Portland author Ellen Notbohm interviewed Ashley Sweeney about her second novel, Answer Creek, available in stores May 19, 2020. Readers paying close attention to this blog might recognize the pairing from the May 2018 Conversations post where Ashley interviewed Ellen upon the publication of Ellen’s debut novel, The River by Starlight.
EN: Ada’s feelings about her adoptive parents seem ambivalent. They were never abusive or unkind to her yet she seems reluctant to love them. Is this an abandonment issue stemming from her birth parents’ deaths? How does the theme of abandonment play out through the rest of the story?
AS: Abandonment is central to Ada’s fears and colors the narrative. In her first nineteen years, Ada Weeks loses her birth parents and her adoptive parents, the only four people she’s ever loved or tried to love.
On the Oregon-California Trail in 1846, Ada witnesses others—both animals and fellow travelers—left behind. It’s not surprising that a corrosive fear creeps in as Ada wonders if the same will happen to her. I’m not sure anyone ever moves past abandonment, but Ada moves through it and carves out a life for herself on her own terms. If nothing else, she’s a survivor.
EN: Answer Creek is solid historical fiction. Yet it also fits the categories of literary fiction, women’s fiction, regional fiction, adventure, suspense, romance. As an author, do you embrace the idea of books being actively cross-genre, and how does that affect how you promote and talk about your book? And how do you attempt to reach out to people who say they don’t read? Or who say they don’t read your particular genre?
AS: Cross-genre fiction is as multi-layered as sweaters in the fall. As an author of historical fiction, it is incumbent to welcome in other genres to fully form characters. Yes, there are elements of adventure, suspense, and romance in Answer Creek, and the novel sits comfortably in the realm of women’s and literary fiction. Why limit our reach?
Some of the best novels I’ve read lately could be considered cross-genre. Consider Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing (talk about abandonment issues). It is contemporary, literary, mystery, crime, and romance, all rolled up in a page turning coming of age story. Other novels I’ve read lately that cannot be pigeonholed—except they are great—are The Nightingale, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A Gentleman in Moscow, and News of the World.
No author can please all readers at all times (for instance, if readers are looking for dystopian novels, sci-fi, or chick lit, they won’t find it here). But there’s room for all in the reading world and I’m glad there are myriad genres to satisfy the large and voracious appetite of disparate readers. And I’m thrilled that the YA (young adult) genre has exploded. The way I see it, the more readers, the more informed and well-equipped citizenry.
EN: Your first novel, Eliza Waite, portrayed a 19th-century woman embracing her sexuality outside of marriage. Ada does the same in Answer Creek, fifty years before Eliza, and in gravely dangerous circumstances. Their motivations seem very different. What do you want us to know about both of these women in this regard?
AS: Regardless of era, a woman’s sexuality is at the core of who she is. In Answer Creek, 19-year-old Ada Weeks becomes physically involved with a man she has pined over from afar on the Oregon-California Trail in 1846. Their resultant engagement is one of the few joys Ada experiences on the trail west. There are other allusions to pre-marital sexual relations in the book, a reason why there may have been many hasty “penny weddings” along the overland trail.
In contrast, Eliza Waite, the protagonist of my eponymous debut novel, is a 29-year-old widow and mother when she awakens sexually. After being treated for “hysteria” by a local physician, Eliza is enlightened about sex thanks to a madam at a neighboring bordello in Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 (and to think, if Skagway had not been electrified in 1898 I couldn’t have added that delightful scene with the electromechanical vibrator).
EN: Tell us about Ada’s relationship with her mules and how it changed over the course of the journey. Was your writing about that relationship changed by the time you spent with mules in Arizona?
AS: Animals figure prominently in any overland trail story. On the first page of Answer Creek, readers are placed directly in the scene where it’s “a rush of oxen and horses and mules and milch cows.” There are sheep and goats and chickens. And always dogs. For all the overland books I’ve read in my lifetime, I thought I had a good handle on what to write.
Talk about misconceptions! When I visited Mule Power Farms in Tucson, Arizona doing research on mule personalities and behaviors, all of my pre-conceived notions about mules imploded.
Did you know that mules are considered the puppies of the equine world? That they are affectionate and playful and loyal and intuitive? That they are named only by human names? That they have the endurance of others animals twice their size and weight? And that they cannot procreate? (Mules are the offspring of a female horse (mare) and a male donkey; chromosomally, mules do not have the ability to mate).
At the farm, I spent the afternoon with a sweet 30-year-old molly mule named Rosie who won my heart (females are called “mare mules” or “molly mules”; males are called “john mules” or “jack mules”). Rosie’s big, doleful eyes and soft nuzzling nose clambered for my attention; her personality was infectious! After my experience there, I had to rewrite all the mule scenes and renamed Ada’s molly mule Rosie in sweet Rosie’s honor. I really came to love Rosie—the mule and her fictitious counterpart—especially.
It goes to show that there’s no substitute for first hand research on every level on historical fiction and that assumptions can sink you, as a novelist and as a human.
