Write On , Wednesday: Meet Sarah McCoy of THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN (Crown, May 2015)

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By Leslie Lindsay

“The old house on Apple Hill Lane shuddered against the weighty snow that burdened its pitch. The ancient beams moaned their secret pains to the wintering doves in the attic…”

Aren’t you just taken by this beautiful prose? I know I am. When I come across a book whose author has taken the time and care to meld the old with new, lost hopes with future dreams, and share the journey with a reader, it’s an elegant gift. That’s how I feel about Sarah McCoy’s THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN (Crown, May 2015).

Today, I’m honored to welcome Sarah to the blog.

L.L.: Sarah, thank you so very much for taking the time to chat with us today. I just finished THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN over a delicious sunny morning on the patio, caffeinated beverage in hand. Like the setting, I wanted to savor and soak up every last word. For you, I know this novel was a savoring of sort, as well. You spent four years writing and researching. Can you briefly explain your process and that instigating moment that set the pen in motion?

Sarah McCoy: Thank you for having me, Leslie, and for that incredibly humbling introduction! I’m honored that you consider The Mapmaker’s Children a gift that you savored and slurped up like a good summer libation! I consider reader friends like you an equal prize and am so happy to connect online—and through my stories.

The inspiration for each of my novels has come to me differently. Published friends tell me how they are consistently inspired through a specific story vehicle: a historical character, political agenda, visual image, emotional struggle, color, food, etc. I can’t say that I have one. I guess my Muse likes to throw her bolts in various forms. I’ve never had a story come to me in the same way. The Mapmaker’s Children began with a sentence being spoken …

“A dog is not a child,” the woman, Eden Anderson, kept saying. And it was the way she said it that wouldn’t let me be. Confident, angry, and yet, deeply wounded by the very words she spoke. I couldn’t shush her no matter what I did. Months of hearing this over and over in my head nearly drove me crazy. That’s when I knew: this wasn’t just a passing statement, it was a character haunting!

In an effort to find relief from my insomnia, I wrote the sentence and its corresponding scene in the journal. I realized then that the voice was echoing through and out the front door of an old house—the house in New Charlestown. It was calling me to solve its Underground Railroad mystery set between Eden Anderson in present-day West Virginia and Sarah Brown 150 years ago.

The Underground Railroad has always been a dog-eared page in the history books for me, but it wasn’t until Eden and Sarah’s home called that I became completely absorbed in it. The research for this story took me from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Concord, Massachusetts, to Red Bluff, California. I followed Sarah’s trail, piecing together her legacy map. I wrote about that extensive research process in the “Author’s Note” in the back of the novel.

L.L.: Let’s talk a bit about structure. Some folks (like me) absolutely love the dual-period novel, multiple POVs, but others, not-so-much. How did you decide on the overall structure of the book, which is very precise: a chapter in the late-1850’s/early 1860s, followed by one in 2014. What challenges did you face?

Sarah McCoy: I’m so glad you enjoy this structure, too! I happened to love books that require my active reading participation. It makes the story come alive for me in a way that it doesn’t when I’m reading a book in which I sort of Lazy River ride through the chapters.

The historical-contemporary dual narrative seems to be my organic way of processing whatever fictional worlds I’m working in. History seen through this kind of Alice in Wonderland looking-glass filter of the present. I wrote that way for The Baker’s Daughter and now again in The Mapmaker’s Children. I’m fascinated by how the people of the past can reach across generations and impact the present; how mysteries of the present have their solutions in the past; how issues we face and decisions we make today are strikingly similar to ones our forebears made—with good and bad outcomes. I’m riveted by that interplay.

I think it’s important we don’t just read and compartmentalize the past as an “interesting story.” I want my readers to see that the history is a key, a manual, a lesson guidebook for us to learn and implement change in our present lives.

That all being said, it does not make for easy or simple novel writing. I’m sure my agent and publisher wish I would just do a conventional narrative instead of two books in one, but hey… where’s the fun in that!

L.L.: I have to say, I fell a little in love with Freddy Hill. Is there a character—or characters—you felt particularly fond of? I know, I know…kind of like choosing your favorite child.

Sarah McCoy: And just as any devoted mother would reply: I love all my children equally and eternally. That said, I can tell you that I gave more blood, sweat, tears, and time to the characters in The Mapmaker’s Children than any of my previous books. I think it’s my best work yet, and I’m praying my guts out that readers agree. I’m always trying to take it up another notch in my fiction. It keeps the writing—and reading— fresh and exciting.

