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Nicole Glover on Pocket Diaries, Floating Books, and Creating the Fantastical World of her Debut Novel

by Brendan Dowling on July 15, 2021

With The Conductors, Nicole Glover creates a fascinating alternate reality—a Reconstruction-era Philadelphia where magic exists and is regulated by the government—in which readers will want to get lost. Hettie Rhodes, a former conductor on the Underground Railroad, spends her days working as an in-demand seamstress and her nights as a detective, tackling the cases that the white police force ignore. Hettie is aided in her pursuits by her husband, Benjy, a former Conductor like Hettie but now a gifted blacksmith. When an acquaintance is murdered, Hettie and Benjy dive into an investigation that causes them to explore the many facets of Black Philadelphia, while also confronting dormant issues in their relationship and events from their past. In her debut novel, Glover confidently creates a complex world rooted in real-life history, as well as a gift for empathetically delving into the interior lives of her characters. She talked with us about filling in the lives of her supporting characters, her research process, and what the future holds for Hettie and Benjy.

This book is so many things–a detective story, a fantasy novel, historical fiction, a romance, and a story about female friendship. Can you talk about the books that were important to you growing up and also as a writer?

I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm. I read tons; lots of stories, some just to kill time, some just because they looked interesting. If I had to start with one that stood out, one of the first places is the American Girl Series, Addie in particular. My grandmother had given me one of the books, Addie Saves the Day. For a long time it was the only one I owned. It was the first story I remember reading that was fascinating in the way the characters were portrayed in the series. I revisited the book when I was a bit older and the story still held up. I read all those different series at the time. The other ones were a little kiddy, but the Addie ones still felt relevant and interesting even though I was older.

In that vein, I read some other historical stuff. I read a lot of historical fiction for some reason as a kid. I’ve always been a big fan of mysteries, from classics like Agatha Christies and Sherlock Holmes short stories as well as more current stuff. Fantasy wise, I read a lot of different fantasy books. I remember I was in my middle school library and I saw these really colorful books. They were Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern series. I noticed them mostly because of the colors. They were really thick and they took up a whole shelf. That was one of the first series I actively went out and read all of the books.

After that I started reading all different types. Fantasy’s always been a genre I’ve returned to, I’m excited by the different writers coming out recently, as well as exploring some old stuff too: the classics, Octavia Butler. I read [Butler] a little bit later, after college. I found some anthologies that had some of her short stories in them. I’d never been a fan of short stories, but I remember being in awe of how she was able to concisely tell a really big idea in so few pages. Her writing’s always very clear. I recently reread The Parable of the Sower and it’s refreshing, its relevant, and it still feels modern even though the book’s about thirty years old. She does really interesting things with her language that I’ve always admired. When I started reading more of her books, I really paid attention to that.

You create such a huge world in such an economical amount of time. Can you talk about what went into creating the rules of magic that govern the world of the book?

I think it was an organic process since I started from researching the history and getting the foundation of what the world was like at that time. Then I could decide how much I wanted to change and how much I wanted to height and exaggerate with the magical elements. Some of the enchantments are layered on top of historical stuff that I tweaked. I wanted to have magic be an integral part of the book, so I tried to include it in every chapter, either in a big way or a small way, because I really wanted to drive home that this was a world where everybody could do magic. The only thing that restricts you is skill, time, and ability. I wanted to make sure magic was a part of it. That was the fun part for me of writing this book, thinking, “Where can I put magic in?” Even if it’s in the background or something.  Like a spoon stirring in the pot, or books flying around, which is always a visual I like. Then with all those rules in place, I had to make sure I didn’t break them, no matter how tempting it is.

Hettie’s such a compelling character to center this world. Can you talk about how you created her?

A lot of times I say you take parts of yourself and put them into your characters. It’s never 100% you, but certain parts of you that you really like and want to bring out. In some ways, Hettie is more of a person who actually says things or is really forthcoming about doing certain things and being really active, being like, “There’s a problem I want to do something about it. No one else can do it, it might as well be me.” Also it was thinking of giving her motivations. Her key motivation is her relationship with her sister and her hope in trying to find her sister. That was one of the central points of her character that actually influenced how I framed her relationships around the other characters as well—her perception of her sister being the most important thing.  I had to make sure I carried that and have it impact her other relationships around her as well, because for good or for bad, all those things are connected.

