Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Book Club Interview with Siri Mitchell & Aussie Giveaway

My Book Club's September selection was Siri Mitchell's Love's Pursuit. It is a poignant tale of tender love and God's grace and is highly recommended to other book clubs. Siri graciously answered our questions and I wanted to share her insights into Love's Pursuit, writing and much more. Be warned there are some spoilers if you haven't read Love's Pursuit yet.

Love's Pursuit is available now from Bethany House.


Siri:~ First, thank you so much for choosing to read my book. I hope the time you spent between its pages let you immerse yourself in a different time and place. I also hope that it was thought provoking. Thanks too for forwarding all of these questions. I loved answering them because they made me think about the book in a different way, helped me to understand the ‘why’s of some of the things that I wrote (read on for surprising revelations!), and be more precise about what it was that I was trying to say (which can actually be very difficult for a novelist!) So, without further ado:

‘Love’s Pursuit’ is quite different from your other books to date, how challenging was it to write something with such a historical style of language, compared to the more contemporary language used in your other novels?

It’s always difficult to know exactly how true to the time to be. I agonized over A Constant Heart. Just how ‘Shakespearian’ did the characters have to sound, etc. I hardly used any contractions in that book in order to convey the more formal speech patterns. Love’s Pursuit was a bit more relaxed in terms of formality. And I had trouble in my next book (She Walks in Beauty) not making the dialogue sound too contemporary.

The most difficult part in writing historicals is limiting my words and my metaphors. In Love’s Pursuit, for example, I was writing about people who lived in a wilderness, who had limited interaction with the world at large. They didn’t have many past experiences to draw on. Think of things like describing a color. Turquoise is out. Garnets are probably out. As are emeralds. I definitely couldn’t use ‘sparkle like a diamond’ or ‘a pearl of a moon’. Imagine never having heard the sound of a piano or violin (which is something I tried to convey in one of the scenes at the Wrights’ house.) How do you describe the sound of a bird? Or the shape of clouds? And could thunder really sound like a cannon? (Maybe to people in Boston where there were cannons, but probably not to the people in Stoneybrooke. It probably just sounded like…thunder J) Most comparisons to machinery or the workings of such things were too modern to use. If the truth be told, one of the reasons I had Susannah be familiar with Boston was so that I could bring in some references and metaphors having to do with the sea.

Writing in contemporary language has its own problems. It’s always hard to know which words in current use will be later be seen as dated. ‘Groovy’ is pretty much tied to the 60s. ‘Hot!’ could also be ‘Cool!’ depending on the decade. Any references to popular culture will quickly date a book, but that’s also part of the appeal of contemporary stories – we relate to them so easily. The rhythms of modern speech, however, are much easier to come by.

One of the things I found challenging was the Puritan’s belief that one is best served by being busy all the time and that to rest during the day is squandering what God gives us, particularly when I spent a whole rainy Saturday curled up with this book! What kind of imprint did this part of the Puritan’s life make on yours?

I’m sorry I made you sin!

Honestly? I thought to myself, ‘What a bunch of hog-swallop! Those poor, deceived people!’ As a wife, mother, writer, daughter, and sister. Housekeeper, cook, taxi driver, grocery shopper, I feel like I deserve the breaks I take. And frankly, there aren’t enough of them! I went to an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum lately on ‘The Art of Invention.’ They delved into the creative life of famous inventors. One of them came up with some of his best ideas floating on a lake near his house, on his back, cigar in mouth, staring up at the stars. I think when people are ‘doing nothing,’ they’re actually doing something, whether that something is contemplating theology or working out the solutions to their personal problems. In theory, the Puritan ideal sounds good. Especially as I contemplate raising a teenager (Idle hands, the devil’s workshop, etc.), but in practice, I think we all need to take breaks when we can get them. When else do we have the chance to appreciate the world around us and cultivate a sense of gratitude toward God?

You are quite open at the same time as being subtly tasteful about the intimate lives of the characters in ‘Love’s Pursuit’. While I felt that you handled the writing of those things beautifully, I suspect it has probably drawn a fair amount of criticism for you as well. How do you, as an author, deal with criticism of your work?

I have gotten some ‘Good book, but not for the single woman or teenager’ reviews. What I thought was interesting was how matter-of-fact people were about sexuality back then. It was just an expected part of life. I wanted to convey the idea that some things that we’re prudish about today were not at all looked upon that way back then. Not even by these pious, devout people that we can’t imagine ever doing (let alone enjoying!) such things.

