– Atlanta author’s debut novel is born from his childhood home that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad
– Written by Rob Peecher –
The Hidden Light of Northern Fires may be Daren Wang’s debut novel, but it wouldn’t be right to say that he is a newcomer to the literary world.
As co-founder and immediate past president of the renowned Decatur Book Festival, Wang’s ties to the literary world are extensive. So when he stumbled upon a wonderful story – albeit one that he lived with for many years – Wang’s first instinct was to try to convince other authors to see what he saw in the project.
“I had enough author friends through my work with the Festival, and I kept telling them about the story and trying to convince them to do it,” Wang said. “But they encouraged me to do it. You should never give your story away.”
On Sunday, Jan. 28, Wang will be at the Georgia Writers Museum to talk about The Hidden Light of Northern Fires. Released in August, the novel was recently announced as a finalist for the prestigious Townsend Award, and Wang has been nominated for Georgia Author of the Year.
The story was clearly Wang’s to write.
Though The Hidden Light of Northern Fires is a novel, it is based in the true story of Town Line, New York, Wang’s hometown. The novel features the farmhouse where Wang grew up.
In the early 1860s, in the first year of the Civil War, Town Line was the only city north of the Mason Dixon Line to secede from the Union. Though no records exist to indicate the reason for the decision, Wang suspects the town’s secession was prompted by Union conscription. Most of the population of the town were recent immigrants from German states – people who had fled European wars. Wang suspects the decision to secede was prompted by the townspeople’s desire to not be involved in another conflict. Though he notes that the town still fulfilled its conscriptions requirements for the Union army.
Town Line did not officially reenter the union until 1946.
Wang’s story, though, is set during the Civil War. Its focus is on the Willis family. Nathan Willis owned the farm around which the town grew. Nathan’s daughter, Mary Willis, was a college-educated woman who ran a station on the Underground Railroad on that farm.
And it was this same farm where Wang lived as he was growing up. But Wang said he didn’t know the stories growing up, and he learned the stories that became his novel while living in Georgia.
“I grew up hearing stories of Town Line’s secession and knowing a little about the Underground Railroad story,” Wang said. “But I really didn’t know these stories until one day I found on the internet an oral history about Mary Willis and the Willis family. I never heard the name growing up, and I never knew the history. When I found that oral history and realized what a rich history this place had, I really went into a deep dive into it.”
Wang said he spent seven years researching and writing the novel. He acknowledged that writing history can often lead an author on long tangents that may not be productive. He recalled spending three months down one particular “rabbit hole” that provided him with fascinating details that did not turn up in the book.
He learned, for instance, that both Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train and funeral train passed through the farm in Town Line where the Willis family – and later Wang – lived.
Wang said months of his research were spent poring over historical records – Census records, estate papers, even the agricultural newsletters of Upstate New York from the time period.
Wang said that knowing so many authors and being involved for more than a decade in the Decatur Book Festival helped prepare him to write a novel.
“My work with the Book Festival was really an advantage for me. Because of the Festival, I had access to a lot of really fine writers who were willing to offer me advice. It was like a masterclass available to me through the network of writers I got to know through the festival,” Wang said.
Though he has spent much of his career in the literary world, Wang said he did not set out to write a novel.
“I always thought that writing a novel was far too intimidating to take on,” Wang said. “But I felt like the story would never leave me alone.”
Though The Hidden Light of Northern Fires is set in New York during the Civil War, Wang said the story is not without influence from the 30 years he has lived in the South.
“I’ve worked with a lot of Southern writers, and I think the South considers its history in different ways than the North does,” Wang said. “I feel in some ways that there’s this vast landscape of history that hasn’t been explored up North in this area with the same kind of mindset that the South has.”
He said an author friend described his novel as “Northern Gothic.”
Though he is spending a lot of time now promoting the debut novel, Wang said he is already working on an outline for his next novel, which he intends to set in Western New York as well.
Wang will appear at the Georgia Writers Museum from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 28, to discuss The Hidden Light of Northern Fires.
WHAT: The Hidden Light of Northern Fires book signing event with author, Daren Wang
WHEN: Jan. 28, 2-4 p.m.
WHERE: Georgia Writers Museum, 109 South Jefferson Ave., Eatonton