A conversation with author Nathan Harris, the recently honored Gaines Award winner

Seattle author Nathan Harris’ debut novel The Sweetness of Water has been recognized by American icons like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. The novel was long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize, and last month, Harris was also presented with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s 2021 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.

BRAF’s $15,000 award is given each year to a rising-star African American fiction author. Read more about the honor here, and watch this year’s virtual award ceremony here.

The Sweetness of Water tells the story of two freedmen who form an unexpected alliance with a Georgia farmer as the Civil War is coming to an end. Harris discussed the inspirations and research process behind his debut novel, as well as how it feels to be nationally recognized for his craft.

Tell us what inspired you to write The Sweetness of Water.

Inspiration is a strange thing and comes from so many places of influence. For one, I love historical fiction as a reader. Some of my favorite novels (The Known World, Good Lord Bird, Cold Mountain), are also based during or around the Civil War. Beyond that, though, I was really intrigued by the period of time immediately following the war’s end. Where did freed people wish to go? What were their desires? I wanted to explore that moment in time, so I took it upon myself to inhabit those characters, and my novel came from that. 

Since the novel takes place in the Civil War era, what did the research process entail while you were writing the story?

You always want to get the facts right. You always want the reader to feel like the setting feels authentic, so they can be fully immersed in the story without any distractions. You learn to find a balance between realism and the necessities of simple storytelling. In historical fiction, you can’t have one without the other. So I strove to get everything right, but the story comes first.

What perspective do you hope readers gain after reading The Sweetness of Water?

I hope they earn a greater sense of empathy for others. There are so many different perspectives in this novel, and even the most evil characters have a reason for their actions, reasons we can all understand. I hope folks see perspectives that aren’t their own, and try to understand them. I believe there are real-world applications for this. On a community level, we could all do with trying to understand our neighbors better.

Since 2021, your work has been recognized by Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. How does it feel to know your work is inspiring such important figures?

Truly surreal. It is a level of support I never expected but am grateful for everyday. It also helps bring a wider audience to my work, and to see how so many readers are connecting with the story who might not have otherwise picked it up had it not been amplified by such icons? Well, it makes me even more grateful.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

To not stop writing. More importantly, be patient with whatever work you produce. It’s so difficult these days to just stay above water in your daily routine. The worst thing you can do is be hard on yourself regarding your creative endeavors. Be critical, sure, but take it one day at a time! There is no rush. Allow your work to sit, to mature, and eventually it will be of the quality you wish it to be. Again, patience is key.