Filling in the Past: On Nathan Harris’s ‘The Sweetness of Water’

April 15, 2021 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

Nathan Harris’s father was obsessed with researching his family history, but when Harris asked what he’d discovered, the answer was almost nothing—a common situation for many Black Americans. In his debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, Harris creates that missing history through the story of two brothers, Prentiss and Landry, who are freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and hired to work on the Georgia farm of George and Isabelle Walker, whose only son died as a soldier in the Civil War. “All Black writers are drawn to filling in their past,” he says.

Realizing how little he knew about the period in American history right after emancipation, Harris says he started thinking about the repercussions of the enslaved suddenly becoming free, and what that freedom meant when there were no guidelines to help navigate the change.

“What did it feel like to be these people in this time in history?” Harris asks. “The power of imagination is very strong. I’ve written my own story, sourced it from the air. I wanted to immerse readers in that world, rural Georgia in 1865.” The novel expanded to explore many issues the nation faced at that time, and in it Harris looks at class, identity, and society. A parallel plot follows the fate of two gay Confederate soldiers who return to the town of Old Ox, and the effect on the community when their relationship is revealed.

Harris says he did “enough” research. “I didn’t want to get bogged down in the details,” he adds. “I wanted to stay focused on the story. But on the other hand, I wanted to get it right.”

Ben George, Harris’s editor at Little, Brown, says, “History comes alive through Nathan’s characters. Nathan is only in his 20s. Most debut novels are autobiographical. It’s astounding how big his canvas is, how he’s able to marshal research from the era. I completely fell in love with this novel the first time I read it and more so each subsequent time. I told Nathan on the phone that the book ‘set my hair on fire.’ ” George recalls that everyone at Little, Brown felt the same, and he was able to preempt Sweetness soon after he received it.

Emily Forland, Harris’s agent at Brandt & Hochman, tells me she was lucky with this book. “Emails are treasure houses,” she says. “You never know what you will find.” In March 2019, she found Harris’s query letter. “He was a fellow at the Michener Center at the University of Austin, and I always notice Michener fellows because the program produces such high-quality work.”

Forland says she was initially attracted to the subject matter: “What did that mean emotionally, when freed men became free?” And then she was taken with the elegance of the writing (she has a poetry MFA from Sarah Lawrence). “The opening pages had so much beauty and observation,” she notes.

The description of George Walker on the first page of Sweetness is testament to Forland’s comment. “He’d developed a hitch over the last few years,” Harris writes, “had pinned it on a misplaced step as he descended from his cabin to the forest floor, but he knew this was a lie: it had appeared with the persistence and steady progress of old age itself—as natural as the lines on his face, the white in his hair.”

Harris is from Oregon but moved to San Francisco after graduating from the University of Oregon. He started writing in college and says he always “had an idea” to write a big book. “I was influenced by classic sweeping epic books. These were the books that moved me, that feeling when you’re a kid and you turn that last page. So one morning I sat down and gave it a try.”

From 2013 to 2015, Harris worked on the novel in the mornings and evenings while delivering food for Postmates in the afternoons. He says he’d never written historical fiction and had to work to keep the “thoughts of fear out of my head.”

Harris shared some chapters with Jason Brown, a mentor at Oregon, who told him, “I think you have gold here. Finish it.” Then Harris was accepted as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, knocked his draft into shape, and in 2019, the third year of the program, decided it was time to get an agent.

“It was a dark period,” Harris says. “I met with a few agents and not much happened.” Then he found Forland online. “Emily got in touch and we hit it off. She’s always there for me. When there’s anxiety, Emily is there.”

Forland thought the manuscript was very polished. She sent it out to a “fairly wide group of editors, 10 or 12”, in June 2019. George’s reaction was “quick and strong,” she recalls. “And I always pay attention when a house and an editor feels this way.”

George got the manuscript June 18, got back to Forland on June 24, and spoke with Harris on June 26.

“Ben was a whirlwind,” Harris says. “I was at the gym when Emily called to tell me how much Ben liked the book and we were off to the races. He really connected to the material.”

Forland remembers George’s keen interest. She remembers because she had taken her son to see Toy Story 4, and, she tells me, “I only saw the last 10 minutes. I was negotiating with Ben and talking to Nathan through the whole movie. When Ben wants something, he’s passionate and enthusiastic. We closed the deal for a ‘nice, substantial advance’ for world English rights on my way to the subway the next morning.”

Sweetness will publish simultaneously in the U.K. with Tinder Press.

The praise in Richard Russo’s blurb says it all: “Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is an author and an editor-at-large at Publishers Weekly.

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