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