Thursday, May 19, 2011

An interview with Rosslyn Elliott, author of Fairer than Morning

Rosslyn Elliott's debut novel, Fairer than Morning, takes readers back to Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1820s, a bygone era no less complicated than our own.  Ann Miller, daughter of a saddle-maker and circuit-riding minister from the small town of Rushville, Ohio, slowly awakens to the qualities in a person that truly matter.  To her surprise, she finds them not in Eli Bowen, a handsome suitor who enjoys reciting poetry, but in saddler's apprentice Will Hanby. Alternating chapters reveal Will's painful situation. Indentured to an abusive master in Pittsburgh when he was too young to know better, he forms a strong bond with Ann and yearns to be free to pursue a life of his choosing.

Fairer than Morning is more than just a romance and coming-of-age story, though.  Rosslyn Elliott surveys her early 19th-century American setting with a sensitive eye for historical and artistic detail as well as social injustice. The novel falls into the category of inspirational historical fiction and is an excellent example of its kind. Rather than feeling forced, the characters' faith reflects their time; it takes root in the courageous lives they lead and the situations they find themselves in.  Also, I always find it refreshing to read a Christian novel that shows real people and their realistic decisions, even if they go beyond the usual genre limitations.  The main characters are based in history, as are their stories, and the graceful writing style suits the place and era.

Had you planned from the beginning to write Fairer than Morning from both Ann's and Will's viewpoints?

Yes, I had planned it that way from the beginning. Both of their spiritual journeys are important, though Will’s is unusually strong for the ‘man’s side’ of a historical romance. When I first wrote the novel, it opened in Will’s viewpoint and Ann’s viewpoint came second. My agent asked me to switch the order, as publishers usually require historical romances to open in the heroine’s viewpoint. At first, I didn’t like the idea, but it worked out well after I figured out which scene to use for Ann’s opening.

Given that the Hanbys and Millers were real people, how much responsibility did you feel to reflect the historical and spiritual truth of their story? During the process of transforming their lives into fiction, did these truths ever conflict with one another?

I was determined to infuse this story with both types of truth. As I explain in the historical afterword, I departed from the historical record in some aspects of the novel, but I believe my choices clarified the spiritual truth of the novel and unified the narrative. I’m particularly pleased with the development of the relationship between Mr. Miller (Ann’s father) and Will Hanby. I think father/son relationships are fascinating, and I believe the fictional parts of this novel reflect the historical story of these two men in a way that historical records support but do not flesh out. Only a few history-lovers know about the strength of this connection between Mr. Miller and Will. You have to be a real researcher of the Hanbys to learn the few details that exist to tell us their story. I’m happy that more people will understand Mr. Miller’s contribution to the story as a result of the publication of Fairer than Morning. (I’ll reserve further comment on fact versus fiction to prevent spoilers, and I should also warn potential readers not to read the afterword before reading the novel, for the same reason!)

Will's relationship with Emmie Flynn, as well as the duel fought between two parties, go beyond what's often found in inspirational historicals. At the same time, these subplots made the storyline and characters more realistic for me. Did you ever feel like you were taking risks, with readers or with publishers, by including these scenes?

My goal during the writing process was to write the best story I was capable of writing, in every way, and that meant not worrying about the typical boundaries of inspirational historicals. I like the way Jodie Foster once described the act of creating art. She said “it’s putting everything you are onto the head of an arrow and shooting it out into the world.” For me, ‘everything I am’ may include a number of virtues, but I’m also messy and flawed, and that’s true for most believers. Too many times, I’ve seen Christians try to assume a perfect fa├žade, even though that doesn’t reflect reality. I don’t think we should do it in life, and I don’t think we should do it in our fictional characters. So I decided to write this novel about real love, real failure, and real courage, and I found a publisher who believed in that kind of story. I have to admit that I was sweating it out when my agent submitted this novel to publishers. I knew this novel was the best I could do, and if no publisher wanted it, that would be the end of my dream to publish this kind of fiction.

What appeals to you about small-town Ohio? Also, what compelled you to set part of your novel in the industrial city of Pittsburgh?

I like the heritage of Ohio because of its pioneer roots. I can still see those roots in many small towns, whereas big cities have choked them out with concrete and steel. I also like the way that Ohio hasn’t been overused as a setting in historical novels, and the same is true for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a city with a fascinating history, both bright and dark, and it really adds to the atmosphere of a historical novel. Atmosphere was part of my decision to set part of the novel in Pittsburgh. I needed a strong dramatic contrast between Will Hanby’s world and Ann Miller’s world, plus, I wanted narrative access to some big city features that I couldn’t create in a rural setting.