A side note to your Freddy Hill devotion: I must say I fell hard for him, too. I was recently on My Book, The Movie blog where I was asked to cast The Mapmaker’s Children with any actors—living or dead. I chose Jonathan Crombie (a.k.a. Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series). Swoon.

L.L.: One of the main characters shares your namesake. And it’s often true that there’s a little bit of ourselves in our artistic creations. What connections/similarities are present between you and Sarah Brown?

Sarah McCoy: Technically, my momma stole Sarah Brown’s name 134 years later, so she claimed it far before me. Had John Brown’s only unmarried artist daughter been named Clementine, one of The Mapmaker’s Children’s protagonists would be named after a fruit. It just so happens my name is Sarah, too. Perhaps that’s what made her story spirit seek me out—a sister Sarah. But I can confidently say she was and is her own autonomous person. I learned from her; I admire her greatly for the legacy she left behind. Through the writing of this novel, I’ve integrated aspects of her into my own life that I didn’t have on page 1. She inspired me to be a braver, bolder, stronger woman, unafraid to map my own life outside of the constraints of convention. She told me, You’re okay, Sarah. You’re okay, Eden readers out there. We’re okay, sister women. That was her inheritance to me, and I pray to everyone who picks up this book.

L.L.: I so loved your essay on Writer UnBoxed in which you talk about the eve of your pub date. You reference the maelstrom of emotions to be comparable to that of moving, marriage, and childbirth. How do you ultimately calm yourself before a big reveal, not just of your artistic work, but you personally? What advice would you give?

Sarah McCoy: Thank you, Leslie! That column in Writer Unboxed was actually a huge factor in my calming process—putting it OUT there, giving my anxiety and solitary neurosis voice. Growing up, my momma always told me that once you shine a light on the monsters in the dark, they disappear. They’re merely shadow demons, but they that can evoke a mighty turmoil if you give them the power to do so. It’s a choice. I can’t ignore my worries. I won’t deny their existence. But I can face them and call them out: “I see you in the light, and I refuse to be terrorized by you.”

The Writer Unboxed column provided me the outlet, and in doing so, I was amazed by how many fellow writers and readers it also spoke to. My professional and personal advice? Always choose courage over fear, especially if you’re fearful of being courageous, as I was before the publication of this novel.

L.L.: What’s next on the horizon for you?

Sarah McCoy: I’ll continue to tour for The Mapmaker’s Children this summer: online blog visits, bookstore events, Skypes with libraries, summer author series, and book clubs, etc. Then I’m headed to literary festivals across the country in the fall. When I’m not on book travels, I’ll be hunkering down in my writing office working the next novel. I don’t typically breathe a word about the subject matter of my book babies until they are ready to be hatched. What I can share is that it’s another contemporary-historical dual narrative, turn of century and today; but the location is quite different from anywhere I’ve ever gone before. To quote my husband, “Book 1 was 1960s Puerto Rico. Book 2, WWII Germany. Book 3, Civil War Virginia. And now this?? After 17 years together, you’d think I’d know your imagination.”

Don’t blame me; I’m just the writer. I go where the characters point. And oh boy, am I having a mighty good time journeying to exotic, ancient territories with this next book!

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but didn’t?

Sarah McCoy: Hmm, I think we’ve chatted about quite a bit but we didn’t talk about pet love, which shows up in The Mapmaker’s Children. (I won’t spoil anything for your readers by elaborating.) But I believe you share my penchant for the fur-darlings with your sweet Sally Mae. I’m pretty much, completely obsessed with my dog. He’s a four-year-old, 10-lb. Frenchman of the Coton de Tulear breed. His name is Gilbert—Gilly for short—and he rules our house like Napoleon. He fancy’s a hound girlfriend, too. Ahem… he’s snipped, single, and ready to mingle.

L.L.: Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today, Sarah. It was a joy!

Sarah McCoy: My pleasure, Leslie. Thank you for being such a ray of sunshine and a newfound friend in the book blogging world. This interview was great fun. Let’s keep in touch on Facebook and Twitter. I’d love to hear from you and your readers!

Sarah McCoyBio: SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children, The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico.

Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an Army physician, and their dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas. Connect with Sarah on Twitter at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page, Goodreads or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com.

[Special thanks to Hannah Frail at Crown. Images courtesy of author, with exception of The Baker’s Daughter which was retrived from the author’s website.]

2 responses »

  1. I’ve got this book pinned on Pinterest to read soon. It sounds like a book I’d like … I’m a fan of past/present story lines with multiple POVs. Thanks for the intro Leslie! 🙂

    • Ah, Tori you are so welcome! I think you’ll really enjoy THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN. The writing is superb and the multiple POVs sound like they are right up your alley. Enjoy!

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