I’ve been keeping this bottled up for a few weeks now… except for the poor dears that had to listen to my ecstatic “GUESS WHO I GOT AN INTERVIEW WITH?” Sorry you guys, but I was just really happy about it.
Tracy’s book is titled “The Sentinels of Andersonville”, and I reviewed it here. I LOVE. THIS. BOOK. It cracked me up and made me cry and if Dance Weld Pickett was a real man, I’d have to fight the urge to take him from Violet Stiles. However, one cannot build a solid relationship with a fictional character, so I’ll have to move on.
Okay, on with the interview!
I narrowed down the CVS receipt of a list of questions I wanted to ask Tracy down to 10 questions. Let’s jump into them!
1) What got you started writing about Andersonville?
When I was about 12, I was channel-surfing (back then there was, like,10 stations) and found
a show starring Captain Kirk (I’m a Trekkie), dressed up in a Civil War costume. I settled in, thinking he’d been transported to the past by some alien entity. Turned out, it was William Shatner playing the role of Norton Chipman, prosecuting attorney for the U.S. in George C. Scott’s outstanding film, The Andersonville Trial. I was horrified to learn through the testimony of Dr. John C. Bates that a young woman had collected 20 tons worth of food in 4 farm wagons for the starving prisoners, drove it up to the gates, but was turned away by Captain Wirz, and informed by him that if that was all her southern loyalty was worth, feeding these particular Northerners, then she may as well set up a house of ill repute right next to the prison.
A question began to form on my back burner: If she was turned back, did she stay turned back? Later, in my 20s, a friend gave me a book called John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary. I thought: Wait—is this the same Andersonville, from that film? Turned out it was. It was then that I knew I wanted to write about it; I wanted to find out if that young woman came back. And it turned out, she did. (I learned that her name was Anna Hodges—the very same Ann Hodgson in my book.) Writing is all about “finding out”; in this case, I had to find out if she stayed turned back.
2) What book would you say has inspired you the most?
Totally unfair question. I can’t narrow it down. Outside of the Bible, the following books have inspired me the most either from darned good storytelling or effervescent style: A Tale of Two Cities, True Grit, East of Eden, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Paradise Lost, Jane Eyre, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter books, A Little Princess, oh dear,I could go on and on.
3) Given that Historical Fiction isn’t exactly the most popular genre of books this day and age, what advice would you give an author looking to break into this genre?
Don’t give a passing glance at popular genres of the day. The market is fickle. What’s hot one day is cold the next. That makes it easy: write what you want to write. If it doesn’t sell, set it aside and have fun with another genre if you want to. The key is to have fun at what you do. Don’t ever, ever, ever write for market: write what you want to write. If what you want to write happens to coincide with the popular genre of the day, then Bob’s your uncle. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it, don’t focus on it, and don’t pay attention to it because you’ll regret it. Write what you want to write. (I had to say that three times. Even then, it’s not enough.)
4) What is the most outrageous thing you have done in the name of research?
I scared up some cash, went to Cyprus in the Mediterranean in ’07, hired a British sailing crew, and asked them to let me throw myself off their sailing vessel while at full sail so I could understand what Jonah felt like to be thrown off a ship in the middle of the ocean. It was a heck of a lot of fun. They actually multi-tasked, and filmed it from a distance for a “Man Overboard” drill for their sailing company. The Jonah book, by the way, is yet to be written; I’ve compiled over a decade of research. I currently volunteer as a sailor during the summer with the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Michigan. I work on an 1811 recreation of a tall ship sloop called The Friend’s Good Will. I’m learning what it is to be a sailor; the Jonah book is told from the perspective of the sailors.
5) What did you connect most with while writing The Sentinels of Andersonville?
I connected most with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of the Good Samaritan. Somehow, I got hold of this quote while writing Sentinels: He said, of that parable, “the first question that the priest asked…was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” That quote stayed with me all through the writing of the book, and I included it in the Afterword. It is Dance’s motivation, Emery’s motivation, and Violet’s motivation.
6) What is your favorite underappreciated novel to read?
