Author pho­to of Alyson Rich­man by Jea­nine Bou­bli, Author pho­to of Shaunna J. Edwards by Ron Contarsy

Quilt back­ground from The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Shaunna Edwards and Alyson Rich­man dis­cuss the inspi­ra­tion and his­to­ry behind their cap­ti­vat­ing new book, The Thread Col­lec­tors.

Shaunna Edwards: Alyson, I remem­ber when you had the first seeds of inspi­ra­tion for our book, The Thread Col­lec­tors. Can you share that with us?

Alyson Rich­man: For years, I want­ed to explore my own family’s con­nec­tion to this peri­od in his­to­ry. At the time of the Civ­il War, only .05% of the total US pop­u­la­tion was Jew­ish and it is esti­mat­ed that about 8,000 Jew­ish sol­diers enlist­ed to fight. Despite such a small num­ber of Jew­ish sol­diers, with­in my own fam­i­ly tree I am relat­ed to two of these sol­diers. One of my great-great-great uncles fought on the Union side and enlist­ed in the 31st Reg­i­ment of New York as a musi­cian. In stark con­trast, his old­er broth­er — who had moved to Mis­sis­sip­pi years ear­li­er — joined the Con­fed­er­ate army. As a child, I heard count­less sto­ries from her grand­moth­er about how the broth­ers’ philo­soph­i­cal and moral divide irrev­o­ca­bly split the fam­i­ly. So that part of the sto­ry has been on the back­burn­er of my mind for a while. In 2012, I was watch­ing Ric Burns’ riv­et­ing doc­u­men­tary, Bury­ing the Civ­il War Dead, which was inspired by much of the research in Drew Gilpin Faust’s book The Repub­lic of Suf­fer­ing: Death and the Amer­i­can Civ­il War. One seg­ment of the doc­u­men­tary high­light­ed that, dur­ing the Civ­il War, sol­diers some­times cre­at­ed maps to mark where they’d buried their fel­low sol­diers. It also high­light­ed the Black sol­diers who had enlist­ed to fight against slav­ery, but were often made to dig ditch­es to bury the fall­en White sol­diers. I instant­ly had a vision of a Black sol­dier who cre­ates a map dur­ing one of our nation’s dark­est times and the con­nec­tions that map brings to him lat­er on. A few weeks lat­er we were meet­ing for a drink and I remem­ber ask­ing you for your input and you instant­ly said: I see the map sketched at first, but maybe he gives it to his beloved who stich­es it in embroi­dery to pre­serve it.” In one sen­tence, you opened up a whole new door­way to the sto­ry! I know it would take us near­ly ten years lat­er and a glob­al pan­dem­ic for us to final­ly sit down and write this book, but it was those ear­ly thoughts and con­ver­sa­tions that sparked what became The Thread Col­lec­tors.

Shaunna, what’s the most sur­pris­ing thing that you learned from writ­ing this book?

SE: In spite of how much Civ­il War his­to­ry I have read, I nev­er knew about the tragedy of Port Hud­son, even though it hap­pened in my home state of Louisiana. Impres­sive­ly, there were 180,000 Black men who enlist­ed to fight in the Civ­il War — almost 10% of the Union Army — at a time when just enlist­ing required great hard­ship and risk. Most of those sol­diers’ sto­ries have been over­looked or lost.

Like many, I had always believed that the 54th Mass­a­chu­setts Vol­un­teer Reg­i­ment was the first mil­i­tary unit of Black troops to fight valiant­ly in the Civ­il War, as it was famous­ly played out in the movie Glo­ry. In fact, the Louisiana Native Guards fought at Port Hud­son — and were mas­sa­cred — weeks ear­li­er. Hun­dreds of Black sol­diers were sac­ri­ficed and their bod­ies lay unburied for days. The Guards includ­ed Black line offi­cers (such as Cap­tain André Cail­loux who appears in our nov­el), even after Gen­er­al Nathaniel P. Banks began a sys­tem­at­ic cam­paign to purge the Black line offi­cers from the reg­i­ments. Reflect­ing the diver­si­ty and com­plex­i­ty of being col­ored” in Louisiana at the time, the reg­i­ment includ­ed free men of col­or fight­ing along­side fugi­tive slaves that turned to the Union Army for a chance at dig­ni­ty and freedom.

