Heather Graham


Interviewed by: Lauretta Pierce
March 22, 2009

Lauretta:    How did you come about the idea to write the novel THE KNEES OF GULLAH ISLAND?

Dwight:    The stories I share speak to me and that is how I came to discover this tale for readers. I had never been to Charleston, but had often read about it and Gullah – Geechee culture. As the story unfolded for me and the characters began to call to me to share their stories, I became even more curious about the Carolina Lowcountry (they spell it as one word in that locale) and its culture, folklore, geography, history, fauna and cuisine. Through this, a wonderful extended vacation to Charleston, South Carolina, a great deal of research, and a great consultation with Alphonso Brown of Charleston’s Gullah Tours, the book formed within me. The rest was in the telling.

Lauretta:   Is the Gillam that is the son of Rena also the Gillam that is the father in THE LEGEND OF QUITO ROAD?

Dwight:    Rena Erby and Gillam Hale had a son without the blessing of marriage and the young boy carried the surname of Erby, the one chosen by his recently emancipated mother Rena. She named him Gill after his father Gillam. That boy from THE KNEES OF GULLAH ISLAND (my second novel set in the 1880s is a prequel to THE LEGEND OF QUITO ROAD) grows up to be the man known as Papa Gill, the father of Son Erby, in my first book, THE LEGEND OF QUITO ROAD.

Lauretta:    How did you come about Gillam’s marriage to Rena and Queen Esther?

Dwight:    I have read slave narratives where families where split up and how this impacted the lives of African Americans during the Antebellum period and after the Civil War. The marriage of Queen Esther and Gillam was true love from their youth and his common law marriage to Rena was one of convenience and not love. This part of the story helped create the moral dilemma Gillam faced late in life when he had to decide if he should leave all he had known in the second half of his life to search for all he loved in the first half of his existence.

Lauretta:    Why the title, THE KNEES OF GULLAH ISLAND?

Dwight:   The word knees first of all related to the terrible impact that oppression has on anyone. These deeds, committed for the love of money, are so horrific that only bending your knees, prayer, can help. Also, I wanted to use the Lowcountry black water swamps as a motif for the spiritual issues of an area where four of ten slaves were imported to the United States. Historians have called Charleston Ellis Island South. Swamp trees like the cypress and tupelo have roots that extend above the black water; these are called knees and are a recurring theme for this story.

Lauretta:    How do you formulate your characters?

Dwight:   The characters begin to present themselves at the origins of the story for me. During these times, I listen and they become team members or employees that help me share what happens. Their appearance, history, relations, preferences and dislikes are an integral part of making them real to me. This makes it possible for me to present them as true persons to readers. Also, it is important for me to know the goals, motivations and conflict in the hearts and lives of each character. I feel the characters actually help me tell their story and that this “spiritual interchange” organically creates a better book for me than if I simply stuck to my original outline while writing my novels.

Lauretta:    How do the personalities of your characters evolve?

Dwight:   I shared some of my character development methods with a Masters of Fine Arts class at the University of Memphis last fall that was studying THE LEGEND OF QUITO ROAD as part of their required reading curriculum. The characters grow throughout the course of the novel for me. My stories often, but not always, show that some characters change dramatically during the story. This depicts one of my core beliefs: people do change and grow over time…if they work at it and really want to improve.

Lauretta:    Are your characters based on family legends, or are they based on your imagination only?

Dwight:   My characters are fictitious, but I have read and heard historical examples that have people with similar experiences. Often, true history has more twists, coincidences and surprises than anything fiction can create.

Lauretta:    How did you come about the idea for Grozalia making the sea rose tea?

Dwight:   Miss Grozalia, the Gullah root doctor, knows all about plant life, medicine and herbs. She has good reason to bring several persons in the story to their “knees.” The “sea rose”, the oleander shrub, is one of the most poisonous plants known. There is much folklore about its use to poison or make persons sick from all the warm climate areas around the world where it is grown. This is especially true in the Lowcountry where often a minority white population dominated its slaves via violence and mistreatment. The slaves often used sea rose tea in retribution to bad masters and their mistreatment. Also, white Charlestonians were rumored to have put the oleander plant in punch served to the British during the American Revolutionary war…just enough to make them ill and not kill them. It seemed to be a natural addition to the story in this place and time.

Lauretta:    When will your novel, THE OILS BELOW OUACHITA RIDGE, be released?

Dwight:   The current economic environment along with challenges faced in both the publishing and retail sectors has moved out the dates for my third novel. A firm publication date has not yet been established.

Lauretta:   What message would you like readers to receive from reading THE KNEES OF GULLAH ISLAND?

Dwight:   I first of all hope that this book, with its rich stories and historical views, show parallels to readers about some of the origins to the challenges we face today: men leaving the home, economic based cross-culture hatred, strife and oppression, moral dilemmas with difficult decisions, and the need to find hope in the midst of despair. I truly hope it continues a wave of all to discover and document their roots.