AMERICAN HISTORICAL NOVELS discussion

14 views
A TRANSCONTINENTAL AFFAIR > Author Interview

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Ann (new)

Ann Creel | 60 comments Mod
Jodi, thank you for hosting this week! To start, can you please tell us a little about yourself and your novel?

Yes, sure. I think I was born a writer and a musician, because I’ve been writing and playing music ever since I can remember. These activities are connected for me, somehow. A Transcontinental Affair is my fourth novel, and it’s a bit of a departure from the trilogy that began with The Midwife’s Revolt. It tells the story of two women who meet on the first-ever nonstop transcontinental excursion from Boston to San Francisco, in May of 1870. Some seriously unexpected things happen on their train!

How were you inspired to write A Transcontinental Affair? What sparked your interest in early train travel?

The first glimmers of this novel came to me when I happened upon an old book, a volume containing one of the original railroad route surveys commissioned by Jefferson Davis and the U.S. War Department in the 1850s. In addition to giving a log of the expedition, it included the most astonishing lithographs of those virgin American landscapes, flora, and fauna the artists encountered. At the same time as I felt amazement at the beauty of this uncharted land, I also suffered real grief to recall that these wonders are largely gone, thanks in part to the very railroad that those surveys sought to promulgate. The landscape I discovered—and the railroad that altered it irrevocably—seemed like a perfect canvas upon which to set my story. In part, it was the story.

Can you give us insight into your writing process?
Fasten your seat belts! When I get an idea for a novel, the first things that come to me are the central character or two, the big-picture story (beginning and end), and the exact time period. Once I have these, I don’t allow myself to think consciously about the characters or the plot. Instead, I research for at least three months and take notes, both of factual material and scenes that occur to me. I put real historical events on a daily calendar so that, when I go to write, I know exactly what real events—news, snowstorms, etc.—my characters have to contend with. I also make a list of all historical places, speech, clothing, cost of goods, etc. that I want to include.
This act of researching sets off a sort of subterranean process of imagination that works simultaneously to the note-taking, so that by the time I go to write the overall synopsis and chapter summaries for submission, I “see” the entire story. The characters, actions, and interactions have come to me entirely organically, without conscious control.
Next comes writing a first draft, which I do by hand. The chapter summaries are my security blanket, and I tend to stick to them closely, though I may break a few into multiple chapters. I am very strict at this stage about writing: I have a 3-page minimum goal every morning, even if I’m traveling. A first draft takes me about 3 months. Not bad, you say! Well, read on…
After writing a first draft, I take several months to print out and edit the manuscript with my “reader/critic” hat on. I go through maybe 7 or 8 full drafts this way, always editing by hand. Then I give the manuscript to my husband--my first “beta” reader. I don’t let him give me feedback out loud—I make him write it down because for some reason hearing it is just too terrifying/painful. Then, I slink back down my rabbit hole for a few months, and 'round about draft 12, when I am "really" done, I give it to my sister-in-law, who is a history whiz kid. After her feedback, it's back down the rabbit hole for the final few drafts. My agent receives the novel in its 14th draft or so. This activity is not for the faint of heart, and it helps if you’re a bit OCD!

What research did you do for the novel? Travel? Go to historical societies? Read memoirs?
Landscape is the essential “canvas” upon which I set my novels, and so I always go to the places I plan to write about. For my last novel, A More Perfect Union, I went to Barbados, because that’s where John Boylston grew up. It was during the worst snowstorm Boston had seen in years, which especially annoyed my husband when I Skyped him from the sunny pool at my hotel. For A Transcontinental Affair, we flew to Omaha, and my husband and I rode by car along the original railroad line all the way to San Francisco. I kept a copy of an 1870 tourist guide with me to compare with what I saw with my own eyes. The journey was illuminating, beautiful, and sad all at once.
Reading memoirs is also a must for me. Many scenes in my new novel were inspired by events I read about in memoirs. Little details like how one depot charged money for travelers to see a bear tied to a rope. Or some kids selling prairie dogs in a cage. Or when the train ran over an ox. I’ve got many details in the novel that memoirs inspired me to add.
If you write historical fiction I think you’ve also got to read memoirs in order to create authentic dialogue and an authentic narrative “voice.” I don’t want my characters speaking like people from our time period—I really dislike such anachronisms in historical fiction and do my best to avoid them.
Finally, I adore archives. I can get lost for days perusing original maps, letters, photographs…. You never know what you’re going to find that will change the course of your story or enhance it.

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

When I found an original bill of fare from “The Pullman Hotel Express” at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I think I might actually have shouted out loud. I just had to build that menu into Hattie’s story. Its excesses—Porterhouse steak for breakfast, oysters and baked jacksnipe, and champagne with every meal--became a metaphor for the wanton excess and entitlement of the excursion itself.
The Bill of Fare discovery also exposed to me and my readers Hattie Eames’s voracious hunger for fulfillment, metaphorically speaking, her frustration with the restrictive culture she lives in.
Finally, seeing what remained of this Western landscape for myself--the extraordinary natural rock formations Echo Canyon, the lofty purity Sherman, Wyoming--gave me hope for my characters, that they could somehow avoid the “destiny” proscribed for them by the railroad men.

