When he answers the phone from his home near Atlanta, author Daren Wang is standing before a wall filled with yellow sticky notes, brainstorming scenes for his second novel. This is what life is like now for the former executive director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival.
After a 12-year run at the helm of the "largest independent book festival in the country," Wang left his position Jan. 1 to write full-time. Instead of issuing the invitations, now he's the one fielding calls to discuss his well-received debut, "The Hidden Light of Northern Fires," a twist on the story of the Civil War that is rooted in his childhood home of Town Line, N.Y. - the only city north of the Mason-Dixon Line to secede from the Union. (The small hamlet didn't officially rejoin the United States until 1946.)
"I grew up hearing rumors that our home had been part of the Underground Railroad. I also heard our house was haunted, and they seemed about the same caliber," recalls Wang. "About 10 or 11 years ago, I came across an oral history of the Willis family that had built the house and confirmed all these stories that I thought, at first, were spurious."
Wang then dove into a "rabbit hole of research," looking for whatever he could find regarding Western New York in the 19th century, which was a hotbed of religious radicalism (Joseph Smith), women's suffrage (Seneca Falls) and abolition oratory (Frederick Douglass). He found it odd that Town Line, founded by patriarch Nathan Willis, had so few remnants of the family's impact - no street names, no historical markers.
But then, as he learned more about daughter Mary Willis' role in spiriting escaped slaves into Canada, Wang recognized how at odds the Willis family was with the small community's political leadership. Mary Willis was a college-educated feminist and abolitionist, completely out of step with the predominantly German immigrant farm community. That outsider feeling was one Wang could empathize with growing up in the same house.
"I'm half-Chinese," he says. "I'm the closest thing to a minority that this town ever saw, essentially. There were challenges."
There were challenges, too, in constructing the story. At first, Wang felt the need to include all of Willis' 17 siblings in the narrative. When he finally let go of the facts to tell a rich tale of unwavering principles, shifting loyalties and unexpected love, he was able to create a heroine who is not always likeable, but remains steadfast and honorable in the face of threats to both life and liberty.
Wang's novel comes at a time when the nation once again struggles with its troubled racial history - an emboldened white nationalist movement, the debate over the removal of Jim Crow-era Civil War monuments, taking a knee to quietly protest police brutality.
Thirty years of living in the South has given Wang a unique perspective. "We are absolutely still fighting this war," says Wang. "Now it happens at the cash register and on the tax rolls. The battle lines haven't shifted that much."
Wang recently completed a 50-city book tour, which he chronicled for The Bitter Southerner in a series of columns, "Tall Tales and Cocktails." In each place, he'd invite a fellow author or two to talk shop and search for the best bourbon cocktail.
When he arrives in Savannah for its book festival in a few days, Wang will find no shortage of places to continue his search or writers to join him on his quest.
Book: "The Hidden Light of Northern Fires"
When: 4 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: First Baptist Church Sanctuary, Chippewa Square
Also: Daren Wang will be back in Savannah at 4 p.m. April 8 for the free lecture series at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home, 207 E. Charlton St. Info at flanneryoconnorhome.org or 912-233-6014.