Interview with Author Ellen Notbohm

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message 1: by Martha (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Hello ELLEN NOTBOHM author of THE RIVER BY STARLIGHT, and thank you for hosting this week! To start, can you please tell us a little about yourself and your novel?

EN: Hello all, and thank you to Rebecca and Martha for creating this excellent community, and to everyone who keeps it humming. I’m working hard to quell my tingles about being in the host-seat after being a humble observer to so many vibrant discussions here.

I had published several nonfiction books when I came across Annie and Adam Fielding and the story that would become my first novel, The River by Starlight. It happened when I hit what we genealogists call a brick wall—a person no one will talk about. In my family tree, it was a woman three generations back, and yup, no one would talk. Why the silence, the aura of taboo? I knew only that behind the brick wall was a woman and a mother whose blood runs in the veins of my children—and that was enough to make me need to know more. I called her Analiese (Annie), and I set out to uncover her story, armed with only a single crumb of information. It took years of dead ends and wild goose chases, but I finally tackled the goose and found the root of those generations of zipped lips—Annie had endured perinatal and postpartum mental illness in an age of extreme social stigma born of ignorance. In early 20th century Montana, she and Adam had virtually nowhere to turn as their dreams of family and future, their passionate union, and their remarkable entrepreneurial success unraveled in the face of mental health issues still little-understood today. Ultimately, the only path open to them led to an unimaginable turn of events.

How were you inspired to write The River by Starlight?

EN: Annie’s story is saturated with misfortune, but those griefs were compounded by the narrow social mores and deep gender biases of the times. I wanted to tell that story in a way that would heal losses and injustices, and to tell it not as a tragedy, but as a triumph of courage, resilience and a human heart that would not abandon hope. Not too far into the writing process, I came to see that Adam’s perspective, a husband’s seldom-portrayed but profound grief and desperation, made him too riveting figure in a love story that extreme adversity, both natural and man-made, seemed determined to destroy. So, I had inspiration coming at me in stereo, so to speak.

I also found it compelling that a story could be both so timeless and timely. As far as we think we may have come in the century since Annie and Adam, the themes of The River by Starlight still reverberate agonizingly today--an inadequate mental health care system, the taint of mental illness, the gender inequity, climate disaster and economic adversity born of man-made foolishness. This is the very essence of “living history.” History can’t repeat itself if it hasn’t left us yet.

Can you give us insight into your writing process?

EN: I’m a pantser. [Pantser: To write by the seat of your pants. In contrast with a Planner.] I start with what seems like the grain of a good story or chapter. Then I research it out a bit, see if there’s enough for a longer and deeper story. Then I start writing, all the while listening with my “third ear.” The arc of the larger story builds from there as my research expands. It can often feel almost like a game where I’m passed some facts, work them into the story, then listen for how the characters are going to respond. Did I get it right? My process involves constant evaluation of whether I’m portraying the message they would have wanted, and when it’s necessary for me to take literally license and depart from that.

For this book, the physical process involved getting up in the wee hours with three sharp pencils and a spiral notebook. All told, I wrote close to 200,000 words in pencil, mostly in the dark. It came as naturally as breathing. Perhaps we’ll talk more about that later in the week.

What type of research did you do for writing The River by Starlight?

EN: It was a bit like that Johnny Cash song, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” I covered almost 20,000 miles across several states and provinces to do on-site research. I visited seventeen libraries and archives in person, and cyber-consulted twenty-seven more. I spooled through close to two miles of newspaper microfilm. It was the best kind of treasure hunt, unearthing vital statistics, school, military, prison, cemetery, land, court, census, immigration, naturalization, and theological records. Voter registrations, business licenses, insurance policies, county and state fair entries. I still felt there was more I could do but after ten years, it was time to stop researching and get the book out into the world.

Did you find anything in your research that was particularly fascinating or that helped shaped the novel?

EN: There was a lovely symbiosis in this, how the research helped shape the novel and how the novel reshaped me. A friend nearly a thousand miles away claimed she could hear the crashing thunk of me going over backward in my library chair every time the microfilm revealed something startling. Three overall things struck me deeply: First, how the term “insanity” was slung about with the same indifference we now give the common cold. There was no concept of privacy standards among medical personnel, the judiciary, newspapers—all male-dominated— who handed out information and opinions on individual cases to anyone who asked. Second, the degree to which homesteaders a century ago were so much more self-reliant than we are today. They grew, raised, preserved their own food, built their own houses, made their own clothes and booze, fixed their own vehicles, birthed and buried their own. This moved me to make a number of DIY changes in my life. My husband started calling me Prairie Girl. And third, in an age before every iota of information large and small is captured and stored digitally, playing fast and loose with various laws in the homestead era was common.

