Author Interview: Katherine Scott Crawford
Posted by jlo3133
I recently read and enjoyed a lot a book by Katherine Scott Crawford, Keowee Valley. Now, normally when I find things that I like I spend a couple of thousand words telling you about it, but this time I wanted to try something different, so I approached the author about conducting an interview of sorts, and we ended up trading some e-mails discussing the books and the writing process. I must say I’m really pleased with the results. I haven’t conducted an interview since I wrote for my high school newspaper, so it was fun to flex my journalist muscles some.
(Now here’s the part where I throw up a big disclosure and caveat: Katherine just happens to be married to one of my oldest friends on the planet. If you know anything about me though you probably know that if I didn’t truly like the book, I wouldn’t have bothered even finishing it, much less exerting the effort to write about it. For things that I enjoy, however, I will shill like no other. Needless to say, I enjoyed it and you should buy it. And, as Katherine warned me when I started reading, if you are a guy, don’t be scared off by the girlie cover – her words, not mine!)
I’ll let you be the judge on the cover.
Now that the legalities are out of the way, onto our conversation, which touches on the creative process, life in the Colonial South, Stanley Kubrick, Field of Dreams, how one goes about getting those cool author blurbs (spoiler, she got Pat Freaking Conroy!), and the odds William Shakespeare would have been a soap opera fan. I purposely left out too many spoiler-y questions so as not to ruin the book for anyone. Like I said, I’m really pleased with the result, so I’m publishing the entire thing basically unedited.
And now for something completely different, as those Monty Python guys like to say. My questions/comments are in bold italic, her responses follow.
Your book is hard to classify (and I mean that in a good way). It’s obviously historical fiction, but there are elements of Mark Twain’s works, romance, and adventure. How do you classify it when you describe it to others?
Wow–what a compliment, especially since I’m a huge Twain fan. But you’re right: it is a novel that’s hard to classify, and you’re not the only one who thought so. Several of the NYC editors to whom my literary agent originally pitched the novel mentioned that, but instead of seeing it as a positive, said that it’d be difficult to market because of this. They wanted to know, was it literary or commercial? Adventure or romance? Frontier story, story of the Cherokee, or story of the Revolution? And so on. Thank goodness my publisher, Bell Bridge Books, loved the fact that it’s all of the above.
I have a rough time, myself, classifying it to others. Usually I call it “an historical adventure.”
It has to be frustrating to hear feedback from literary agents about “not being able to market” a book. Did you ever feel any pressure to change any parts of the book to make it a more appealing “product?”
I did feel pressure; thankfully, not from my literary agent. But I’d stupidly insisted on him sending me copies of all the letters we got back from editors, and when a few of them insisted that the novel was a bit “quiet,” or that they could sell it better as a straight romance, I felt discouraged. Not enough to want to turn the novel into a bodice-ripper, but still.
We got pretty far into the process with a major editor at one of the “Big Six” houses; she and I actually talked on the phone and corresponded for several weeks, and I made changes to the manuscript she’d requested because, honestly, I was desperate at that point for it to be published. But in the end the novel was becoming unrecognizable. When she finally requested that I make Quinn a midwife because they’d had success earlier that year publishing a novel set in the Blue Ridge about a midwife, I knew we were done. And my agent felt the same way.
There’s quite a bit I’d probably change about the novel if I could, and perhaps that editor could have made it a blockbuster. But I’m happy with my decision, especially, to go with a smaller press who worked with me to make the story better but mostly loved it as it was.
Some authors/artists are fairly protective of their work and what the reader/viewer/listener should “get” from it. Are there particular themes that you are hoping that a reader will take away or are you resigned or even hoping that different readers will have multiple interpretations of what they are reading (even if it is something that you perhaps didn’t intend)?
Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s patoot (I can say “patoot,” right?) – Ed Note: Checking for a ruling…yeah, we’re good with patoot. We would have also accepted arse or bum – what readers get out of reading Keowee Valley, as long as they enjoy it. Certainly, there are running themes in the novel, whether I intended them to be there or not. And there are certain issues that were important to me that I hoped would show up: Cherokee gender and political history, the treatment of women, the rapidly disappearing frontier, etc. But I was the student in freshmen Lit who couldn’t stand it when a teacher insisted that the author of a work “meant” for the work to say something specific, or got bogged down in the symbolism of a piece. First, you never really know what an author was thinking or feeling when she wrote something; and second–I firmly believe most writers just want their work to touch readers in some way, any way.
This idea of artist “intent” vs. what the reader/listener/viewer takes from it has been on my mind since I watched a documentary recently called Room 237. It’s basically a collection of “interpretations” that people have of the movie “The Shining,” and some of them are, um, let’s say interesting. They include things like the entire movie being Stanley Kubrick’s coded admission that he helped fake the moon landing or a sophisticated reverse retelling of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anyway, since you don’t give a “patoot” (I’m still laughing at that, by the way, very southern of you) about how people enjoy your work, you’re totally ok with my theory that the McFadden Settlement is a metaphor for the rise of the Tea Party in modern America, right? (Ok, I almost typed that without laughing) Anyway, the point to that rather long, rambling digression is once something you’ve created is out in the wild, you basically lose ownership of it at that point, and you seem to have made peace with that.
Tea Party. Oh, boy. I almost fell off my writing stool. And as for using “patoot,” you can take the girl out of South Carolina but ….
In so many ways, I think you’re right on: you definitely lose ownership of your story when it’s finally been published. It’s the nature of the beast. Writing a novel is sort of like (and I usually deplore this analogy because it’s so overused and a little creepy) having a child and finally sending that child out into the world. They’re not yours any more, much as it kills you. They belong only to themselves. I don’t know that I’ve made complete peace with it, but I think being a college English teacher helps, having studied and taught so much writing for so long I can see what the reader’s individual take of a work can do over the years. I mean, look what we’ve done to Shakespeare. (Though I personally think if he lived now, he’d be sitting back in a Lazy-Boy with a drink in hand, getting a kick out of watching soap operas.)
As someone who has started more than one novel only to fizzle out early on, I’m pretty fascinated with the physical creative process. Can you talk a bit about how Keowee Valley came about from a creative aspect?
Let me just say I’m with you there: Keowee Valley is the first novel I’ve actually ever completed. Before, I’d started and finished probably five other novels since I was an undergraduate … usually never making it past the first 50 pages before my interest and inspiration dissipated and I got caught up in something new.
There are many reasons I think I stuck with the novel this time, but these two are probably the most important:
1) I’d been wanting to write about the land on which Keowee Valley is set–a place in the Southern Appalachians I grew up exploring as a kid and then as an outdoor educator and history nut–since I was in high school. So the impetus and the love was there. Once I got started, I felt in my bones that it was something special, if not to anyone else then at least to me.
2) I got some pretty great feedback on the first 10-15 pages. I submitted them to a “manuscript critique” offered by the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop; workshop facilitators handed them over to a former editor with Algonquin Books, a man who’d worked with authors like Robert Morgan and who leaned toward historical fiction. I met with him at the conference, and he looked at me directly and asked if I had more. When I said “no,” he said, “Well, in a year and half, when you’re finished, you should shop around for agents. I think you’ve got a very publishable work here.” It was the first time anyone in the industry had complimented my writing–before then it’d been my parents and family members, of course, and friends and professors. But his blunt encouragement gave me just the kick in the pants I needed to do the thing I’d always known I was supposed to do.
One of the most compelling aspects of the book (and I’m guessing one of the most time consuming to get right) is the historical setting. The period you are writing about (the years leading up to the American Revolution on the southern frontier) are not as well covered as say the American Civil War years. You describe some of the resources that you drew on for historical accuracy, but why was that sense of authenticity important to you and what drew you to this time period?
