Winifred Conkling learned about Emily and Mary Edmonson and their attempted escape on the Pearl when a statue of the sisters was erected in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2010, at the site of the building that once held the Bruin and Hill slave pen. (The building now houses commercial office space.) Curious, Conkling began to research the story of the girls’ journey to freedom and was thrilled to find extensive primary source materials, including an account written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling nineteenth century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the autobiography of Daniel Drayton, one of the captains of the Pearl. 

Conkling studied journalism at Northwestern University and received her master of arts in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written more than thirty nonfiction books for adults, most involving health and consumer topics. Her first book for children, Sylvia & Aki, won the 2012 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for Older Readers and the 2012 Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and three children.

Author Q&A

1. Favorite books/authors who inspired you?

I love Kate DiCamillo and David Almond, John Green and Rainbow Rowell, Russell Freedman and Steve Sheinkin, Sarah Ellis and Rita Williams-Garcia. Oh, there’s Gary Schmidt and Richard Peck. I’m not good at picking favorites. I love stories with voice—all of them, I think.

2. What’s your writing routine?

I’m more the obsessive type than the stick-to-a-routine type. When I’m on fire, I’ll write twelve hours a day or more. The rest of the time I feel sort of brain-dead and I can go weeks without writing anything more exciting than emails and author questionnaires. (I know I should advocate the butt-in-chair, work-through-the-dry-spells ethic, but that’s not really who I am.)

3. What was the most exciting part to write?

I was thrilled to discover so many primary sources to help me piece together the events recounted in Passenger on the Pearl. Very few African American slave stories have survived and fewer still have so much evidence to back them up. I am honored to have been able to tell this story.

4. Which part was most difficult?

I wrestled with the section describing the trials of captains Drayton and Sayres. I wanted to include this material—it’s essential backstory—but I didn’t want this part to hijack Emily’s story. When writing history, it’s so tempting to get sidetracked in the interesting asides. My challenge was to stay focused on Emily.

5. Is there one particular character in your book you most relate to?

I suppose I relate most to Mary, Emily’s older sister. She had a strong maternal nature and wanted to keep Emily safe.

6. What advice would you give aspiring writers?

If a story is interesting to you, it’s probably interesting to other people, too. There are lots of nonfiction stories out there that deserve to be told.

7. Cats or dogs?

Dogs, rescue dogs. My husband can only tolerate one dog at a time, but if I had my way, I’d have a small pack. When I write, my dog Toby curls up under my desk or in a sunny spot in the hallway.

8. If writing weren’t part of your daily work, what career would you like to have?

I’d like to be an artist—a painter, mosaic artist, or photographer. Color and design make me feel good.

9. Which author would you most like to spend the day with?

That’s a tough one. Maybe E. B. White. We could go for a walk and look for spiders.

10. What’s your secret superpower?

I can’t tell you or it wouldn’t be secret. If you insist: I can read my dog’s mind. (Not much to it, really.) Also, I can rationalize almost anything. And sometimes I have great parking karma.

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