The characters in The River by Starlight are compelled by dread circumstances to leave marriages, abandon children and partners, walk away from other obligations. Those who left and those left behind go on to form other family relationships, with no evidence of divorces, remarriages or adoptions. They functioned as families and went on with their lives. The circumstances were always poignant, and this bittersweet but necessary don’t-ask-don’t-tell reshaping of families called for a quiet kind of bravery in an age of harsh and judgmental societal mores.

What was your favorite scene to write?

EN: For just plain fun, the scene in Chapter Four wherein Annie and Adam meet, Annie outdrinks him, and the evening descends into a verbal jousting match (“Her look could melt the stripe from a skunk.”) has tickled many readers. A few chapters later, there’s a (ahem) frisky scene where she again gets the better of him. In a story that isn’t long on fun, these scenes are not only breezy but necessary.

Singling out a favorite scene is hard because the book runs the gamut of emotions and comparisons are apples-to-oranges. There are three lines in three different parts of the book that reduce me to tears every time, but I return to them again and again, so are they “favorites?” Can’t tell you here because they’re spoilers, but I do get asked this question at almost every reading, so I invite readers who have finished the book to get with me afterward and I share those lines. It’s great insight for all when they say, “Oh yeah, that one! But my favorite was __________.” One woman had the book with her, festooned with at least thirty sticky notes of her “favorite” parts.

What was the most difficult scene to write?

EN: Again, it would be a major spoiler to reveal that scene, but I will say that it was difficult enough that I simply couldn’t do it at first. I wrote around it, going directly from the lead-up to the aftermath. An astute editor insisted that the skipped scene was perhaps the most dramatic development in the whole story and it just wasn’t acceptable to not let the reader see it. So I wrote it, and it was painful but I did it well. Writing about the unthinkable should be hard, but the lesson was, do it anyway. It made a later redemptive scene all the sweeter.

Who are your writing inspirations?

EN: People of all ages and from all points in history who confront adversity and unfairness by continuing to embody love, humility, generosity and respect. I never tire of telling their stories; it’s a gift to be entrusted with them and a privilege to shine light on them.

And of course I’ve been inspired by many well-known authors, Ivan Doig, Eowyn Ivey, Wallace Stegner, and Nuala O’Falain, to name a few. But I also feel strongly that many remarkable writers don’t get the attention they deserve, so most of the books on my nightstand are from authors whose work I haven’t read before. This includes not only first-time authors, but many foreign authors, and classics I didn’t read in high school. This way I capture a wide swath of the human experience across time and culture.

What was the first historical novel you read?

EN: Black Beauty. I just picked up a copy at a used book sale and am surprised at how much I’m looking forward to reading it again. Perhaps that long-ago empathetic connection to a literary horse played a role in how I shaped Adam in The River by Starlight as a child horse-whisperer.

What is the last historical novel you read?

EN: News of the World. One of my trade reviews likened my writing to Paulette Jiles, which meant it was long past time for me to read her work. Let’s just say I’m thrilled but utterly humbled by the comparison.

What appeals to you most about your chosen genre?

EN: I’ve written across several genres, but the common thread is giving voice to marginalized people who were not heard in their lifetimes. By raising those voices, we’re also confronted with just how much we either have or haven’t progressed as a compassionate, intelligent society and species. History has great wisdom to offer those who’re willing to listen, and it’s that opportunity to be better, fuller people that draws me to it. And I think anyone who has written history knows its healing power, for reader and writer.

What historical time period do you gravitate towards the most with your personal reading?

EN: The human experience is so rife with universalities, I believe an able storyteller can find a way to make any story in any time period engaging and relatable. Hard to compare Clan of the Cave Bear to The Color Purple, but I loved them both, and quite a bit in between. My only caveat is that I can’t do huge amounts of gore anymore. That does limit the list a bit, doesn’t it?

What do you like to do when you aren't writing?

EN: Reading and more reading, for myself and to my granddaughter. I knit every day, defying the insult “don’t just sit there, do something!”, as if creating one-of-a-kind heirlooms and items of utility for people in need isn’t doing something. I love prowling cemeteries for the next great story, and have photographed more than 8,000 memorials. I experiment with history-inspired DIY projects, and get real happy when day-tripping to out-of-the-way places as yet unexplored. The muse feeds on all of this, bless her sweet insatiable appetite.


