Featured Historical Fiction Author
|Finding Hope in the Ashes
An Interview with Author Virginia Renfro Ellis
by Joyce Dixon
It has been said that the effects of the Civil War are deeply rooted in Southern culture and continue to answer the question of who we are today. The War was responsible for the tragic spirit, the richness of Southern ghostlore, and the creation of the steel magnolia from the women who were left behind to rebuild the South.
Virginia Ellis, in The Wedding Dress, captures the quiet strength of Southern women to build hope and change their situation. Drawing on the history of Gettysburg, prisoners of war in Ohio, and the economic struggle of Reconstruction, Ellis has written a novel that focuses on the emotional character of war -- despair, grief, faith, and hope. The Wedding Dress is already being compared to Cold Mountain. Dolly Parton Productions and Columbia Tri-Star Pictures have optioned the film rights.
A person of many talents, Virginia Ellis is a professional photographer who has traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and the world working for clients including the NFL, Contel, and IBM. She also works as a graphic artist.
Writing under the name Lyn Ellis, she is an award-winning romance author. Her books have been translated into ten languages. Virginia Ellis is a founding partner of BelleBooks, a small press devoted to publishing the unique voices of southern women.
What inspired the Atwater sisters and The Wedding Dress?
The original imagery came from a dream. It's difficult to explain a dream, there are no barriers, no expectations, anything can happen. In my dream, there were two women struggling to survive after the war. It's well known that all the soldiers that were able to come home have long since done so. One woman, who became Julia in the book, has lost her husband and knows there will be no happy ever after for her. One day she begins to see ghosts...soldiers walking through the fields or down the road. At first the men are ragged, nearly transparent but each time she sees them they look more real. Then one day she speaks to one and offers him a dipper of water. He stays on at the farm and as time passes he becomes more substantial and finally he looks as real as the two women do, as if they've wished and nurtured him back from the dead.
What makes the story of the women and families left to build after the War especially compelling?
I think any war, and the Civil War in particular, focuses the population on what's important. The men go off and fight for a variety of reasons but it's the women who must stay behind and keep their world/hopes/dreams going. In The Wedding Dress I wanted to write about the alchemy of women. Those of us who have connections with other women are stronger and more resilient. And, more powerful. I believe if two or three women dedicate their minds and hearts to any one purpose exciting things take place. It's a female chemical reaction proportional to how much faith is involved. (This also might happen with men in situations like war.)
I believe you were living in the Washington, D.C. area, where so many of the battles were fought while writing this historical novel. Is the feeling of walking through history in this region, as if you are just a step in time from the actual battle or participants of the aftermath?
I've always been interested in history and certain time periods especially so. And, I believe that places where great events take place hold the memories of those events, or at least the emotions. My mother's family is from Virginia and I can remember as a young girl visiting the Petersburg, VA battlefield and feeling like I could almost hear the hoofbeats of the soldier's horses and the guns firing. Like Julia in The Wedding Dress, I've had dreams of being on the battlefield in my nightgown, in the middle of the fighting, yet invisible. A friend of mine used to collect photographs of civil war soldiers and letters sent home. Those people have always felt real to me.
I would have to say the ones who still walk the battlefields, especially Gettysburg. To me, the saddest thought is that those men who fought so hard and suffered so much never got to “go home.” They are stuck for eternity in a hellish war, looking for help, or hope, or at least an ending.
I transformed the ghosts into as you say “beacons of hope,” through the brotherhood of war. Those men who'd given their all still had a bit of service left in them. So, when they are asked to watch over a family, they step up and volunteer one more time. In serving their “brother” they serve the living as a whole.
As a professional photographer, how do you draw on that talent with your writing? Do you visual a scene before you put it on paper, or do you uses your camera-eye to enrich a scene already on paper?
As a professional photographer I learned to tell stories by using pictures. In my books I use images to enrich my writing. I generally “see” certain key scenes in my mind, like a personal movie. Like seeing the soldiers on the roads and in the fields in my dream. Then I build a book around those scenes.
What are you writing now?
My next book will be set during the 40's, at the beginning of WWII. It takes the framework of women and war and enriches it, with the alchemy of women, the brotherhood of soldiers they support and love, and an other-worldly element so prevalent in difficult times. The title is: The Photograph. My hope is that the readers will be engaged by the stories I'm telling no matter what kind of costumes/wars/dates the stories are built around. What I want to do is write a book as if a woman sat down, gathered a few of her closest friends and said, "Let me tell you what happened to me."
You are a founding partner in BelleBooks, a small southern publisher. What has surprised you from this experience?
Bellebooks is a small press started by six veteran romance authors. We are all southern and were looking for a way to write some of the stories which were close to our hearts but didn't fit in the larger New York Publishing scene. Our first book, Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes, a collection of short stories about growing up in the South, is in its second printing as a trade edition and was picked up by Berkley to be distributed as a mass market paperback. Mossy Creek, our Mayberry meets Mitford style, hometown series has also gone back for a second printing and has just been bought by Berkley for a six-figure mass market deal. Alice At Heart by Deborah Smith went back to press within a month of release. At Bellebooks we want to give Southerners, who have a great storytelling tradition, more of a voice.
What surprised me? I believe writing the stories for Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes was instrumental as inspiration for The Wedding Dress. It gave me the creative courage to try something completely different. After twelve books, the new direction was a great surprise.
What makes southern fiction unique?
I read somewhere recently, (sorry I can't remember the exact quote or author who said it) that Southern fiction stands out because it always has God in it. What I think that means is that there is something greater involved than the characters themselves, “fate” if you will. The characters can fight the battle, but God is in charge of the outcome.
Books by Virginia EllisThe Wedding Dress, Ballantine Books, 2002
Contact Virginia Ellis
Bellebooks at http://www.bellebooks.com