Today, Susan Sales Harkins, one of Bookpleasures' reviewers is pleased to have as a guest Martha Bennett Stiles author of Lonesome Road.
Susan: Martha, thank you for agreeing to discuss your new book Lonesome Road with me.
Before we discuss the book, would you tell us a bit about yourself-as much as little as you like. Give the readers some insight into who Martha is.
Martha: I grew up on a small farm on Virginia's James River, a peninsula away from where my first American ancestor, Thomas Savage, spent 2-3 years as a cultural exchange for one of Powhatan's 12 sons. Tom was the subject of my first book, One Among the Indians, which due to 2007 being Jamestown's 400th anniversary is now an Authors Guild back-in-print paperback.
After 3 highly rewarding semesters at the College of William & Mary, I transferred to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. To a country girl like me, the cultural offerings of Ann Arbor were overwhelmingly marvelous, though as an eager but impecunious student I could take advantage of fewer of them than I would have liked. This changed after I married a post-doctoral fellow who became a UofM professor and I lived in Ann Arbor another 23 years. I don't think I could have written my historical novels elsewhere. UofM has one of the best half dozen libraries in the country, and as a faculty wife, I could keep the books I checked out as long as I liked, so long as no one else asked for them. The Star in the Forest was 10 years in the writing; you can imagine how important this privilege was to me.
As a chemistry major I could fit in no writing classes, but after my marriage my husband came home one day with a typewriter for me and said, “You could never take writing classes as you wished, Why not take them now?” I was fortunate to be accepted as a student by Alan Seager and by Joyce Carol Oates and have been trying to write ever since.
Susan: You do a superb job of painting the story's backdrop--central Kentucky horse country. Where do all the details come from?
Martha: Thank you. Thirty years ago, my husband became a University of Kentucky Adjunct Professor and Bourbon County, Kentucky Thoroughbred breeder. We named our farm Stockwell for a distinguished ancestor of the first mare he bought and for the dorm I was living in when we met. Although you wouldn't suspect it from Lonesome Road's cover, the layout of Ruth and Grove's house, farm and barn are Stockwell Farm's.
Susan: Is there any part of Lonesome Road that's true?
Martha: Equine episodes are apt to be experiences of our own, tailored to suit my cast and plot. For example, a neighbor's teaser did come and terrorize our beasts (and me, too new at the business to know he wouldn't "rend and devour" me) but there was no fire to account for it, no Ervil to come to my aid. A foal did have to be pulled with chains (by a kind neighbor--the owner, by the way, of the marauding teaser) and was providentially caught. It was my husband who was holding her and I who fell to the straw catching her colt. No Wicked Secretary. And so on. An agent did try vainly to trick my husband into setting a low price on a mare which said agent correctly guessed my husband wouldn't have heard had just become valuable. (One of said mare's grandsons won a race at Calder just yesterday; great was our joy thereat.)
Dramatic personal shenanigans are mainly fiction. Suspicion of infidelity, bad manners at the boss's house, hysterics at stores, resentment of mother-in-law, rich parents, indifference to studies, etc. were all Ruth's and none of mine, but her constant soul-searching–what could I have done to prevent this tragedy--I do know only too well. We lost a child in infancy. One thing I will say with a smile. One of the nice things about writing fiction is that mordant reflections (Marie Antoinette's head etc.) can at last be expressed.
Readers don’t always credit writers with as much imagination as writers actually do call on. Sometimes a character is a portrait of a real person, but more often not. I’ll offer a couple of examples of how it works to show what I mean. My two favorite Lonesome Road characters, Lorena and Albert, are based on impressions. At 12 I went to girl scout camp and the age group just ahead of mine put on a show for us and a girl named Lorna played a lighthouse keeper. In the show she had no lines, just ran in circles to give the impression that she was ascending a spiral staircase.
Outside the show her only words that I specifically remember were her lament that her parents didn't want her home and she had to remain at camp another session. I never forgot her–her looks, her carriage, her manner of speaking-- and had her in mind whenever Lorena came on stage. And Albert--well, in Ann Arbor I went to one of those coffees that partisans stage for candidates they favor. A man was running for school board. I don't remember his name, though I voted for him. We listened to him make his pitch and field questions, a quiet, determined, civil man with an undercurrent, I thought, of stored resentment (he was black). Anytime Albert cropped up on a page, I was seeing and hearing that candidate.
Susan: What or who inspired the story?
Martha: A small NY City boy named Etan Patz routinely walked to school with his older sister. One morning her departure was delayed and, unnoticed, he left without her. No one knows what became of him. I have found it difficult to absorb the death of our infant son. I wondered how Mrs. Patz could cope with Etan's disappearance, and Ruth's story is my attempt to explore that. In this I was misdirected (by myself) because someone whose loved-one is dead is well-advised to work hard at distracting projects every minute of the day, not to brood, whereas a couple whose child is missing cannot, I imagine, give themselves permission to think about anything else for one minute. So I commenced the book by mistake. Ruth's problem was not mine and vice versa.
Susan: Was Lonesome Road difficult to write-either emotionally or technically?
Martha: When I began to write Lonesome Road I had no idea where Lang was and no intention of dealing with that; Ruth's shouldering of an insupportable burden was my study; how do people do it? But after writing a number of chapters I began to feel that to put a reader through Ruth's agony over Lang's loss and not give him back was just too cruel. So then I had to figure out where Lang was and how to rescue him. That was challenging.
Susan: What kind of feedback are you getting on Lonesome Road?
Martha: My agent’s pre-acceptance trial readers questioned why Ruth didn't seem to suffer more. So I opened the floodgates a bit and now I think there is too much suffering, though lord knows it's genuine. Now I feel obliged to assure potential readers HAPPY ENDING! HAPPY ENDING!
