Featured Historical Fiction Author
Historical Accuracy in Storytelling
An Interview with Charlotte Miller
by Pam Kingsbury
Regional best-seller Charlotte Miller's third novel, There is a River,
is receiving national pre-publication publicity -- a special advanced
reader's edition sold out, a recent edition of Publisher's Weekly included
an update on Miller's work, and there's talk of going back to press for
In August, Publisher's Weekly's website, mentioned your work, both as a writer and in the way you promote your writing. How did you feel when you saw your name mentioned in a New York trade publication?
Seeing the reference in Publishers' Weekly Daily to the trilogy, and specifically to There is a River, was a thrill. I was so excited I immediately e-mailed everyone at NewSouth. I was especially delighted with the wonderful comment Malaprop's Bookstore (in Asheville, NC) gave Publishers' Weekly about the booksigning I did in their store. That is a great bookstore, and I look forward to going back there again.
You're an accountant by day, how did you get into writing?
How did you find the time to write during the years you worked on the trilogy?
I was a student at Auburn when I began work on the trilogy (Behold, This Dreamer; Through A Glass, Darkly; and There is a River). Over the twenty-three years between then and now, I've always managed to find the time to write. I think when you want to do something badly enough, you'll find a way to do it. I've varied from getting up early to write for a few hours before work to staying up until 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning to write, to writing at home during my lunch break from work, to having a blissful day of uninterrupted writing all day one a weekend or a holiday.
Now days, with working full time during the week and spending the weekends on the road for the book tour, I'm back to writing long-hand in notebooks at least part of the time. I need to buy a laptop to take with me on the road, which would make things easier. I write at night, every night, for as long as I can stay awake; and sometimes get up in the middle of the night to write if I can't sleep or get up early in the mornings. You'll always find me writing in hotel rooms while I'm on the road, and even when I've hit one of those sit-still-for-hours traffic jams. I always keep a notebook and pen with me, and a book to read. ...... So, I always make sure I have something to read to make use of the wait in the McDonald's drive-through line, or for the drive-up teller line at the bank.
Talk about the importance of historical accuracy and research in your writing.
I grew up hearing stories about the 1920's, '30's, and '40's from my parents, my aunts, and from older people living in the mill village in Roanoke (Al). Most of the people in the village at that time were at, or near, retirement age, so it was like growing up in a neighborhood filled with dozens of grandparents. I was always at some older person's house listening to stories about their lives and about the past ....and being tempted to "stay a while" and listen a little longer by bribes of home-baked goodies. It was a great way to grow up, especially for a writer.
By the time I was in high school, I could literally close my eyes and "see" Roanoke and Randolph County as they must have been decades before, because of all the stories I'd heard, and what it must have been like to live in a mill village or on a sharecropped farm in Alabama in the 1930's.
My grandfather had been a sharecropper in Randolph County, and my grandmother started working in the cotton mill there when she was only nine years old; both my parents were cotton mill workers, and my family had been cotton mill hands or tenant farmers for generations. I was an avid reader, and it surprised me to realize that the world I grew up hearing about was not written about in books, at least not realistically, and not from the point of view of the kind of people I came from. It also surprised me that the typical Southerner I read about in novels was very different from the people who I grew up knowing. I wanted to capture something of the world they told me about, which is what started me working on my first novel, which of course became the trilogy. I wanted to do more than tell about that world, though, I wanted to re-create it as well as I could, which started years worth of historical research during the course of writing the three books.
By the time I finished the final draft of the third book, There Is A River, I ended up with a sizeable collection of books and other materials published during or immediately after the time periods I wrote about in the trilogy, including things as varied as several huge Yearbook of Agriculture volumes published in the 1920's, materials from the 1930's Federal Writer's Project and various oral-history projects that have been published, and uncountable issues of period magazines from the 1920's, '30's, and '40's (the advertisements in period magazines are some of the best sources for details of everyday life that you can find). I also have purely historical texts I used for research, as well as notes from books found in libraries over these many years, but wanted to work with materials that dated to the time periods as much as possible so that the research would have an authentic "feel" for the times.
As I worked on the books, it really amazed me to realize some of the things I had to learn--for instance, which way would a door swing on a 1915 Cadillac touring car? or, how would illegal liquor have been made in 1927? Probably the funniest thing that happened in doing research had to do with my trying to discover the names for the parts of a mule's harness. I couldn't find the information in any book (though I've found it since then), and did not know anyone who could tell me for certain, then one Saturday, when I was driving to Roanoke to see one of my aunts, I saw an elderly man plowing a garden using a mule and plow. I pulled the car over and parked, grabbed an old envelope and pen out of my purse and walked out into the field to ask him. I followed him up and down the rows as he plowed, asking him questions and scribbling on the envelope, all the while trying not to fall flat on my face on the uneven ground. He probably thought I was nuts, but I got the information I needed, not only the names for the parts of the harness, but also the sounds as he plowed, the creaking of the harness, the sound of the mule's hooves hitting the ground, even the way the mule's ears moved back and forth with every step. People are usually great to answer questions when you tell them you're a writer.
In your mind, how do you classify the novels?
I've always thought of the novels in the trilogy as Southern historical fiction. My publisher considers them "literary" fiction.
I do believe the barriers between the labels/genres are breaking down, or at least blurring to an extent. The prevalence of book clubs and reading groups has a lot to do with that. People continue to read in the genres they've enjoyed in the past, but they're also introduced to, and read, books they might not otherwise have become familiar with, having heard about them through a book club or reading group publicity.
Describe driving by the house that became THE HOUSE Jansen was trying to repurchase in the trilogy.
I was eighteen years old and driving from Roanoke to Auburn for the first time, to do a tour of the Auburn campus and meet the head of the journalism department. I was following directions someone had given me, out in the country on a road I'd never been on before, when I saw this wonderful old house, probably six-rooms, with a wrap-around porch and an old kitchen sitting to one side of the house attached by a covered walkway. There was nothing about the place that would have seemed spectacular to anyone else, but I can remember putting on the brakes and stopping in the road to just look at it that day, and, later that afternoon, looking for it on the way home.
When I first began working on the trilogy, with what now is about the mid-point of Through A Glass, Darkly, the second book, the concept of someone losing a home and land, and fighting years to regain it, was there. Somewhere along the way, in the process of abandoning that original novel and going back instead to write the story of Janson Sanders and Elise Whitley in Behold, This Dreamer, who become the parents of the character I initially started with, Janson came to life in my imagination and that house, transported to my fictional Eason County, became the house he lost and would struggle so long to get back.
By the way--it has been 24 or 25 years since I first saw that old house with its wrap-around porch and separate kitchen, but I still slow the car to a crawl each time I drive past, just to look at it. The house shown on the dust jacket of There Is A River is that actual house. Randall Williams, who designed the book, went out and photographed it for the cover.
Do you have any advice for new/young writers?
The best advice I could give any writer is to read, and not just in the genre/type of writing they want to do, but as widely as they can, and to write every day, even if they have to make the time to write. It has really surprised me to have aspiring writers tell me that they don't have time to read, or that they simply "don't read." That's no different than a chef telling you they "don't eat." I've also had aspiring writers tell me they intend to write some day when they "have time." You find the time to do what you want to do, and what you need to do, and I believe, for most writers, that writing (and reading) is as necessary as breathing and eating.
Iím asked often by aspiring writers what it is like to work with an editor. I've heard the same horror stories every other writer has heard about authors who just cannot get along with their editors, or editors who have a completely different vision for a book than what the author intended. My experience has been far different from that. Working with the right editor can teach a writer more about writing than they'll learn in any writing class. It is a learning experience that can make not only a better book, but a better writer for the next project.
Have you ever used any personal biographical details in your novels?
There are a few biographical details in the novels, but they're for the most part minor details--such as when Elise is asked to sing in the choir because she can sing loud enough to drown out the person next to her. The nasty Christmas present Sissy Sanders receives at a church Christmas party in Through A Glass, Darkly is also based on a real event, though the details have been changed somewhat to fit the story.
I did use details from my family history for the Sanders family history in the trilogy. The initial idea for the character of Janson Sanders actually came from stories I grew up hearing about my great-grandfather, who was Cherokee. That great-grandfather died in a fire in a wheat field; Janson's father in Behold, This Dreamer dies in a fire in a cotton field. I also had an ancestor who came to America from Ireland during the potato famine, and another who managed to survive two massacres of French non-Catholics centuries ago. My family has also always passed down family stories from generation to generation, just as the Sanders do in the books.
You've been paired with Carroll Dale Short for several book events -- is it easier to promote books as a duo?
Dale and I have done a number of book events together recently. He writes under the name Carroll Dale Short, and is the author of A Writer's Tool Kit, and the novel Shining, Shining Path, which just came out in trade paperback after the sellout of the hardcover edition. We've done booksignings, readings, and writer's workshops together in North Carolina, Alabama, and in Mississippi. Having two authors together for an event can help bring in a larger crowd for a reading or for a writer's workshop, and it also helps drive publicity surrounding an event. Dale is always great to work with.
What's new in your professional writing life?
We've had some excitement here this week. We had an inquiry from one of the big publishing houses in New York about the trade paperback rights on all three books in the trilogy. We don't know if anything will come of it, but it's exciting just to know they asked about it.
What's your next writing project?
NewSouth has already optioned my next project and I'm delighted to be staying with them. I'm working on a new novel now, but it's still early in the writing process.
Visit Charlotte Miller's official web site at http://www.charlottemiller.com
Through A Glass,
© 2002, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved