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The Ghosts in Tananarive Due's The Reformatory Honor the Violence of the Past

Chilling fiction—true horrors.

The Reformatory, an interview with Tananarive Due

Tananarive Due has been an influential voice in Black speculative fiction for over two decades—specializing in Black Horror and Afrofuturism. She's won the American Book Award, NAACP Image Award, and British Fantasy Award.

Due co-authored Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, produced by Shudder, and wrote for Jordan Peele's The Twilight Zone. She's authored and co-authored many incredible books and has contributed to several groundbreaking projects. Some of her notable works include Ghost Summer: Stories, My Soul to Keep, and The Good House

I had the pleasure of interviewing the incredible Tananarive Due about her newest novel The Reformatory—which is releasing on October 31, 2023. This incredible American Book Award-winning author opens up the challenges of writing and the inspiration for her new chilling historical fiction novel—and she also provides impeccable advice to burgeoning writers.  

The Reformatory follows Robbie Stephens, Jr. is twelve years old when he kicks a white landowner’s son in defense of his older sister, Gloria. Robbie’s sentenced to six months in the reformatory, Gracetown School for Boys. The segregation of the Jim Crow South is stark, but Robbie sees haints of all kinds of boys who went missing here. Through his new friends Redbone and Blue, he learns the rules and how to survive, all while Gloria works to get Robbie freed before it’s too late.


The Reformatory

By Tananarive Due

Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me! I’m a big fan of yours, and I loved The Reformatory. It throws a true horror into a new relief. The reformatory as an institution is harrowing on its own, of course, and it’s situated in the Jim Crow south, and there are the generations of ghosts that make both the legacy and the conflict, and the ghosts are being hunted—I just loved it. So, just, thank you. 

How evil is that? It's not bad enough to kill the children which is already the worst thing you can probably do. But then you're also hunting them down. 

SO evil. It was just layers of evil all the way down. And I can only imagine there were… issues with accessing accurate documentation for the Dozier school, so how did you go about researching it? And at what point did you know you were “done” researching—or did that point even exist?

I think most writers never feel done when it comes to research, and I'm always counseling my writing students that they should not get lost in the research stage. And in some ways, I kind of think I did for a while get lost in the research stage. I read so many memoirs. I visited the site with my father, so it wasn't just research, but it bonded a foundation between us after my mother passed away. So for a long time, it felt like writing this book was only research. 

But I will say I had decided early on that I wanted this work to be fiction. So while there are some touchstones from the real Dozier School, the Whipping Shed which in real life was called the White House, and I called the Fun House… and Boot Hill, the cemetery, was unfortunately real, but I decided because there were so many memoirs by people who had been there and who actually survived, it was not ultimately going to be my place to try to write a nonfiction account of the Dozier school.

As a novelist, of course, my most comfortable method of storytelling is fiction, so I wanted there to be enough truth in the story enough actual Touchstone so that they would ring with the memory of what the Dozier School was, without it actually being the Dozier School. The warden, I want to say unequivocally, is not based on any actual past employee. Although there were many accounts by survivors of physical abuse, and even sexual abuse, I am not attempting to attribute those acts to a single individual. That part remains a mystery to me, but I wanted to honor that history of violence without having to immerse my readers in it. 

So yes, there were some elements of my research and talking to actual people who were at Dozier school that ended up in my novel, but at the same time, it is squarely a book of fiction. I wanted to use ghosts as a way to honor the violence and killing that happened there, but in a way that would not feel as triggering as trying to pick out those stories. [They're in a wisdom field as triggering is trying to pick out those stories. Believe me, there were incidents that I read about that I could not put in a book of so-called entertainment and feel like it wasn't going to be overwhelming for both me and for the reader.

Tananarive Due
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  • photo of author Tananarive Due

So it sounds like you decided almost immediately that this would be a work of fiction.

Very early on. I was curious when the Florida State Attorney General’s office called me… I mean, I was journalists for the Miami Herald for 10 years. I have written a nonfiction memoir with my late mother called Freedom in the Family, a mother/daughter memoir about the fight for civil rights. But pretty quickly after I started interviewing people, especially when I came into contact with the memoirs and work done by some incredible investigative journalists, I was like, ‘You know what? My wheelhouse is fiction.’ 

And there is this strange phenomenon where sometimes you can reach people through art more effectively—or as effectively—as you can with accounts from survivors. They say 100 million people dead is a statistic, and one dead person is a tragedy. I think that's part of what happens with the novel. You are firmly in the skin of a character. So, it's not some subjective, removed story about a stranger. It is something that feels real as it is unfolding, because the magic of fiction is that we create people who did not exist. And even though Robert Stephens existed by name, I took a lot of liberties with the character, starting with the timeline.


Freedom in the Family

By Tananarive Due

Unfortunately, the real-life Robert Stephens died at the Dozier School in 1937. And that definitely is not the story I wanted to tell. So, I changed the timeline to 1950 because that was my mother's era, and I knew more about that era from researching the Civil Rights memoir with her and hearing her stories. Frankly, my whole point of writing this book was to get Robert Stephens a different ending. And to help his name—because he was forgotten, even among his family members. My mother never knew about her uncle. It's not just that they never knew him because he died so young. They never knew he existed. And I did not want him to be erased.