My hus­band and I vis­it­ed Port Hud­son on New Year’s Eve, and we def­i­nite­ly got a few con­fused looks as a Black cou­ple tromp­ing around a Civ­il War bat­tle­field. Addi­tion­al­ly, my hus­band is Jamaican, so my fas­ci­na­tion with the Civ­il War seems quite strange to him. How­ev­er, that is our shared his­to­ry as Amer­i­cans and we should all under­stand and embrace it, the dark­ness and the light.

Alyson, what was the most impor­tant thing about the research that you discovered?

AR: I real­ly loved the dis­cov­ery of the real life Jew­ish abo­li­tion­ist and suf­frag­ist Ernes­tine Rose. She was an amaz­ing woman — a true fem­i­nist who acquired the nick­name: Queen of the Plat­form.” Born in 1810 in Poland, she refused to mar­ry the man her father had cho­sen for her. She then trav­eled to Berlin, Paris, Eng­land, and final­ly New York, where she cement­ed her role in female activism. By 1850, she was an essen­tial fig­ure in the women’s rights, anti-slav­ery, and free thought move­ments, in which she was the only Jew. Anoth­er fun fact is that she was the inven­tor of those scent­ed lin­ing papers you put in your draw­ers! When I dis­cov­ered that, I knew I had to find a way to put that in our book too!

New Orleans is often described as the north­ern­most city of the Caribbean, a place of both reli­gios­i­ty and licen­tious­ness where peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races mixed and meld­ed in ways that were unthink­able in oth­er parts of America.

SE: Alyson, your books always have cre­ative artists in them. This book has music. Can you dis­cuss why this is impor­tant to you?

AR: I’m the daugh­ter of an artist, so explor­ing the cre­ative process against the back­drop of war has been a fix­ture in all of my nov­els. I love how you can see rays of light and enter­prise even in times of great despair. With my nov­el The Lost Wife, I want­ed to explore the Holo­caust from an artist’s per­spec­tive and how the cre­ative spir­it could not be extin­guished even in one of the dark­est peri­ods in his­to­ry. In sev­er­al of my oth­er his­tor­i­cal books, I’ve delved into the var­i­ous chal­lenges artists, musi­cians, actors, and even dancers faced dur­ing dif­fer­ent peri­ods of polit­i­cal tur­moil. It’s some­thing that’s real­ly close to my heart! In The Thread Col­lec­tors, I know we both want­ed to focus on how music helps forge a con­nec­tion between our two male pro­tag­o­nists, Jacob and William. Regard­less of their dif­fer­ent back­grounds and reli­gions, their shared love of music cre­ates an unbreak­able bond between these two men, sus­tain­ing them in so many dif­fer­ent ways, most impor­tant­ly in friend­ship and loyalty.

AR: Shaunna, this book takes place in the South. While you’re from the South, you were adamant about cen­ter­ing the sto­ry in New Orleans, where you were raised. Why is that?

SE: New Orleans is often described as the north­ern­most city of the Caribbean, a place of both reli­gios­i­ty and licen­tious­ness where peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races mixed and meld­ed in ways that were unthink­able in oth­er parts of Amer­i­ca. In ante­bel­lum South, Con­go Square in New Orleans was one of the few places where enslaved peo­ple were allowed to play their his­tor­i­cal­ly African music, dance, and cel­e­brate. Free Blacks, enslaved peo­ple, and even adven­tur­ous White peo­ple would gath­er there. In The Thread Col­lec­tors, Stel­la and William’s bur­geon­ing courtship also takes place there in a nod to Con­go Square being a place where peo­ple would slip their bonds, even if just for an afternoon.

New Orleans is also a place where a sub­stan­tial num­ber of free Black peo­ple lived. While they didn’t enjoy the same rights as their White neigh­bors, they built thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Those New Orlea­ni­ans and their rich his­to­ry inspired the back­sto­ry of our char­ac­ter, Ted­dy, and his emo­tion­al arc. Just as Black Amer­i­cans today have a wide array of expe­ri­ences, it is impor­tant that we illu­mi­nate the diver­si­ty of the Black expe­ri­ence in history.

What’s your go-to writ­ing ritual?

SE: While I was con­stant­ly dream­ing of our pas­sion project, I also have a full time job, so my writ­ing often hap­pened in the ear­ly morn­ings or over the week­ends. As a for­mer lawyer, how­ev­er, I am not daunt­ed by a large project or a blank page. On Sat­ur­days, I would awak­en before my hus­band (and we are new­ly­weds, so this is a sac­ri­fice), slip on my writ­ing caf­tan,” and start with a strong cup of cof­fee while my rose gold Mac­Book Air boot­ed up. Putting on one of my bright­ly-col­ored caf­tans always makes me feel more inspired, cre­ative, and unfettered.

AR: I need a lit­er­al room of one’s own” to cre­ate my char­ac­ters. I’m for­tu­nate enough to have a small office, which I stock with neces­si­ties like rose tea. My chil­dren are old­er now — one is even in col­lege — but they knew from an ear­ly age that my writ­ing room was off lim­its. Now I wel­come them in to share my newest sto­ries. Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, I was work­ing on two oth­er books and for the first time in my writ­ing career, I also wrote on the week­ends! With no place to go, to trav­el, it was a great escape to be able to fall into my book projects and cre­ate a new world with char­ac­ters that were mak­ing incred­i­ble jour­neys and tri­umph­ing over adversity.

SE: Alyson, ear­ly on you told me that your char­ac­ters tell you where they want to go. What do you see next for these char­ac­ters when we leave them in the last chapter?

AR: Yes, I always love end­ings that are not wrapped up in a tidy bow. I think it’s impor­tant to bring your read­ers to a point where you’ve answered the essen­tial ques­tions that pro­pelled you to write the sto­ry, but that you leave the read­er with a sense that a new chap­ter is begin­ning for your char­ac­ters. We obvi­ous­ly don’t want to reveal the end­ing of our nov­el in this inter­view, but let’s just say I know we’d both like to con­tin­ue the jour­ney and fol­low these char­ac­ters, their chil­dren, and their grand­chil­dren, through dif­fer­ent peri­ods in his­to­ry. For exam­ple, in Recon­struc­tion, the Jazz Age, and the Civ­il Rights era. It feels like a true lega­cy project to do some­thing with that sense of purpose!

Shau­na J. Edwards has a BA in lit­er­a­ture from Har­vard Col­lege and a JD from NYU School of Law. A for­mer cor­po­rate lawyer, she now works in diver­si­ty, equi­ty and inclu­sion. She is a native Louisian­ian, raised in New Orleans, and cur­rent­ly lives in Harlem with her hus­band. The Thread Col­lec­tors is her first nov­el. Find her on Insta­gram, @shaunnajedwards.

Alyson Rich­man is the USA Today and #1 inter­na­tion­al best­selling author of sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal nov­els, includ­ing The Vel­vet Hours, The Gar­den of Let­ters, and The Lost Wife, which is cur­rent­ly in devel­op­ment for a major motion pic­ture. Alyson grad­u­at­ed from Welles­ley Col­lege with a degree in art his­to­ry and Japan­ese stud­ies. She is an accom­plished painter and her nov­els com­bine her deep love of art, his­tor­i­cal research, and trav­el. Alyson’s nov­els have been pub­lished in twen­ty-five lan­guages and have reached best­seller lists both in the Unit­ed States and abroad. She lives on Long Island with her hus­band and two chil­dren, where she is cur­rent­ly at work on her next nov­el. Find her on Insta­gram, @alysonrichman.