AS: First the challenges. Tackling history is daunting. In many ways, it might be easier to conjure a fictitious setting peopled with fictional characters and say, “go.” When writing historical fiction, I am bounded by time and space. Instead of seeing this as limiting, I count it a blessing as I immerse myself into 19th century life, customs, dress, and mores through countless books written about the American West. It is here that I enter the narrative and say, “go.”
Now the opportunities. Because I insert fictional protagonists into historical events, I am not constrained as much as a novelist who is writing about an historical personage. I am free to have the character live and breathe and move with historical figures through historical events and color the narrative through the unique lens of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.
Ada weathers the ordeal, at least physically, although residual emotional scars color the rest of her life (psychologists call it “survivor guilt”). Emotional trauma also affects her descendants, a fact I labored over when writing the ending.
EN: Many of the characters in Answer Creek were real people. How much responsibility did you feel to portray them as exactly-how-it-happened as possible? Did this constrict the telling of Ada’s story in ways you had to tussle with?
AS: Writing historical characters comes with gravitas. I purposely did not contact any living descendants of the Donner-Reed Party as I wanted to tell the story as objectively as I could. In the afterword and acknowledgments, I pay homage to all the members of the emigrant party. They are all tougher than I’ll ever be and did what they needed to do to survive.
I attempt to portray all historical characters as accurately as possible and tailor dialogue to fit their personas. Other historical fiction authors may not adhere to the premise that their work has to be historically accurate, but I endeavor to stick to facts unless it serves the story to amend them (I always list deliberate changes in afterword).
Surprisingly, I didn’t have any issues writing Answer Creek as I placed Ada directly into a known story with known characters. Then the adventure began as I watched her navigate situations, emotions, and sometimes-harsh realities.
EN: Writers of historical fiction constantly confront the question of how much research is enough, that there’s always one more thing to know. We talk of “going down the rabbit hole” in our research. Your books are meticulously researched. How do you decide how much is enough?
AS: In the “Rabbit Holes ’R Us” file, I’ve got stacks of black and white composition books filled with sometimes irrelevant (and always fascinating!) research. It’s impossible to write strong historical fiction without immersing yourself in the period in which you write. For me, that’s primarily the 19th century. It’s a balance to decide how much information to include in a novel without doing an info dump. A lot of the information I glean is used eventually in library talks, answering questions at book readings or book clubs, or speaking at academic, civic, or community events.
That said, there is never an end to learning. I continue to learn from readers, book event attendees, and further reading and research. When I was a journalist, I used to say that I had a new masters degree each week as I researched and wrote news articles. If I continue this analogy, I have a post graduate degree by now in Klondike history and Oregon Trail history.
EN: Answer Creek contains much language that is authentic to the period, but won’t be familiar to contemporary readers. What were some of your favorite 19th-century phrases or words? How do you go about integrating them so that readers seeing them for the first time will be able to understand them in context?
AS: Inserting period jargon in historical fiction is necessary to color a manuscript, as long as it’s used judiciously. I attempt to use period words and phrases that can be inferred in context. And, by golly, beta readers are quick to point out if a word or phrase is misunderstood.
Above my bend: hard to understand
Jumping off place: starting point
Spiritual consolation: excuse for imbibing
Sure as snot: foregone conclusion
Wind colic: flatulence
EN: What did you learn in the writing of Eliza Waite that impacted your writing of Answer Creek? How does writing a second novel differ from writing a debut novel?
AS: Writing a second—or third—novel differs greatly from the first, and I’m glad of it. Like any craft, you only improve with time and practice.
When I start, I know the ending and move toward that goal. What happens along the way is often surprising and I’m open to it. One example is that while I was talking casually to my Norwegian dialect coach (Ada’s adoptive parents are Norwegian), she received a text from a friend in Norway. The gist of their conversation made it into the novel, and is very powerful. If my novels were meticulously plotted, I might miss out on some of the surprises along the way.
I am also more disciplined now than I was with my first novel as I have a publication date on the calendar. In contrast, Eliza Waite took eight years to write and publish; Answer Creek took two. I am now on track for publication every two years; Passion of Ink (fur trading empire in Astoria, Oregon in early 19th century) is slated for fall 2022 publication.
Award-winning author Ashley E. Sweeney received the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. Sweeney is a former journalist and educator. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona. Answer Creek is her second novel. Find her online at her website, ashleysweeneyauthor.com, on twitter @ashleysweeney57, Facebook: facebook.com/ashleysweeney57, and Instagram: ashleysweeney57.
Ellen Notbohm is an internationally renowned author in both fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The River by Starlight has garnered 13 awards for historical, literary, and regional fiction. Her perennial bestseller Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew has been a beloved classic for more than 15 years, now in its third edition and published worldwide in 23 languages. She writes from her lifelong home in the Pacific Northwest and delights in interacting with book clubs everywhere. Visit her website at https://ellennotbohm.com/