Earlier today, I shared my five-star review of Erin Lindsay McCabe’s wonderful book, I Shall Be Near to You. (I hope you’ll add it to your To Be Read list, and enter our giveaway to win an autographed copy!) When I finished reading, I immediately found myself wanting to learn more about Erin so I reached out to her on Twitter, and a long series of tweets turned into emails back and forth. During the course of our conversations, I sent her a list of questions which she gamely answered.
And so, without further ado, here’s a little Q&A with Erin Lindsay McCabe!
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Chico, California, which is exactly what you think of when you think of a stereotypical college town. My husband used to describe it as being in the middle of nowhere, but it never felt that way to me growing up. It’s the kind of town where I could probably still walk into the feed store and they would remember me, even though I haven’t lived there for 15 years. I was a band nerd (I played clarinet) and a drama freak, and I was in 4-H all the way through school (I raised rabbits and learned to sew, quilt, and cross-stitch). I read voraciously when I wasn’t riding my horse and spent summers swimming in the creek with my friends. It was idyllic. At lot of details gleaned from my childhood made it into I Shall Be Near To You.
I studied literature and history in college, at University of California, Santa Cruz where I was one of those weirdos who actually liked writing papers. I was always writing — I kept a journal from the time I was seven years old up until I got married and started teaching and I was an avid pen pal letter writer through high school. I wrote poetry and stories and I knew that someday I wanted to write a novel, I just didn’t know what about. It was actually in my final semester at UC Santa Cruz that I learned about the real Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and the other women soldiers who fought in the Civil War, though I had no idea at the time it was going to grow into a novel.
I got my teaching credential at California State University, Chico, and taught high school English for seven years. I was working so hard, especially at the beginning, but every Friday my husband and I would go to Borders and do creative writing exercises with each other in the café. I think that was really where the discipline of writing regularly started. A couple years into teaching, I started working on a historical romance novel, kind of as a dare from my husband. It’s not a good book, but it taught me that I could write a novel-length story. It taught me what it felt like to keep at a story until it was finished. While I was revising that project, Rosetta came to me one night as I was going to bed and as soon as I heard her voice speaking the first lines of the first chapter, I knew I had to write her story. I had already been thinking about grad school and MFA programs, but it wasn’t until I started writing I Shall Be Near To You that I felt I had something worth submitting. I had about 100 pages of the novel written when I started at St. Mary’s College of California. By the end of that first year, I had a full draft written. Then it was two more years of revising and editing until the book sold, which has been a dream come true.
What informed your decision to write historical fiction?
It was never actually a conscious choice. I had always gravitated toward historical stories — Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, and so on. But I’ll read pretty much anything, so it took me a long time to realize historical fiction was my favorite genre. I just love learning about how people really lived and that’s so often missing from history texts, just as women’s history is often missing. Historical fiction feels like the place that really gives everyday people — everyday women — a voice. Then too, when I try to write contemporary settings, I feel like my perspective is just too narrow or limited somehow, like I’m just putting myself on the paper instead of creating a character. I need some distance from the characters I love and the stories I want to tell. As a reader (and writer) I want to be transported somewhere else, which feels much easier in historical fiction.
How did you come up with the title for I Shall Be Near To You?
I didn’t actually come up with the title, my agent did. The book had two other titles before this one, and as the story changed, those titles no longer fit. The second to last title was taken from a passage in Ruth (which Will reads to Rosetta in the novel), and my agent and I liked the Biblical feel of it, and wanted to keep that quality to the title. He came across a letter from Union soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, a week before he was killed at the first battle of Bull Run. It’s a gorgeous, heart-breaking letter, that I first read (or heard read) when I was 13 and watched Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. I actually dug up the journal entry where I wrote about visiting the battlefield at Bull Run for the first time when I was 18, and I mentioned that letter and its impact on me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the beautiful sentiments of love and loss and longing that Ballou articulates in his letter, and I had modeled Jeremiah’s letter to Rosetta after it. Toward the end of the letter, Ballou tells his wife, “I shall be near you, always. Always.” It seemed like such a fitting expression of what the book was really about, and when my agent came to me with the suggestion to use that as a title, but tweaked to sound more Biblical or hymnal, it was an immediate yes from me.