Another aspect was thinking about her different skill sets. I liked her being one of the best magic users and being proud of it, and at some points gloating about it. She makes a point to remind people that she’s the best of the best basically. Similarly with her skills being a dressmaker and a sewer, giving her the confidence to say, “If I want to quit a job, I can quit it. You can’t make me stay here.” A fun thing for me was making her more of a storyteller, which I really liked doing because I always liked to play it off as her either trying to bluff people or tell other stories or make fun of things. It was a really fun thing for me to build into. I also had interest in my research getting into more of the African American folk tales and stories and that was a good way for me to incorporate that, through her.

You really immerse the reader into Reconstruction-era Philadelphia. What was your research process like?

I always say research is ongoing. I’m still researching for other stuff. (laughs) I always find different nuances. I got the foundation from the time period and location and then building from there, I found I couldn’t do research in just one point in time. I had to go as far back as the early 1800s. Even though I don’t always include all that stuff beforehand in the past of the book, it’s for me to know it so I can work with it better and show those influences throughout the story. Some points I narrowed down specifically. I found a bunch of books about Philadelphia in the 1870s. I honed in and started looking into particular people who were well known throughout Philadelphia in that time period. One piece of research that I was really happy to find was a bunch of pocket diaries by Emily Davis that covered a couple of years of the Civil War. She was a middle class dressmaker. It was basically about her day to day life, from 1863 through 1865. It also covered some key events in the Civil War and afterwards. It had her thoughts about the events, but a lot of the stuff was her regular day to day life. That was fascinating, because it was a real opportunity to see smaller, interior lives. Other topics I researched were things that really interested me like science and art. I always feel like I’m finding new stuff. Sometimes it makes me worried how much did I include and not even know. It’s not supposed to be a history lesson, but give the reader a strong sense of place and time.

It was really refreshing to read a historical novel where we see gay and trans characters living their lives and their sexuality or gender isn’t the most important thing about the character.

For those characters, it was my opinion that the LGBT community has always existed, we just erase them from history. In some ways history is warped, saying they never existed to begin with. But I’m pretty sure they had been [around], you just don’t hear about them. That’s been my approach with these characters. In particular with Sy, I was inspired by all the stories of soldiers who disguised themselves. I remember coming across an article—I can’t remember if it was a Canadian or British soldier, it was trying to say it was a female servant who ran away and became a male soldier in the war, and there was evidence saying that this person was trans and had always identified as male. That sparked my attention, when I was building out the character of Psy. With all of the supporting cast, it’s always drawn from different historical tales of people who existed that I found interesting throughout the war, whether it was soldiers, people who worked for the underground railroad, or people who were working through the camps. I wanted to make sure that the supporting cast was drawn from those historical anecdotes that I found.

How you decided to set this story Hettie and Benjy in the 1970s with all these years of experience behind them. Can you talk about how you decided to tell their story at this point in time, rather than their origin story?

There are a couple of layers. One layer being I didn’t want to write a story that was set against a slavery time period. When I first started writing this, it was after different movies and media were centered just before the Civil War or the antebellum period. The Reconstruction period intrigued me because there are so few stories set in that time period. I remember when I first learned about it in history class, it was basically half a page in the history books about it. Maybe not half a page, maybe two pages, but very little about it. (laughs) It intrigued me, and the more I did research, I realized there were so many things going on, even during the sliver of time that I focus on in this book.

Another aspect was that I liked the idea of seeing them with a few years of experience behind their backs. That was more interesting and compelling to me.  I could have written a story about their adventures as Underground Railroad conductors but I felt like I knew the end of that story. They rescue people, maybe they do some spy stuff in the Civil War, that sort of thing. But I felt like I knew the end of that story, I knew where it was going to go. It wasn’t too intriguing other than the details. But with this, this is more than choosing unsolved mysteries, this is using their experiences during the Civil War. It was more interesting to me because I didn’t know exactly where it was going to go. I felt like there are more opportunities.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

It’s a big one. Whenever I go somewhere, I either find a library or I make sure I get a library card.  I moved to this place a few years back, and the first thing I did here was get a library card. It’s one of the first things I do. When I was still working in my office, the public library was right across the street. I would visit basically every lunch break. I would go for a walk and then spend the other half in the library atrium scribbling away in my notebook, jotting out notes and brainstorming ideas. I actually wrote the bulk of The Conductors at the library. All the brainstorming tinkering stuff, all that fun stuff. Plus all the helpful resources I got from there. If I didn’t have a library I’d probably be broke from buying all those books. It’s a big part of my life. I always make sure to find where the library is.