So19 talks with SARAH McCOY

One of the gifts of historical fiction is the way it illuminates forgotten corners of the past. Beaming the light of the novelist’s imagination on what historians overlook and documents don’t record, it allows us to see individuals from times gone by not just as participants in their own eras but also as rich and thought-provoking inspirations for our contemporary journeys. Sarah McCoy’s luminous novel The Mapmaker’s Children (Crown, May 2015) does all of that and more. In one of her two intertwining narratives, McCoy depicts Sarah Brown, the daughter of abolitionist John Brown, responding to wrenching losses—the execution of her father after the failed raid at Harper’s Ferry and the news that an extended illness has left her unable to bear children—by using her gifts and resourcefulness to carry on the urgent work of the Underground Railroad. McCoy juxtaposes Brown’s story with the narrative of Eden Anderson, another talented woman who must also reimagine her life after infertility alters her most deeply cherished plans. As the two stories interweave and in moments overlap, they offer not just a suspenseful read but also a moving reflection on the many and diverse ways women make change, create family, and forge enduring legacies. Sarah McCoy is the author of The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico and the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestseller The Baker’s Daughter, which was also a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee. McCoy’s work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Real Simple, and The Millions, and she has taught writing at Old Dominion University and the University of Texas at El Paso. To learn more about the author, visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter; you can also view a fascinating bevy of images relating to the novel on Sarah's The Mapmaker's Children board on Pinterest. Society Nineteen is delighted to talk with Sarah McCoy about the transformation of fact into fiction, the power of story to shape our lives, and of course, the 19th century. —SF

So19: Though she comes richly to life in the novel, you mention in your author’s note that you were not attempting “to write a biographical account of Sarah Brown.” How much documentation on the real Sarah Brown was available, and how did you find yourself diverging from the facts about the historical person? Is anything actually known about her romantic life, or was that a story element you developed for the book?

SM: There was shockingly little documentation on Sarah Brown. I didn’t take this as a setback or as a reason not to write her story. A gauntlet was thrown down, and I took up the challenge.

A common thread throughout my work is the telling of the untold story. There’s the writer axiom: write what you know. But I’ve found that I’m most inspired by learning what I don’t know. Sarah Brown was one of those historical enigmas. I learned about her and from her life narrative. I was able to use the few facts I had as the structural beams. Fiction was the mortar, bricks, and paint to build my story “house” in New Charlestown.

Desperate to find information, I traveled to Massachusetts, West Virginia, and California looking for Sarah Brown. The photographs I took of her paintings, included in the back of The Mapmaker’s Children, are the only JPGs in existence. I bought the single remaining pamphlet from the Saratoga Historical Museum titled The Californians: After Harper’s Ferry: California Refuge for John Brown’s Family. Ninety percent was about Salmon, Annie, and Ellen Brown’s lineages.

So Sarah’s romantic storyline is based on a handful of factual “beams”: 1) she never married, 2) she suffered from dysentery as a child, the scars from which she carried into her adult life, and 3) every person on earth falls in love at least once. The townspeople, like New Charlestown, were constructed from my imagination. Freddy Hill and Sarah’s romance was wholly my innovation—because I thought she deserved a darn good love story.

So19: You depict the women’s experience of the raid at Harpers Ferry from its immediate aftermath all the way through the ways it changes their lives and characters long-term. The fear and losses they suffered were so searing, and the tension between power and powerlessness in their lives so fascinating.

SM: Indeed, that was absolutely one of the notes I aimed to strike for readers. I’m so glad I achieved that for you! Sarah Brown was part of an era when women were given very few privileges while expected to perform significant functions in the family unit: procreator, nursemaid, lover, protector, teacher, and so much more under the title of Mother-Wife. Their domestic duties and personal talents often went overlooked in antiquity's retelling. They were simply written as the female counterpart to a dominant male. This did not diminish their power in changing history, however. It simply made their stories yet-untold. I thought it about time one woman was remembered for the influential part she played in our nation’s emancipation.

