An Interview with Martha Sandweiss

Passing Strange

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 12/22/2008

In Passing Strange, Sandweiss uncovers the double life of Clarence King, the renowned geologist who mapped the American West—and crossed color lines, passing as a black Pullman porter, James Todd, to marry Ada Copeland, a black nursemaid.

How did you come across this story?

I read Thurman Wilkins’s spectacular biography of Clarence King in graduate school. It haunted me. Reading Philip Roth’s wonderful The Human Stain got me thinking again, as did the Clinton scandal: Clinton messed up for 30 minutes and the story was spread around the world. King sustained a secret life for 13 years. So I sat down one day to see if there was anything I could do with the story. In five minutes I found the census document of King reporting to be black.

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