I’ve been writing this way for about five years. Poetry came naturally to me, but my poems were considered too long. I had ideas for big stories that demanded novel-length page counts, so…novels in verse might be an obvious solution, but it still took me a long time to figure it out.
Tell me a little about the historical background for Three Rivers Rising.
In the late 1800s railroads were connecting disparate regions of the U.S. and demand for steel was high. Newly moneyed Pittsburgh steel tycoons took their families to vacation in the Allegheny Mountains. A number of them bought shares in a summer resort called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which consisted of a clubhouse, stables, some private cottages and a reservoir held back by an earthen dam.
In the valley below, the city of Johnstown was home to Cambria Iron Works. Mills, stores, hotels, churches, homes, schools: Johnstown was an up-and-coming seat of industry. On the downside, Johnstown was built on lowlands surrounded by rivers and flooding was an expected part of every spring.
Back up in the mountains, over-logging had increased the danger of flash floods, and the design of the dam had been compromised over the years, leaving no way to compensate for sudden increases of water. An unusually rainy spring in 1889 caused the flawed dam to fail, releasing millions of tons of water into the valley, creating an avalanche of debris, and scouring the land down to bare rock in many cases. Deaths total approximately 2,200.
How do you go about your research for your historical fiction?
A story like this, one that surrounds a heavily-documented historical event, has a lot of the research built in: books, documentaries, easy to find. When the story takes place in an arbitrary time frame, it’s trickier. I like to read first-person accounts whenever possible, especially letters. Newspapers are good, too. You can get the flavor of a time period. I keep a dictionary tab open on my computer to look up the dates words came into use. I also like to read census reports…see who was at the Alms House or the Orphan Asylum, good for cranking up the old backstory machine.
Have you always been a writer?
No. I can’t say it was always my intention to be a writer, but I did always make up stories. When my friends and I played house or school or Electro-Woman and Dyna-Girl, it was always up to me to narrate the action and feed everybody their lines! How did I not know I was going to be a writer—everybody else did.
Who are your inspirations?
Patricia Reilly Giff, Karen Hesse, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Judy Blume, Louise Erdrich, Jacqueline Woodson.
What were your favorite books as a child? As an adult?
I have a deep and enduring love for my long lost copy of Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. It was the paperback with the girl sitting at the mirror, placing a hibiscus into her corona of braids. I “loaned” it to somebody. If you’re reading this, and you have my copy of Sally, please return it! Or face the consequences…dunh, dunh, duhhhh.
Other favorites, as you might expect: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The House Without a Christmas Tree, and Mandy. Also, my school librarian forbade me from taking out Flicka, Ricka and Dicka even one more time, or the somber-brown hardcover Marnie.
My favorite books now are Nory Ryan’s Song and Maggie’s Door, Out of the Dust and Aleutian Sparrow, The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.
I also love a little sumpin called Also Known as Harper, ever heard of it?
You have two young daughters. What are five books that you hope they will read?
Mine, for starters! (Actually my older daughter already read it. And gave it a positive review in her school newspaper, thank goodness!) And they’ve already listened to Judy Blume reading Sally, and they loved it as much as I hoped they would. It has become the gold standard for audio books in our house.
1. Anne of Green Gables, the series even, such a big part of my childhood reading those with my mom and sisters.
2. The Little House series—I think about the pioneers everyday and I want my children to know me that way.
3. Almost as often, I think about Anne Frank (Diary of a Young Girl) and I hope they’ll read her words and care deeply.
4. Patricia Reilly Giff’s historical novels which mirror the experiences of our own Irish ancestor (Nory Ryan’s Song and Maggie’s Door), my grandmother growing up in the tenements (A House of Tailors and Water Street), all the way down to my mother (Lily’s Crossing and Willow Run) as a child of World War II. (I know I’m cheating by counting a body of work as one entry on the list!)
5. Along the same line, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My grandmother said after reading it, “That’s exactly how it was!” My daughters didn’t get to meet my grandmother, but they can meet Francie Nolan.
Can you talk about your work-in-progress?
My next manuscript is about one of the many young Irish women who came to the U.S. in the wave of immigration to work as domestics, known as Bridgets. There’s talk of fairies and visions, witches vs. wise women, and tea leaves and typhoid.
Jame has never been one for BSP (BlatantSelfPromotion), so I need to tell everyone that this book was the 2008 winner of the PEN New England Children's Book Caucus Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award...