Meet Regina Porter, author of critically acclaimed The Travelers, described as “a sweeping and devastating debut novel following two American families, one white and one black, from the 1950s through Barack Obama’s first year as president, and grappling with America’s painful history of racism and sexism.” We asked Regina about her experience writing The Travelers, which is featured on our current Action Book Club recommended reading list.
How long have you been writing, and how did you get started?
I have been writing since I was a little girl. Songs and poetry. With the poetry, I take after my mother, who I am told was a fine poet in her own right. It’s probably why I have a soft spot for poets.
The Travelers spans six decades. Was it difficult to cover so many different eras—or did you enjoy digging into that research?
I did not stop to think about how many decades the novel was traversing. If I had, during the initial writing process, I would have become overwhelmed and quit. I took it piecemeal. Writing one character at a time, though the stories did not always unfold chronologically. Writing the characters and world-building required thinking about their habitat, their circumstances, love interests, jobs. I must visualize a character and hear their voice before embarking on a story. Once I see the character, then I can go back and fill them in, with the history informing their lives. Music helps me anchor characters in time and place. Music is another way to track history, especially American history.
Which character in The Travelers are you most excited for readers to meet?
That’s a tough question. I like all the characters for different reasons. Eddie Christie was the hardest to write because he’s a good person, pretty much inside and out. Marilynne Robinson said goodness is difficult to write about and she’s right. We’re ingrained to distrust goodness and to find goodness boring, despite the Golden Rule. Agnes is the strongest and most mercurial character. I could not live through what she lived through and raise children and thrive, but Agnes finds a way to make peace with her past. Exciting—Eloise, who goes her own way and says what she wants to say and is entirely herself from a young age. I wrote Eloise for the same reason I decided the two men who run the farm in Brittany are long-time lovers…there are and were real life Eloises out there and gay men and women who lived their lives into old age as couples. So, yes, Eloise is exciting. She was always two or three steps ahead of me on the page.
How does The Travelers relate to our current Action Book Club theme “We Are Family,” which celebrates families of all kinds and how they shape us?
Families come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and varieties. It’s important to remember because homophobia is still an issue in the African-American community. I don’t write characters to teach lessons. I simply believe there are stories that are worth telling and sharing. If my novel hits a nerve—makes someone more open-minded about race or sexual orientation—activates tolerance in our human landscape—then I’ll take it. There is no one community. Humanity is the community. Maybe we will realize this before it’s too late.
What are you reading right now?
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emez; Jonathan Coe’s Middle England; just recently finished reading Fatima Bhuto’s Runaways, which I loved. And the works of two writers I was on panels with at the Brooklyn Book Festival: Ruchika Tomar’s A Prayer for the Travelers and Ben Phillipe’s A Field Guide to the North American Teenager.
Thank you for talking with us, Regina! Explore a reading guide for The Travelers here. Inspired to do more? Start an Action Book Club, which combines reading with community service, and choose The Travelers as the first book you read.