An Interview with Ann Weisgarber

The PromiseThis week I’m happy to have the opportunity to bring you an interview with Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. I met Ann at a conference a few years ago, read her novel shortly thereafter and was delighted by the project’s inception (you’ll read about that in a moment), and completely curious about her main character. Then I found out the subject of her next novel, The Promise, and waited with great anticipation for its release. Set against the backdrop of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, this novel absolutely will not let you go. The Promise is a 2014 finalist for the Walter Scott Prize in historical fiction, a Pulpwood Queen book-of-the-month club pick, and a 2014 Spur Award Finalist for Best Historical Fiction. Please visit Ann’s website for more information.

1) Tell us the story of how you came to write The Promise. What made you want to explore these characters–and the 1900 Galveston hurricane–in such depth?

When I finished my first novel, I freelanced for a Galveston magazine, The Islander. My task was to write articles about people who had unusual jobs. For one assignment, I interviewed a brother and sister who owned and managed a small grocery store on the rural end of the island. They’d moved there with their parents in 1963, and their stories about rural island life fascinated me. The tap water was rusty and not safe to drink, electricity went out frequently, and there were more rattlesnakes than people.

If that was life in 1963, what was the rural end of Galveston like during 1900 when a massive hurricane hit the island and killed over 6,000 people? That question drove me to the Galveston library where I found very little information about the people who once lived outside of the city limits. It seemed that Galveston’s dairy farmers, ranchers, and fishermen had been forgotten, and that felt like an injustice. The Promise is my way of remembering those people.

2) How did living (at least part-time) at the scene of the 1900 hurricane inform your writing? What kind of research did you undertake, and what fascinated you most about what you learned?

Spending time in Galveston allowed me to watch the pelicans, listen to the surf, and feel the heat of August. I’ve also been through several hurricanes, although not on the island. That’s the last place I want to be during a storm and when the Galveston mayor issues mandatory evacuations, I don’t have to be asked twice to leave. I’ve seen the aftermath of hurricanes and have witnessed the slow, painful process of rebuilding. These experiences helped me write The Promise.

I also spent hours in The Galveston and Texas History Center at Galveston’s Rosenberg Library. There, I saw a photo of the nuns and orphans who lived at St. Mary’s Home in 1900. Another source described the sand dunes on the rural end of the island but in 1900 they were called sand hills. I also found the names of people who died in the storm.

In addition, I interviewed people who had long ties to the rural end and learned that in 1900 the beach was strewn with washed-ashore trees and debris tossed from ships. Someone mentioned that many Galvestonians drank bottled mineral water because the well water had a bad taste. Others mentioned the ridge road. Many of these details found their way into the story.

3) I still find the end of The Promise shocking. Without spoiling the surprise for those of us who haven’t read the novel yet, can you tell us why you made the choices you made? Or do you feel as if the storyline was actually fairly well out of your control?

Initially, the ending shocked me too but after trying other endings, this was the one that felt right. It’s in keeping with historical accounts of what happened at the time of the hurricane. It also reflects the shock many survivors experienced after the storm.

4) The idea for your previous novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, came to you almost out of nowhere. Can you tell us that story, then talk a bit about why you’re drawn to these specific historical moments or periods? Do you ever have an inclination to write something contemporary?

You’re so right, Jennifer. The first novel did seem to come almost out of nowhere. It was inspired by an old photograph I’d seen while on vacation at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The photo was of an unnamed woman sitting by herself in front of a sod dugout. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would attempt to homestead alone but there she was. I was also surprised she was African American. I hadn’t known there were black settlers and homesteaders in the West.

The woman in the photo haunted me. She was alone in an isolated landscape. After the vacation, I found information about black settlers but the accounts were factual and dry. This woman, I felt sure, had a rich and meaningful story. I felt her pushing me to give her a story, and eventually I did. I felt her with me through the entire writing process.

I felt the same kind of push from the people who were on the rural end of Galveston on September 8, 1900. Like the women in the photo, they had been nearly forgotten. These are the kinds of stories that speak to me.

I didn’t realize I wrote historical fiction until someone gave me that label. I’m happy with that since I can’t imagine writing contemporary fiction. I enjoy leaving my modern life and spending time in a different century.

5) Both of your novels have very distinctive female characters. What calls you to write about women’s experience? How do your female characters negotiate their relationship with the men in their lives?

I admire women whose lives seem uneventful until crises, either internal or external, tear their worlds apart. Somehow, though, they must carry on while looking after children, cooking meals, doing laundry, and holding down their jobs. They may want to fall apart, and maybe some of them do, but most women pick themselves up and find the strength to make difficult choices.

