By Leslie Lindsay
You can’t not love Agnes Canon. Fiercely independent and strong, she loves books—and hates corsets. Folded beneath the cover—stunningly simple yet evocative landscape with Agnes front and center—unfurls a truly amazing story of Missouri during the Civil War. And then there’s the author—with a name like Deborah Lincoln, how could she not write historical fiction set in a time when the freedoms of not just African Americans were restricted but those of all women? I’m thrilled to welcome Deborah as we talk about her book, AGNES CANON’S WAR (Blank Slate Press, 2014).
L.L.: Thanks for being with us, Deborah! It’s a joy to read AGNES CANON’S WAR. I just love the highly engaging opening chapters. The rendering of the hanging is drawn so effortlessly—so vividly—that I can’t help but feel the torment. And yet, it’s a joy to read…riddle me that!
Deborah Lincoln: If it’s a strong opening that promises a good story to come, then no matter how gruesome, I consider it a joy. I take it as a compliment; thank you. Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE opens with a couple of hogs playing tug-of-war with a rattlesnake. Ivan Doig’s DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR opens with the drowning of a horse . . . each a joy to read.
L.L.: Okay, that was a tough question. Let’s start with some basics. I understand Agnes Canon was a real-life person—can you tell us what you know about her and how you conceived the idea for this book?
Deborah Lincoln: Agnes was indeed a real person: my great great-grandmother, to be exact. I came across her story when a cousin of my mother’s researched it and typed up a manuscript (onion skin and carbon paper: the old days) that she circulated among her family in the 1960s or 1970s. The characters were so memorable, the events so stark, their lives so emblematic of life during the inconceivable disaster of civil war that I could not let the story disappear. It was easy – well, relatively – to fill in the blanks with Agnes’s and her family’s thoughts, actions, hopes and dreams. One of my relatives (also a descendent of Agnes’s) says I channeled her during the writing. Sometimes it seemed so, that she was determined her story would not be forgotten.
L.L.: Historical fiction is a highly ambitious genre. There’s always a real-life event, person, time period, etc. to capture—and not ‘just’ following your imagination. How did you get invested in historical fiction and do you write in other genres as well?
Deborah Lincoln: Historical fiction is the only fiction I’ve ever written. I love it for all the usual reasons: the reader learns about the great events of the past at the same time she’s learning about how everyday people dealt with them, which is not something history classes teach. Also, I don’t have much imagination for plot, and the stories buried in our ancestors’ lives are of the you-can’t-make-it-up variety. At book signings, people are eager to tell me the stories of their many-great grandparents: the great grandfather shipwrecked on the western Canadian coast and held by Indians for a year before being ransomed to the Hudsons Bay Company; the several-great grandmother who emigrated to Kansas to care for her dead sister’s children, only to encounter John Brown on the run after Pottawatomie. The great uncle who decamped with his wife’s niece who bore the marvelous name of Phoebe Diamond. All the writer needs to do with material like this is fill in the blanks and enjoy the act of bringing them to life.
L.L.: I love Jabez’s admiration for the written word, “Ahead, an open-fronted tent sported a banner that read simply: BOOKS. Now here was a place Jabez could never pass by. Stacks of books teetered on tables, on the ground, in barrels…” I have a feeling you and I and Jabez would get along just fine. What is it, in your opinion that is so alluring about books?
Deborah Lincoln: Oh, wow. It’s like trying to describe what’s so alluring about the blood that runs through my veins. It’s the smell of the old Carnegie Library and the tiny leather chairs in the children’s section when I was small; the dreamy sound of my mom’s voice telling stories about a flying rocking horse as dusk grew deeper; it’s imagining what I would have done had I been in Nancy Drew’s sensible shoes, Pan at the Gates of Morning, a way to touch and be touched by souls from other times and other places that are otherwise untouchable and unknowable. For Jabez, and Agnes too, books back then must have meant so much more, since they had no other way of seeing pictures or hearing voices from far away. They must have craved what books could give them.