Oh, what a great question! Hands down, it’s True Grit, by Charles Portis. If you’ve seen both film versions, you’ve seen a good movie, but if you’ve not read the book, you’ve not encountered some of the most brilliant writing that came from American soil. I try to read it every few years, to sit at the feet of one of least-heard-of Great American Novelists of our time.
7) How has publishing changed your approach to writing?
Another great question! First, a lament: I long for the days when things were like a scene from the movie “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (a book I haven’t read, by the way, because I found the title off-puttingly trendy—not the first mistake I’ve made in overlooking a great read); in the scene, editor and author were in this book-strewn office, talking about publishing and writing, and I felt a sharp pang when I saw that: such times are no more. Publishing no longer affords for that time-honored, let’s-sit-and-chat relationship. May we light a candle in requiem for those by-gone days. I place the loss of publishing relationships like that at the feet of the Internet, of course. But! (lament over): It is what it is, as mama says, and while the state of publishing is not what this old relic desires, it does not change what I am called to do, what I want to do, and since handsome is as handsome does, this Handsome is gonna write no matter how she finds the current state of publishing. I’ll write if no one reads, and leave a manuscript on my desk for someone to find.
8) What have you learned about book marketing since your first published novel, “The Brother’s Keeper” (2003), and what advice would you give aspiring authors?
I was published at the beginning of the seismic change in traditional publishing, so I remember when it used to be far more the publisher’s responsibility for book marketing; now, it isn’t so. It’s far more on the author, a predicament I’m not at all happy about; a writer is supposed to write, not be consumed with marketing. I go back to word origin when I get confused about roles: editors…edit. Publishers…publish. Agents…agent. Writers…write! And marketers market, doggone it, and no one will convince me otherwise. (Don’t mind me: I’m a congenial curmudgeon when it comes to marketing. I’m not a blogger, or platformer, and resent every minute those things take away from writing.) That said: it’s a new day, a new ball park, one we did not ask for but must deal with, and I suppose we best learn how to operate therein, right? My advice to aspiring authors, then, is the same for myself: if you’re one of those writers without a marketing bone, then pray that God will show you what you’re supposed to do in this day and age. Look for wisdom, and expect that God will also give you grace to go where you need to go, do what you need to do, even if it’s the bare minimum. We should at least do the least we can. I have a website. I occasionally post on my Author Page on Facebook. That’s good enough for me. (I do need to post more, ha ha…) What do we tell our kids? We tell them Proverbs 3:6—“In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” God will guide you in this brambly thicket, if you ask.
9) What do you like to do outside of writing?
Lots of glorious things! I love to knit. Read. Watch movies. Shop at used book stores. I love to bake. Travel. Do puzzles. Hang out with people. I love to eat, drink, and be merry. I love watching football with my husband. I love it when my kids come over. (Two are out of the house, one is still home.) I love to hosts shindigs. And I love to engage in the occasional shenanigan. (Whatever it is.)
10) How closely do you relate writing with your relationship with Christ? How do these two things coincide?
“For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:36. As a Christian, I am unseparated from Christ in everything I do, including writing. Sometimes a strong God message shows up in what I write; sometimes it doesn’t—it may be there, but not overtly so. When I write, I give God something to work with. I give Him material to use in the life of another, or to use in only my own life—and that’s good enough, too. When I write, I release the goods on the inside to the outside; that’s doing what He has called me to do. It’s very important for writers to remember that they are never responsible for results. We must never play the part of the Holy Spirit; how do we know what sort of effect our words will have on the world? We don’t. And we must never presume anything. We must only trust God to do what He will with them. Maybe seeds will be planted. Maybe they will be watered. And maybe they won’t. C’est la vie! The important thing is to write, and write with joy, and trust all results to the hands of the Creator, who knows what He is doing.
Wasn’t that fun? Special thanks to Mrs. Groot for taking the time while battling the flu to answer my questions and impart her wisdom. Give her a follow on social media, and go buy her book, The Sentinels of Andersonville.
Thanks for reading. See you next week!