Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie: America’s First Daughter

We sat down for a Q&A with America’s First Daughter authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, talking about historical fiction, presidential families, epistolary collections, and so much more!

What books and authors are your historical fiction inspirations?

We have so many inspirations! When it came to writing this book about Patsy Jefferson, we were certainly inspired by the work of Barbara Chase-Riboud, whose groundbreaking work on Sally Hemings opened the door for novelists. In general, we are great fans of Philippa Gregory, Margaret George, Diana Gabaldon, and Ken Follett.

One of the aspects that interested me about America’s First Daughter is how the story is set largely domestically in the world of Patsy Jefferson Randolph, as if her microcosm experience of domesticity, domestic economy, domestic drama, and domestic space-making reflected the larger experience of her father’s domestic-making (and domestic drama) with the Declaration of Independence, his presidency, and the making of America. Why were domesticity and domestic spaces such useful, flexible lenses for exploring the issues in America’s First Daughter?

Just as much academic scholarship on American history has more recently investigated the social and domestic spheres, so too has historical fiction been moving in this direction. The most crucial, world-changing events happened at home, reflecting and shaping the issues of the day, and that’s certainly where most women played the greatest roles. As advisors, partners, and participants, women shaped the hearts and hearths of the men who fought the revolution.

If Jefferson’s wife hadn’t died, would he have become president? We think not. If he had not been facing personal scandal over his relationship with Sally Hemings, would he have accomplished more in the arena of abolishing slavery? Perhaps. If the women of America had not thrown themselves into the project of the embargo, sewing and canning and providing goods that couldn’t be had otherwise, would we have gone to war with Britain earlier? And with less advantage? If Patsy hadn’t managed Jefferson’s plantation while he was president, slowly sacrificing her marriage in the process, would her father have been as free to pursue politics? Perhaps not with the same ease of mind, freedom, and flexibility. The domestic spaces were inseparable from the men and women who were shaped by them.

In what ways do you think Patsy was her father’s daughter?

Patsy was calm of temperament, conflict-averse and politically calculating. Given that she was surrounded by hotheaded Virginians, this definitely made her Jefferson’s daughter.

The cool, rational, patient temperament of Thomas Jefferson accounted in part for his political success. Patsy shared  those traits. But more than her father, she was a grounded person willing to see the world as it was rather than as she would like it to be. And that’s what set them apart.

The dialogue from Thomas Jefferson and some other historical figures is taken from among the collection of 18,000 letters Jefferson left behind after his death. Did that make forming characters easier or more difficult, given that you had an authoritative voice for at least one already?

There were great advantages in having so many letters available to draw from. Jefferson’s letters in particular are expressive and sometimes even poetic. They give as authentic a window into his character as his daughter allowed us to ever see. But Patsy’s letters were themselves very interesting too. They were sarcastic, and even funny, in a way that her father’s letters rarely were.  And, of course, his granddaughter Ellen’s letters were marvelously entertaining. So we were able to take from these letters character traits that we fleshed out into characters.

The difficulty with so much source material was that we knew what Thomas Jefferson was doing on almost every day of his adult life. This made it very difficult for us as historical fiction authors to stray from the historical record. If we wanted a scene in the rain, we knew that historians could point to the letters and tell us that it wasn’t raining. In those instances and others, we used an author’s note to explain our choices and changes.

How would you describe the influence of women on the Jefferson and Randolph families, for better or for worse? Are they their pride? Undoing? Source of strength? Or calamity? (Or, of course, some combination of these, and yet more!)

It was clear to us that none of the men in the Jefferson or Randolph families could have achieved anything they did without the women at their side. This was especially the case for Thomas Jefferson who derived enormous strength from his daughter, and her husband, who literally ran his father-in-law’s plantation in Jefferson’s absence so that he could devote himself to politics. Patsy also served as Jefferson’s hostess both at the White House and Monticello. She was his confidant. And in times of political crisis, she was even his shield. When he had to prove to the American public that he was a family man, Patsy and her children came to his rescue.

And, of course, most of what we know about Jefferson is what Patsy allowed us to know. After he died in 1826, she set about on a three-year project editing his papers and letters and, in the process, burning those she felt were too scandalous, sensitive, or otherwise problematic for others to see. This was not an entirely uncommon practice, but in this case Patsy was very consciously legacy-building–her father’s legacy and that of the new nation, as well.

The enormous sacrifice of the women in early America is often overlooked and un-celebrated. We hope America’s First Daughter helps to change that.

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