I love the pre-Revolutionary period in South Carolina, and on the Southern frontier, for so many reasons. Mostly because it was incredibly dangerous and wild, and events are sparking that eventually lead to the combustion of war. But when it comes to the frontier and the Cherokee country, especially, it’s such great fodder for fiction because we know so little about what was going on then. This is for a few reasons, the main ones being that the Cherokee didn’t have a syllabary or written language until the 1820s (theirs was an oral history), and the only real record we have of what was going on otherwise is limited to British army records–very dry accounts of villages, trading routes, etc–and the occasional journal. So there was a lot of room to let imagination roam.
I’m a history nut, and my editor would probably say I’m a little too preoccupied with the historical record. I think there’s an ethics to writing historical fiction that other genres may not have to pay attention to: I feel that I owe it to readers and to myself to get as close to the facts as I can. Plus, I find even the most minute historical detail fascinating. Most readers will never know that there actually was a guy named Robert Gowdey who ran the Fort Ninety-Six trading post that Quinn and Rev. McDonough visit on their way up the Cherokee Path, or that Catherine Backhouse and her husband were real people who owned and operated the Sign of Bacchus tavern in Charlestown that Quinn, Jack, and Campbell visit later in the novel, but I do. When I read my favorite historical novels, I always find that it’s those sorts of things that give the novel its spice.
Agreed about the interesting societal mix going on in SC at the time. I think most people’s picture of Colonial America is primarily a northeastern one, since the usual text book narrative of school history focuses on that region (with Francis Marion getting the occasional shout out). Perhaps that’s because the British crown retained so much support in the South even after the revolution. As a SC native, did any family history feed into the book at all?
I agree! We learn so much about New England Revolutionary history, and that’s all great stuff, but despite the amount of Tory sympathizers in the South (you’re so right), the Southern frontier turned the tide of the war for sure. (Okay, off my history dorkbox.)
My own family history didn’t figure too prominently, but it’s definitely there. MacFadden is a family name on my mother’s side, but they were mostly Lowcountry farmers. My father’s side of the family is almost Scottish to the core, except for one small branch of Swedes and a lone Frenchman, and his family’s been in the U.S. since the early 1700s, probably earlier. They made their way to Western North Carolina pretty early on, and though I’m not sure what they did there, most of them died in villages and towns with Cherokee names. So, really, my people could’ve been wily Scots trappers or Indian killers, but I’ve no way of knowing. I’m hoping, of course, for the former! But the mountains have always held great pull for my family, and both sides of my family have been North and South Carolinians since the colonial period.
One of the reasons why I made Owen Quinn’s cousin instead of a brother was because I’m very close to my first cousins, especially, and know the kind of strong bond that can be formed there.
Quinn McFadden is character out of step with her time. I’m not sure younger readers really grasp how progressive she is for the times: She’s unmarried at a shockingly old age for the time when the book begins, is brazenly independent, and even offers land to a freed slave in her settlement. Was Quinn’s “Shock value” (for lack of a better term) something you set out to create or was it more organic as the story developed that she act a certain way within the narrative?
Quinn really sort of formed in my imagination without me having much control over her personality. Sounds crazy, but she pretty much insisted on being exactly who she was. Historically, I knew that if a woman in this period had any power or autonomy, she either had to be single, or a widow. Otherwise all her autonomy–all her money–went to her husband. She always spoke as older–I knew she’d not be a teenager–and that she’d be definitely shaped by an unconventional upbringing. Everything that came after arose, as you say, sort of organically from this.
One of the coolest things about South Carolina at the time was that it was one of the most diverse colonies in British America. Charlestown (Charleston) was an incredibly important port city, and was being flooded daily by immigrants from all over Europe. At this point, there were also far more free black people and businesses owned by minorities and women than there would be fifty plus years later, and most definitely more than there would be by the start of the Civil War. So while Quinn was certainly a “woman out of place,” her viewpoints, though rare, wouldn’t have necessarily been unheard of.
If Quinn came to you basically fully formed, what about the basic plot of the book? How much of the story had you thought out when you started to write?