L.L.: At our house, we’re constantly talking about names…I know, strange topic of conversation! I think it’s because I’m a writer and often searching for the perfect character name and because my daughters are often busy naming their Barbie dolls! So, I have to admit we’ve never discussed the name Jabez. My only experience is the Bible. Did Jabez Robinson really exist as well?
Deborah Lincoln: Yes, indeed; Jabez was my great great-grandfather. He and Agnes’s marriage and life together followed the basic pattern of the story in the book. He came from Maine, he was a secessionist, he did go adventuring in California and the Southwest in the 1840s, he did emigrate to Montana. The name Jabez was prominent in his branch of the Robinson family; it was his grandfather’s name and shows up several times before that. The last mention I’ve seen of it in the family is his grandson’s middle name: William Jabez Robinson, my great uncle. The Biblical passage is interesting: given how hot-headed and strong-minded Jabez was, I’m guessing his mother really did bear him “in pain.”
L.L.: Oftentimes, we really identify with our characters. Is there one you felt a particular affinity for? One who “surprised” you?
Deborah Lincoln: Agnes, first of all. But I became quite attached to some of the others. Billy, Agnes’s cousin’s son, became more and more prominent in the story as it developed; his moral struggles throughout the war were painful to witness. And I really liked James, the little boy with the black arrowhead whom everyone petted and loved; I would like to have followed his progress through the war and his later life. Maybe some day I’ll track him down. The one who really surprised me was Jake, one of the southern guerillas, who turned out to be a more complex character than I’d first envisioned. And his father, Reuben. That family, by the way, is a product of my imagination. I suppose a writer tends to have a soft spot for people she completely makes up.
L.L.: Let’s shift gears to the writing process. Do you have any routines or a process you follow?
Deborah Lincoln: I don’t. I’m not a disciplined writer – I wish I were. I don’t use an outline, though I usually put together a timeline so I know the context for my story: what’s going on in national and state politics, for example, even if it doesn’t have any bearing on the story. I spend lots and lots of time reading all sorts of obscure histories, kind of burying myself in the time. Sometimes that’s just a good excuse not to sit down and actually write, which is hard for me. I’m the worst procrastinator. But I’m working on changing my careless ways.
L.L.: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Deborah Lincoln: Write every day; don’t give up. That’s a cliché, but the reason it’s a cliché is because it’s true.
L.L.: What are you working on now?
Deborah Lincoln: I’m working on a novel that takes place in Montana Territory just after the Civil War: a besotted governor, Irish rebels, the invasion of Canada and a love story that stretches from St. Louis to Virginia City. I’m also researching a sequel to AGNES, because I’m not ready to let her go.
L.L.: Thanks so much for being with us, Deborah! We so enjoyed hearing from you!
Deborah Lincoln: Thank you so much for having me; it’s been a pleasure.
Author Bio: Deborah Lincoln has lived in South Tillamook County, near the village of Neskowin, for ten years. She grew up in the small town of Celina, Ohio and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Michigan. She and her husband have three grown sons.
Of her passion for historical fiction, she says: “I’m fascinated by the way events—wars and cataclysms and upheavals, of course, but the everyday changes that wash over everyday lives—bring a poignancy to a person’s efforts to survive and prosper. I hate the idea that brave and intelligent people have been forgotten, that the hardships they underwent have melted away like a rim of ice on a warm spring day.”
Agnes Canon’s War is the story of her great great-grandparents, two remarkable people whose lives illustrate the joys and trials that marked America’s tumultuous nineteenth century.
For more information, follow on social media, and to purchase AGNES CANNON’S WAR, please visit:
Facebook: Agnes Canons War https://www.facebook.com/deborahslincoln?fref=ts
Amazon (Kindle & Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/Agnes-Canons-War
Barnes & Noble (Nook & Paperback): http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/agnes-canons-war-deborah-lincoln/1120148377?ean=9780985808662
Available to your local bookstore through Midpoint Trade: http://www.midpointtrade.com/
[Cover image and author image courtesy of author. Images of Alice Cannon and Jabez Robinson from author’s website, http://www.deborahlincoln.org. retrived on 4.20.15]