Her latest novel, MRS LEE AND MRS GRAY illuminates the remarkable friendship between Mrs. Robert E Lee and Selina Norris Gray, a servant born into slavery at Arlington. The discovery of an 1872 letter from Mrs Gray to Mrs Lee became the catalyst for this compelling story of loyalty and courage that defied personal tragedies and the tumult of the Civil War.
Known for her historical novels of mystery and suspense that reviewers have called “beautiful” and “memorable” Dorothy has taken on a new challenge, painstakingly reconstructing a lost world in biographical fiction that touches readers’ minds and hearts.
She enjoys traveling with her husband, collecting antique ephemera, and playing Frisbee with Jake, the couple’s golden retriever. A native Southerner, she currently lives in the Texas hill country.
DOROTHY’S TOP TEN TRAVEL EXPERIENCES
A steamship cruise to a working sheep ranch in Queenstown, New Zealand. The sheep men sheared a sheep in under a minute. Amazing to watch.
Riding the ferry with the locals from Salt Kettle to Hamilton, Bermuda. Shopping at Trimmingham’s and having Outerbridges she -crab soup.
Traversing the Panama Canal aboard the MS Nieuw Amsterdam. The canal is a mind-boggling achievement that cost many men their lives during construction.
Witnessing volcano eruptions on the Island of Hawaii and watching the sunrise at Haleakala.
Worshiping on Christmas Eve in Christchurch Cathedral, Christchurch, New Zealand. The boys’ choir was truly angelic. Best Christmas Eve ever.
Flying into Pappeete, Tahiti at 3 in the morning bleary-eyed and excited.
Watching Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone National Park, California
Driving through vast herds of elk at dusk in the Grand Tetons
Eating a Cuban sandwich in Old St. Augustine, Florida. Best Cuban sandwich ever.
Waking up on Kiawah Island, South Carolina.
Why did you choose to write Southern historical fiction?
I was born in the south and except for a few years living elsewhere, I’ve lived my life as a southern girl. I love the long heritage of Southern storytelling, the eccentricities, the pace of life here, the emphasis on family, the cadence of southern speech, and the extraordinary history that shaped the south. That’s what I hope to share with my readers.
You spent several years in higher education. Why did you choose to start a new career as a novelist?
I grew up surrounded by books, stories, and poems. My daddy loved poetry and could recite many poems from memory. From the time I learned to read, I devoured every book at hand. When I was twelve years old, I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. Harper Lee’s book has been cited so often as “the book that changed my life” that it has become a cliche to say so, but as a young Southern girl reading it just as the first whispers of the Civil Rights movement were rippling across the south, I was profoundly moved and inspired. I enjoyed my years in academia, but, as Samuel Lover said, the itch of literature came over me, and nothing could cure it but the scratching of a pen.
How do novels set in the Victorian era relate to modern readers?
The characters in the novels struggle with the same questions of life and faith as do today’s readers. How do you forgive those who have wronged you? What is the price of holding onto blame? How do you learn to trust again after experiencing a great injustice? The societal challenges they faced –the role of women , questions of race and identity, are still in evidence today.
You are known for historical mystery and suspense novels such as The Bracelet and A Respectable Actress. What inspired you to take on the challenge of writing biographical fiction?
I am intrigued to discover new historical materials that give us more information about the people and places we think we know. I’ve studied the life of General Robert E Lee for twenty years, yet apart from generally cursory and unflattering references to his wife in the many biographies of her famous husband, I knew little about Mary Anna Randolph Custis. When an 1872 letter to Mrs Lee from Selina Norris Gray, who had been a slave at Arlington surfaced in 2008, I set out to learn more about Mary and about her relationship with Mrs Gray. In Mary I discovered an exceptionally well-educated and outspoken young woman who became the editor of her father’s memoir, an accomplished painter, and a passionate supporter of emancipation. Selina Norris Gray was a revelation to me. Here is a woman who as a slave at Arlington confronted the Union soldiers who were looting the house, and making off with “Miss Mary’s things.” She is credited with saving some of those things that had belonged to President Washington. I had never before heard her story and the more I learned about Selina the more I admired her. I thought it was past time to bring her story to light. Writing Mrs Lee and Mrs Gray was the deepest pleasure I’ve had as a novelist.
How much research goes into your novels?
Quite a lot. For this book I reread six biographies of General Lee and a collection of his wartime papers. I read Mary’s letters and journals, a series of letters she and Robert wrote to each other during their courtship, and devoured all of the information available about Selina Norris Gray and her family. I traveled to Arlington to see for myself the parlor where Mary and Robert were married, the gardens she tended with her mother, and the small cabin where Selina lived with her family. My task was to dramatize their stories in a way that would engage readers while remaining true to the historical record.
What do you do to get away from it all?
My husband and I have always loved travel. Seeing new places stimulates my imagination like nothing else can. But when our schedules don’t allow for long get-aways, we take day trips to historical sites, to the beach, or go hiking with our golden retriever. We love old movies from the 20’s 30’s and 40’s as well as almost anything on Masterpiece Theater. Some nights we make popcorn and watch a double feature.
What books are currently on your night stand?
I’m reading a ton of biographical fiction these days.Recently I finished America’s First Daughter, Stephanie Dray’s novel cowritten by Laura Kamoie about the life of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, and Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End, about the final years of the life of Mark Twain. There are more on my TBR pile that I’m looking forward to reading when I have time.