The only plot points I had in mind when I starting writing were that I knew I wanted to write an epic sort of novel, and I wanted to write a series of three novels that began in the late 1760s and ended with the opening of the Revolution. I knew I wanted to write about a woman leaving Charlestown for the wild frontier, about the Cherokee and how their power shifted and changed during this time. But that was basically it. I really wrote blind for most of the novel.
I wish I was a plotter, or an outliner. I think it’d make life a helluva lot easier.
I saw echoes of one my favorite authors, W.P. Kinsella, in Quinn’s “voice” that periodically comes to her, similar to the “if you build if they will come” voice that plays such a vital part of “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa” (the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams). What does her “voice” represent you?
Again, bless you for the wonderful compliment, as I’m also a fan of Kinsella’s – Ed Note: Huge, massive bonus points and kudos for knowing and liking WPK. That’s awesome. – and especially the Shoeless Joe novel. The Voice that Quinn hears is a bit of an enigma, to be completely honest. It speaks to her in whatever form it feels she’ll hear best–at one point, it’s her mother’s voice. If I had to put a name to it, the Voice represents fate, and certainly the future. But it’s not always reliable.
Now the important one. Exactly how did the idea of soliciting Pat Conroy for a blurb come about and how excited were you to get his participation?
Oh, boy. The Pat Conroy connection has probably been one of the most exciting things to happen to me in my writing life. Oh, who am I kidding–in life in general! Conroy is my favorite living author; I read The Prince of Tides for the first time when I was 10 years old. (Which is WAY too young, by the way.) But his writing changed the way I looked at myself and at my home state, South Carolina. And at the same time it felt so familiar–it was as if someone peeked inside my head and whispered all my secret thoughts about the land out loud.
There came a point in the publishing process when my publisher told me that we needed to find “blurbs” (i.e. endorsements) for the inside and back covers of the book, and asked if I knew any authors. I didn’t, but I figured: this is my very first novel, and this will never happen again. I might as well shoot for the moon. I wrote a letter to Conroy via his literary agent, and she passed it on to him. Well, the next thing I knew, there was Pat Conroy leaving a message on my voicemail. He said that he loved my letter, and that he rarely gave endorsements any more but that he’d read the novel–to go ahead and send it on to him. I literally sat on the ground when I heard the message; no kidding, there was a chair about three feet away, but I couldn’t make it.
You realize that if, even if nobody had bought it, you could still tell people that PAT CONROY read your book, right?
Oh, yeah! And if I didn’t, trust me: my parents would’ve told the world.
Final question! I know you’re a little preoccupied at the moment, but have you given much thought to what to write about next?
I’m in a bit of a quandary at the moment. I’d planned all along to get right on writing the sequel to Keowee Valley, but when I had my first meeting with my publishers they discouraged a sequel. They said that for the most part, series didn’t sell well unless they were Young Adult. However, they’ve since changed their minds, which is great.
My quandary is this: there were several years between when I finished Keowee Valley and when the book was finally published, and I’d basically given up hope that anyone would ever read it. At the suggestion of my agent I started on something different but still basically connected to Keowee Valley: another historical, based on the descendants of Quinn and Jack. It’s set (at least right now) in the exact year before the Citadel cadets fired on Fort Sumter. But I’m definitely in the early stages, so I don’t want to bring on the bad juju by talking about it too much.
I’m hoping I can fire up my writer’s engines and get the Civil War novel finished before I work on the Keowee Valley sequel, but I’m finding that sadly, having a really cool Wonder Woman belt buckle does not actually make me Wonder Woman. Having a 3 year-old and a baby on the way, plus a teaching job and being back in graduate school, is kicking my tail. But I still have hopes for a good writing year ahead!
That was fun. A huge thanks to Katie for agreeing to do this. Check out the very cool trailer for her book below (and I for one had no idea that books had trailers), visit her website, read her excellent blog, and do yourself a favor and buy her book! (If you insist on using one of those gawd awful e-reader things she’s got you covered.)