How do I deal with criticism in general? It really depends on what the criticism is. Generally, I know where my books could have been stronger. If a review happens to mention those areas, then what can I say except that I’ll try harder next time. (Case in point: spring 2010’s book is going to be from one POV only. It will also have a happy ending J) Sometimes reviews mention something that surprises me. In those cases, if that comment keeps popping up, then I put in my basket of things to work on, whether it’s a technical issue or whether I just failed to communicate clearly. Sometimes reviewers seem to miss the point entirely. On one website recently, there were a whole host of reviews that criticized this book for completely lacking a Christian message. What else can I do with those but laugh? This is the most Christian book I’ve ever written. The whole point is Grace! Mostly, I just try to remember that everyone who reads my books has the right to have an opinion about them.

I felt very much for the character of Small-hope. It was a bold statement by her husband, Thomas, to buy her such a beautiful coat. The way her story unfolded was wonderful. It made me think of others who need a "red coat" when they feel they should stay in "gray". I am wondering where this character came from or how you found her.

I loved the character of Thomas. I considered, for a while, telling some of the story from his point of view; he saw Small-hope so differently than she viewed herself. But I decided, in the end, that hearing the story from her point of view would be more powerful. In giving her the red coat, I don’t think Thomas saw it as a challenge to her, I think he always saw her whole and he thought that she should have it. I love your statement, Jodie, about people needing a red coat when they feel they should stay in gray. I never really considered that scene from that perspective. But that red coat was such a dilemma for her. Should she stay the person she was or should she reveal herself to the world? It was one of my favorite scenes because Thomas didn’t realize what he was doing and Small-hope literally had to fight herself to accept that free gift. And, as happens when we accept grace, that gift changed everything. I wish I could tell you I set the whole thing up that way, but I didn’t really see it until right this moment.

Some other things I never really meant to write: Daniel as a Christ figure. My editor laughed when I told her I didn’t realize I had written him that way. I also never realized that Small-hope and Susannah were both really grappling with the same problem internally. Apparently this means that I have theme all figured out. (I wish I knew how I did it, because I might try it again some day!)

How I found Small-hope? Slowly. I honestly think she sort of shadowed me until I turned around and saw her. I wanted to have an insider’s and an outsider’s view of the community and she definitely fit that role.

The book was heart wrenching but I enjoyed it very much! What was the inspiration for this story and how did you come up with the names for the characters?

{I’ll answer the names question a bit later on…} My first contract with my publisher was for three historicals based on fashion elements. The first and third book ideas came quickly. A Constant Heart was written about the lead-based face paints Elizabethan women used. She Walks in Beauty (to be released in April) has to do with Victorian-era corsets. But I had to think up a third idea for the middle book. When I was shopping these ideas around, a different publisher said they wanted another American setting.

One of my favorite young adult books is The Witch of Blackbird Pond, set in Puritan New England. And one of the subplots involves an outsider dealing with the dress codes of the Puritans. I thought the dress codes would be interesting to write about. As I thought about creating a story around that, I knew I had to have a character get ‘caught’ wearing the wrong gown which would make the people in her town disbelieve everything they ever knew about her. The story specifics developed from there.

As far as the setting, I didn’t want to write about the Pilgrims (1620s) and I definitely didn’t want to write about the Salem Witch Trials (1690s) I didn’t think I had much to add to those two topics. I did want to use the colony’s Code of Laws which came into effect in the 1640s, but I didn’t want to set it during the period of conflicts with the Native American tribe in the area (1670s). I decided on the 1640s simply because it had what I needed: the Code of Laws and a point in time when the colony was still in its infancy.

Do you think it is a romance or a tragedy?

It’s such a hard question. That’s why I asked you guys! Can it be a tragic romance? That’s what my editor had in mind when he saw the proposal. He said he’d been looking for a good tragic romance. He thought the market was ready for one. So let’s go with that.

How did you come up with the characters names?

The farther back in history you go, the more limited the pool of names becomes. In England, at the end of the 16th century for instance, 72% of the women shared just 10 names: Elizabeth, Anne, Joan, Margaret, Alice, Mary, Agnes, Catherine, Jane, and Dorothy. In my historicals, I really try to be true to the times. For this book, I looked at digitized town and parish census records, ship logs, and other period collections of names. The Puritans had two main naming methods. Often, children were named after their parents (both mother and father). They were also named after people in the Bible (excepting the archangels or any name that Christ was called i.e. Michael, Gabriel, Emmanuel, etc.). Only those in the very strictest of Puritan sects named their children after extreme virtues (Fly-fornication, Search-the-scriptures, Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith, Makepeace, Helpless, No-merit, etc.). Small-hope’s name was one I actually discovered when I was looking through those old records. I thought it would be so sad to carry that name and wondered why anyone would name a child that. Much of her story was based on my imagined answers to those two questions.

