By now, anyone who reads my blog has seen me raving about the outstanding debut novel I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Erin to Bookshelf Fantasies, where she very kindly (and patiently) takes the time to answer my over-abundance of questions:
The original inspiration for I Shall Be Near To You was the collected letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who disguised as a man and served in the 153rd New York State Volunteers for two years. I found An Uncommon Soldier, the book of her letters, in 1998 while looking for a primary source upon which to write the final paper for the US Women’s History class I was taking. I had no idea women had fought in the Civil War until I came across that book. When I saw Rosetta’s picture and then read her letters, I was just taken with her—her feisty spirit, her tenderness, her determination. Of course, I didn’t know then that I was going to eventually write a book inspired by her. I just thought her story, and the stories of the other women who fought, was fascinating and I had so many questions that weren’t answered by the historical records available.
How long did the writing process take for I Shall Be Near To You?
I started writing the book in the Spring of 2007. It took me two years to write a complete draft, and then I spent another year revising it in my MFA program. Then I worked with two different agents over the next two years, revising it more. The book sold in December 2012, and then of course there were more edits after that! So, I guess I worked on it for 6 years all told, plus the 10 years I spent wishing I could figure out what to do with the real Rosetta’s story other than write a college paper about her.
Was Rosetta a real historical figure? Were there many women who did what Rosetta did in the Civil War?
Yes, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was a real woman. She is one of about 250 documented women who disguised as men and enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. Their service is beautifully surveyed in the book They Fought Like Demons. And of course, estimates are that there were even more women who were just never found out—perhaps as many as 400-1000 total.
What was it about Rebel Rose and Clara Barton that made you want to include them in the story, rather than sticking solely to fictional characters?
I’ve gotten some criticism for including real characters—that it seems too coincidental that the fictional Rosetta would have run into these women. But one of the moments the real Rosetta wrote about in her letters home was her experience guarding both a female soldier who was imprisoned after leading her men into battle for “not doing according to regulation” and two female Rebel spies. I was so curious about what that must have been like—to be guarding women who were imprisoned for doing what she herself was doing—but it’s just mentioned in passing in Rosetta’s letters. So I knew I wanted to explore that more in a fictionalized context. I also really wanted to include women in the novel who represented the variety of ways women served during the war. I loved the idea of showing Clara Barton doing something that is considered very feminine (nursing wounded soldiers) but doing it in a context that was very unconventional at the time. She was the first official female combat nurse but she had to fight for the right to be on the battlefields. I had also discovered when I visited Antietam, that the memorial commemorating Clara Barton’s service at Antietam is placed right near where the 97th New York State Volunteers (the fictional Rosetta’s regiment) encamped the night before the battle and Clara Barton served in battlefield hospitals near The Cornfield where the 97th fought. So it seemed entirely plausible to me that as Rosetta searches the hospitals after the battle, she might come across Clara Barton. And then, finally, Clara Barton is known to have nursed a wounded female soldier named Mary Galloway after Antietam.
What would someone like Rosetta have experienced after the war? Admiration, scorn, something else?
That’s one of the questions I really pondered as I wrote the book, and the larger question of how any soldier goes back to civilian life after having experienced the horrors of battle. Unfortunately, there’s so little known about the female soldiers during their time in the military, and even less is known about what they did after. A few (Jennie Hodgers, Otto ) are known to have continued living as men. Some (Sarah Emma Edmonds, Martha Parks Lindley, Mary Galloway) went back to living as women, marrying and having children. Most of the rest just disappeared from the historical record. My sense is that most of them didn’t talk about their experience, and when they did, it was within the confines of their family. A few did, in later years, apply for veteran’s benefits and receive them, thanks to the support of their comrades who seemed to hold the women in high regard.
I really admired the amount of detail included about life in the army camps and what a foot soldier’s daily routine might have looked like. How did you compile all of this information?
