowing what you want to be when you grow up!
What led your career towards writing, and more particularly historical fiction?
My mother died when I was only two months old. In mid-adulthood, I yearned to know more about her and went to visit my uncle, the only remaining relative who had known her all his life. Among the many photos he showed me was an old newspaper article about “the Greensboro feud.” Being 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 this knowledge, I began to dig into history and research, constantly writing from the perspective of a therapist, to understand how it could have happened and its impact on this woman. The work evolved into my novel “The Abolitionist’s Daughter”. From there, I always wanted to delve into the unknown story and write it creatively.
During your research process, were there any discoveries that surprised you?
There are always so many surprises in doing historical research. It is one of his pleasures for me.
The first all-girl Mardi Gras group, the “sanctioned” red-light district of Storyville (named after 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 amazed to discover that the cars would have been electric, operated 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?
Since childhood, reading “Jane Eyre”, I have been drawn to strong female characters. 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 within themselves to manage their lives, the strength that women in all kinds difficult situations must find within themselves to endure and overcome the various trials that life can inflict on us. They are the female characters we can relate to, who can inspire us, who we can connect with 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.