Susannah, though not included in our Bible, is a name that would have been familiar to the English. It had long been part of the Roman Catholic Bible (Chapter 13 in their Book of Daniel). Although the Puritans would have had nothing to do with Catholics (they considered the story apocryphal since it had been written in Greek rather than Hebrew), the name had become part of English culture by then. Many artists during the Renaissance used Susannah’s story as inspiration for their art. Daniel is one of the people mentioned in that story. I didn’t start out trying to parallel it, but here’s the story in a nutshell (taken from Wikipedia):


As the story goes, a fair Hebrew wife is falsely accused by lecherous voyeurs. As she bathes in her garden, having sent her attendants away, two lusty elders secretly observe the lovely Susanna. When she makes her way back to her house, they accost her, threatening to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them.

She refuses to be blackmailed, and is arrested and about to be put to death for promiscuity when a young man named Daniel (our Protestant ‘Daniel and the Lion’s Den Daniel) interrupts the proceedings. After being separated, the two men are questioned about details of what they saw, but disagree about the tree under which Susanna supposedly met her lover. The great difference in size between the two trees make the elders' lies plain to all the observers. The false accusers are put to death, and virtue triumphs.


I also decided to have Susannah be named after her mother to illustrate that naming tradition, since we rarely do that today. Another interesting tradition was to keep naming sons after their father until one of them lived past childhood. In the book I have Susannah noting that there had been several sons named John in her family before the baby had been born. In our modern era, we assign individuality to a child even before it’s born. During the Puritan era (and prior to it), child mortality was so common, that a child didn’t really assume an identity (or even their gender) until they were several years old.

Thoroughly enjoyed Love’s Pursuit. I was fascinated how you successfully entwined the different dialogues and views of Susannah and Small-hope without confusing the story or taking away from it. Did you write these at the same time or did you write the story about Susannah and then add Small-hopes thoughts later?

I’m so glad you liked it!

I wrote them at the same time. I wanted the contrast between how Susannah saw the village and how Small-hope saw it and also wanted a sense of immediacy between the two women’s points of view about the same situations. It seemed to work best when I wrote from the two points-of-view at the same time.

The Puritan belief that they must work to gain God's approval was very interesting. How did you research the Puritan church and was it difficult to do so?

I read quite a few books about the Puritans, examined their legal code, and read through court records. Two of my favorite books about them were:

Worldly Saints – The Puritans As They Really Were by Leland Ryken

Good Wives by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

What really surprised me, as I read their own words, is how sweet and sacred the marriage relationship was to them. So many of their leaders were completely and absolutely in love with their wives. The Puritans always believed in spiritual equality, that men and women were equal before the throne of God. That didn’t stop them from assigning men’s work and women’s work, of course, and women never had equal rights under their code of laws, but that idea of spiritual equality was truly radical for their time. They really rescued women from the Catholic bias against the female and the idea that Woman was Man’s downfall.

In some respects, Puritan New England placed women on a more equal footing than they would achieve for several more centuries. Carving a life out of the wilderness was such difficult work that husband and wife viewed each other as teammates. After the Eastern seaboard had been settled and leisure time was more abundant for more families, women retreated to the ‘Ornamental and Pretty Pedestal’ where they stayed for the next 200 years. I suspect there might have been a similar cultural pattern in the settling of Australia.

Through my research, I came to respect the Puritans. They were really quite devout and truly wanted to serve God in every way they could think of. Their tragedy is that they over thought their theology. They just couldn’t believe that God actually loved them. And when you take away God’s love and can’t quite trust in His grace, then you have to come up with some way to make God save you. The Puritans decided they could do that through works.

I was listening to a pastor talk about the Pharisees once. He said that in Biblical times, we would have liked them. They were smart, they were earnest. They were devout. They truly tried to live out their religion the way they understood it. I think the Puritans were a lot like that. They were the intellectuals of their time. They really just wanted to reform the church. They were tired of the focus being on fancy priests’ robes and ornate trappings. They didn’t see the point in repeating meaningless prayers or listening to sermons that had no connection to the reality of life. They thought faith, real faith, had more to offer. They were right, up to a point, but unfortunately, they ran right past it!

What challenged you to write about the Puritan life style particularly the treatment of women? (NOTE: this question was asked several times and in broader terms (why do I write historicals with contemporary issues?); I’ll answer all of them here.)

