It's 102 degrees, and the air conditioning has died at a U Street restaurant. In its place, an electric fan swirls a sweaty breeze. But as author Connie Briscoe dabs her moist temples with a napkin, she insists there's no need to leave. She's cool.
Wearing a crisp, white T-shirt and a gray, silk jogging suit, Briscoe wants to talk about three women who suffered far worse indignities: the characters in her latest novel, "A Long Way From Home."
"Because of their role as mothers, they faced added hardships," Briscoe says of the characters, who are based on three generations of her real-life ancestors who were slaves at Montpelier, President James Madison's Virginia plantation.
"They couldn't just run, they had to think 'What will I do about my children?' They had special burdens."
The 46-year-old Washington native was introduced to the Montpelier women as a child when she asked her grandmother about the portraits of two white-looking women she kept on her bureau. Ever since she learned that they were her great-great-grandmother and grand-aunt, Briscoe's been fascinated by their stories.
She grilled relatives and pored over old letters and photos to find answers. Why were they so fair-skinned? Briscoe wondered. What were their lives like? Were they happy?
Such questions went on the back burner as Briscoe grew older. After graduating from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, she received degrees from Hampton University and American University. She worked for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and at Gallaudet University before she got her start in writing, and was well into her late thirties before she approached agents with her first novel, "Sisters & Lovers."
During the early 1990s, Briscoe received much acclaim for that novel and her next, "Big Girls Don't Cry." Those books, which focused on love, family and relationships, had black, middle-class characters. They both became bestsellers, putting her in the same league as popular contemporary female African American authors such as Terry McMillan and Bebe Moore Campbell.
Briscoe became known for a simple, direct writing style that differed greatly from that of "heavier" African American writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
"They are more literary," Briscoe says. "You don't read Toni Morrison, you study Toni Morrison. . . . I think the difference with [contemporary writers] is that it is easier to read, more accessible. Even when we touch on a serious issue, we do it in a more light-hearted way."
There aren't many topics as weighty as slavery. But when Briscoe decided to revisit the tales that intrigued her as a child, she managed to pen her ancestors' stories in her trademark sugary style.
The three women who are the story's heroines seem mostly oblivious to the horrors of slavery. The eldest of the protagonists, Susie, is happily married to Walker, a slave on a nearby plantation.
The couple raise their daughter Clara in what, to hear them tell it, sounds almost like middle-class bliss.
"My Walker loves the feeling of freedom when he leaves Albemarle County to come around here on weekends and see me and Clara," Susie says to her girlfriends. "And we don't have to bother none with one another's troubles during the week."
The three women--Susie, her daughter Clara and Clara's daughter Susan--stay on the plantation through the Madison family's flagging fortunes and subsequent owners. As house slaves, the Montpelier women would gladly tell you, they endured these trials with a bit more class than the average slave. Susan, the youngest, becomes especially indignant after being locked in her master's bedroom and told to stay off the furniture.
"Susan had lived around nice things all her life, and not once had she ever been told to keep off it," Briscoe writes. "She knew her place and didn't need to be reminded like some common field hand."
The plot is driven by the women's fear that they will be sold and forced to leave their families and the only home they've ever known after the Madison family fortune begins to ebb. When that happens, the women are awakened to the cruelties of slavery, cruelties that are somewhat obscured by the relative comfort of being house slaves.
"If [Susan] was living under the illusion that everything was milk and honey, that all ended once slaves started being sold," Briscoe says.
Briscoe can relate to this kind of realization. She had a similar epiphany while she was growing up as part of the black middle class and she realized that being African American made her different.
Writing helped Briscoe work through many of those issues. And today she has achieved a level of contentment her characters might envy.
She met her fiance in August through an Internet dating service. "Things just sort of clicked immediately," she says of the cybercourtship with a computer analyst. She plans to marry after her book tour ends in October. Having achieved literary success and the loving relationship that had eluded her, Briscoe is close to home.
Connie Briscoe reads from "A Long Way From Home" at 2 p.m. Sunday at Karibu Books, Prince George's Plaza, 3500 East West Hwy., Hyattsville. For more information, call 301-559-1140.
CAPTION: Connie Briscoe, author of "A Long Way From Home," has become known for a simple, direct writing style. Her earlier books are "Sisters & Lovers" and "Big Girls Don't Cry."