Something similar, when I was researching the Civil Rights memoir with my mother, there were people we talked to who did not know their parents had been activists, or had been to jail, during the Civil Rights Movement. I think part of it was shame, but I think part of it was also the trauma of what they had experienced. 

If you look at a family where you sent your child into state care, and they did not come back… it's no wonder no one talked about Robert Stephens. What a heartbreak that must have been.

So to pivot a little bit, not a lot, but just a little bit: on the level of craft, how was the process of writing this book—which is somewhat historical, but also fictional? How did you develop the personalities of the ghosts? 

Some of it is a straightforward historical novel, but then I've added this fantasy element with the ghosts and haint culture. Hopefully it's creating a kind of a playful environment between the living and the nonliving, even though I think haints can be problematic as friends, as you probably read.

Their sensibilities are different. Their senses are different. Their sense of time and place is different. So there are some pretty unfunny misunderstandings that happen in the reformatory because of the difference between the living and the dead. 

I also wanted to show that those ghosts were just like any other prisoners at this facility. It's just that some of the prisoners have big parts, and some of them don’t And just as there was segregation between the black and the white students at the reformatory, there's a kind of de facto segregation between the living and the dead because most of the living can't see the dead or can't see them with any consistency. 

So Robert is this great bridge between the living and the dead—like an extraordinary bridge! There probably hasn’t been any other child there quite like him. And as a result, he was able to sort of develop a relationship with at least one of the haints. Somewhat of a relationship with more than one, just to say “I see you. I acknowledge you. I’m sorry you went through this.” Which is what I think any ghost would want.

summer horror novels

Ghost Summer

By Tananarive Due

Do you have any advice for writers who want to be just like you when they grow up? Not just me, but anyway.

That's a big question. There are so many aspects to being a writer. The most important thing about the craft part is to keep trying. Consistency is everything, and each rejection is sort of a step on the path. It’s really hard. That's really the most important thing: to keep at it. And then to find readers you can trust to tell you when you're going astray, when your story isn't working. Between those two things, most people who care, gain the skills it takes to become writers. I mean, my husband and I teach an online writing course Life Writing Premium, it's part of our podcast Read for Your Life. And one of the absolute tenets of life writing is all you need to write is a sentence every day. Writing a sentence a day doesn't enable you to hide behind the excuse that you don't have enough time. 

It took me seven years to write The Reformatory, and that wasn't because I didn't have enough time to write. It was because I got lost a little bit in the research stage, because it was an emotionally difficult place to be, in 1950 in the skin of a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old… it just wasn't fun to write, but I felt like I needed to take all of that on so that it could be more of a fun read.

So, it really was that sentence-a-day practice that got me through an outline. I often outline, but I cannot completely outline stuff. When I ran out of what I knew, I wrote a sentence a day. Just to have those rungs of the ladder so that I can find my way to the end of the story. It is tremendously important not to mistake emotional aversion with either an inability to write or a lack of interest in writing. 

Still, not everybody is a writer, and if you’re not, congratulations. But if you are, if you're struggling with this idea that you're supposed to be writing, then the only antidote is to write. Read what you write, and seek to, you know, put your work out there as much as you can.

Another second piece is how to build a life as a writer, and that is a different journey for every writer. There was the version of me that was a writer when I had a full-time job as a journalist. That was a lot to juggle. There was a version of me who was a full-time novelist for about 15 years, but the up-and-down finances did not appeal, frankly. So, my happy place right now is that I write, and I teach at UCLA part-time, and I also write screenplays. And my husband and I sell informational products, we sell courses. Between all of those things, I created an income stream that makes it feel safe for my inner child to come out and write.

(The reason writing full-time didn't work for me was because it felt like an unfair responsibility on my inner child to be helping to support the family, while the adult me was just at home eating ice cream. It needed to be the other way around.)

Great advice. Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn't ask you?

The Reformatory was painful. It's definitely my most painful novel, and that's because of its roots in real-life history. Even though I didn't want to go too deeply into the real-life violence that children suffered at this horrendous facility, I did want to teach a bit about Florida's history. One of the things I'm most gratified about after the publication of the book—besides the fact that so many people like it! Because you don’t know, when you're publishing a book, how other people will think of it. 

But there's a huge social media account, Howard Zinn Educational Project, and their site recommended their book on Twitter, which was huge for me. I followed this account just to keep my sanity during some of the worst racial times in my lifetime that we’ve suffered the past few years. 

What they said about The Reformatory was that it was “truth-telling.” And I really loved that—and first of all, they didn’t mention that it was a horror novel, which I thought was interesting. What they said focused on the real-life figures like Harry T. Moore, who was a real NAACP activist in Florida, one of the first martyrs of the civil rights movement when his house was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan and he and his wife were killed. And they saw that. They saw the references to real people, real events. So I'm really, really grateful that I've been able to preserve some of those terrible aspects of Florida's racial history, especially because we're living in a time when so many people—especially politicians—are working hard to make sure those stories like Robert Stephens’ are forgotten.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.