As the African-American community continues to make progressive strides in education, business, and even in the White House, Shella Gillus invites readers to journey back to the days of our ancestors for inspiration. Gillus’ critically-acclaimed novel The Loom is stirring the hearts of readers across cultural lines. In this fictional love tale, Gillus explores the desire for freedom through the eyes of Lydia, a slave and the sacrifices she makes to achieve it. Black America Web had a chance to speak with Gillus about her novel and its impact since its release in December 2011.
BAW: I see you have a background in theatre. How did you transition from theatre to fictional writing?
Shella Gillus: I find that they are really related. As an actor you’re always trying to develop this great character. Even when the playwright gives you the background, you are spending a lot of time researching and even developing more of the history of the character. I found that when I was writing the characters of the book I was doing the same thing.
What was interesting was as I wrote the book the characters came to life and they started to tell me things about themselves. It was as if the book kind of took on a life of its own. I was writing so fast as if I was watching actors on stage and I was just typing it up. So, that to me is when my inspiration comes. So, I kind of wait for that moment. There is this relationship in theatre when those characters come to life.
BAW: What inspired you to write this story?
Shella Gillus: I was having a conversation with my husband. We were talking about the idea of passing, when a member of a particular racial group decides that they are going to enter or identify with another racial group. What I discovered was that my husband said he has history of that and we had history of that in my family in generations past. What I found fascinating is I thought “what if this particular person felt like ‘Yes, I could have the freedom that can come, but what was I going to sacrifice? So it was like I’m reading behind the love that I have for freedom and this world that I don’t know.’” I thought about that tension of those two things and what that would be like. So, that was kind of how I got the idea for the book.
BAW: What is the loom room?
Shella Gillus: The loom room is usually like a house, a small little cabin. Sometimes it was attached to the big house where the owner lived or sometimes it was a separate cabin on the plantation. What I found interesting in my research was that on some plantations they took elderly slaves who were on the tobacco, corn, or cotton fields. They pulled them when they reached an age where they couldn’t produce as much. They pulled them and placed them in this room where they would weave cloth and that’s how they contributed to the plantation. I kept thinking of what would I feel like if I was one of those slaves. You’re at a point where you know you’re coming to the end of your life because you’ve been pulled and you’re in this place where they’re saying “this is where you’re going to stay.” That was something completely new to me.
The whole idea was that you had to do something. So it was the idea of “how are you going to earn your keep?”
BAW: How has the research for this project influenced your life?
Shella Gillus: I always felt like I was connected to my culture, my history. I think that spending so much time diving into this history and aspects of this culture that I wasn’t aware of made me feel just a deeper connection, a greater appreciation for what we as a people have gone through. I was happy to present that to the world. What I wanted to do that was a little different. Honestly it was hard to write a slave book with an African American president. It was like “Really? Do we really want to go back and think about that? Look where we are now.” I wanted to show a different mind of it. There was a lot of love. There was love between slaves. Some of that love was pure. The love between Lydia and Sean. I found letters from slaves describing the love that they had. I think that we don’t see that. That’s not really portrayed in our stories sometimes. I really just wanted to show just the real humanity of the love and the experience that slaves went through. So, it’s a little different from what I would say some other slaves stories.
BAW: Do you believe we face the same challenges presented in the book today? If so, how?
Shella Gillus: When I think about the questions in the book, “Is love enough? Is what you want, what you are striving for and what you want to achieve worth sacrificing to get it? Is it worth it?” I think those are the same questions that we face all the time. We are always asking ourselves those questions and I think it’s definitely a question that the readers can relate to.
BAW: What has been the response toward the book?
Shella Gillus: We received an NAACP Image Award nomination. Last week, we received notice that we are finalist for the Carol Award, which is one of the top Christian fiction book awards. That won’t be announced until September. So that’s exciting. The response has been great. It’s been very positive.
In fact, we just did a free download on Amazon. We had 117,000 new readers download the book in two weeks. We’re exciting about the numbers and it’s getting out there. What I like is that the readers are relating to the characters. Some of them like Lydia, some of them don’t. She’s the main character. I just want you to feel something. I’m okay either way. Hopefully, it has some kind of impact.
BAW: What are some of the responses that you’ve received outside of the African American community?
Shella Gillus: One thing that I see that’s repeated in a lot of the comments is “Thank you for showing us this side of the story.” They can really relate to Lydia and her desire for freedom and the sadness that they feel about what America participated in. So I found that I see that continuously in the letters, that theme that “Sorry our country contributed to this,” but also the new awareness of parts of the culture that we didn’t know. I find that with the African American community it was the aspect of the loom room that was new.
BAW: For those who haven’t read The Loom yet, why do you feel they should pick it up?
Shella Gillus: I think the book is relatable. I think that’s the surprise that they would find. Even though it’s a historical fiction, it’s very relatable to what you’re going through now. I think that question, the theme of what are you’re willing to sacrifice for what you want. I think that we all deal with it. I think the love in this story we can all relate to. I think we’re going to have characters where you’re going to be able to see it from a different perspective. I didn’t want one- dimensional characters. I really wanted you to see what the motivation was behind the characters. And I think that reading the book, hopefully you walk away with a little bit more understanding, a little bit more grace for others and an appreciation for who you are regardless of your culture. . I’ve had readers walk away with certain lines of the book. Fiction is really based on real life.
You can purchase The Loom online at Amazon.com in both paperback and for the Kindle. You can also find more information about Shella Gillus and her book at http://shellagillus.com/.