Who We Are- Debbie Truscott Interview
Sha: Debbie Could share your connection to Monticello?
Debbie: My husband, Frank, is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson through Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Martha, and her eldest son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Because we live in Virginia, we’ve been able to visit Monticello and the family graveyard there quite often, and to attend the annual family association (known as the Monticello Association) meeting that’s held in Charlottesville each year. This gave us the opportunity to get to know many of Frank’s cousins, and during the acrimonious years when the Association was divided over recognition of their Hemings cousins, a number of us developed an interest in exploring not only the geneaological aspect of the Jefferson family – a family that includes the Carrs, Randolphs and Hemings, among other branches – but the environment that surrounded Jefferson at Monticello. Eventually, the idea of a gathering evolved, a planning committee was formed, and I volunteered to help with the graphics end of the PR effort. Gradually that endeavor expanded to working with my sister-in-law Ginny Truscott on registration and recordkeeping—you know, all those Excel files! —and finally, the Who We Are publication.
Sha: Debbie, can you share with me a little about your background that gave you the skills to compile the WWA stories?
Debbie: Well, I was an English major. I began college at Old Dominion University and then transferred to the University of Kansas where I finished my degree. Most of my career has been spent designing and editing various publications – so I was really drawn to the idea of creating a publication for the Monticello Community Gathering, a publication to literally show exactly who-we-are.
Sha: What was your major goal in collecting these stories?
Debbie: We wanted to give our Community a voice. If we were gathering together as the descendants of those who worked and lived at Monticello, we needed to know about each other.
Sha: I thought that it was very inspired that you chose not only include the direct descendants of Jefferson, but also the descendants of those who “contributed their talents, their labor, and their friendship to [his] life and well-being,” why did you make hat decision?
Debbie: The Who We Are publication is a reflection of the Monticello Community, a community that extends beyond Jefferson’s immediate family. Our interest lay in exploring Jefferson’s world, the environment that freed him to think and create and allowed him to literally build a nation. So from the beginning, our focus went beyond genealogy. We were interested in how Monticello worked; how workers, enslaved people, tradespeople, friends and family connected and functioned at Monticello; how and what they contributed, and even what their relationships with each other were like. So there was no question that Who We Are would contain the voices of all the descendants of Monticello, not just the descendants of Jefferson.
Sha: What inspired you to want to capture these stories in book form?
Debbie: It was the most concrete way to assemble, preserve and disseminate the stories and histories of all the Monticello families. And, you know, there is something magical about holding printed pages in one’s hand, seeing one’s name in print. We were enormously interested in capturing these histories and in making as much of a contribution to the historical record as we could, but we also wanted to create a memento for the attendees at the July 2007 Gathering.
Sha: Why do you feel that the people writing their own stories was the best method, as opposed to interviewing them and writing them yourself?
Debbie: Because the stories were theirs to tell. We wanted their voices, memories, histories, anecdotes. We wanted to encourage people to speak candidly on topics that were important to them. An interview process would have been cumbersome given our time and resources, and although we did offer some general ideas and parameters to grease creative wheels, so to speak, we were reluctant to influence or direct people with a series of printed questions or a predetermined outline. We were less interested in a uniform structure to the stories than we were in spontaneity, informality and a bit of “stream of consciousness.”
Sha: How did you initiate the writing process for the 41 writers who are featured in the first edition?
Debbie:We put out a call for essays in our registration materials. And we beat the bushes a lot. Most people were excited about the project and their stories, but others were a little reluctant to write about things that are so close to the heart, or it was difficult for them to find the time to sit down at the keyboard. So as folks registered and I got their contact information, I sent out little pestering emails from time to time. And people responded to that, if for no other reason than to get rid of me.
Sha: What was the motivation for the second edition?
Debbie:The motivation for the second edition was in part because people who didn’t contribute the first time wanted another opportunity. And because each edition is a way to further explore the community and develop connections among community members. The histories are important — we’ve offered copies of each edition to Monticello, the Arbemarle Historical Society, and other interested historians and organizations. But in a sense, we are still developing our mission and further editions of Who We Are will help us do that. Apart from developing a sense of how 18th century plantation society functioned and how that affects American society today, what else (and how else) can we contribute through our collective experiences?
Sha: What sparked the change in format from the first edition to the second? The first being in more of a memoir type format, the last being in a more magazine type format with pull quotes.
Debbie: The change in format was sparked by opportunity: we found a printer who offered to print the second issue for free, which allowed us to include color photos. The first issue was put together practically by hand. We had a limited budget and limited time, and we needed to produce the issue as cheaply as possible, so we literally ran the pages off on our own laser printers and then took the copies to Staples for binding. Both issues are posted on our website in PDF format, and future issues may be distributed to our membership in that format, with only a very limited press run. Printing is expensive. Publishing our issues online will allow us to include as many photos as we want – that is, as many as our writers provide us – without worrying about the cost. And it is likely that future editions of the WWA will follow the format of the second edition.
Sha: What was some of the feedback that you received from the writers, if any, expressing the importance of this process of writing their story?
Debbie: For many of our writers, especially in the initial issue, the opportunity to tell their story was cathartic. I think this was especially true of some of the Hemings-Jefferson descendants. Many members of this family, especially the older folks, had to keep their story secret. Even some younger writers remember being told by teachers and others not to “make up stories” when they recounted their family history. So the Who We Are was a safe forum to talk about their history, what it has meant to them and how it has influenced their lives.
Sha: You mention in the preface that you all “hope this book will be an evolving project, as more members of the Monticello community contribute their stories.” Is there a third edition in the works? How many stories do you need before you will do another edition?
Debbie: There will be a third edition, but nothing is currently in the works. Although family histories are a primary interest, we increasingly encourage members of the community to write on other subjects as well. Before we put out a call for papers, we want to develop some topic ideas. Our last issue was our “as the spirit moves us” issue…we encouraged everyone to write about anything that interested them. One author wrote about the death of a spouse. Another drew on his historical research to write about Monticello in the years after Jefferson’s death. One subject we’re considering for the next issue is “where we want to go from here.” That is, how can the Monticello Community contribute to our local communities? To our nation and beyond? Do we want to have another Gathering and if so, what sort of focus would we have? What would we like to accomplish?
Sha:What was the biggest thing you learned about yourself while compiling these volumes?
Debbie: I have never been part of something this big before, something so “outside” myself. Working with the MCG was one of the most worthwhile things I have ever done because of the contribution the Gathering made to the historical record and to understanding ourselves as Americans.
Sha: Have there been any strides made to publish and mass produce these volumes?
Debbie: No strides whatsoever. But wow, what an interesting idea.
Sha: How have these stories helped the Monticello Community?
Debbie: They have, in fact, defined the Community. We have a pretty broad focus. We are about much more than slavery, for example. We are about people with a shared connection in a variety of ways. The stories illustrate a thousand different ways we are connected, from the man who built the grist mills at Shadwell to the merchants and tradesmen and craftsmen of Charlottesville, both enslaved and free, who contributed to the making and maintaining of Monticello. They’ve filled in the historical record, shown how an 18th century community operated, traced relationships, given an identity to a lot of folks who, 200 years ago, were doing important work in what were often obscure circumstances. The stories have humanized the past and together they describe a social infrastructure that continues to influence us 2 centuries later.
Sha: What advice can you give to someone who wants to take on a project in their own community that reflects the community’s journey?
Debbie: Beat the bushes. Sometimes people need encouragement to tell their stories. Even if they are eager, not everyone is comfortable with the task aspect of writing. Hold their hands, if necessary. Let folks know their stories are important, and they are a contribution to the historical record.