What inspired you to create Rosetta and Jeremiah?
The real Rosetta went into the Union Army alone, but many of the women who served, went with husbands or fiancés or family members. One of those women is quoted as having said her reason for enlisting was that “my husband is all I have in this world.” That just resonated for me on so many levels — it was literally true — women couldn’t own property or have bank accounts — but I also felt like the only way I could imagine doing such a thing was for love. It seemed like such a unique experience, for women to serve right alongside their husbands in this war that tore this country apart and put it back together and continues to define us. I really wanted to capture that kind of love and devotion and sacrifice. And I’m a sucker for a love story so I really wanted to tell one.
If you were asked to rewrite I Shall Be Near To You from a different character’s perspective, whose would you choose and why?
I would choose Will in a heartbeat, even though it would be a very different story. Will is my favorite character in the book besides Rosetta. I just love him, even though he didn’t do what I originally wanted him to do (I can’t really say more because it’s a total spoiler). I felt like I knew him from the instant he arrived on the page, but he was keeping secrets from me too. It turns out that I love stories (and characters) with secrets. I daydream about returning to Will for a post-Civil War book…we’ll see if he starts talking to me.
Aside from the Civil War, what other historical periods or events capture your imagination? Would you ever set a novel around any of them?
I am generally fascinated by any Victorian or Edwardian setting. I love pioneer stories. I think what appeals to me about that time is that in many ways it’s surprisingly modern, and there’s all this agitation about women’s role in society (which fascinates me) but it’s still so very different from today. And of course I love that horses are everywhere. I think the absolute most modern I could ever go with my writing is the Roaring Twenties, but at the same time, what I enjoy in writing about an earlier time is I get to focus on a more rural, contemplative, natural setting. Lately, since I learned about Deborah Samson and Sybil Luddington, I’ve been kind of intrigued by the Revolutionary War and even stories about the colonies (probably because they’re basically pioneer stories too). But after writing I Shall Be Near To You, I really wanted a break from writing about war. I’m not sure I could do another Civil War book with battle scenes, to be honest.
Describe your perfect writing conditions.
I work best when I have a routine, a word count goal, and a chunk of time – ideally I would go for a walk and then have at least three hours, five days a week, with a goal of 1000 words a day. I almost always write to music — I create a playlist of songs that capture the mood and tone of the book, of the characters, so that’s definitely part of my perfect conditions. Beyond that, chocolate and a really good chai latte. Oh, and my dog and at least one cat to keep me company.
Tell us about a typical day in your life.
My typical day often begins with my son waking up and calling me into his room to cuddle. He’s 3 1/2 and I love that time because I know it won’t last forever. Once we’ve eaten and gotten dressed, we feed the animals. That’s one of my other favorite times of day — getting outside almost first thing and throwing scratch for the chickens, and hay for the horses and goats. It’s quiet and peaceful. Then I try to linger outside as long as possible. My favorite is if I can get my son to go for an “adventure walk” with me down the dirt road past our house or out in the wooded corner of the horses’ pasture. I get lots of ideas out there — usually bits of description — how the cottonwood trees have silvery leaves, what a red-tailed hawk looks like as it dives, and so on, but also the beginnings of scenes or snippets of dialog. The rest of the morning and afternoon is sort of a mix of answering emails and hopping on Facebook and Twitter and doing chores and playing with my son and sneaking in some reading. Then we feed the animals in the evening and either I’ll head to the coffee shop to steal a few hours to write or I’ll ride my horses or I’ll go for a run. The physical activity kind of feeds the writing, I’ve learned, so I really try to give myself that gift, and the writing is a gift too. Especially if I don’t ride and write, I get really grumpy. After dinner and bedtime for my son — basically once the house is quiet and everyone is asleep — I write into the wee hours (and sometimes I even read!).
And finally, what are you reading right now?
I just finished Road To Reckoning (which I loved), and Americanah (which I had mixed feelings about), and a horsey romance Jumped (which was a lot of fun). Next up is either The Untold by Courtney Collins or The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart.
Is there anything you’d like to know about Erin Lindsay McCabe, or about I Shall Be Near to You? I will make sure that Erin sees them!