Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Elizabeth. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about the Lazare Family Saga.
It’s a pleasure to be here! I’ve been following your reviews for years.
My series is about a multiracial family discovering where they belong in the young United States, from antebellum Charleston to the Wild West. Book One, Necessary Sins, focuses on a Catholic priest who grapples with doubt, his family’s secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner’s wife.
Joseph Lazare and his two sisters grow up believing their black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother—until the summer they learn she was an African slave. While his sisters make very different choices, Joseph struggles to transcend the flesh by becoming a celibate priest.
Then young Father Joseph meets Tessa Conley, a devout Irish immigrant who shares his passions for music and botany. Joseph must conceal his true feelings as Tessa marries another man—a plantation owner who treats her like property. Acting on their love for each other will ruin Joseph and Tessa in this world and damn them in the next. Or will it?
Where did the idea for this story originate?
This saga grew out of its settings. When I was eight years old, I first visited Charleston, South Carolina. I fell in love with the architecture, the gardens, and wildlife. When I was twelve, my family moved to the Front Range of Colorado. I fell in love with the mountains and the prairies. I wanted to inhabit both places before the encroachment of modernity. Historically too, beauty and ugliness existed side by side in these settings, in the enslavement of African-Americans and the destruction of the Native American way of life. I read Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds, John Jakes’s North and South, and Alex Haley’s Roots, which gave me a wide enough canvas to unite these places I loved, by creating my own multi-generational family saga. By making the central family multiracial, I am able to dig deep into the conflicts and injustices at the heart of the American Dream.
What historical resources helped you bring the Lazare Family’s world to life on the page?
I’ve spent almost three decades researching this saga. I’ve consulted hundreds of sources, which I list on my website. I mention the most important sources in my Author’s Notes at the end of each novel. My second home has always been a library, and I’ve worked in one since graduate school. Beyond books, visiting the same places as my characters helped me bring them to life, from a beach in South Carolina to a fort along the Overland Trail in what is now Wyoming. Paintings from the 19th century are a great resource. Surviving material culture like clothing, furniture, and horse-drawn vehicles has also been tremendously helpful. I read as many primary sources as I could, the writings of people who lived during the time period of my novels.
Which character in the Lazare Family Saga do you feel you have the most in common with?
There are aspects of me in several of my characters. To quote Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.” I feel closest to the patriarch of the Lazare family, René Lazare. He has my sense of humor and my skepticism. He’s the most progressive of the characters, so he feels the most contemporary. I think that’s why I didn’t want scenes from his point-of-view; I’m proud that most of my characters have authentic 19th-century psyches. But René is the voice of reason and stands in for me in many ways. After my editor suggested I write an Epilogue from his point-of-view, René gave it to me in first person, whereas the rest of the saga is in limited third-person point-of-view.
Which character do you feel you have the least in common with?
Byron Cromwell because he’s very devious. He thinks his intelligence entitles him to power. He’s determined to get ahead in life no matter the collateral damage. He’s good at reading other people and exploiting their weaknesses. He’d run right over an introvert like me!
Did any scene in the Lazare Family Saga challenge you as a writer?
Almost every scene! So much is beyond my personal experience as a middle-class, 21st-century white woman and required massive amounts of research. That’s why this saga has taken me so long to write. Any scene from a male point-of-view. Any scene from the point-of-view of a person of color. Any scene from the point-of-view of a person of faith, from Joseph’s Catholicism to Náhgo’s native spirituality. I had to immerse myself in these experiences till I felt like they were part of me.
Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing the Lazare Family Saga?
I quite liked one of the alternate openings to the saga, but it set the wrong tone and couldn’t exist alongside my current opening. I have thousands of pages of previous drafts, and I’ve trimmed many parts of the final draft. Some of that was painful to lose, but the revisions made the story stronger and I don’t regret them. The beauty of being an independent author is that I’m not forced to cut anything. I carefully consider the advice of my critique partners, beta readers, and editor, but the final decisions are up to me—so if I really liked a scene or turn of phrase and it fit into the whole, it got to stay.
If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your lead characters in a big-screen adaptation of the Lazare Family Saga, who would you cast?
I have whole Pinterest boards devoted to fantasy cast members! I’ll confine myself to Book One of my series, Necessary Sins. I’d want actors with African ancestry to portray my characters with African ancestry: Brian Stokes Mitchell as René Lazare, Wentworth Miller as his son Joseph, Jennifer Beals, and Zendaya as his daughters Catherine and Hélène respectively. Keira Knightley would join them as Joseph’s soul mate, Tessa Conley. I know Keira can rock a 19th-century gown! Since this is a fantasy, the Lazare Family Saga would be adapted not for the big screen but into a long-running streaming series like Outlander.
What do you hope readers take from their experience of the Lazare Family Saga?
I want to transport my readers to the 18th century Caribbean, to antebellum Charleston, and to a Cheyenne village. I want to make my readers laugh and cry. I want them to rejoice and grieve with my characters. I hope I draw readers out of their comfort zones. I hope they see American history in a vivid new way and not just through rose-colored glasses. I hope that my readers will walk away with a little more empathy for their fellow humans.
What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?
I’m hard at work revising the fourth and final book in the Lazare Family Saga, Sweet Medicine, which will release in Spring 2021. After that, I’m determined to find the perfect narrator for the audiobooks, so I’ll get to do a casting call after all. I wonder if Brian Stokes Mitchell is available…
About Elizabeth Bell:
Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade. At the age of fourteen, she chose a pen name and vowed to become a published author. That same year, she began the Lazare Family Saga. It took her a couple decades to get it right. New generations kept demanding attention, and the saga became four epic historical novels.
After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library. She works there to this day.
Elizabeth is an active member of the Historical Novel Society, and she loves chatting with fellow readers, writers, and history buffs. Visit her at elizabethbellauthor.com