Fairer than Morning is set during a time when individual craftsmanship mattered. It takes pleasure, for example, in showing us the details Samuel Miller carves into his leather saddles and the calligraphy on hand-addressed dinner invitations. Do you feel modern society has lost some appreciation for these things?

As a whole, yes, I think we have lost it. Last fall, I went to a fashion museum in Tombstone with a friend, and we exclaimed over every handcrafted detail of those nineteenth-century ensembles. The curator loved us. He said he couldn’t believe it when people came into the museum and complained of being bored, but it happened more often than we might think. Fortunately, no matter how our culture changes, there will always be people who love craftsmanship. We may not use horses as our transportation anymore, but I know a saddler who lives close to my house. The fascination of creativity will always draw new people into the old crafts.

How much time did you spend researching your novel on site? How clearly could you see the Rushville of nearly two centuries ago beneath the new?

I was only able to visit Rushville in person late in the writing process, but I was glad to see that the town’s history is well-preserved, though not always marked. The advantage of zero population growth in tiny towns is that no one knocks down buildings to make way for supermarkets. Beautiful old homes are well-preserved by citizens who have lived in them through the years. I saw the Rushville home of a doctor who appears in the second novel (1850s), and I saw the cracked, forgotten gravestone of Samuel Miller himself. (Some of the valiant supporters of Hanby family history repaired that stone this year.)

Ann Miller finds herself transfixed by Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, and the characters' lives and words resonate with her. On your website, you've listed some of your favorite novels, including Dickens' Oliver Twist, two by C.S. Lewis, and William Dean Howell's A Hazard of New Fortunes, which is a book that's new to me. What did you take away from the reading experience of each?

Both Dickens and Howells were compassionate souls, and both were sensitive to the social forces at work around them. Dickens is one of my personal heroes, and I could write a hundred pages on everything I admire about his work. I already wrote a hundred pages on Howells, who was one of the two authors I discussed in my doctoral dissertation in English (completed in 2006). Both authors are valuable reads for me because my Saddler’s Legacy trilogy spans most of the nineteenth century. Dickens is a major influence on Fairer than Morning, and Howells will have his turn in the last novel, which is set in his period, the 1870s. Howells was Mark Twain’s best friend, and one of the best-known writers of his time. I sometimes think his work has gone out of fashion in academic circles because he is too gentle, wise and ethical. His work won’t serve as a platform for the fierce battles that currently rage through university English departments.

The two books from C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy changed my life. After a Catholic childhood, I lost my faith as a teenager and was agnostic for ten years. It was a dark decade for me. The light finally began to dawn again when I read Lewis’s Perelandra. It’s a brilliant, redemptive novel that convinced me of the reality of evil as an active, intelligent force in our world. Once I believed in evil, I had to reconsider the possibility that good might also be the same kind of active, intelligent force. That restarted my spiritual journey, and a couple of years after reading Perelandra, I returned to Christian faith.

Thanks for your excellent questions. It has been a pleasure to go behind the scenes with you and revisit some of the joys of writing Fairer than Morning.

-----

Thank you too, Rosslyn, for agreeing to be interviewed.  I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and I look forward to reading your next book as well.

Fairer Than Morning, first in the Saddler's Legacy series inspired by the Hanby family of central Ohio, was published by Thomas Nelson in May at $15.99 (trade pb, 391pp).  Visit Rosslyn's website and her blog for biographical information, the history behind her books, insight into the writing process, her observations on historical fiction and other literature, and more.

5 comments:

  1. AWESOME interview! This book sounds so good. I love Christian/inspirational historical fiction, but sometimes it can feel very forced and unnatural. I'm glad that you pointed out that this one wasn't :)

    -Kate the Book Buff
    The Book Buff: Book Reviews for Regular People

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lovely interview! I spent some of my formative teenage years in Pittsburgh and it's a city I have great affection for -- so glad to see it visited in historical form!

    ReplyDelete
  3. First of all, I have to say that I really like the cover of this one! I hadn't heard of this book before but it sounds like something I might be interested in checking out. I too have an affinity for Pittsburgh (my family is from there and had worked in the factories).

    ReplyDelete
  4. A good part of the book takes place in Pittsburgh, and I can't say it figures in many other novels.

    I agree, Kate - though I'm not Christian myself, I read novels in the genre because they can seem more honest about religious life in past times than mainstream novels. (Plus, many inspirational novels are great stories, pure and simple.) A preachy tone is a turnoff, so I really appreciate novels that make religion feel like a natural part of life.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Rosslyn and Sarah, thanks for this lovely interview. In general, I'm not attracted to "inspirational" fiction, for some of the reasons others have mentioned; but if I get a chance to try this one, I'm going to.

    ReplyDelete