Jacqueline Friedland has had many titles in her day: attorney, mother of four and now award-winning author.
But it almost wasn’t that way.
For years, she stifled her dream of being a writer, opting for, in law, a more practical field at the behest of a college adviser. After years of practicing commercial litigation — mostly securities and insurance, which was “very dry,” she said — Friedland couldn’t shake the fiction bug.
That project started slowly, so she decided she needed a more drastic change if she indeed wanted her book.
So, she quit her job at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, where she’d taught legal writing, headed back to school for her M.F.A. and dove in.
Looking back, Friedland said she was always drawn to words. In college, she dreamed of becoming an English professor and relished hours spent writing analytical essays on Victorian and early American literature.
“This can’t be what my parents are sending me to college for if I like it this much,” she said.
Years later, in the M.F.A. program, Friedland said she felt as if she was reclaiming a long-closeted part of herself.
And she wasn’t the only one.
“The entire program was people … who were there because they feel they just must be,” she said.
On May 8, Friedland will see the fruits of her labor realized with “Trouble the Water,” her historical fiction debut. May 17, she will visit Eastchester Barnes & Noble, 680 Post Road, at 7 p.m. for an author’s talk.
The story is set 20 years before the Civil War and follows Abby, a spunky English teenager whose middle class family is suddenly crushed by debt. Battling her family’s financial woes and incestual harassment, which Abby keeps a secret, she finds herself the ward of a wealthy family friend in Charleston, South Carolina. Douglas Elling is a mysterious recluse about whom Abby knows nothing other than his losing his wife and only child in an accident years ago.
“Trouble the Water,” named after the slave hymn “Wade in the Water” — “God gonna trouble the water” — delves into the pulsing slave capital of Charleston in the height of the Abolitionist movement. The title doubles as a call to action in upsetting the standard and fighting the current.
Friedland always had a taste for history. In college, her concentration was American culture and literature. She was fascinated by Victorian texts and struck by the prominence of slavery, particularly in the south, of the same era.
When her book project launched, Friedland started by reading every novel framed by American slavery she could get her hands on. Eventually, she turned to primary sources and nonfiction data — letters written by escaped slaves, biographies of abolitionists, slave narratives.
It was a deeply moving and informative process, she said. “I had to get everything right because … once you put the book out there, you have a responsibility. You’re teaching people about the time.”
Friedland, who is Jewish, said she did not have any hesitancies in giving voice to this era as a nonblack author.
“I do think it’s a sensitive topic; you’re bound to offend people no matter what you do,” she said. “But I also felt like my characters were sort of on the right side of justice and compassion. I believe one of my jobs as a writer is helping people feel empathy, and I think this book does that.”
It certainly wasn’t an easy process to here, she added.
With four children — ages 13, 11, 9 and 7; three boys, one girl — Friedland was lucky to get six uninterrupted hours to write in peace. Those days were fairly miraculous, she said.
Luckily, Friedland’s husband, Jason, was her No. 1 supporter and cheerleader.
Some days she said, “I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe I should stop. Maybe this was a bad idea.” On those days, her husband was a source of comfort and drive.
So when Friedland won the silver medal for the Independent Publisher Book Awards for Best Regional Fiction — South, Jason was the first person she told.
“The whole day I’d been waiting [to hear the winners] and I thought, ‘Oh well. It was a long shot anyway,’” she said.
Then she got an email.
It was very exciting, Friedland said. “I’ve been waiting for this time of my life … I’m excited to really make a go of it.”