Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Interview with author Andromeda Romano-Lax about Annie and the Wolves

A dozen years ago, I posted an interview with Andromeda Romano-Lax about her debut novel, The Spanish Bow.  We recently reconnected, and I jumped at the chance to pose her some questions about her newest novel, Annie and the Wolves, which is out today. 

Annie and the Wolves follows the intertwining stories of Annie Oakley, the famous American sharpshooter, and Ruth McClintock, a contemporary historian struggling to prove her hypothesis that choices Annie made later in life were motivated by childhood abuse. After Ruth is sent some writings purporting to be Annie's personal journal, it sets her on a path to learning the truth not only about Annie's past but also about unsolved mysteries and odd phenomena from Ruth's own personal life. 

This isn't your standard dual-time novel about historical research and discoveries, but a multi-stranded thriller about the dawn of psychotherapy, the path to overcoming trauma, women's empowerment, and the tantalizing possibilities of time-travel. It left me thinking about uncanny real-life coincidences and how history itself is formed. Hope this intrigues you, and hope you'll enjoy this interview with Andromeda about her amazing genre-defying book.

The novel delves into Annie Oakley’s impoverished, difficult youth and her middle years, from the time of her train accident going forward. How did you get interested in these less well-known aspects of her life?


Discovering that Annie was essentially held captive for two years as a child by a farm couple called “The Wolves” was my starting point for the novel—along with the fact that, simultaneously, I was mulling over issues of abuse in my own family. (My sisters were abused by my father, who died around the same time I stumbled on the historical footnote that led me to Annie’s story.) There’s no question that I sublimated my concern for my sisters—and even my survivor’s guilt, as the youngest, least-affected child—into the work of finding a way to tell Annie’s story, which is ultimately an uplifting one.

From those first intertwining inspirations, I went on to learn more about the head-on train collision Annie Oakley survived in 1901, and about her legal battle with William Randolph Hearst, who libeled her in print. That middle-aged period isn’t unknown but documentation is spotty, which leaves the novelist plenty of room for invention.

I should make clear that the historical record was just a jumping-off point. From a few basic facts—childhood abuse, mid-life problems and injury—I built up a fictional premise: that Annie Oakley was disturbed by a yearning for revenge against her abusers, and that she sought a type of counseling, talk therapy, that happened to be developing in Vienna during that same era. Especially given that Annie Oakley was comfortable traveling to Europe, including Vienna (where she was much admired), I found that coincidence intriguing and used it to create a plot that is rooted in possibility but completely fanciful in its dramatized form.

The dynamic between Ruth, a researcher in her early 30s, and the tech-savvy high-school student, Reece, was an especially enjoyable part of the book. It’s like they become partners in solving multiple mysteries that other people are determined to ignore. What inspired them and their unusual relationship?

I’m glad you like Reece! I didn’t want Ruth to go it alone, and as I invented him, I came to realize—as I think Ruth does—that he could be a stand-in for the relationship she never managed to have with her troubled younger sister, Kennidy. With Reece, Ruth learns to communicate more openly, to ask for help, to risk being uncomfortable, and to care. This is a book that fully spans one-hundred and fifty years, and I wanted Reece to be our touchpoint for today: a smart, extroverted, probably non-binary (I don’t spell it out) teenager with his own artistic interests and problems. One early reader questioned how mature he is, but I’m a mom of twenty-somethings and they and their friends were just as assertive, quirky and smart as Reece when they were his age.

 author Andromeda Romano-Lax
The novel imagines that Annie Oakley sought help from a psychoanalyst, and re-creates evidence of their communications. How did you go about creating these writings?


It’s funny how once you create a fictional world it can seem inevitable and real—at least to the author, and hopefully to some readers! At one point while researching and pondering how Annie Oakley would have dealt with her trauma (especially given that she was a celebrity and couldn’t risk letting the world see her as weak), I was also reading about Anna O., the famous analysand who was treated by Josef Breuer and written about in a book by Breuer and Freud. (Readers often confuse the two men.) I thought, “A.O. and A.O.—that’s weird.” My brain got that same “everything-is-connected” feeling that frequently overwhelms Ruth.

The fact that the Annie of my novel is saddled with memories of childhood abuse in the same era that psychoanalysis (with an emphasis on recall of childhood traumatic events) was being developed seemed too interesting a coincidence to pass up. If she was going to talk to someone about it, why not the Viennese doctor who first wrote about talk therapy? From there, I knew they’d have to communicate only once in person and thereafter by letter, because Annie would need to be back in America to deal with the ongoing Hearst trials—which were, again, a biographical reality. Then it was left to me to invent those letters, as well as the original mystery journal that opens the book.

The concept of time-travel is always fun to explore, since it lets us ponder what would happen if the past could be physically reached and changed. I enjoy the speculative aspects of these novels as they relate to history, and how authors depict how it all works. What attracted you to the concept? Do you think it’s important in fiction for time-travel to have rules?

Yes, time travel absolutely must have rules. (And what a challenge they can be to invent and explain!) I never expected to write a time travel novel—and in fact avoided any speculative or fantasy element in early drafts. But when it comes to exploring not only history, but trauma, time travel becomes both a logical mechanism and a larger metaphor. When I was doing my initial research on time travel, I kept stumbling across psychological research papers that use the term mental “time travel” simply to mean reconstructing personal events in the past. Well, we all do that. People with PTSD do it even more intensely. As for changing the past, that’s the question, isn’t it? If one could, should one? And if one can’t or shouldn’t, what does that say about our orientation to the past and future at the expense of the present? I think time travel plots will remain timeless—no pun intended—because they fulfill our desire to imagine changing the past while also allowing us to ponder ancient questions of destiny and free will.

Annie Oakley in the 1880s
The story is amazingly creative and multifaceted, with so many different subplots – I read along with great interest in seeing how they would all come together. What skills or tools as a writer did you draw on to keep track of everything going on?


I wish I had a better answer for you. I keep some thinking and planning notes in a journal, but I mostly discover as I write and do ongoing research, then revise to make things clearer or when a new lightbulb goes on, over my head. (For example: “Of course that’s who the antiques seller is! Why didn’t I know that from the beginning?”)

What lessons can modern readers take away from Annie’s life story?

The fictional Annie of my novel and the real Annie Oakley—the biographical one, who is so much more impressive than the “Annie Get Your Gun” character from musicals and movies—has so much to teach us. The real Annie rescued herself, saved her family from poverty and ruin thanks to her small-game-hunting abilities, crafted a unique role as a world-famous sharpshooter and performer, made a good living, protected her brand, confronted her enemies (like Hearst, in court), and thrived with the support of a husband who supported her career. Having survived her own childhood and her especially dark years with the Wolves, she committed to helping others, which included training women in self defense and financially supporting girls and orphans. My novel supposes—and I’d like to believe it’s true—that helping other girls and women was what gave Annie the strength to endure the trials of her later years and achieve a sense of peace.

~

Annie and the Wolves was published by Soho Press; thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley.  For more information, please visit the author's website at https://www.romanolax.com.

4 comments:

  1. What a wonderful interview -- thank you for this! This book sounds uh-mah-zing -- love the themes/threads developed. Getting this book right now.

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    1. Yay! Thanks for your comments -- I hope you'll love it too!

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  2. Anonymous11:06 PM

    Fantastic interview, very informative! Female empowerment and time travel? I’m already hooked ! I also really like the evolution of her character described throughout the interview. Always satisfying when a character uses what they learn from past conflicts to deal with oncoming ones.

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    1. Hope you enjoy if you get the chance to read it!

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