The River by Starlight by Ellen Notbohm
The River by Starlight

message 2: by Dyana (new)

Dyana | 189 comments Do you have a pet that helps you?

message 3: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments We have a cat who fell out of a 150-foot tree in a city park and stumbled into our yard 15 years ago. She's sociable strictly and only on her own terms, which aren't abundant. But she's served as a constant presence over the years reminding me, as I constructed my characters, that we can't know what traumas others have suffered before they came into our circle, and that we can't assume or judge their actions without that context. In a way, our cat has many similarities to my protagonist, Annie. She was somehow abandoned by those who were supposed to care for her, she fell a great distance (our cat, literally; Annie, metaphorically), she survived and redefined what it means to be a family. So I guess I can say yes, our pet helped me write a novel. :)

message 4: by Laurel (last edited Dec 03, 2018 07:43AM) (new)

Laurel (ldhuber) | 27 comments Prowling cemeteries... among my favorite things to do in life (and probably thereafter!)
Great interview!

message 5: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments Ohhhhhhh . . . there's a premise for an intriguing story--are there cemeteries in the "thereafter"? Kind of like in the movie Coco--death isn't really death, but there is a "final death," the oblivion that comes when no one remembers you? What would a cemetery be in the hereafter when, as I believe, we exist as energy, which according to the laws of physics, cannot be destroyed? This is peyote button stuff, isn't it? ;-) It's great--thanks, Laurel!

message 6: by Debbie (new)

Debbie | 78 comments Great interview!

message 7: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments Thanks, Debbie. And thanks for joining the conversation.

message 8: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Great interview.
And I find kinship in your genealogy pursuits leading to your book. My first historical novel "Sarah's Secret" is also based on my genealogy journey to uncover the secrets of my paternal grandfather in the late 19th century. Like you a ran into a wall but I was never able to get beyond it to discover the reality of what happened. So I fictionalized the whole story. I had the most fun creating the character based on my grandfather and placing him in a cattle drive, the wild west town of Dodge City and his escape from the law. Yet abandoning his first wife and 5 children created the opportunity of balancing such an insensitive act in a character who cared and loved his second family.

I thoroughly enjoyed using my family genealogy to creatively tell a story that might have happened. Your story sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading it.

message 9: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments That interests me greatly, Beverly, as a number of readers have already asked me for a sequel, but I can't see doing it unless I fictionalized the entire story. Even in my based-on-true-story, I took enough literary license to, as you did, give characters the space to right some wrongs. "Might have happened" -- or perhaps should have happened -- is powerful. Sarah's Story touches my heart, as you'll see, Annie's story too is one of betrayal and forgiveness (several times over). Thanks so much for joining the discussion.

message 10: by Linda (new)

Linda Hurley | 5 comments Putting on my TBR. Thanks for introducing your book.

message 11: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments Thanks for joining us here, Linda.

message 12: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Ellen wrote: "That interests me greatly, Beverly, as a number of readers have already asked me for a sequel, but I can't see doing it unless I fictionalized the entire story. Even in my based-on-true-story, I to..."
Ellen, Like you, I can't quite see writing a sequel as fiction. For me, it would be a simple description of my grandmother's life (Sarah). I can more easily see a fictionalized story of my grandfather's early life when he served in the Civil War. But so far I haven't been moved to do the research for it. Thanks for sharing about your writing and the story.

message 13: by Martha (last edited Dec 04, 2018 07:18PM) (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Beverly wrote: "Great interview.
My first historical novel "Sarah's Secret" is also based on my genealogy journey to uncover the secrets of my paternal grandfather in the late 19th century. Like you a ran into a wall..."

Beverly, I was thinking about you and your process when I read this part of Ellen's story!

message 14: by Martha (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Laurel wrote: "Prowling cemeteries... among my favorite things to do in life (and probably thereafter!)
Great interview!"

You get some great names for characters on headstones. Just sayin. :)

message 15: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments I've photographed over almost 9,000 tombstones in my 10 years with and sometimes feel like I've seen everything. Then along comes one that blows me away all over again. . .

message 16: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Martha wrote: "Beverly wrote: "Great interview.
My first historical novel "Sarah's Secret" is also based on my genealogy journey to uncover the secrets of my paternal grandfather in the late 19th century. Like y..."

Thank you.

message 17: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Lovely interview, Ellen! As an early reader of A River by Starlight, I appreciated this peek into your process. I loved the language of this novel in particular. You really got it right. For anyone that hasn't read it, pick it up! You're in for a treat!

message 18: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments Michelle wrote: "Lovely interview, Ellen! As an early reader of A River by Starlight, I appreciated this peek into your process. I loved the language of this novel in particular. You really got it right. For anyone..."

Thank you, Michelle, ever so. I'm so grateful to have had you along for the ride.

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