‘Like an unforgettable dream’: Author of critically acclaimed debut novel on Thomas Jefferson to read at Sweet Briar

Posted on October 11, 2016 by Janika Carey

In his celebrated debut novel, Stephen O’Connor mingles fact with fiction to imagine the nuances and unknowns in Thomas Jefferson’s illicit relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. O’Connor will read from “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18, in Mary Helen Cochran Library’s Browsing Room. The reading is part of Sweet Briar College’s Writers Series and is free and open to the public.

Since its release in April, the novel has been praised for its masterful and “revolutionary” reimagining of Jefferson’s life.

“Ambitious doesn’t begin to describe the scope of the project O’Connor undertook,” argues Meredith Maran in the Chicago Tribune. “And successful doesn’t begin to describe the wildly imaginative techniques he used to realize his authorial goal, which is clearly to humanize — equalize, you might say — the two members of this passionate, conflicted couple. … Rendered in all their complex, contradictory glory, Jefferson and Hemings seem to stand up on the page and demand of the reader, ‘If you found yourself in our situation, what would you have done?’ ”

In an interview with BOMB Magazine, O’Connor said he wanted readers to be unsettled by his novel.

“I think of literature — and all art, really — as a little bomb that you set off in the imagination of your readers or your audience,” he explained. “It’s something that provokes, confuses, challenges and gets people thinking. We live in a world that is so dominated by accepted ideas, by these little boxes we think of as ‘reality.’ Our job as artists is to explore the places between the boxes — those things we don’t understand, or notice, or that even frighten us. Our job is to make those things ‘real’ too.”

Carrie Brown, Sweet Briar College’s Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, finished reading O’Connor’s novel this past summer “while staying at an inn in the literal shadow of Monticello, a proximity that made the hair stand up on my arms.”

But it wasn’t just her physical closeness — O’Connor’s skillful storytelling and his use of historical fiction effectively “erase time,” she argues.

“The events of the novel are as vividly present as any that take place in the contemporary world,” Brown wrote in a note to the author.

“It is an extraordinary achievement, six hundred and one pages that fly past — vivid and arresting and expansive and troubling and moving and sad and profound and beautiful and deeply, deeply complicated, indeed like an unforgettable dream. I admire the novel’s wild spirit, the wild spirits it captures, the way it seeks to humanize the demons — and demonize the humans — who populate the terrible era of slavery in America. Surely, too, the novel’s brilliant last line … is one of the best last lines ever: an ending that is a beginning.”

Stephen O’Connor. Photo by Ema O’Connor Stephen O’Connor. Photo by Ema O’Connor

O’Connor is the author of several books, including two collections of short fiction — “Here Comes Another Lesson” (2010) and “Rescue” (1989) — and two works of nonfiction: “Will My Name Be Shouted Out?” (1996) and “Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed” (2001).

His fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, Conjunctions, One Story, The Missouri Review, Poetry Magazine, Electric Literature, Agni, The Threepenny Review, The Quarterly and Partisan Review, among many other places. His essays and journalism have been published in The New York Times, DoubleTake, The Nation, Agni, the Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The New Labor Forum and elsewhere.

O’Connor is the recipient of the Cornell Woolrich Fellowship in Creative Writing from Columbia University, the Visiting Fellowship for Historical Research by Artists and Writers from the American Antiquarian Society and the DeWitt Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. He also held several residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst County, where he was initially inspired by the story and, over three summers, wrote large sections of the novel. The VCCA supports writers, composers, choreographers and visual artists from across the world by providing a creative space for them to work.

O’Connor lives in New York City and teaches in the Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence M.F.A. programs. He earned his master’s degree in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley and his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.

For more information about the reading and this year’s Writers Series, email John Gregory Brown, director of the creative writing program, at brown@sbc.edu. To learn more about the author, visit stephenoconnor.net.