On process and research—an interview with Beth Powning, author of A Measure of Light

On process and research—an interview with Beth Powning, author of A Measure of Light

I had the honour to be asked to read a pre-publication copy of A Measure of Light by Canadian author Beth Powning. She’s already an award-winning author, and—frankly—I won’t be surprised if this novel doesn’t garner more. It certainly held me captive and in awe.

Here’s the testimonial I offered:

A Measure of Light by Beth Powning is a spellbinding work of biographical historical fiction, gorgeously written in spare, crystalline prose I found reminiscent of the finest writers of literary historical fiction today. (Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier and Hilary Mantel come to mind.) A brilliant evocation of 17th century England and America, it’s the story of one woman’s search for faith and the horrific sacrifices she makes once she finds it. Grim yet luminous—as well as illuminating. In a word: enchanting.

Believe me, I am rarely so effusive.

Beth Powning portrait

As I was reading the novel, I had questions about the author’s research and writing process, so I was extremely pleased when Beth accepted my invitation to answer a few questions here.

What were the unique challenges in writing about Mary Dyer?

When I first “met” Mary Dyer, I found her actions disturbing, even repellent. How could a mother leave six children for a five year period? Why would she return to them and then dedicate herself to a cause, thus once again removing herself from them? And how on earth could Mary walk into the jaws of death?

Often, what outrages me is like a shiny lure. I could not turn away from Mary’s story, and I realized that I had to find common cause with her: to put myself in her place, try to understand. I learned that it was common for 17th century parents to “farm out” their children with other families. I learned that the Puritans taught parents not to love their children “too much,” else they offend the Lord. And it occurred to me that it was very possible that Mary suffered post-partum depression. I began to understand the depth of Mary’s inner darkness and the consequent power of George Fox’s “measure of light.”

Telling her story became a kind of psychological mystery, a who-dun-it, where I knew the ending, but had to trace the steps leading up to it.

Reading A MEASURE OF LIGHT, I was in awe of the wonderful details of daily life.

Anne lifted bread on a peel from a beehive oven at the side of a hearth. The tiny girl turned a crisp-skinned goose, hanging on a string before the fire. Bloody gut-smell stung Mary’s nose—white hen feathers stippled the floor. (Page 39.)

I’d love to know specifics about your research process, specifically with respect to daily life. What did you find most useful? How did you keep track of it all?

Writing the first draft of a historical novel is a slow process. When I write, I visualize a scene in its entirety. I imagine myself, in a visceral way, to be there; I see, smell, hear. I find it hard to proceed with the writing until I have all these elements in place. Therefore, I must maintain a complex mental balance. I am thinking about the undercurrent of the scene, its meaning and contribution to the novel’s whole; I am working on character, who is there and what they are saying and feeling; I’m conscious of the pacing of both the scene itself and its placement within the text—yet I also need to know whether there’s a fire on the hearth; if the room is lit, and by what; whether there are shadows; what is cooking in what kind of a pot over the flames; if I can hear the rumble of wheels or the neighing of horses.

I had two invaluable books for the details of daily life in the colonies. “Home Life in Colonial Days,” by Alice Morse Earle, was written in 1898. Amazingly, Alice Earle could tap into the living memory of the elders of her time, who still recalled how things used to be. Another book was “Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” by George Francis Dow. For England, I used a marvelous book first published in 1615, “The English Housewife,” by Gervase Markham, filled with recipes and home-making instructions.

I had a few other excellent books about 17th century England. If they could not provide what I needed about details of daily life, I would search the internet.

I have an old-fashioned filing cabinet. In its pull-out drawers, I made major sections like England, New England, London, Puritans, 17th Century General. Within each of the sections, I placed paper files labelled gloves, writing implements, tools, money, jails. I also kept a virtual file on my computer’s bookmarks page, with links to websites. I used both systems, paper and computer, all the time.

I have a large cabinet in my study. In it is a shelf earmarked for books about Puritans, another for the Quakers, one for English history, etc. These shelves gradually filled with books that I either bought on-line or in 2nd hand bookstores. Library books, too, were parked there.

Spiral-bound notebooks fill with “notes on plot,” “notes on character.” As I write, every draft gets its own notebook— “Notes Chp. 1, draft 2;” “Notes Chp. 2, draft 3.” There are notebooks for editorial conversations.

It might sound chaotic, but in fact I keep my office highly organized. I have to be able to find all this stuff, without wasting time rummaging around for it!

Do you plot? How many drafts? When do you research?

In my last two novels (The Hatbox Letters, The Sea Captain’s Wife) I dove in without knowing where the novel would go. A Measure of Light is a true story, but since only the ending and some of the middle of Mary’s life are known, I had to work backwards. I made up Mary’s early story. Even so, I didn’t know exactly how it was all going to unfold. That happens as I write. I didn’t know about Sinny, for example, until I began to write. Then I had to pause and make up Sinny’s back-story. I love not knowing what is going to happen.

I show the first draft of every novel to my extraordinary agent, Jackie Kaiser. Jackie always provides superb feedback at this point, and my second draft is quite different from the first. There is invariably a third draft, which is perhaps the most difficult, because I think that I “got” it in the second. (But no!) Jackie doesn’t show my novel to my publishers until the 3rd draft is complete. The 4th draft is the one I make based on the comments from my editor. (Craig Pyette for A Measure of Light.) I had already done a lot of work before Craig saw this manuscript, but even so he had a great deal of brilliant advice. So substantive changes were made. Together with Craig, I worked through the novel about six more times. The changes, of course, get smaller and smaller. I suppose you can call those drafts, because a slightly changed novel emerges each time; but really, after the 5th draft, the novel is basically “there.”

I start with the research. I read and read and read. I underline in books that I own, take notes from library books; it’s just as if I were back in university, taking a history course. As I study, ideas come to me about how I will transform these facts into fiction. I keep track of my thoughts in a notebook. There is always a moment when the longing to transform the information into a rich, living story becomes acute, and I simply begin to write. Too MUCH research can kill the novel. I become intimidated by the sheer volume of information that exists about the period, and strangely depressed by the historian’s objective voice.

A MEASURE OF LIGHT traverses many places, and over a considerable stretch of time: London (1634-1635), Boston (from 1635 to 1638), Aquidneck (from 1638 to 1651), England (from 1651 to 1655), New England (from 1657 to 1660). 

Even so, it is a fairly spare novel, under 300 pages. How did you grapple with all the shifts in time and place?

Although I don’t plot, I did in fact block out the time periods before beginning. I begin at the beginning, and remain in each time and place until that section’s story is told, writing as much or as little of it as I think is needed. The first section, “London,” was, of course, enormous (SO much information, such a rich period!) and was heavily cut. The next, “Boston,”was the most difficult, since so many crucial things happened in that period, most of them necessary to understanding the rest of Mary’s story. The other periods grew or shrank during the editing process. A section which took place in Barbados was completely cut.

During the early drafts, when I realize that some parts of the story will take place over a long period of time without a lot happening, I simply write a few paragaphs indicating the passage of time and go on. Then I return later and fill it in. As a novel progresses, what comes later effects what came before, and vice versa. It’s like kneading dough. You fold and turn and fold again, working all the elements into one loaf, so to speak!

I always make a time chart, too. It’s a long roll of paper. Along the top are the characters, with their dates of birth. Along the left are the years. So in 1637, say, you can see at a glance what everyone in the novel is doing, how old they are, where they’re situated. I include a column down the left-hand side for historical events, so you can also remember what’s going on in the world. This is done with pencil and paper, not on the computer.

Your prose is wonderfully rich in similes.

Her heart had been smoothed like sand with the waters of other women’s assurances … (page 21)

They did not speak to one another, as if the leaf-scented air was itself a flux binding peace and could be broken by the merest whisper. (Page 76.)

She put fresh wood on the fire and sat reading her Bible in its light, looking up from the pages occasionally, as if listening for a voice she might trust. (Page 116.)

Clearly, you have a poet’s heart. I hesitate to ask about technique, yet I am curious.

I make them up myself. It’s how my brain works, so in fact I am constantly “shutting down” similes. The book could easily have far, far too many. They rise like bubbles slanting through…oops, there I go. In fact, I do work very hard to get them right. I sit with my face in my hands and search my memory bank. One of the things I say to myself is: how is it really. And then: think sideways. What does the bark of an ancient spruce tree REALLY look like? How does it feel to the tips of the fingers? Is there something I can compare it to that will bring this alive for the reader? This, again, is why writing is a balancing act. I’m dwelling on this problem, aware that it is only a beat or two in a large symphony.

“Think sideways”—I like that. Thank you so much, Beth! 

I was delighted that Beth mentioned the work of Gervase Markham. When I was researching Mistress of the Sun, I became so absorbed in The Compleat Horseman—his work on horsemanship—that I began “translating” it into modern English.

Here is the publisher’s description of Beth’s wonderful novel:

Set in 1600s New England, A Measure of Light tells the story of Mary Dyer, a Puritan who flees persecution in Elizabethan England only to find the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts every bit as vicious as the one she has left behind. One of America’s first Quakers, and among the last to face the gallows for her convictions, Mary Dyer receives here in fiction the full-blooded treatment too long denied a figure of her stature: a woman caught between faith, family and the driving sense that she alone will put right a deep and cruel wrong in the world. This is gripping historical fiction about a courageous woman who chafed at the power of theocracies and the boundaries of her era, struggling against a backdrop of imminent apocalypse for women’s rights, liberty of conscience, intellectual freedom and justice.

I highly recommend it!

Letter of the week: questions on the life of a writer

I just received an email from someone considering becoming a writer. She asked:

What projects are you presently working on?

Right now I have three projects hatching: 1) The Next Novel, now in 3rd draft; 2) a short novel for non-English readers, now in the exploration stage; and 3) a collection of historical snippets about youngsters marrying.

What is your writing schedule like? I guess everyone is different,
but I struggle with setting up and sticking to a schedule (with a day
job, but even if that wasn’t the case, I don’t have the best time

I begin my writing day on rising (which is often before 6:00 am). I trick myself into this by having my (decaf) coffee fixings in my office. I break for a quick breakfast, but I generally write or revise until lunch. My afternoons are given to research, promotion, reading and correspondence.

Historical fiction is perhaps more time-consuming than other genres, but all require a full commitment. You would need to become obssessive about finding time for your writing, the more so since you have a day-job. Writing has to become a compulsion.

Over the course of your career, have you had to take on many different jobs to pay the bills while you wrote? (I’m guessing most writers do.)

I am fortunate to be married to a man who is good with money. That helps. Before I signed a contract for The Josephine B. Trilogy, I was working as a free lance book editor. Once a contract was signed, I had to give up both paying and volunteer community work in order to meet my deadlines. I didn’t earn very much money for a very long time. One should never expect to make money from writing.

Do you have any general tips for writers?

I recently answered a similar question on Leah Marie Brown’s blog. She asked what advice I would give to someone just starting a career in writing, and I answered:

1) Understand that you are unlikely to earn money being a writer, and that the only reason to pursue such a vocation is that you’re compelled to do so, simply for the love of it.

2) Understand that it takes a very long time to get to the point where you are publishable. (As in years.) It’s similar to getting a doctorate.

3) Write, write, write: regardless. Revise. (“Revision” = re-vision.)

4) Understand that this is a craft that must to be learned, so study books on the craft of writing.

5) Read constantly—especially books similar to the ones you aspire to write.

6) Build up a Net 2.0 presence: set up a website, blog, Tweet, Facebook.

7) Don’t send your manuscript out for consideration until 5 readers have told you that it’s indeed ready to go.

8) Collect rejections: it’s rare for a writer to be published without first having a stack of them. It’s an important first step. Plus, it proves that you are tough enough to be a writer.

9) Go to readings: observe how it’s done. As a writer, you will have a private self as well as a public one. Get comfortable with that.

10) Get to know other writers, on-line, off-line; join the community. Create your tribe.

11) Never give up.

Bon courage. I hope this helps. That you took the time to send me an email shows that you’re seriously considering. You said you wished to get a clear picture of the writer’s life before launching yourself into it. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. I suggest you begin by taking a writing course or workshop. It’s true that writing very hard, very demanding, but every writer I know feels blessed to be able to be a writer.

What would you add to my list?

Introducing: Julianna Baggott (otherwise known as Bridget Asher) (otherwise known as … )

Introducing: Julianna Baggott (otherwise known as Bridget Asher) (otherwise known as … )

Julianna Baggott publishes an astonishing variety of things under an astonishing variety of names: novels, poetry, essays, blogs. It’s no accident that her websiteBaggot • Asher • Bode —gives the impression of a group endeavor. Plus she has a very active family. I’ve been reading her absolutely charming blog for some time; it has become one of my favourites. The one thing you can count on from anything from Baggot, Asher or Bode is wit and heartfelt charm.

Today is the launch day of Julianna’s latest novel, The Province Cure for the Brokenhearted:

I ordered it on Kindle and it just this minute arrived on my iPad. I know from its perfect first sentence that I’m going to love it:

Here is one way to say it: Grief is a love story told backward.

Plus: it’s set in France. Need I say more?

Lest you remain unconvinced, here are a few advance reviews:

“Fans of Under the Tuscan Sun will adore this impossibly romantic read.”— People Magazine

“Readers who enjoy … Lolly Winston’s Good Grief and Jane Green’s The Beach House or travel-induced transformation books like Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love will find common themes … and become quickly invested in the lives of the deftly drawn characters.”— Library Journal

“Unabashedly romantic … a real charmer about a Provencal house that casts spells over the lovelorn.” — Kirkus Reviews

So now for something about the author:

Julianna Baggott is the author of seventeen books [did you catch that? seventeen], most recently THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED under her pen name Bridget Asher, as well as THE PRETEND WIFE and MY HUSBAND’S SWEETHEARTS. She’s the bestselling author of GIRL TALK and, as N.E. Bode, THE ANYBODIES TRILOGY for younger readers.

Her essays have appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post, NPR.org, and Real Simple.

Her blog is a mix of writerly subjects, home life accounts (I particularly enjoy these) and author interviews. The author interviews are called “The 1/2 Dozen” because she gives authors a list of questions and asks them to pick 1/2 dozen to answer.

Julianne’s questions are delightfully quirky (as you will soon see), and so, for this launch day interview, I thought it appropriate to give her back her own list of questions.

And so:

A 1/2 Dozen for Julianna Baggott:

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

If you’re charmed by neuroses, double down. If you see poverty as an adventure, go for it. A writer’s upsides tend to be: witty banter, imagination, insights, close observation. I would make sure you’re completely compelled to love this writer if the dark sides show up: biting snark, self-centric imagination, doomed global thinking, scrutiny. It helps if you both think you’re funny. It helps if the other brings out your best self.

What’s your advice to a writer who’s looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Make sure they truly get obsession; preferably from the inside out. If you are their obsession, this might not work out so well, as you’ll be absent a lot and, when you return, you’ll be tired and thirsty and hungry. It’s better, I think, if you both show up at the end of a long day tired and thirsty and hungry, and ready to take turns leaning and boosting.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was supposedly sickly, except that I wasn’t. I was just raised by a hypochondriac.  I was really small and very underweight and wiry and tough, though I cried easily, that type. I was raised among older siblings and adults mostly, in a family that told a lot of stories. My parents took me to a lot of plays. I had a large vocabulary and oversized eyes and a very skinny neck. I hated the nickname Puppet. All of this applies to my work.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

It’s a wild relationship. As volatile as it gets, I think we knew we’ll always get back together. Without it, I’d be heartbroken. I’m compulsive about the page, obsessive in my imaginative dwelling. I wouldn’t know what to do without writing. It’s the disease and the cure.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

In early stages of a novel, I can’t hear much of it. If I look for the fault lines too early, they’ll be all I see. But then at 50 pages, I need someone to weigh in, imaginatively. Sometimes it’s a relief to hear, “Nope, not working. Pull up the stakes.” Then, after a first draft, I want as many critics as I can get — in the ideal range for the audience. I want it all. Heaps of it. After I’m finished and it’s been edited madly and it’s in book form, I’m not interested in hearing what I should have done differently. It’s like watching people drown and you can’t save them, and someone’s there, telling you that you could have avoided the lake altogether. Where were you then? I want to say. Too late, too late.

Are you bloggish?

I am bloggish. Sandra, here, has turned the tables and sicked my own questions on me. So, yes, I have writers and agents answer questions. I blog about my own weird, loud, rambunctious household. I blog about bookish things, pop-culture, and distinctly un-bookish things. It’s like the caverns of my pocketbook — be careful. You could find ANYthing in there and wander off lost… Here’s the dangerous link: http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/

Thank you so much, Julianna! And to readers of this blog: Julianna’s warning is well heeded. It’s hard to dip into her world without wanting to stay for a very long time.

You can visit her blog at http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/ and her website at www.juliannabaggott.com.

Have you read one of her books or her blog? Are you likewise addicted?