What is your favorite time period to write about? To read about?

Well, I’ll always love the era of America’s founding. As a writer, I now know that I have a core “theme,” one that runs very deep and that derives from our founding: the contradiction between America as a beautiful idea and America as it plays out in reality. My novels seem to be gradually moving closer and closer to the present day, though—my next one will take place in the 1930s. As for reading, I love mysteries set in the 19th century and certain “heavy” war stories, such as Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War.

What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? How have you been able to overcome that?

Good question. I’ve had several over the years. I’ve never had a problem getting ideas or writing—I write quickly. But two issues for me are, first, my completely insane process (see above!) I’m waiting for hand-to-text software to evolve to the point where it will be helpful for my multiple-draft process. Or maybe I could become less perfectionistic and settle for, say, seven drafts instead of fourteen. And second, believing in myself. This was a serious issue before I became successful. I would tell myself I wasn’t destined to be a novelist, that I had no talent, etc., etc. There was a nasty harpy inside me, and I went through some bad periods of depression listening to her scold me at every turn. I had to learn to keep that harpy in her place (locked in an imaginary attic!). Fortunately, even when I was down, I kept writing. I just didn’t know what else to do; I couldn’t find meaning without writing. I’m so glad I didn’t give up.

Who are your writing inspirations?

These change, depending on what I’m working on. For example, in researching my next novel, I was surprised to find a memoir by jazz great Sidney Bechet that is pure poetry. He writes just like he plays, and I know his prose is going to inspire my own writing of the next novel. In the bedrock of my writerly being, Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary are permanently lodged. Then I have little snippets of wisdom that are always with me, such as Virginia Woolf’s comment (she was quoting Coleridge, I believe) that “the best minds are androgynous.”

What are you reading at the moment?
A thriller that doesn’t bear mentioning, it’s so dreadful! But next on my list is my friend Olivia Hawker’s One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow.

What are three things people may not know about you?
Love this question! Well, I’m a fanatical swing dancer—Lindy Hop and Balboa. I go all over the country to get my fix of great jazz music and dancing. Two, I play jazz clarinet and learn by listening. I seem to have talented ears: i.e., I don’t like to read music but prefer to copy what I hear. I do think this musical gift is tied to my ability to shape sentences, create dialogue, vernacular accents, etc. Finally, I have a passionate love for animals and (related, I think) am seriously empathic. I once told my second-grade teacher that I could feel our classroom lizard climbing up the glass wall of his terrarium. She thought I was nuts! I don’t like cut flowers or Christmas trees, because I don’t like to see them die. When I was a child, I would even get sad for markers that lost their caps!

Care to share what you are working on now? Absolutely. I just turned in a proposal for a novel that will involve the great swing jazz musicians working in Harlem in the 1930s. Not a huge surprise, given that I’m passionate about Jazz music and dance. You’ll get to see and “hear” Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and others at the height of their artistic powers. And there’s a rather interesting love story as well!


message 2: by Amanda (new)

Amanda (drpowell) | 90 comments Holy cow, what a process! Love your commitment to producing excellent work.


message 3: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Myers | 39 comments I get lost in archives as well. It is enchanting.


message 4: by Jodi (new)

Jodi Daynard | 21 comments Amanda wrote: "Holy cow, what a process! Love your commitment to producing excellent work."

Haha. Holy cow is right! I tend to give myself a hard time about it, but in fact, I AM committed to producing the best work I can.


message 5: by Rhonda (new)

Rhonda | 74 comments Hi! Very interesting!


message 6: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Bernard (ehbernard) | 5 comments Wonderful interview. Thanks for sharing your passion and process!


message 7: by Shawna (new)

Shawna (ssherrell) | 27 comments Thanks for sharing your process! I love archives too, when I have the chance to visit them!


message 8: by Jodi (new)

Jodi Daynard | 21 comments Rhonda wrote: "Hi! Very interesting!"

Thanks, Rhonda!


message 9: by Jodi (new)

Jodi Daynard | 21 comments Elizabeth wrote: "Wonderful interview. Thanks for sharing your passion and process!"

Thanks much, Elizabeth!


message 10: by Jodi (new)

Jodi Daynard | 21 comments Shawna wrote: "Thanks for sharing your process! I love archives too, when I have the chance to visit them!"

I'll never forget finding the original hand-written book of minutes kept by the aldermen of Cambridge, MA, during the beginning of the revolution. It was just sitting there in the basement of Cambridge Town Hall!


message 11: by Shawna (new)

Shawna (ssherrell) | 27 comments Wow!! That is exciting!!


back to top