As part of the Quick Center’s Inspired Writers Series, author Margaret Wilkerson Sexton spoke with professor Phil Kay about her new book during an event on Thursday, Feb. 16. The virtual talk focused on her novel “On the Rooftop” and her writing process.
“On the Rooftop” is the story of a Black woman and her daughters living in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. The mother, Vivian, is the mastermind behind her daughters’ success as singers. As Sexton and Kay discussed, each of Vivian’s daughters eventually enters marriages that she disapproves of.
This idea for the basis of the book came from an unlikely source: Sexton’s mother. She suggested the idea of adapting the story of Fiddler on the Roof–about a Jewish father, his daughters and their marriages–to be from the perspective of a Black mother.
“Now this is very common, everyone in my family always has a brilliant idea for me that I need to turn into a book,” Sexton explained at the event. “I wasn’t super hopeful about the conversation.”
This idea ended up as the inspiration behind “On the Rooftop,” with some changes. The original idea was for the book to take place in Sexton’s hometown of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Sexton explained during the event that she decided to change the location as well as make the overall tone of the book more hopeful.
As for her writing process, the event featured an extensive discussion about research and finding plot inspiration. Sexton explained that she reads nonfiction accounts of historical events in order to inform how she writes her historical fiction novels.
For “On the Rooftop” in particular, she researched music and the community surrounding it in the Fillmore District during the time that the book takes place. The story in the book was shaped by real history.
“I feel like we get these gifts from history because the fact pattern of the situation actually just lent itself to this coalescence of community and you know, in politics, and race and also music,” Sexton said.
Sexton, a former lawyer, explained that she “hates” research but that it is an important component in her process and finds plot inspiration in past real-world events.
After writing about Katrina in the past, Sexton knew she wanted this book to be different from her other work. For “On the Rooftop,” the author deliberately set out to write a book that is joyful, despite the hardships the characters face. This is another parallel between the book and its inspiration, “Fiddler on the Roof”.
“For this book, I wanted it to be different … You leave the play Fiddler on the Roof and it’s a terrible, tragic story, obviously, but what we remember is the music and we remember Tevye’s humor and remember the tight-knit bonds between the members of the community that endure. And that’s what I wanted to do.”
The event ended after some discussion of the relationships that help drive the story. In particular, Sexton discussed writing the interracial relationship between two characters and how that differed from her own experiences with her husband.
“On the Rooftop” was named a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick and was awarded an NAACP Image Award. It is Sexton’s third novel.