Since my novels take place before the women’s liberation movement, my female characters typically maneuver the men in their lives in subtle ways. Many women had to be cautious since they didn’t have access to money or were unable to support their children if they left their husbands. While writing the first book, I read diaries written by women. Many of them understood they could not make demands of their husbands or ask direct and pointed questions. Instead, they were skilled in applying the light touch and this method often allowed them to get their way.

6) I’m always curious about the process of other writers. Do you outline? Spread notecards around you and create some kind of timeline? Or do you dive right into the story?

I begin with a general idea about the plot and write a one-page summary to give the illusion that I have a plan. Then I make an outline for the first chapter. Once I finish that, I go back and fill in the gaps until the outline begins to read like a story. Then I’m on to the outline for the next chapter.

It usually doesn’t take long before I’ve strayed from the summary, and that’s fine. Nothing is written in stone and research discoveries often change the course of the story.

I’d like to add that I meet every Friday with my writing critique group. We each bring six pages of our projects and the feedback I receive is invaluable. These writers have seen me through both novels, and I hope they’ll see me through the next one.

7) Tell us about your relationship with your novels. Do you prefer one book over the other? Do you have a favorite character? Once the book is published, do you ever reread what you’ve written, or do you close the door on those characters once their stories have been told?

The characters in both novels are dear friends, and I have difficulty parting from them once their stories are finished. Fortunately, I meet with many book clubs for both novels so their stories continue to be part of my life.

Rachel DuPree will probably always be my favorite character. She was inspired by a woman in the photograph that I mentioned in the fourth question. That woman made me become a writer and changed the direction of my life. I will always be grateful to her and for the book she inspired.

8) What can you tell us about your next project?

I’m working on a novel that takes place in Utah’s canyon country during the winter of 1888. The narrator is a 37-year-old woman who helps polygamists hide from U.S. marshals. I’m not all that far along and the plot has deviated far from the original one-page summary so I’m afraid to say anything more.

9) What books are you reading right now? Give us a glimpse of your bedside table!

I’m a fan of your novels and although I finished your latest novel, The Crossing, a while ago, it’s still on my mind. I’ve just started Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The Promise has been shortlisted along with it for the UK’s Walter Scott Prize in Historical Fiction, and in June I’ll be on a panel with the other finalists. My goal is to read the other five novels.

If I may, I’d like to add that I recently read Juliet West’s Before the Fall which takes place in London’s East End during World War 1. I was spellbound. I was also captivated by Gary Schanbacher’s Crossing Purgatory. Much of the story is set in eastern Colorado before the Civil War. It’s one that I want to reread.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

A Day in This Writer’s Life

Many days I’ve spent in isolation, save for the company of my characters. Those days are some of my favorites. I like nothing more–as you know, if you’ve spent any time reading my blog posts–than getting lost in my characters’ heads. But I don’t always have the luxury of entire days to myself. I’m a mother, a friend, a reluctant dog owner. I, too, run out of groceries and cave to invitations of wine, even when I have stories in my head clamoring for release.

And still I make it through. I make it through because I’m always thinking of my work. My characters seep in around the edges of my consciousness, and carry me. They really do.

I thought you might want to know how that works. How this writer’s life fills up with images and phrases and moments stolen from others who will never know that their look, their smile, their particular turn of phrase ended up fodder for inspiration.

My alarm goes off. It’s light outside, but barely. I’m not thinking about my characters at all. I’m thinking about fixing beds and packing lunches and cajoling my child. But then, on the way to the bus stop an hour later, an SUV catches my eye. We’re at a stoplight, and the driver isn’t wearing a shirt. I can tell because his window’s open. Large sunglasses hide his eyes. He’s young. I’m already combing through my characters. Would Adam drive anywhere without a shirt? Hell no. Would James? Maybe… Joel?

I can think of six thousand reasons why Joel would end up behind the wheel of his Explorer without a shirt. And those reasons stay with me through drop-off, through a trip to the bank and a fill-up at the gas station down the street.

Then I’m home. I step in my house and take a deep breath; there’s a whiff of something other here, in this seventy-four-year-old house of mine, and I know there are days when Joel walks through his front door and breathes in the same scent.

Connection: that easy.

Breakfast, email, time to tweet. Last night I happened to stumble across a link to a live show of Soulhat’s, from August of ’91. I watched it over and over, and now I play it again as I post the link on Twitter. I might have been at that show; I know Joel and James were.

More email, some copywriting for a friend who’s launching her website later this month, then lunch with author Susan Michalski. We meet at South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, because we’re obsessing about tacos and Topo Chico. I’m well aware that Torchy’s opened in 2006, after Adam moved to Seattle. I wonder if James has ever been. Sue and I talk about our work and nothing but our work for an hour: what we’re writing, who’s reading what we’re writing, what it’s like to watch a photographer shoot a scene that we’ve written. I envy the fact that she needs only a few hours of sleep a night: how much more could I write if I slept less than six hours?

