Most of the time writing is a solitary (except for the cats) occupation. It’s me with my laptop, a pile of research books, and whatever is calling out for attention in my imagination.
Writing has also brought me a wealth of wonderful new friends and acquaintances - readers and fellow writers, historians and archivists and museum professionals and all-around lovers of history - that I never would have met otherwise, and who have more than compensated for all that solitary time.
The internet makes many such meetings possible, of course, when a tweet or comment can lead to a DM, a flurry of emails, and sometimes even a meeting in person at a conference or booksigning.
But meeting the woman pictured here with me was different.
In the first interview for my new historical novel,The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, (and in this blog post as well) I described my heroine. Mary Emmons (c1760-1832) was a woman of color who bore Aaron Burr two children, and who tradition says became his second wife. I also described how most historians and biographers of Aaron Burr - a heroic officer during the American Revolution; a noted lawyer, politician, and founder of the bank that’s evolved into JPMorgan Chase; the third vice president of the United States; and the man who famously shot Alexander Hamilton in a fatal duel - either ignore this relationship entirely, or dismiss Mary and her children as salacious gossip. Some even doubt Mary’s very existence.
When this interview turned up on social media, one commenter took offense at the doubts of those historians. The commenter’s name is Karla Ballard Williams, and she’s the 5x-great-granddaughter of Mary Emmons and Aaron Burr.
And yesterday, Karla and I finally met. That’s us together in the photo above, laughing as we tried to figure out where she should be looking for a selfie.
Yes, we met in a prosaic Starbucks, but a Starbucks that was within a mile or so from where young Colonel Aaron Burr wintered with his regiment at Valley Forge in 1777-78. He might have been even closer yesterday; he always did like strong-brewed coffee. Karla and I both felt Mary’s presence there with us, too, gently guiding our conversation as we spoke of the generations of her family.
I know, I know, Mary and Burr are my characters, my inventions, but they were real people first. There’s power in that knowledge, yet there’s responsibility, too, as meeting Karla so vividly reminded me. It’s all part of the magic of historical fiction, and what makes it so special to writers and readers alike.
And I can’t wait to see where it leads me next.
Read more about Mary Emmons in The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, to be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.