Author Ashley Sweeney interviewed Portland author Ellen Notbohm about her debut novel The River by Starlight. Shortly before publication, the book won the Gold Medal for Best Regional Fiction, West-Mountain, in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Notbohm is also author of four award-winning nonfiction books.
Ashley Sweeney: Thank you, Ellen, for allowing me to interview you about your debut novel, The River by Starlight. The novel’s first chapter affords the reader a glimpse into Annie’s psyche as her mother is dying. The narrative is fraught with hurtful memories, experiences, and comments, some of which Annie deems unforgivable. What are you trying to convey to the reader in the novel’s opening chapter?
Ellen Notbohm: Annie’s history up to the opening chapter includes a childhood lived under an emotionally abusive mother and a kindly but war-damaged father, a marriage that lasted less than a year and ended in disaster, and life after that marriage in a town that judged her for circumstances beyond her control. The concept of self-determination may not have even occurred to her. When her brother invites her to leave her miserable situation and join him on a homestead a thousand miles away, Annie suddenly sees she can claim some power over her own destiny. It propels her out of passive acceptance of her second-class status, unleashing a current of hope and resilience in her that marks the start of her outward journey, and that she’ll have to call upon throughout her life as she faces adversities even more daunting and unthinkable.
EN: Annie was the woman behind a century-old genealogical brick wall. Every family seems to have that one person no one would or will talk about, the mystery and silence carrying an aura of disgrace. Like many genealogists, I take an obstacle like that as a “hold my beer” kind of challenge. I knew there was more depth to Annie’s story than the few surface facts I had. I battered away at that brick wall with my writer/researcher mallet through several years and many dead-ends, but finally a chink fell. The source of those zipped lips: Annie had endured recurring perinatal and postpartum psychosis. The more I learned, the more it became to me a story of devastating personal misfortune and social injustice, of extreme gender disparity and stigma rooted in ignorance that needed to be brought into the light, a higher light than the one she confronted in her era.
AS: Incidences of domestic violence, grief, jealousy, dementia, betrayal, and abandonment appear the novel. How do these issues affect the story line? Are any of these actions or situations also “unforgivable”?
EN: Grief itself doesn’t demand forgiveness, but actions driven by grief can. This is where Annie’s story begins, and to a different extent, her husband Adam’s too, and trails them through life. We learn in the first few pages that Annie and her mother have both lost children but in very different ways—one to death, and one to maternal illness that brings loss of parental rights. And their responses are just as dissimilar—Annie’s mother becoming emotionally abusive to her subsequent child born years later, and Annie embarking on a lifetime of trying to heal the guilt of her own forced abandonment of her child. She can’t help but equate her inability to forgive her mother to decades of wondering how her own child views her abandonment, a self-refection that Adam too is forced to confront later in the story. In this dual perspective, having been both the abandoned and the abandoner, Annie is, with constant and considerable effort, able to view her husbands’ jealousies and betrayals through the lens of her own human fallibility and struggle for redemption, and through a lens of forgiveness that leaves us with an achingly human portrait of how “love wins.”
AS: In what ways do Annie’s hopes and fears throughout the novel mirror those of women everywhere?
EN: In many ways, Annie is a timeless Everywoman, because everywhere, and in every age, the core of the human condition distills down to largely the same few things for most of us. Take a moment to think about what matters to you most. Most of us will say partner, child, home, health, autonomy, self-determination.
Then consider that you could lose all of that because you have what we now know to be a bona fide medical condition, but in its day was often considered a character defect or moral weakness. You are a woman, but you will be judged by all-male medical and judicial bodies, and the even less forgiving court of public opinion. You could be judged “luny.” You could be committed to “treatments” of the day.
The fear of losing our family and freedom resonates no less today than in Annie’s time. And the progress we’ve made in addressing the illness Annie faced is less than we’d like to think. Even today, there is still no widespread screening and timely treatment scenario for perinatal and postpartum mental health concerns.
AS: Turning to craft, how did you conduct research, and how long did your research take? How did your novel benefit from spending time in any of the particular places in the novel?
EN: I made six trips over several years through Montana, North Dakota and Alberta. I walked the same streets and fields, stood in some of the very same buildings on the same spots as did Annie and Adam during their time together and their times apart. You sense an energy—of a lack thereof—in what I call Being There. Very different vibes in the different places, from barely detectable to overwhelming. Much of my research took me to small towns in sparsely populated states where people were incredibly helpful. Many said they simply don’t very often get visitors as deeply interested as I was.
Off-site, I used InterLibrary Loan to spool through a few miles of newspaper microfilms spanning close to 50 years. This was invaluable in helping me construct timelines and to create a world whose authenticity was underwritten by the small details you absorb when immersing yourself in the anthropology of a bygone time. I amassed close to a hundred books, but the one at my elbow every day was a scruffy 1902 Sears Catalog that cost me $1.50. I consulted it endlessly for descriptions of absolutely everything, from fly nets to gravestones to paint colors to snake oil, for which claims like “Fat Folks, Take Dr. Rose’s Obesity Powders and Watch the Result” were common. It was also a lesson in the language and vernacular of the day, as well as business practices such as credit. Today we simply couldn’t imagine a mail-order company saying, “Our only terms are cash with order.”
AS: I understand that you handwrote most of the manuscript. Can you tell readers why this method proved the best way for you to put words to paper?
EN: Typewriters existed in Annie’s day but many of the legal and medical documents that so gravely impacted her life were handwritten. Writing her story in pencil came naturally; it seemed to ground me in the times in which she lived. It forced me to rediscover dormant skills, just as Annie had to in the course of her life. It slowed me down so I could feel the surge and retreat of the emotions she and Adam were experiencing—the ecstasy, fear, grief, hope. The shock of betrayal, the peace of forgiveness. Those pencils brought me the familiar sensory elements of the day—the whole-hand experience of holding a pencil and moving it across the page, the smell of the lead and wood and eraser smudges, the pepper of pink shavings. In our tapping, texting, blazing-fast fingertip typing, we’ve lost the sense of magic that can come from watching words emerge from a writing implement in a manner as unique to each person as few things in life will ever be. The uniqueness of my handwriting became necessary to the telling of a unique story.
AS: You are a prolific author of non-fiction. With The River By Starlight recently published, are you shifting your focus to fiction? If so, are you working on a new novel? Can you give readers a hint of your work in progress?
EN: As an established nonfiction writer on issues of both health and history, I never imagined I’d write a novel. I originally conceived Annie’s story a creative nonfiction narrative. That it morphed into a novel stretched me as a writer as never before, and taught me let go and follow a compelling story where it takes us. So I’d say my focus is identifying people whose lives call me, and seeing where that goes, whether fiction or nonfiction. I’m currently at work on a 15th anniversary edition of one of my nonfiction books, to be published in 2019. It’s remained popular because it too tells a timeless story about the person behind what was once a little-understood condition, in this case, my son and his autism.
Ashley Sweeney is the winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award, and a finalist for the Sarton Women’s Book Award, the WILLA Literary Award, and two other literary contests for her debut novel, Eliza Waite (She Writes Press, 2016). She splits her time equally between the Pacific Northwest and the Desert Southwest.