It was a challenge! A lot of my information came straight out of soldiers’ letters. For instance, in one letter the real Rosetta says that the skirmish drill was “the prettiest drill ever was drill” so then I knew I had to find out about how to do a skirmish drill. I consulted an officer’s handbook and also a soldier’s handbook to get details about the actual drills, the way orders might be called out, the kinds of food and supplies soldiers might carry, and so on. I talked to the battlefield historian at Antietam about what kinds of duties the soldiers had after the battle ended. But one of my frustrations was that the kinds of things I was most interested in (the everyday, day-in and day-out life of a soldier) were not the kinds of things that made it into the history books, which so often focus on the generals and strategies and the movements of the troops. So it was really about finding the details I needed hidden away in first-hand accounts. Fortunately the soldiers often wrote about the food they ate or the duties they had. I also gleaned many of the battlefield and wound descriptions from soldiers’ letters. I was initially surprised at how many of the soldiers just completely glossed over those kinds of details, but I was equally surprised by how gruesome their descriptions were when they chose to include them. And finally, I attended a reenactment, which really helped me with the details about camp life and also with what a group of muskets firing all at once sounded like, what the smoke from the cannons looked like, and so on.
What were your main priorities and/or challenges in researching the book?
I think my first two priorities were to tell a story that I would want to read myself and to write a story that would pay tribute to and honor the women and men who served during the Civil War. After that, the biggest challenge was getting the historical details right without making the book feel research-y. It was really important to me that the book be as accurate as possible—I didn’t want there to be any reason for a reader to discount the story of the women who fought because I hadn’t done my research well enough. I think there is probably something on every single page that is researched—whether it’s a detail about farm life, or a word that I had to double-check to make sure was in usage, to a song the soldiers might sing, to what the scenery looked like. It sounds daunting when I think about it now, but as I was working on it, it was just part of the process, and the research really fed my creativity. There were some things I never got cut-and-dried answers for despite my best attempts—like how fast news might travel or how quickly a letter could be sent—and sometimes I spent hours and hours trying to figure out a tiny detail (did the upper bridge at Antietam have two arches or three?) that doesn’t probably matter to most readers, but that I knew would matter to anyone who spent time at Antietam. The research about the battles themselves, particularly the movement of the troops, was a huge challenge. Trying to figure out where exactly my soldiers would be on the battlefield and at what point was hard. I pored over battlefield maps and photos trying to get it right. And then writing the battle scenes themselves was very difficult emotionally, but it was incredibly important to me that readers would get a sense of what it was like to be there in the thick of the battle—because so many women were!
And a few questions for Erin about her writing career:
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’m really not sure! I have always loved writing—the physical act of my pen moving across paper. I was that annoying kid in high school who thought writing essays was fun. And I remember thinking when I was pretty young—in elementary or junior high school—that I wanted to write a novel, but I just didn’t know what about.
What did your early writing days look like?
I started keeping a diary when I was seven, and in junior high I had about a hundred pen pals (that’s not an exaggeration). I was always writing little stories or sock puppet plays or designing magazines (all the articles written by yours truly). In junior high I started trying to write poetry, and in college I tried writing some short stories, but they always kept getting longer and longer. I started dabbling with writing a novel a few years before I wrote I Shall Be Near To You, kind of on a dare from my husband. It turned out to be a wonderful thing because I discovered I could actually write a cohesive story that was novel-length (though it wasn’t all that good) and I learned a lot about what my writing process is like. When I got to the middle of I Shall Be Near To You and it felt like it was all falling apart, I was able to remember I had felt the same way before (and I feel the same way again, working on my current project), which is oddly comforting.
Do you have a background in history? Is the Civil War a period of special interest?
When I look back at what I read as a kid, it often had a historical bent to it though I wasn’t all that interested in history as it was taught in school—dates, facts, battles, generals, politicians. Studying literature in college though, I really began to see the overlap between what authors write about and what’s happening in history. That’s when I became a history minor. I’m just so interested in the stories of real people’s daily lives and what life was like in the past. I’ve had a fascination with the Civil War since watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary as a 13 year old, and I think that’s one thing that documentary really does well—you get a sense of what individuals experienced. Though I wouldn’t call myself a history buff, in the sense that there’s one period of time that I am a real expert in, I am always drawn to the Victorian and Edwardian periods, probably because a) there’s horses and b) it’s the time right before and at the beginning of the suffrage movement. I’m really interested in how women coped with having so little political, economic, and social freedom.
Do you intend to make historical fiction your specialty, or will we see future books in other genres?
Historical fiction is what I gravitate toward, but I’m not ruling out exploring other genres.