Reviewers, thank goodness, have been uniformly kind. The only gripe was from Publisher's Weekly, whose reviewer complained that a red baseball cap was mentioned often enough in the beginning to cause him to think it was a clue but then it had nothing to do with finding the boy. ‘Martha Bennett Stiles COULD have written a mystery,’ he griped. I could have written a sonnet, too. Never occurred to me to do either. The book begins with the scene in which the boy’s kidnapping is meticulously described and the reader is kept informed throughout just what's going on with both kidnapper and child. The mystery isn't "Where is Lang?" The reader always knows. The mystery is how his parents withstand the fact that THEY don't know. That was my subject.
The Louisville and Lexington and Paris (KY) papers said that I had the region and its people down pat, which gratified me immensely, since I'm not a native of these parts. The most gratifying feedback was from the Paris tack shop where we bought halters and such. The proprietors asked me to bring them a stack to sell because farm managers had come in saying they had stayed up all night reading it. Farm managers! But the biggest surprise was learning at one point from Amazon that it was then their number one seller in El Paso, TX. (You tell me.)
Susan: What other books have you written?
Martha: ONE AMONG THE INDIANS, which by great good luck also appeared as ALLEIN UNTER INDIANERN. My brilliant husband was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to spend a year at a Max Planck Institute in Munich, and while we were there one of his colleagues invited us to meet Eva Bartoschek, a children's book writer. She and I swapped books and she urged me to let her send ONE AMONG THE INDIANS to her Stuttgart publisher for consideration. I strenuously declined, for the book had already been accepted by a Munich publisher.
After I returned to the states my agent sent a sad letter; my Munich publisher had returned my contract unsigned because they were ceasing to publish children's books. The same week I received on offer from Stuttgart! Apparently Eva Bartoschek's English wasn't any better than my German, for she had sent my book to her publisher in spite of my forbidding it. This was one of the best pieces of book luck I ever had, for Schwabenverlag also published my second book, The Strange House at Newburyport (Das Seltsame Haus von Newburyport), a MG mystery about the Underground Railroad.
My third hardbound effort was Darkness over the Land, a YA about a Catholic boy in Munich during WWII. At that time there were available to American school-age readers plenty of WWII books about Jewish children and about children growing up in countries occupied by the Germans, but none about the moral dilemmas facing a German child, which obviously were more complex. Darkness over the Land didn't appeal to my German publisher, but was published in French (La Rose Blanche de Munich) and was an ALA Notable and Horn Book Fanfare selection, and so on.
Dougal Looks for Birds and James the Vine Puller, picture books, followed. I gave young Dougal in one expedition all the mistakes in one afternoon that I had made in 2 years of bird watching with my husband. SLJ's reviewer said that it could not be used in a unit on birds because "Dougal displays only negative characteristics for a birdwatcher." Wouldn't you love to have a son in that woman's class? I was comforted 8 years later when Scott Foresman asked to include Dougal Looks for Birds in one of their textbooks and the only change they requested was serving the picnickers healthful things like apples instead of the chocolate cake I'd had Dougal tucking into. Needless to say I gave permission!
James the Vine Puller grew out of an Afro-Brazilian folk-tale about conflict resolution.
Tana and the Useless Monkey is a MG set in Castro Cuba and details Tana's efforts to get her pet accepted at her church's annual blessing of the animals ceremony. These days that wouldn't be a problem. The church, reacting I imagine, to a decreasing number of farm animals and increasing number of pets, now considers pets eligible for these blessings.
The Star in the Forest is a YA set in 6th century France--some fantasy but mostly real enough. I set out to do research for a book I hoped to write about my Huguenot ancestors, but was so captivated by Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks that I backed all the way up to 584.
Sarah the Dragon Lady is the story, MG, of a NY City girl who adjusts to living and going to school in Kentucky as her parents straighten out her mother's dissatisfaction with her marriage.
Kate of Still Waters is a YA about 2 farm girl friends, Kate (sheep) and Hetty Anne (horses), during the 1980's severe drought. (The girls watch Ann of Green Gables on TV. Hetty Anne suggests that were she the heroine of such a tale it would be entitled Hetty Anne of Clean Stables and Kate, who likes to do her homework sitting beside her family's sheep-watering pond, suggests that hers would be Kate of Still Waters.)
My last book is my third picture book, again as a result of bird watching. My husband and I were attempting this on Grosse Ile on a day that began so foggy we couldn't see a bush, let alone a bird in a bush. The foghorns sounded like bulls in rut and I commented to my husband that Carl Sandburg might be right about Chicago fog being a cat, but that Grosse Ile fog was obviously a cow. Twenty years later I was reading my late dazzling friend Barbara Esbensen's poetry, which sparkles with metaphors, and it occurred to me that Grosse Ile fog being a cow was a metaphor, and that got me started on Island Magic. Island Magic had the impossible to overstate good luck to be illustrated by Daniel San Souci.
Susan: What are you working on right now?
Martha: A middle-grade novel about a boy and his pet monkey whose action largely takes place aboard a schooner in 1852 (Fugitive Slave Law in full force), so it's a lot harder for me than if it were set on a contemporary horse farm!
Susan: I'd like to thank you for writing such a powerful book. At first, it
was difficult to plunge into when I realized the plot, but I couldn't put it
down-and I'm glad I didn't.
To read more about Martha Bennett Stiles CLICK HERE
The above interview was contributed by: Susan Sales Harkins: Susan is a Software consultant and the author of several articles and books on database technologies. She and her husband, William, collaborate on children's non-fiction. Click Here to read more of Susan’s Reviews
To read Susan's Review of Lonesome Road CLICK HERE