I can't remember when I met Sarah, but perhaps that's because I feel as if we've always known each other, that we were troublemakers in kindergarten together, that we both bought our first grownup dresses in junior high, that we celebrated each other's first published novel. But it didn't happen that way. Needless to say, Sarah is one of my favorite people and writers on the planet, and I keep trying to convince her to move next door. The Mapmakers Children, like all of Sarah's book, is literate, moving, and is also an unforgettable piece of history. I'm so honored to host her here! Thank you, Sarah!
Get a preview of coming attractions: Sarah and I goof around on YouTube to promote my interviewing her at BookCourt in Brooklyn on May 11th! You know you want to come!
I always want to know what sparks a particular book. What’s the question this book is asking that has been haunting you? What was it about the Underground Railroad that fascinated you so?
The ‘spark’ for each of my novels has come to me differently. Author friends tell me how they are consistently inspired through one particular medium: a visual image, historical character, political agenda, emotional struggle, color, food, etc. I can’t say that I have one. I guess my Mz. Inspiration likes to throw her bolts in various forms. I’ve never had a story come to me in the same way. The Mapmaker’s Children began with a sentence being spoken…
“A dog is not a child,” the woman, Eden Anderson, kept saying. And it was the way she said it that wouldn’t let me be. Confident, irked, and yet, deeply wounded by the very words she spoke. I couldn’t shush her no matter what I did. Months of hearing this over and over in my head—it could drive a woman batty (if you didn’t think I was already)!
So in an effort to cure my insomnia from this parrot haunting, I wrote the sentence and its corresponding scene in the journal. I realized then that the sentence was echoing through and out the front door of an old house—the house in New Charlestown calling me to solve its Underground Railroad secret. A mystery set between Eden in present-day West Virginia and Sarah Brown 150 years ago.
To be honest, before then, I was familiar with the Abolitionist Movement by virtue of being a history nerd. The Underground Railroad was a fascinating component, but it wasn’t until Eden and Sarah’s home called me that I became completely absorbed in it. Now, I feel like I see UGRR codes everywhere I turn. It makes the everyday world a terribly exciting place.
One of the elements that I so loved in The Mapmaker’s Daughter is the whole notion of how art can save us, how it can be a political force, and how it truly can change lives. Can you talk about this please?
It’s funny because, as I mentioned earlier, political agendas haven’t sparked my stories. But somehow, they’re always present. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Caroline. Art is one of the most powerful political forces in humanity. I think that’s the case because it usually originates from a nonpartisan place of expression—and yet! It conveys our most true selves, our beliefs, our passions, our deepest fears and greatest hopes. At its foundation, politics is comprised of people expressing their hearts and minds then taking action. From soldiers protecting the nation to secret movements to free the enslaved, faces may change through time but the core remains the same, the function of art remains the same. It’s this meta-entity that breathes through time and space, catalyzing all in its path, from the individual to the masses, and forever changing the topography of history.
This is part of why I felt compelled (to a compulsive degree) to tell Sarah Brown’s story. She wasn’t just one of John Brown’s children. She was an artist! She saved lives; she helped forge a new path for America; she created instruments of world change. Sure, she may not stand in the annals alongside Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass or Ulysses S. Grant, but her role was no less noble, no less affective, no less worthy of being remembered 150 years in the future.
It only takes one look at her art and you see the talent and the hunger to reveal her secret thoughts and feelings. In her drawings of her parents: the meticulous detail given to each wrinkle of the brow and curve of hair reveals how much she loved them. In her “Peaches” painting: the blush of the fruit and bounty of the basket whisper of her cravings and her appreciation for the sensual beauty of nature. It’s all right there. Like every good artist, including writers, there are at least three different messages in each line—of words or pigment. Layers for the viewer to decrypt.
There are two story lines in your novel, one in the past and one in the present. How difficult was it to structure the novel this way?
As I novelist, I consider myself a perpetual student of the craft. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same phenomenon with all your wonderful books, Caroline. I learn so much with each story. From the research and creative process to the editing and revising, writing a novel is like a master class in narrative invention. I come away knowing so much more than I did from the start—so many nuanced techniques and lessons that I didn’t yet know or have a full grasp of utilizing.
Writing two story lines in a historical-contemporary hybrid form seems to be my organic way of processing whatever fictional worlds I’m working in. History seen through this kind of Alice in Wonderland looking-glass filter of the present. I wrote that way for The Baker’s Daughter and now again in The Mapmaker’s Children. I’m fascinated by how the people of the past can reach across generations and impact the present; how mysteries of the present have their solutions in the past; how issues we face and decisions we make today are strikingly similar to ones our forbearers made—with good and bad outcomes. I’m riveted by this interplay.
That being said, it does not make for an easy write.
How did you do it? Do you wait for that pesky Muse to find her way to you? (She always gets lost with me.)
You know, I casually use the phrase “my Muse” and joke impishly about her fickle devotion. But truthfully, I don’t believe in any Greek deity coming down to clever me in the head with her story ax. That’s not to say I don’t believe in divine inspiration. Au contraire! But do I wait for Le Muse to do anything? Not a minute. She’s too busy fluffing her bouffant and shimmering sunshine on my desert roses. And I’m far too Type-A to rely on that kind of wandering productivity. I love what Ann Patchett said in an interview regarding writing: she compared it to her husband’s occupation as a doctor or any other job. My husband is a surgeon so I related. He can’t wake up and decide he’s just not in the mood to go into the operating room. Whether or not I ‘feel the writing mojo’ is inconsequential. The work remains. Patchett put it perfectly, as she always does: “… if you work, you just work , and sooner or later, you’ll get through it.” So simple, so brilliant, so true. I adhere to that straightforward work ethic.
You’re known in the literary community as one of the kindest, most generous, most supportive souls on the planet. With all that you do, how do you stay so grounded and why do you think a community among writers is so, so important?
Oh, stuff and nonsense. You, Caroline, hold the royal scepter for Queen of Generosity, and that’s an agreed upon fact in our business. I’m simply honored to be a lady in waiting in your court. Besides, it’s so much easier to be supportive of your fellow writers. Call me lazy perhaps, but I’d rather advocate for hard work and cheer for everyone’s successes.
Our writer community grounds me by virtue of its own achievements. I’m daily in awe of the stories my fellow authors create, their fortitude through personal struggles, their talents, and incredible hearts. I’m inspired and bolstered by true friendships like yours. I can’t think of a more significant reason than that.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
My obsessions shillyshally based on weather, calendar, my dog’s hiccups, and a thousand imagination whims on and off the page. So at this hour, I’m obsessed with tattoos. I have none. I don’t yearn to have one. But I’m completely fixated on the imagery people choose to forever “tatt” on their bodies. There’s a power there that both captivates and terrifies me. I’m drawn to yin-yang, good-evil, light-dark conflicts so here’s another, I guess.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What are we going to wear to our Brooklyn event together on May 11? Boots are a crossover fashion must—chic in the 1860s and today! But I don’t think the 2015 New York gentry would approve of pajamas. Maybe if we serve wine and nibbles they won’t notice so much, eh?