So19: Your previous novel, The Baker’s Daughter, also has a historical element, in that case set in the 1940s. How was it different to craft a fictional narrative within the history of the 19th rather than 20th century?

SM: My method of research wasn’t too different for 1859 Virginia versus 1945 Germany. Both are bygone cultures that required me to be a story archeologist—digging into history’s dirt, the leftover bits, the underground secrets—to collect shards of gold heirlooms nearly buried forever.

But I must admit, I fell hard for the 19th century. It’s just far enough removed that we don’t have any members of it remaining, and yet close enough that we still see signs of its influence on our modern world. This forces authors and readers to rely predominantly on artifacts and theories to reconstruct the narrative zeitgeist. It’s a wonderful period for a novelist to work in, and I do believe I’ll be returning again!

So19: Again like The Baker’s Daughter, this novel alternates between two time periods—here, one starting in 1859 and one in 2010—and two women’s narratives. What do you think draws you to this kind of dual or juxtaposed structure? Was it difficult to move between the two voices?

SM: Writing a dual narrative in historical-contemporary hybrid form seems to be my organic way of processing whatever fictional worlds I’m working in. History seen through this kind of Alice in Wonderland looking-glass filter of the present. I’m riveted by how the people of the past can reach across generations and impact the present; how mysteries of the present have their solutions in the past; how issues we face and decisions we make today are strikingly similar to ones our forbearers made with good and bad outcomes. I’m spellbound by this interplay—by the impact of Sarah Brown on us, the contemporary Eden Andersons of today.

I think it’s important we don’t just read and compartmentalize the past as an “interesting story.” I want my readers to see that the history is a key, a manual, a lesson guidebook for us to learn and implement change in our present lives.

I saw these two women, Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson, as having a conversation across time. As the author, I was merely the stenographer to these two powerful voices. I didn’t find it difficult to move between them. Quite the opposite—I found it energizing! Just as an audience member might find it energizing to hear a conversation between two celebrities on stage.

So19: As the novel opens, we meet two women who find themselves (actually or just apparently) denied the ability to bear children. In its harrowing way, that forces each to explore other, perhaps less conventional ways of creating family, purpose and legacy. Was that theme in your mind from the beginning, or did it emerge as you wrote? Why do you think it spoke to you?

SM: The Mapmaker's Children began in the contemporary narrative. I heard a sentence spoken by a woman, Eden Anderson, "A dog is not a child.” It was the way she said it that baffled me: confident, angry, and yet, deeply wounded by the very words she spoke. I couldn't shush her no matter what I did. So, yes, the story was sparked by the theme of family. When I discovered that Sarah Brown never married and opened a school for orphans in California, I thought it curious. She lived in a time that virtually demanded marriage, and, she came from a religious background that championed offspring.

Family dynamics are essential the heart of all storytelling. Stories are inheritances passed through the generations that know no social prejudice or economic bias. Each family has its saga and may freely share. History books record the facts but the voices and hearts of people are echoed in story form. So, of course, the dynamic between those characters will infuse the material.

In The Mapmaker’s Children, I specifically wanted to tackle the issue of nurturing and defining a family. As a global community, I believe we’ve allowed a worrisome stereotype to become the high mark of good family modality. We’ve constructed a rigid mold for what a happy family looks like and anything different is somehow…less.

It weighed heavily on me, and I began to ask questions: Can you be a devoted parent without physically bearing children? Does a loving, fulfilling family have to consist of children? Does being a parent only apply to humans or could one be a parent/nurturer of animals or a righteous cause? Who wrote the prototypical happily-ever-after and might each of us have the power to rewrite it?

I noticed that a majority of my friends (men and women, couples to singles) were uncomfortable—even disgruntled—by my questions in group settings. Yet in private, they admitted that they internally battled these very constraints. Again, it perplexed me. Why weren’t we able to have an open conversation about this? Why were people afraid to challenge the norm? And what happened to those who didn’t attain the set parent-child-family vision—was their family and legacy not as good as those who did?