What are you working on now/next?
Right now I’m working on another historical novel—this one is inspired by the adopted daughter of a female serial killer. I’m maybe half to two thirds done with a first draft of it, so I’m right in the middle of the phase where I feel like the whole thing is falling apart.
What is your writing routine like? Do you have a particular spot or time that you prefer for writing?
I try to write at least five days a week and I try to hit a daily goal of 1000 words. I used to always write in the morning after walking my dog, before I went off to teach. And for much of the time I was working on I Shall Be Near To You, I wrote late at night after my husband was asleep. I like having a good chunk of time (two to three hours) so that I feel like I can really dig in. Now my routine is much more scattered because I have a three-year old son. I used to write during his naps, but now that he’s stopped napping I’ve had to figure out a new routine. I’m still working on that—right now I have a babysitter come twice a week in the morning and then sometimes my son and I meet my husband at the coffee shop after he gets off work and when they leave I stay and work for a couple hours. I’m finding it harder and harder to write late at night, because I just get too sleepy (and sleep-writing, while very amusing to re-read in the morning, is not very productive)! But I do still write after everyone else is asleep.
Anything about you as a person you’d like to share? Favorite foods, movies, music?
I think anyone who knows me knows that I love all things potato. Also anything sugary and chocolatey and buttery. I adore female musicians—I listened to so much Neko Case and Gillian Welch while writing I Shall Be Near To You. But I also love Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, Sarah Maclachlan, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater Kinney, Sharon Jones, Adele, Liz Phair, Tracy Chapman, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen… In general I like music that has something deeper to say about the human experience, that is layered instrumentally and lyrically, that has a moment of poetic realization or surprise to it, when the musician reveals something with their words or with the music that you didn’t realize before or weren’t expecting—Weezer, System of a Down, The Decemberists, Interpol, Iron & Wine, REM, TV on the Radio, Morphine all come to mind. My husband says my iPod is a 1990s time capsule, and looking at this list I realize he’s probably right! He also says that to figure out which song on an album is my favorite, just find the slowest, saddest one. And I’m a sucker for anything with a banjo or a fiddle or bagpipes in it. As for movies, I’ll pretty much watch any costume drama (recently, I really liked the new version of Wuthering Heights, and this little movie called Meek’s Cutoff, and the new Jane Eyre). I love a love story, especially a quirky one (Princess Bride, Amelie, Moulin Rouge, Silver Linings Playbook). I was blown away by Winter’s Bone. I don’t watch too many new movies these days, but that last movie I saw in the theater was Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. I think I giggled through the whole thing, it tickled me so much.
What were your favorite books as a child?
The Little House on the Prairie books for sure. Anne of Green Gables. I was a voracious reader—I read a lot of the classics, things like Heidi, Jane Eyre, Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Chronicles of Narnia—and then I read stuff like Nancy Drew, The Saddle Club, tons of Lurlene MacDaniel books (I loved when a book made me cry), and anything with horses in it (My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion books). I have great memories of my dad reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to my brother and me. He did really good voices for the characters and he always quit reading for the night at a cliffhanger.
What books have you read recently that you loved?
When I’m actively writing, I have a hard time reading fiction, partially because I’m doing non-fiction reading for research, partially because I so often have to choose between either writing or reading, and partially because I get worried if I read certain books, I’ll be unduly influenced by them. That said, I read a bunch of books this Fall and Winter that I really liked—Burial Rites, The Kept, Bittersweet (which I read as an ARC, it’s out this 5/12), Quiet Dell, The Maid’s Version. But I think the book that I loved the most was Boleto. I guess it’s a western and a coming of age story, but it’s so much more than that. It’s quiet and beautiful and poignant and the main character is endearing and heartbreaking. It’s a slim little thing, but it feels deep and it’s just so well-written. I envy and admire the way Alison Hagy has managed to write about horses without being sentimental or cheesy.
Thank you, Erin, for your insights and your time!
To learn more about Erin Lindsay McCabe and her writing, visit her website at http://erinlindsaymccabe.com.
See previous Bookshelf Fantasies posts about I Shall Be Near To You:
Guest Review: I Shall Be Near To You
Five Reasons Why You Should Read I Shall Be Near To You… ASAP!