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Q&A with Sophfronia Scott - Wild, Beautiful, and Free


Wild, Beautiful, and Free

By Eleanor Summers.


We are thrilled to welcome Sophronia Scott to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release Wild, Beautiful, and Free, out on the 1st of March 2023.


Born the daughter of an enslaved woman and a Louisiana plantation owner, Jeannette Bébinn is raised alongside her white half sister—until her father suddenly dies. His vindictive wife refuses twelve-year-old Jeannette her inheritance and sells her into slavery.

Now on her own, Jeannette must fight the injustices she faces because of her mixed race. She escapes enslavement and travels from Mississippi to Philadelphia to New York to Ohio, all while searching for purpose, love, and her place in a country torn asunder by the burgeoning Civil War.


Everything seems to fall into place when she meets Christian Robichaud Colchester, the white proprietor of Fortitude Mansion, a safe haven for escaped slaves where Jeannette teaches. But despite their instant connection, Jeannette isn’t convinced she belongs in his circle.


In a world that tells her she doesn’t fit anywhere, Jeannette must decide what’s more important: bending to the expectations of others or embracing her true self.


Wild, Beautiful, and Free

I want to start by thanking you for the opportunity to read your amazing book and for speaking with The Reading Corner about how this novel came to be! The emotion that flows out of its pages is intense, but important. Gripping a reader from the beginning as they will for Jeannette to be okay. Speaking of Jeannette, could you please tell us a little bit more about the heroine of the story, and how her character developed as you started writing?


First, thank you for reading the book and appreciating these qualities. Jeannette is born the daughter of an enslaved woman and a Louisiana plantation owner in the pre-Civil War American South. Her mother dies in childbirth and her father raises her in his home along with the daughter he has with his wife. When her father dies unexpectedly, young Jeannette is sold into slavery by his vengeful wife who hates that he has left land to Jeannette.

And you are right to use the word “heroine.” I wanted Jeannette to be a big heroine with a capital H. This story is not just about a girl being sold into slavery, this is about a person who demands her humanity—who knows who she is and who fights to not only have the life that she feels she wants but to live the emotions that she feels quite deeply. Jeannette is modeled after Jane in Jane Eyre because that book had a powerful influence on me when I first read it. I was around 13 at the time. Jane taught me how to think, how to move through the world with agency and figure out how to have the life I want despite obstacles that seemed to say it wasn’t possible. I’ve wondered for years what it would be like to have this powerful character be a woman of color and how, as such, she might reach so many more women.

Jane is a fiery, passionate character so I knew my Jeannette would be the same. The big difference, though, is that I place Jeannette in dangerous situations that Jane would never have encountered. Jeannette has an action hero aspect where she’s required to step up to protect those she loves and herself. She puts herself in harm’s way and even carries a gun in several instances. When I was thinking of setting, I wanted Jeannette to have similar, if not more, limitations imposed on her by society than what Jane experienced. I envisioned my character as a mixed-race woman, who was neither wholly black nor wholly white, who could be offered only a lonely existence because of the way she is viewed by the world. The setting that most demonstrated that, to me anyway, was Civil War-era America.

Wild, Beautiful, and Free discusses a wide variety of genres and themes, from historical fiction to romance, to some have even said fairy tale elements. Did you intend for the beginning of the story to have a Cinderella feel to it?


That’s interesting, I never thought of that before, but I guess Madame Bébinn does have that evil stepmother aspect about her! No, it was not intentional. But then most fairy tales are grounded in ancient stories that have been told for centuries, so much so that they have an eternal truth about them. How many stories do we hear even now about the struggle to make blended families work? Our modern society is better at it now, or at least I’d like to think so, but it wasn’t always that way.

Throughout the novel, Jeannette is concerned with her voice, either the way she speaks or about speaking at all. The concept of her being silenced for chapters is such a powerful image of fear and repression. How do you think your novel will stand as giving a voice to women like Jeannette, to push the conversation of the reality of white supremacy forward, and become a part of the wider conversation?


Jeannette learns, and she even says this in the book, that a bigger hell comes from keeping your mouth shut. What she speaks up about most, what she asks for, are very basic things: respect, love, dignity, a simple place to just be in the world. None of us should be afraid to seek or demand these things when they are not present. She also learns how to deal with those who deny her without becoming soured by resentment and vengeance. That’s key. If reading Jeannette’s story can guide other women to do the same, I would be thrilled.

I’d love to talk some more about the character of Mr Colchester. During a large portion of the book, we see Jeannette’s close relationships with other women from Aunt Nancy Lynne to Fanny and later her fellow nurses. Was it different to craft Jeannette’s relationship with a man? It’s understandable that at first, she is hesitant when so many men in her life (apart from her Papa) have stood as a body of evil. Do you think it was truer to Jeannette’s character for her to leave Mr Colchester for a time?