Being an author, I sought answers through my characters. I learned from Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson. I changed through my journey with them, and I pray readers pick up The Mapmaker’s Children willing to ponder the questions and possibly discover keys to opening their own hearts too.

So19: The 19th century narrative has so many rich female characters—Suley, Annie, and Nancy Santi among others. There are also historical figures from the century, notably Louisa May Alcott and Mary Artemisia Lathbury, hovering right beyond the edges of the page. Did you have a personal favorite among these women, historical or invented?

SM: Weren’t they the finest women! All of them were so unique in their historical impacts on the 19th century and on generations of women and men today. I couldn’t pick a favorite if I tried. Each inspired me in her own powerful way. Did you have a favorite?

So19: I’m not sure I can choose either; Miss Lathbury’s offstage presence fascinated me, though, and as someone who loves art and artifacts I have a soft spot for Nancy Santi—but nowhere near as many possessions!

Moving on: I loved your Author’s Note comment that “the most satisfying part of mapping any characters…is the emotional journey taken beside them as they discover their independence and develop into stronger people.” Could you talk a bit about that—about maps as both artifacts and metaphor in the book, and fiction itself as a way to “map” our lives?

SM: In my estimation, narratives are the ultimate guide maps. They help us discover new territories of the mind and spirit. Reading in general forces us to expand past the limits of our current instant information society. There’s the quiet ability to hear our own thoughts even as we read the thoughts of others. We’re encouraged to stop, if so compelled, put down our books, and take side trips to find out more about the real-life events, ideas, people, and places presented in the fiction. Isn’t that the basic function of a map—empowering us with the information necessary to decide what direction to take? Whether or not we see it as such, we are each on a journey. Every day is another step toward life’s destination. We’re leaving a marked trail even if we don’t immediately see our own footprints.

On a tangible level, maps have always held a sense of lore for me. They are entire communities, living and gone, captured for posterity by a mapmaker’s legend. As a little girl, I used to stare at atlases, put my finger on a mark, and dream of what the people in that town were doing that very minute. I’d make up stories about the neighborhoods, the mayors, the schoolteachers, and woods where children like myself played. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in those daydreams or how much joy I gained from knowing that the places existed beyond my imagination—that they were real out there, even if the stories I’d crafted were fictitious.

Perhaps this was a product of my military upbringing. My dad was a career Army officer. I was born in Ft. Knox, Kentucky, but lived in various military stations across the United States and abroad in Germany. My mother’s family is rooted in Puerto Rico. So traveling and following a map around the globe was standard practice. It’s ironic considering I'm a notorious homebody. As much as I love exploring unknown territories, I love my old comforts even more. I’m happiest in my writing office where I can reflect on the places I’ve been. When I’m charting out a foreign setting, I’m too busy experiencing all the sights and wonders as Sarah McCoy, the author. Only when I return to my routine can I can give my full attention to mapping the characters in their fiction-scapes.

So19: Could you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now? Whether in your next book or beyond, do you think you might return to the 19th century?

SM: I’m continuing to book tour for The Mapmaker’s Children this summer: online blog visits like this one, Goodreads Group chats, feature essays, bookstore events, library summer author series, and Skype book clubs. I’ll be heading out to literary festivals across the country in the fall.

When I’m not traveling, I’m hunkering down in my writing office working on my next novel. I don’t typically breathe a word about the subject matter of my book babies until they are ready to be hatched. What I can share is that it’s absolutely historical fiction and my main character was born in, dare I bait you, the 19th century. But the location is quite different from anywhere I’ve ever gone before. To quote my husband, “The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico was 1960s Puerto Rico. The Baker’s Daughter, WWII Germany. The Mapmaker’s Children, Civil War Virginia. And now this? After 17 years together, you’d think I’d know you.”

Don’t blame me; I’m just the writer. I go where the characters direct me, and this next journey has me exploring the most exotic, ancient territories yet. I hope to be able to share more soon, but what I can say exclusively here is that my next book’s characters left a mighty imprint on the 19th century and deserve to have their yet-untold story told.

From left: Annie, Mary Anne, and Sarah Brown, circa 1853,