Laura Malone Elliott, author of Annie, Between the States and Under a War-torn Sky, is one of my favorite writers of historical fiction. She offers some great advice and insight into the teaching of history.
Which of your characters do you connect with most? Why?
Now that’s an interesting question. I really appreciate NOT being asked which is my favorite–it’s so hard to choose. As far a connecting with….if you mean having affinity with…Madame Gaulloise in Under a War-torn Sky is a strong, brave, generous woman I would aspire to be like. I’m a mother, so, of course, I feel a bond with all the mothers in my books — Madame, Lilly, Miriam. I certainly have a lot of affection for Annie–she is a unique combination of a book-loving tomboy, a young woman with spirit and compassion. After I wrote her, I realized that her personality was very like that of my daughter, who is a voracious reader, skilled equestrian, and exceedingly strong-willed. Those kinds of influences on my writing are often completely unconscious and I recognize them only once the amalgamation is done.
There are other characters in other books of mine for which I have great affection but I will stick with Annie, Between the States and Under a War-torn Sky for this interview since this seems to be what interest you most.
What eras in history particularly interest you? Have you always been interested in these periods or do you switch interests easily?
My family teases me that I am working back in time for these novels–the first was about WWII, the second on the Civil War, the third on the American Revolution. I was a journalist for two decades before switching to fiction, so I learned to write about a great many topics. I thrived on the range. My “beats” at the Washingtonian magazine, for instance, were women’s issues, medical and mental health topics, and the performing arts. I witnessed and wrote about all manner of things from one of the first bone marrow transplants to treat breast cancer in the D.C. area to the resident choreographer at the Washington Ballet creating a new full-length ballet. I always tell students that one of the greatest delights of writing is to be able to delve into many different issues and lives. I love to learn and reporting allowed me that. The same has been true for my work as a novelist. I enjoy the variety of plunging into different eras. It does require a lot of research, though, to get myself up to speed on the time period. Because good historical fiction must be thickly dotted with details of the day to make it come alive.
If you were to ask me what was the easiest historical period to write about that would be WWII, (Under a War-torn Sky) because I grew up hearing those stories, that big band music first-hand from my parents and their compatriots.
When did you begin to love history?
I always loved history. My mother was very involved with historical preservation and gardening societies, so I heard about a lot of local history when I was young. I grew up outside Washington, D.C., in a county founded in the late 1600s so it is rich in historic moments. I also was privileged to know a number of elderly women who were superb story-tellers, lacing their “lectures” about the old days with wonderful anecdotes. Wonderful because those anecdotes were always about people, told with details on how they dressed and spoke, what they knew, what games they liked to play, what had been their heartbreaks and their triumphs, what my elderly friends missed about them now that they were gone. Annie, for instance, was spawned completely by stories I remembered hearing from those garden club ladies about several real life women who lived through the Civil War.
What do you think teachers should do to teach history better?
Make it human. When Annie, Between the States captures readers, it’s because that novel is about the civilians who survived the war, not the battles. It’s about the gut-wrenching choices individuals had to make about their own moral codes, loyalties, and survival, not about battle strategies and politics. I learned that as a journalist–that ordinary people could do extraordinary, inspiring things when life threw challenges at them; and that when I was assigned a generic topic–depression, for instance–finding a person to tell it through made it palpable.
Unfortunately, teachers are saddled with testing that requires students regurgitate statistics and dates so they have to focus on those drier elements of history. But even in those statistics lie human dramas. For instance, Front Royal, Virginia — a town mentioned in Annie, between the States –changed hands 67 times in 4 years. Do the math to average how often that change-over occurred. And now put a teenager in a spot where those opposing armies are constantly crossing, battling, succeeding, failing, both in need of food and horses and medical help from local inhabitants. Now it’s human. That shows rather than tells students what it was like then.
Also, to help them feel what life was like then, fill the classroom with artifacts from the time, music, food, clothes, maps, portraits etc. .Have them cook the food, march a mile, learn dances, research the treatment for a cold, etc….(during the American revolution, for instance, they treated head colds with a mixture of curdled milk, wine, and ground-up slices of dried, pickled deer’s antlers….)
What are you currently working on? What would you like to work on (ideas that you haven’t started…)?
I am just now finishing the sequel to my first novel, Under a War-torn Sky. It is set in post-war France, as deportees return from labor camps. It was a fascinating, terrifying, and inspiring time to research. The crux of the novel is that Henry (who was saved by the French Resistance) has to return to find a little boy, named Pierre. The working title is A Troubled Peace.
I would like to write a sequel to Annie, Between the States some day. So many readers have emailed to ask me what happens to Annie in Massachusetts. I have some ideas that revolve around Thomas being elected to Congress and Jamie getting into some serious trouble.
Annie struggles with realizing the contradictions of her views as a suffragette and her views as a slave owner. You successfully portray the South as a culture worth remembering and continuing, though Annie marries Thomas in the end. Did you worry about sending a message of Northern views over Southern views? How did you balance the ending of choosing Thomas with keeping the view that many treated slaves as a part of the family?
One of the hardest aspects of writing Annie, Between the States was trying to portray a society that maintained a reprehensible and morally wrong “business” in a novel that acknowledged the potential for goodness within individuals. I chose the title “between the states” for many reasons, playing off the Southern term for the war, of course, but also to try to convey the difficulty of being caught between ethical issues, issues of loyalty and compassion. As Annie says, “There is good and bad on both sides, kind and evil on both sides, thieving, lechery, and mercy on both sides, according to the morals and personality of the individual.” She can question the values that took Virginia into the war at the same time she fights to protect her brothers and her farmland by informing Confederate leaders of Union troop movements and traps. She can find herself intrigued by a Northern officer who loves poetry as she does. She can risk her life to save a freed slave at the same time she hides Southern riders in her home. She is a bundle of contradictions as so many of us are. In the end, the largest quandary for Annie becomes choosing her own course.
I don’t think that Annie, between the States necessarily presents the South as a culture worth continuing. There was too much wrong with it just as there was much wrong with the North at the time (its racist attitude toward the Irish, for instance). I think the country became better by melding the two sides and creating something new. Just as Annie and Thomas create a new country for themselves in their marriage.
As a writer of historical fiction, how do you write a novel? Do you research as you write, looking up facts as you need them, or before you write?
I typically research for a year or more (reading, interviewing, visiting locations) and then I can write very quickly. Nothing is worse for me than writing at a goodly pace and tripping up on a hole in my research–a detail that I can’t write because I don’t already know the answer. Then I have to stop and look it up — which completely ruins my flow. I worked that way as a journalist, too. You report the story first. Your reporting TELLS you what to write. I don’t design what the story is going to be and then go out to find supporting historical anecdotes. My latest novel, Give Me Liberty, for instance, was dictated by a very small battle I unearthed in a 2-paragraph mention in a rather dry historical journal. Those two paragraphs gave me my ending, my main theme, the idea for two parallel fates of two characters (an indentured servant who can win his liberty and a run-away slave who could not.) This WWII sequel was also created in a similar manner. I read about children waiting at train stations, hoping to find their parents among the deportees coming in by the thousands. It was a heartbreaking image of a child standing, holding a sign with her name on it, hoping someone will recognize her. And that told me my timeline and what to do with the child Henry is seeking.
Do you travel as part of your research? If yes, where have you gone for each of your books? How does visiting these places affect your writing?
I do always try to travel to the places I describe. So, for Under a War-torn Sky I went to the Vercors and the Morvan in France, two places the Resistance was very active. The descriptions of those geographic regions are authentic because I saw them. I visited small museums established by survivors and looked at the photos of the young fighters who were captured and deported for their Resistance work. Their faces moved me. I know I wrote better by seeing that. With Annie, I grew up in the area described, so I know the terrain, the smells, the winds, the flowers of it well. For Give Me Liberty I spent a great deal of time in Williamsburg and the Tidewater region.
Did you enjoy history in school? Did any specific teachers influence you to write historical fiction?
I did enjoy history in school. I can’t really point to one specific history teacher, I’m afraid. I remember better the English teachers who inspired me and a Latin teacher in high school who expected so much of me and was so rather exacting that I figured she must be on to something! Now there’s someone who brought history alive now that I think of it. One of the really wonderful (funny, embarrassing, rife with teasing one another, but very instructive in terms of daily life) was a Roman banquet she organized annually, complete with togas, lyre music, wrestling matches, and appearances by the gods….
Who are historical figures who influence and inspire you?
Wow. That, too, is a question I could spend a page on. But let me keep to a few– Queen Elizabeth (Tudor, 16th century), what a courageous, savvy, far-sighted woman. Shakespeare–how did he write so much so well? Eleanor Roosevelt–she kept to her ideals and devotion to society despite the ridicule slung at her. Abigail Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Beatrice Potter, Clara Schumann ( composer, pianist, wife of Robert Schumann, who performed, wrote, and raised a large family even when her famous husband struggled with mental illness), Lucie Aubrac ( a leader in the French Resistance). Hmmmm…I seem to be choosing women. To throw in a man or two, let’s say Beethoven (who could continue to create masterworks he could not hear. What largesse. He fought against bitterness and tragedy to give the world some of its most enduring and heart-wrenching music. Balanchine who had the courage to take the old, which was gorgeous, and make ballet new, more human, more emotive, more stirring. And Bobby Kennedy, who through the power and eloquence of his words kept Indianapolis from burning the night MLK was shot. I also relish Churchill’s quote: “Be generous, fierce, and true.”
In Annie, Between the States, the Sinclairs and their neighbors have battles very close by. They learned to eat more simply, and tended to soldiers from both sides. This also happened in the American revolutionary war. Do you think that this fortitude and sacrifice of Americans has changed?
We have not been tested in the same ways, fortunately. I think that Americans are inherently generous, incredibly resilient (witness the “greatest generation” that survived the Depression and WWII), and ingenious.
Look at how firemen and ordinary people responded during 911. I think it is in us still.
How much of Annie, Between the States was based on the story of Antonia Ford and Laura Ratcliffe? How did their romances influence Annie’s?
A great deal was based on their real life experiences. Those two stories blended together created Annie. Her admiration for William Farley, however, came about because I was reading Lee’s Lieutenants, which contained photos of the many young officers killed during the war. There was something about Farley’s beautiful young face that so saddened me, I needed to include him in the book. And when I did, I realized what a perfect match he was (as a Shakespeare scholar) for Annie. Had he not been killed (in real life) the romance between Annie and Thomas might not have gelled in my mind….
Do you have ay advice for aspiring writers of historical fiction?
Yes…read, read, read. Listen to the stories older people tell of their childhood or the stories their parents told them. Go watch re-enactments. Remember that even in “dry” statistics lie stories that can make us feel history. Example: as I researched Under a War-torn Sky, I learned that for each Allied airman safely moved down the Resistance “ratlines,” it is estimated by British intelligence that one French person — child, woman, man– died. A one-for-one exchange. That told me how much courage was needed to reach out an help an American boy who fell out of the sky.
Thank you so much!