It was different and quite difficult to craft Jeannette’s relationship with Christian. It couldn’t begin with physical attraction because of Jeannette’s wariness from what happened to Fanny. She has no model for positive experiences of sexuality. I figured Christian had to touch her heart and mind first and that the physical attraction would follow. The next question was how to do that. I started with their mutual love of Louisiana. He speaks of the place in a sensuous way, discussing the air, the water, and the earth in a way that reminds Jeannette of her own embodied way of remembering her home.

Once that connection was made, it was only a matter of drawing them closer and letting them develop admiration and respect for each other as they spend more time together.

But Jeannette still has a strong sense of self, and the memories of what she endured when she was enslaved are very close. Her development as a character is based on the choices she makes in difficult moments, and learning to stand up for herself, for recognizing that she has agency in her life despite what society tells her. She tries to make choices that align with who she is. This makes it inevitable that one of those choices would be to leave Christian.

Across writing the novel, did you draw on any real life people, historical or otherwise, as inspiration for your characters?


There are a few real-life historical figures in the book. The main one is Mary Ann Bickerdyke who was known as Mother B. I knew Jeannette would have some sort of mentor figure when she becomes a Civil War nurse, and I liked the story of Mother B, how she would set up hospitals, was present at some of the worst fighting in the war, and was an advocate for the soldiers, especially after the war. Her presence fit the narrative, so I made her a character in the story.

If one can have a favourite Union general, mine would be Ulysses S. Grant. He’s always intrigued me, for his leadership during the war and then the steadfast way he worked on writing his memoir even while ill with cancer. He seemed to me a kind person. There was no way I could write about the Civil War and not have him make a cameo appearance.

And, if you want to consider it a character, the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation appears in the book. That was my editor’s idea and I agreed wholeheartedly. It’s important for the reader to understand what the proclamation was and what it wasn’t. We generally think of it as a document that freed the slaves but that wasn’t the case in many states, states which are mentioned by name in the document. That detail is important to the book’s storyline.

A few characters like Nancy Lynne, Jelly, and the Phillipses are based on friends. The real-life people have personalities of strength, enthusiasm, positivity, ingenuity, and supportiveness. I wanted Jeannette to have people like that around her so naturally when building those characters, I started with what I know and with people with whom I have experienced those qualities.

Wild, Beautiful, and Free feels like such an important title, especially with the emphasis being on “Free”, could you please tell us a little bit more about the title and how it came to be?


My brilliant editor at Lake Union, Danielle Marshall, came up with the title. She plucked the words right from my manuscript. “Wild, beautiful, and free” is how Jeannette describes Christian’s eyes. Sometimes we behold what we wish to be. As I mentioned earlier, Jeannette connects with Christian over their mutual love of Louisiana, an area of the United States that had—and kind of still does have—this untamed, other-worldly aspect. She sees that untamed aspect in him. She sees his eyes as wild, beautiful, and free because his eyes inspire that sensibility within herself. Looking at him reminds her of who she is and who she wants to be. I didn’t recognize those words as a title at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the book can’t be called anything but Wild, Beautiful, and Free. And seeing it on the cover, with its gorgeous design by Lesley Worrell, confirmed it.

Thinking now about the writing process, having written both fiction and non-fiction books, could you please tell us a little bit about the difference behind the process of crafting this varying kind of works?


When I write non-fiction, it’s usually in response to a question that I’ve heard multiple times. “How do I start reading Thomas Merton?” I wrote The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton. “How did you, Sophfronia, go from having an illiterate father to attending Harvard and becoming a writer?” I wrote an essay collection about my life, Love’s Long Line. I’m also, as I craft nonfiction, in a discovery process where I’m learning about what I think, and what’s inside me. Sometimes I uncover feelings I haven’t thought about in a long time. It’s very personal, fascinating, and I must admit, kind of scary. I’ll start writing thinking that I’m writing about one thing, but eventually realize I’m writing about something unexpected and painful.

But when I want to say something to the world about big issues like generational trauma, forgiveness, identity, sexuality, racial inequality, I write fiction. In fiction I can make observations without being preachy or self-righteous. And it allows the reader to discover these things in the book on their own and make their own connections. Some of the reader interviews for Wild, Beautiful, and Free talk about how they unexpectedly found hope and new ways to think about dealing with trauma. That’s exciting to me, exciting to craft words that can do that across race, gender, and class. It makes me want to keep writing.

Where will people be able to find your fascinating book Wild, Beautiful, and Free?


The book is available wherever books are sold both online at Amazon and in-person bookstores. If it is not on the shelves at your favourite shop, ask them to order it. Then, dear readers, let me know what you think when you’re done! Thank you.



Wild, Beautiful, and Free

Sophfronia Scott is the founding director of Alma College's Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing, a low-residency graduate program based in Alma, Michigan. She lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut where she continues to fight a losing battle against the weeds in her flower beds. Sophfronia can be found on Facebook at SophfroniaAuthor, on Twitter at @Sophfronia, and on Instagram at @sophfronia.scott. Her website is Sophfronia.com.

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