The Game Plan

12 Questions with J.M. Duke, Author of “Yes’m’”

Posted by Carten Cordell / Thursday, November 29th, 2012

book cover

"Yes'm'" examines the relationship between a girl and her black maid in rural 1950s Virginia. / Photo courtesy of J.M. Duke


Author J.M. Duke will introduce her new book, “Yes’m’,” at the Manassas Museum this Sunday.

Where: The Manassas Museum, 9101 Prince William St., Manassas
When: Sunday, Dec. 2, 2 p.m.
Cost: Free
Call: 703-368-1873

So you’re a Manassas native. Can you shed some light on your background here?
I was born and raised here. I graduated from Osbourn High School in the class of 1969.

When did you want to write?
I’ve always wanted to become a writer. I’ve written for most of my life. I was not a great speaker, so I did a lot of writing to express myself when I was younger.

Can you give us a brief summary of the plot of “Yes’m’”?
I’m trying to show the interracial relationships of the 1960s that preempted the Civil Rights Movement, especially through the relationship between a caretaker (Pearl) and a little girl (Sammie). Stuck in the era of injustice, the caretaker broadened the horizons of the little girl.

Where did you get the idea to write this book?
About 12 people in my high school class created a book called “Manassas, The Times They Were a Changin’” to benefit the museum and help restore the Liberia Plantation. We put together some memories about some of the people from town from the 1950s to 1969. On the cover of the book, there’s a picture of our kindergarten class. One of my friends asked why I didn’t appear in it. And I remembered it was because I was with my caretaker.

How historically accurate is this novel? How did you research the time period?
Probably 60 percent. Some of the timelines like Martin Luther King’s march in DC, John F. Kennedy’s death, Walter Cronkite’s reporting required some research. I was there (in the 1960s) and I witnessed it. Some of the stories come from my friends as well. It’s mostly about feelings and I don’t know if you can research feelings.

How about the characters? Are they based on anyone?
I wanted to preserve these people, the feel of them. Pearl is the black caretaker. She’s a simple woman. Uneducated for the most part, but she’s humble and she’s wise. And she’s God-fearing and strong. Pearl kind of represents the caretaker I had in my early years that I absolutely adored.

How does “Yes’m’” differ from “The Help”?
It’s a different take. They’re probably from the same time, but this novel is more about one personal relationship—“The Help” focused on quite a few different people.

Can you fill us in on your writing process? What do you like reading?
Typically, I was writing every day. I’m a great night writer when it’s quiet and I can listen to my thoughts. I did most of my writing on a computer. I’m into historical and biographical reading.

What was the hardest part about writing this novel?
Staying on track. I kept getting off track. I wanted to stay focused on the one relationship between Pearl and Sammie.

What can readers learn from “Yes’m’”?
What I take away from it is that people run into all kinds of issues in their lives…Though the racial interactions often appear to be ugly, they were not always ugly. A lot of times, people were supportive of each other.

What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
I did some caretaking in a nursing home and assisted living. By nature, I’d probably be a caretaker myself.

Any plans for a future novel?
I’m throwing the idea around.

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