I know how much. I’ve done it before.

Back home my terrier screams at the neighbor’s dog as I sit down at the table on my back porch. I want to string some colored lights around the railing like James does in The Crossing, but I can’t find an electrical outlet. I post something on my Facebook author page, a question about who would be more likely to see a psychic, Joel, James or Adam. I scroll through my email again, fill out an enrollment application for school for my son, message a friend of a friend who wants me to tutor her daughter in creative writing. I have one hour left to get in my yoga practice before I have to run to the store and then head back to that bus stop. Yoga: today I tie my hair in a ponytail at the nape of my neck, where Joel would tie his.

I wouldn’t say I spend my entire yoga practice in Joel’s body, but I’m there for more than a breath.

I head to the bus stop. I have a convertible of my own and I put the top down on the way. Joel had a convertible, back in ’95. He doesn’t talk much about the wind in his hair in The Crossing, but he does in book three. The music I play as I’m driving has James written all over it, especially “February Stars” by the Foo Fighters.

I pick up my son. He wants an entire meal at 4:30, and a water balloon fight in the backyard. He has way better aim than I do. By the time we’re finished I’m soaking wet and have to leave to tutor another student. I drop my son off at a friend’s house in Hyde Park, not too far from my house, and just blocks away from where James rented that garage apartment in graduate school. I’m tempted to drive up Avenue G, to see if I can spot the place. Instead my eye’s drawn to two men walking along the sidewalk to my left. I notice them just as they reach a place where hedges on either side of the sidewalk grow tall enough, and curve inward enough, to form a tunnel. So cool. I want to know what they’re doing in there, what’s being said. I want to know which of my characters would disappear into that tunnel, but I really don’t have to think for long.

It’s Joel and James. Of course.

I tutor. I pick up my son. He wants more food, and book time, and help falling asleep. I end up answering emails on my phone: I’m trying to get on a panel at the Texas Book Festival, and author Ann Weisgarber wants to update me on the interview questions I sent her. My friend has questions about her copyedits. My marketing expert needs me to write up a description of a special project I’ve undertaken. I feel like I should take advantage of the hour I have before sleep overtakes me to write a bit, but I’m not sure I’m in the right mental space. I spend my time texting with various friends. I like connection.

By midnight I’m done. I fall asleep thinking of that guy in the SUV this morning. I liked his arms. Where can I work that in?

Somewhere. Undoubtedly. At the very least it’s in my head.

Where I’m always writing, even when I’m not.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Reading in 2013

There’s nothing quite like losing yourself in a good book, especially during the winter months when the weather’s chilly and curling up with a book seems like the sensible thing to do. The week of Thanksgiving the weather here in Austin was so frigid that one day I never bothered getting out of bed. I’ll be honest; most of the time I was working. But I was also reading David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year. Lyrical and lovely, I found myself audibly catching my breath just a few pages in. That’s such a fabulous feeling, to be at the very beginning of a book and know that you’ve picked up something special and still have chapters and chapters to go.

I’ve seen so many lists lately, touting the best books of 2013. If I created a similar list, there’s no question that David Levithan’s novel would be on it. But I have to admit that I don’t always stick to what’s recently published when I’m looking for a good book. So yes, I read Two Boys Kissing this year. But I also read Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, which was sparsely worded and yet so rich that I knew my reading experience would end too soon. I read Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, (and oh, did I want more of Jonah than I got!), but I also got caught up in Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden and I surprised the hell out of myself by loving Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I relished J. H. Trumble’s newest novel, Just Between Us, but I also blew through her first two novels and am still trying to pinpoint my favorite of the three.

Ann Weisgarber’s The Promise arrived just a few days ago, and even the cover intrigues.

Of course, I spent more time in 2013 in my own fictional world than in any other. I’ve read The Crossing more times than I could possibly begin to count, and even made the mistake of reading through the novel after publication. I’m still trying to figure out a way to easily correct the editorial errors I uncovered on that read-through. But I never tire of reading about Joel, no matter how many times I feel like shaking him and telling him to get his shit together.

I get the impression that some of you feel the same. I hope so. That’s absolutely my goal as a writer: to tell Joel’s story so compellingly that you keep coming back for more.

I’ll be writing more about Joel (and Adam and James) in the new year, and I’m curious to find out what happens to them.  I have an idea, of course, but my characters like to keep me on my toes. I can’t wait to share with you what I learn about them. In the meantime, check back here every so often for new vignettes. I promise more eye candy, too.

And if you’d like, tell me in the comments below what books you lost yourself in this year. I’m always looking for a good read!

Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved