Given that I have been writing like a banshee for the last many months, I offer this Q & A by way of apology for not publishing a new blog post since March. Includes two excerpts from Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia, to be published this fall, book 3 of 7 in the JEM series,
1. Tell us about yourself.
I taught Literature for 25 years to high school students. One day, we were talking about Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and I asked students “Might the Revolutionary War have been averted if England and America had been more empathetic toward one another?” After that discussion, an insistent young person who lived during the 18th century crept into my dreams for several nights in a row. This young person was Jem, who insisted that I write her story. The entire Jem series came in a chunk of seven books, which I sat down and outlined. Now, I have to write the last four books since Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia is Number 3.
2. Give a brief description of your book, Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia.
Jem #3 begins during a storm at sea whilst Jem Connolly is a few days out from Philadelphia, where she has sailed to meet her destiny. She also hopes to evade her ever-more-aggressive enemy, Patch, who kidnapped her in the previous book. Patch works for Jem’s grandmother, the Duchess of Newcastle, but Patch has a secret arrangement with somebody else who wants Jem for an undisclosed purpose. Patch also serves the Dark, an evil force in direct opposition to the Light that is the source of Jem’s magical power, Second Sight. Within 24 hours of arriving in Philly, Jem meets Josiah Fox, a blunt wilderness guide; Betsy Arlington, an indentured servant besotted by Fox; Deborah Franklin, Ben’s wife, with whom Jem will stay while in the city; Sally Franklin, four years older than Jem and desperate to find a husband; the Franklin’s household servants; and Tillie Tapahow, a half-black, half-Indian woman who, like Jem, has Second Sight. Jem clashes with Fox and takes girl lessons from the Franklins. She makes an unexpected ally, a mortal enemy, and a forever friend—all of them critical components in the next stage of her journey into dangers in the great American wilderness she never could have anticipated. Marketers always ask what age the books are written for; I ask in return, what age are the Harry Potter books written for? Readers from 8 to 80 are interested in J.K.Rowling’s hero—I hope the same can be said of Jem Connolly.
3. Why did you write Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia?
“Foreigner” was the next step in Jem’s journey—she had to live its events before she could go on. “Foreigner” gets Jem to America and introduces her people that will change her life. It shows Jem taking more risks with her magic. “Foreigner” allowed me to create the character of Deborah Franklin, about whom there is very little real-life information. The book allowed me to develop and deepen two ongoing themes in all the Jem books: first, good and evil exist, both take many forms, and humans can choose which they will embrace; second, there are things in the universe we shouldn't dismiss just because we don't understand them.
4. What’s special about Jem?
The protagonist in Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia was born with a magical gift called Second Sight (acquired from both parents) that allows her to hear what animals are thinking, to know by touch which diseases lurk inside complete strangers, to see visions of future places and events that don't make sense, and to get others to do what she wants simply by touching them. Jem’s magic develops as she tries to do different things, and—as with any skill—the more she practices, the more mastery she gains. Jem learns in Foreigner that she can trust other people, something she has been reluctant to do to this point. She learns that she doesn’t have to handle every single problem all by herself.
5. Is this book part of a series?
Yes. The book is the third of seven. At the rate of one book per year, the last will come out in 2021—but that’s an optimistic schedule. Historical fiction requires a great deal of research. My advantage is that I already dreamed Jem’s whole story (I know how it ends), so my major task is putting the legs under what I already know is going to happen—that is, unless Jem takes me on a detour, which she’s done before….
6. What can you tell us about your writing process and writing style?
I get up early in the morning (4:30 on a good day, but usually 5:15). I start the coffee, feed the critters, and write for three or four hours. I take a break, walk the dog, eat a late breakfast, and get back to work. By 2 or 3, I’m done for the day. My brain just can’t function any more. If I need to, I edit or do marketing work after I come back from the gym, but usually I relax in the evenings so I can do it all again the next day. For the first Jem, I wrote the entire story then went back and researched to make sure I had not inserted any historical error other than inserting magic and taking liberties with the history of famous people. For the next books, I intermingled research with writing. This seems to work better, as the things I learn can then inform the writing. I still start each day by writing the story in longhand on yellow legal pads. I don’t turn on the computer until that’s done. Then I fire up the ‘puter (research whatever I wrote if necessary) and word-process that day’s segment of story. As far as my style goes, I don’t use words that weren’t in use at the time, which is a personal choice that has sent me down many a research bunny trail. I also use quite a bit of dialogue, as I have a theater background and I…well...I just like to eavesdrop. It might take four hours of research to inform one line of text. What I hear most often about my books are comments about authenticity; here are some quotes from reviews of the first two JEM books:
“The writer has created a very believable London”
“she brings the reader right into Great Britain life in the mid-1700s”
“By the time I reached the one-third mark, I felt that I had a solid grasp on Jem's backstory as well as an insight into her psychology. I was fascinated with not only the core story, but also with the way the author wove historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin into the tale in such a way that it seemed not only possible, but also plausible.”
7. The setting of Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia adds to the texture of the story. Can you tell us why you chose to set the story there?
Philadelphia is Ben Franklin’s home base. It’s where his family and oldest friends live. It was an incredible mixing pot of peoples and cultures in the early years of America. By 1750, Philadelphia was the most important seaport in the colonies. Merchants (one of whom had been Ben Franklin before he retired and entered politics) dominated Philadelphia society, and about 40 of them controlled much of Philadelphia's trade. Philadelphia was so important that it was the capital of the new United States of America from 1790 and 1800 while Washington, D.C., was being built. In order to accurately portray 1760-61 Philadelphia, I purchased a number of useful books, particularly Philadelphia, a 300-year History, published by the Barra Foundation, which includes photographs and old maps. I can't write historical fiction without a map.
8. The idea of finding the truth is strong in your book. What about that idea interests you?
My father was a stickler for absolute, strict adherence to the truth, no matter the situation or who might be hurt by brutal honesty. Telling the truth was simply what you did in my house. One of my earliest epiphanies was reading Polonius’s advice to Laertes, “To thine own self be true,” which suggested that truth sometimes depends on point of view. Truth is complicated. Truth is something we act upon that also acts upon us. For example, some people can find a sack of money and keep it; other people could not bear to live with themselves if they did that. (Recently, nearly $30,000 turned up in a paper bag in a parking lot in my town; the finder turned it in. Would I have done the same? Sure, but I would have fantasized for a month about what I could have done with the money.) One time, my brother dinged a car in a parking lot. Nobody saw. He left a note. The car owner called and said, “My insurance will cover the damage—but I just wanted to talk to the last honest person in the world.” To me, truth is having convictions and standing by them, yet not trying to impose your convictions on other people. This is why Jem is open to learning about other religions, other ways of life, other explanations for why she and the world exist. A kind of weird corollary to this is the idea that woman have the right to be fully human, to be fully all they can be. In Jem’s time—and in our own, unfortunately, even in our own country—females got (and get) the short end of the stick in terms of developing their talents and fulfilling their potential. This is a corollary to finding the truth because it is a flat-out lie that women aren't capable of doing whatever they have the talent to learn and the will to accomplish. There is no way a person’s plumbing should decide his or her destiny. But it does. Jem thinks that’s a silly and wasteful idea. So do I.
9. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
What was most challenging was pushing myself to get Foreigner right when I was raring to go on to #4—I am so jazzed to get Jem into the wilderness and interacting with people of the Seneca nation. I am excited to develop her relationship with Josiah Fox. Another challenge is being patient with the process. You have to go back and forth with the cover designer. You have to wait *forever* for your book to get edited. It takes even longer than forever to address your editor’s questions once the editing is done. Another problem for me is marketing. I would happily sign books all day long—but it is so hard for me to do my own marketing. I feel very self-conscious about shoving my book and myself in people’s faces—and yet, that’s what a self-published writer is supposed to do. I don’t do it very well. I just write and hope for the best.
10. What drew you to this particular story?
Simple: Jem started talking to me. I listened. This particular period in history, the 18th century, was the bridge between the medieval world and the modern one in terms of medicine, politics, science, art—you name it. So many towering figures lived then, pushing and shoving the world in the direction they wanted it to go. So many other people were pushed aside in that great heave into the modern world. I wanted to show a person eager for change but sympathetic toward people affected by that change, an interested and interesting human being without any agenda other than understanding herself and how she fits into the grand cosmic scheme of things. Somebody who could befriend a horse yet battle a demon. Jem is somebody I like and respect. She is the kind of person I would be honored to be friends with, although I’m pretty sure I couldn’t keep up with her.
11. What other books have inspired you?
Early influences were Madeleine L’Engle, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau. Science fiction. Shakespeare rocked my high school world. My favorite modern authors include Robin Hobb, Diana Gabaldon, and Brandon Sanderson (whose stable of researchers I envy). While I was working as a high school English teacher, I was given Hobb’s first Farseer book one Christmas; by February, I had read all her other books. Hobb owns and practices writerly magic. Her Fitz and Fool are my personal benchmark for true devotion in both fictional and personal relationships. Gabaldon is a master of humanizing historical persons and events. Let’s see—Patrick Rothfuss is a Wisconsin author whose The Name of the Wind I enjoyed as well.
12. How did you come up with the title?
I paid for a professional critique of my book. The critiquer said I was not doing myself any favors with my title. But I stuck with it because I knew the book was part of a series, and I wanted each title to set forth the protagonist as well as the place and “role” she would occupy in that book.
13. What is your favorite passage in the book and why?
One scene I like is the shipboard scene in chapter 14 between Jem and Josiah Fox where this interchange takes place:
“Maybe you’re made of stone, but the men below aren’t,” Fox said. “Look, Kitten, men are wolves: we mate for life. We’re always looking for the one that fits, and we try on different women until we get it right.”
“Try on!—really, Mr. Fox—”
“Your way with the men—a smile here, a touch there, the way you listen—it’s no wonder they start to dream you might be the one that fits. I’d never have guessed at the Billet a little thing like you has the heart of a lion.” He lifted a curl that had straggled over my face. “And that’s to say nothing of the outside. You looked good enough to eat at Sally’s party. This chocolate hair of yours was pinned up that night.” He tucked the curl behind my ear. “And you had some bobs in your ears trying mighty hard to be green as your eyes.” He fingered my earlobe. “And you smelled like apple pie.”
I also enjoyed creating a personality for Deborah Franklin based on what little facts one can find about her. This passage from chapter 11 answers the question: Why didn’t Debby join Ben all those years he was in London?
“My husband has asked me scores of times to take ship and join him in London. I have stood a score of times before the shipping office with money in my pocket to buy passage.”
This astounded me. “Why didn’t you do it?”
“The water,” she whispered. “It wants me. Every ripple of every body of water is a little clawed hand snatching at my feet. Where do the little hands go when they fail to catch a foot, Jessamyn? They go back to the river, back to the shore, back to the ocean where they wait with thousands of other little hands to pull ships down to the deep.” Her face had gone white, but her neck was flushed red. She pleated and unpleated her apron.
“But, Mrs. Franklin,” I said, “boats are caulked tight against water. Ships sail back and forth over the Atlantic all the time. British ships are the best in the world, made of good American oak.”
“I know. I know it all. My husband reassures me with all those arguments and more. But the water wants me.” I thought of the growling ocean the stormy night Freddie was hurt on the Red Queen. Tillie’s jungle river. My waterfall. Was Mrs. Franklin…sensitive… to the power of water? I waited.
“I have never told this to anyone”—she swallowed—“as a child, I played along the river. We all did. One day, we found an abandoned dory in the water near the riverbank. It had a hole in it, but we got it up on shore and patched the hole as best we could with weeds and mud and our stockings. We were children. We got some boards for oars and got the thing out in the river. And the current took it. We were having such fun! Riding past the tall ships and the fisher folks and waving at the sailors.
“But then we saw we were far past our little bit of shore. We tried to use the boards to row back, but the current was strong and our oars were poor. We drifted to the very mouth of the Delaware before our repair came loose.
“We waved at passing boats, but we were being carried out to sea. We were taking on water. I began to cry. My shoes and frock were wet you see, and I suddenly sensed the great, dark, living gulf of water beneath the leaking boards of our dory. It…wanted us.”
“How did you escape?”
“A small fishing boat saw how low we rode in the water. They were on their way out. If we had cast off five minutes later, they would have missed us.”
“They rescued you.”
“They did. They pulled Jimmy and I on board. By the time they got us both, our dory was done. It sank like a stone.”
“You were meant to live, Mrs. Franklin.”
“Or I cheated death.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “To this day, I feel the water is angry. It wanted me then. It wants me still. To this day, even when I step out on to the wharf, I feel uneasy. I can’t look down at the water for fear I will see little hands reaching for me. So naturally, a sea voyage is out of the question.”
“But, Mrs. Franklin, it is only water.” Even to me, my words sounded puny compared to her fear.
She eyed me. “So you, like my husband, think only that which can be observed is real?”
“Well, no,” I said. “But I have never seen hands in the water.”
“But you have seen the hand of God working in your life?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Did you see the hand itself?”
“So, not all that exists can be seen by the naked eye or even under my Ben’s microscope. Some things that are, are invisible. And, like everything else that is visible, some forces are good and some are bad. For me, Jessamyn, water is bad. It will not forgive me for cheating it.”
14. What aspects of your own life helped inspire this book?
My mother contracted polio as a young teen and lost the use of her right arm, but I didn’t know what “handicapped” meant until I was a teen-ager. My mom never let her handicap slow her down. She never even mentioned it: I had a mom who couldn’t raise her arm, no big deal. Mom’s day-to-day life showed me what it truly means not to let adversity decide how you’re going to inhabit your one and only life. Jem is determined in the same way not to let any kind of stupidity, any kind of silly rule, any kind of evil shove her down a path she has not chosen for herself. Because of my mom’s example, it never even occurred to me that being a female should minimize my own chances or choices. Nor should being a male. Every human on the planet owns the right to determine what his or her life should be. That’s the very least each of us deserves during our three score and ten.
15. What can readers hope to learn from this book?
I hope readers accept that humans do not and can not ever have an explanation for everything that exists—and that that’s OK. I hope readers let go of their need to control others and accept that people have the right to decide for themselves what to believe in. I hope readers won’t limit their personal choices to what other people tell them is acceptable because of their gender, sexual orientation, skin color, religion, background, culture, ethnicity, and so forth.