This year Novel Matters is asking the question, “Why does the novel matter?” We’re asking this of ourselves, and of you our readers. We’ve also asked a few special authors to tell us about the novels they write, how they go about doing that, and why the novel matters to them.
We’re pleased to present author Rosslyn Elliott, whose debut novel Fairer Than Morning (Book 1 in The Saddler’s Legacy trilogy, published by Thomas Nelson), was the 2011 Laurel Award Winner, and the Lifeway Fiction Favorite Reads of 2011.
Novel Matters: Rosslyn, your debut novel, Fairer Than Morning, is a fictional account based on a real historical family. What was the seed of your story idea for this novel?
Rosslyn Elliott: Fairer than Morning, and the other books in the trilogy, is based on the Hanby family who lived in central Ohio and worked on the Underground Railroad before the American Civil War. I found their story completely by God’s grace and will, when I was living in Westerville, Ohio, about six years ago. I visited a small house museum, Hanby House, at just the right moment in my life, when I was beginning my work as a novelist. Heaven basically dropped the heroic, inspiring story of the family in my lap, and said: “Here you go. Go tell it on the mountain.” And so the past six years of my writing life have been devoted to these three generational novels about the Hanbys that together form an epic family saga based around the life of William Hanby. He left a legacy for so many people because of the suffering he survived in his youth, and the way he let it shape him and temper his character into faithful compassion.
NM: Your story is set on a farm in Ohio, and in Pittsburgh. What role do the settings play in your story?
RE: The settings are important, but so is the seasonal weather. One of my favorite aspects of Fairer Than Morning is the way the weather plays into the story’s mood. The location was based on reality, because my story is informed by historical fact and real people. But the timing of the weather was my own choice, and the weather is what really brings these settings to life in this particular novel. Ohio in winter is a completely different place from Ohio in late spring! Both Ohio and Pennsylvania could be very harsh places to live for those who didn’t have protection from the elements, and very little is more gorgeous and moving than the arrival of spring after the brutality of winter. And what keeps that from being cliché is the research and the detail that informs specifically how the seasons change, not just a generic flowers-blooming, ice-melting kinda thing.
NM: What did you learn about writing working on Fairer Than Morning?
RE: From the ambivalent response of editors to my first (unpublished) novel, I learned how very tight and condensed a plot has to be in order to create that page-turning interest.
NM: I don’t’ know a writer who doesn’t have at least one novel locked away in a dark drawer. And thank God for them, because they teach us. So, what was it about that first novel, from your perspective, that needed to change?
RE: My first novel had four points-of-view, and tended to come across as two parallel plots, which sapped the forward-moving energy. So when I chose to begin my next novel, Fairer Than Morning, with only two points of view, I found that it was much, much easier to sustain the unified momentum of the plot through fewer points of view. This helped greatly when I returned to that apprentice novel and rewrote it by condensing to two points of view and resituating the two main characters to be present at all major plot events. However, that second rewrite was quite a mess, as I struggled to get the novel out of its original form, and it required a third complete rewrite before that novel became Sweeter Than Birdsong, and was published this year as the second novel in my series.
NM: And after your struggle, what do you hope your readers might carry away from reading Fairer Than Morning?
RE: I would love for readers to find that the novel stays with them because it s a powerful story of forgiveness. Will Hanby is a constant example to me, not because he’s perfect, but because he is able to forgive through his faith some evils that most of us would find very difficult to forgive. And I think that
we sometimes see pat descriptions of forgiveness in inspirational novels, but the real challenge is to show that intense struggle with anger or even hatred for those who have seriously hurt us, and then to capture the exact moment at which Grace, not our own goodness, enters into our hearts.
NM: Let’s change gears just a bit, and talk about the writing process. Which comes first for you, plot, characters, themes, or something else?
RE: Themes, I think. But that depends what you mean by first. Themes are my highest priority and the greatest pleasure for me as a writer. But what do I attack first, as I struggle through the first draft? Plot. To me, a good plot has to have the right blend of forward motion and reflection, and that means figuring out how the shape of the conflict and action is going to play into the characterization, which in turn creates the themes. Writing novels would be much easier if all we had to do was write characters and coin phrases. A meandering but beautifully-written story would be a tempting trap for those who love words as much as I do. Accordingly, my first goal is to avoid that trap and make sure that I have been sufficiently interesting and told a story that is well-paced and worth my reader’s time.
NM: I love the beautifully written, meandering novel. Truly do. But I see your point; literary fiction isn’t burning up the bestselling charts as a rule. So when it comes to creating that faster plot, do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel-your-way-through writer?
RE: I’m an outliner, all the way, because otherwise I fear I won’t finish. But my initial outline is pretty sketchy, and I revise it as I go. I’ve had whole families enter the plot that weren’t part of Plan A.
NM: It’s a fun yet surreal feeling when a character shows up on his/her own in the midst of writing isn’t it? Okay. Life isn’t always writing. You need a break from it sometimes. What non-writing things do you do that help you be a better writer?
RE: Working with horses and teaching children are the things that help me, because they keep me grounded and other-focused. Besides, these activities also calm me down, which was a lifesaver when I was on deadline.
