Exploring the process of writing my new book, The Blue Box due out in 2012 – Sallie
It glittered obscurely in the back of the curio cabinet my grandmother kept in her dark little house in Richmond, Virginia, the house where she’d raised six daughters and a son. On the walls there were snapshots of all those golden-haired girls, and the one dark-haired boy, as well as their equally fair children and grandchildren, but I don’t remember them. Familiar icons, alike in all houses, they were not interesting; but the curio cabinet, and its contents—which only my grandmother touched—alerted me instantly to the electric presence of stories.
By then she was used to the polite incredulity that greeted her tales, published in two well-reviewed books but still tales—or legends, the slightly more upscale title of her second collection. Tales, or even legends, had no historical basis, as far as any of her family knew; they sprang from old Irish folk stories, told her a half century earlier by Curtie, her father’s nurse, or embarrassingly racist anecdotes from that lush embroidery called “The Lost Cause” which, in my grandmother’s lifetime, had subsumed all memories of what the Civil War, in Richmond, had actually been like.
I didn’t care much about historical veracity and I was still too young to catch the stench of racism. I cared about romance and violence, entwined in my grandmother’s stories, and I cared about the things she kept in her curio cabinet.
The first she took out was a poignard in a jeweled sheath. Handling it gingerly, she refused to draw it out. “It could cut you to pieces,” she warned, and I remembered another tale, not hers but sprung from the Kentucky mountains, in which a knife gets loose and flies around the kitchen, slicing everyone in sight.
Her poignard might do that, I believed. As she passed it, carefully, from hand to hand, she allowed me to touch the sheath with the tip of my finger. It felt hot, as though the knife, inside, had life. I was a little frightened, but mostly enthralled.
And then, in the deeper, more resonant voice she used for her tales, she told me about the way the poignard had been used, in a Chinese mandarin’s court, to cut an unfaithful wife in two.
“They don’t believe me,” she told me darkly as she returned the poignard to its hiding place, “but I have it right here, to prove it, and I have something else….” She reached for the next proof, the object that would convince me—who needed no convincing—that her tales were true.