NM: Ah, deadlines. The craving and bane of the writing life. On the one hand, every writer wants one because it means you’re being published. On the other hand, it can feel like you’ve been set on a treadmill and you have to keep pace or risk losing that contract. Publishing is a strange place for a writer to pilot. How are you navigating the changing tides of publishing?
RE: What I have learned, in the rough and tumble fulfillment of my first contract, is that I’m a writer first and I will never survive spiritually as a writer if I have to be a full-time marketer. Fashionable as it may be to assert one’s ability to handle marketing, I simply do not like self-promotion. There, I said it. And so to survive as a writer, I need to focus on writing, on what I love, on ideas and how they can encourage people and help to fight the good fight in this fallen world. If that means that I make different choices than some of the writers who are more marketing focused, so be it.
NM: Self promotion is so difficult, isn’t it? A “grit your teeth” aspect of writing life. But, even though you’re on the quiet side of promotion, you’re doing some stuff to get the word out, right?
RE: I do what I can to connect in an authentic way by social media. I’ve met some wonderful friends and readers through social media. But if my work someday turns into an Emily Dickinson-like set of crumpled papers in my desk, I would rather that fate than lose my soul as a writer and become just another squeaky cog in the gears of the publishing industry. My attitude now is: I will do what I can to get out the word about my books. But what I’ve observed, after all is said and done, is that breaking out into bestseller status often happens because of Providential occurrences that have little to do with self-marketing and everything to do with the content of the novel.
NM: I love the quote, “A bestselling book is a book that happens to be selling well.” It’s so mysterious why one book zooms off to the stratosphere, while another, equally well done book doesn’t. Okay, we’ve got a handle on your approach to promotion. Tell me, what is the worst piece of writing advice ever offered to you and why?
RE: “Write to a strict formula.” Strict formula stinks. Authorial knowledge of how good narrative works is essential. But when one or two people have tried to tell me “readers won’t like this unusual thing about your story because they want this canned, cardboard hero and heroine instead,” that advice was dead wrong for the type of story I write. It’s important to be receptive to constructive criticism, but also not to underestimate your reader.
NM: Wow. That is bad advice. Excellent answer, no matter what genre you write. Okay, on the flip side of the coin, what is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?
RE: Write what you love, and do it to the absolute best of your ability, always assuming that you can learn more and do better. And don’t worry too much about whether you publish it traditionally. Place the quality of the work first, and if it’s meant to be, the other will follow. But don’t accept any less than your best work, which is much, much better than you think. If you’re a real writer, your work will never be good enough in your eyes. You will always be set on self-education and how you can get better, not on comparing yourself to other writers.
NM: Agreed. Self-education is critical. And ongoing in a writer’s life. I know you’re a reader, all writers are, so tell me, which novels have informed you as a writer over the years? In what ways have they influenced you?
RE: Novels that affected me greatly as a human being are also the ones that influenced me as a writer. I’ve never been one to admire the style of a novel detached from its content, or to think to myself: “I’d really like to write in a similar style to that great novelist.” (Though I thought it about Shakespeare more than once. Ha!) I’ve always admired the great lyrical poets most, stylistically. The novelists, I admired more for their virtues, their themes, and their sympathies, which is why my favorite is probably Dickens. I’ve also really appreciated works by William Dean Howells, such as The Rise of Silas Lapham, and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Dostoevesky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov opened my eyes to how deeply a novelist can look into a character’s spirit. All of these novels appeal to my conviction that novels can play a role in exposing evil and offering hope.
NM: Amazing. I’m willing to admit Dostoevsky gives me a headache. I mean, I get why he’s great—totally. But wow. Good for you. Okay, so if you could sit down with any writer in history or living today, who would it be and why?
RE: Dickens. I’d love to see how he talked about the poor in person. Was he one of those people who got tears in his eyes when his sympathy was roused? If so, that would make me feel better about my own propensity to get emotional when I talk about people and situations that have moved me, especially examples of charity and goodness. Maybe Dickens and I could both be weepers-of-joy together and he wouldn’t mind.
NM: Yeah, seems like he’d be a guy that would welcome a fellow weeper of joy. He had spent some time in the boot blacking factory while his father sat in debtor's prison, so I'm sure he was full of genuine empathy. Rosslyn, the theme of Novel Matters this year is the question why does the novel matter? How do you answer that question?
RE: We need to know true stories about how people have lived out their faith through history. Almost all the good faith stories and everyday heroes have been lost in the ceaseless postmodern barrage of negativity about Christian hypocrisy and legalism. We have many, many heroes of the faith who may not be household names, but whose stories are tremendously uplifting. Their stories need to be told in a way that ignites our passion for us to imitate their sincere and courageous example. Ordinary history doesn’t do that. Only novels do it. Novels make history come alive, and show us how we are still living “history” every day. In a nation that is rapidly forgetting its history, where schools are hardly even teaching it anymore, the rescue of history in our hearts and minds is an urgent mission for the historical novelist. Novels matter because they can create long, complex arcs of theme and symbol that depend on the passage of time to reach their full meaning. The passage of time is the greatest, most inevitable of moral teachers for every human being, and that’s why novels are the most moral (or immoral) of art forms.
NM: Thank you, Rosslyn, for an excellent interview. It’s been great getting to know you.
We are giving away a signed copy of Fairer Than Morning. One name will be drawn from those who leave a Comment on this post. The winner will be announced tomorrow afternoon.