I think history has so much to offer the modern woman. In reading about our historical sisters, I’ve realized that throughout history, women have shared the same problems. We may have come up with different solutions to solve them, but the core issues remain the same. Inadequacy (She Walks in Beauty), Shame (Love’s Pursuit), Peer Pressure (A Constant Heart), Self-determination (Chateau of Echoes), Belonging (this next book I’m about to start writing).

I’m researching right now for a novel dealing with immigration. I could lift, verbatim, text from anti-immigration speeches and pamphlets and it would sound thoroughly contemporary. The way with deal with ‘Others’ has always been to draw a box around them and label them as sub-standard or different. This has been true from the Jew during the Middle Ages, the Irish during much of Britain’s history, the Italian in 19th century, and, I hate to have to say it, the Hispanic in 21st century America.

Sometimes looking backward through history helps to illuminate our own culture…and in a less aggressive, provocative way.

In this book, I think I’m trying to say that, like the Puritans, if we only understood how much God loved us, we could release ourselves from all kinds of burdens and the strain of striving.

How do you develop your characters? Do you choose names first then assign personality or vice versa?

In the proposal stage, when I’m hoping a publisher will buy the story, I have to give a general of idea of who the characters are and what their storyline will be. At that point, I make my best guess in terms of personality and names. But my names have been known to change. The heroine I proposed for A Constant Heart was named Arabella (instead of Marget), but as I wrote, it became quite clear that Arabella was a blonde and I needed that heroine to have dark hair…so back to the name lists I went and came up with a better choice.

In Love’s Pursuit, Susannah was originally supposed to be named Felicity, but as I started in on the writing, it didn’t seem to fit her. So I guess, the short answer to the question would be, ‘Personalities first, names later.’

I note you have signed a new contract for three more historical novels - congrats! Do you have any ideas on storyline, series or stand alones, etc?

Thanks! I’m excited to start writing them. I have storylines for the first two and some wisps of ideas for the third. They’ll be distinct stand alones. At this point, I don’t even see any connection in terms of themes. But usually those don’t become apparent until after my first drafts are done. I might surprise myself! The first book will be set among the Italian immigrant population in Boston in the 1917/1919 range (I’m still trying to peg the right year). The second book is in the proposal stage, but I’m hoping I get the green light to set it in 18th century America. The third is still anyone’s guess!

Can you share a bit about your third novel in this series, She Walks in Beauty?

Sure! The book is set in 1890s New York City in the upper levels of society during the late-Victorian era. When Clara Carter is told she’s to debut a year early, her social education shifts to high gear. There’s more than dance skills and manners that she’ll have to learn. There are corsets to be fitted and bosoms to be enhanced, for a girl so tall and gangly as Clara could never hope to attract a man by simply being herself. But the more enmeshed she becomes in New York City’s social scene the more she begins to wonder if this is the life she really wants. Especially when she’s pitted against her best friend for the hand of the most eligible bachelor in town. When she does manage to find a kindred soul, a man who seems to love her simply for who she is, her heart begins to assert its case. But there’s more at stake this social season than just Clara’s marriage and the future of her family depends on how she plays the game.

The more research I did into corsets and late-Victorian culture, the more their problems seemed to mirror ours. Women still go to dangerous lengths to ‘fix’ the way they look. Media still creates a celebrity-focused culture. Advertising still perpetuates unreasonable standards of beauty for women that lead to anorexia-inducing behaviors, and we still grapple with our attitudes toward and treatment of the poor. Most books about debutantes focus on the glamour of the lifestyle or the cattiness of the girls themselves. This books looks at the huge spiritual, physical, and emotional costs these girls were made to pay.

But really, in true Victorian fashion, this book does have a happy, heartwarming ending and I think there are scenes that will make you laugh and others that will touch your heart and make you cry (happy tears only, please!).

Will we see any more contemporary stories from you? You know Kissing Adrien remains one of my all time favourite novels!

Thanks – I think it will always hold a special place in my heart too!

I have lots of ideas for contemporaries and I hope that someday I’ll have the chance to return to that genre, but for now I feel like I have to breathe life into a backlog of historical ideas that I wasn’t able to write earlier because ‘no one was buying historicals’. The publishing industry is so cyclical that I’m sure historicals will fall from grace at some point and opportunities will open up again for contemporaries.

How do you balance motherhood and writing (and all your other commitments!!)?

I honestly don’t know if I do! The thing that works best for me is reminding myself that I can really only do one thing well at any given time. When my family is at home, that means spending time with them. When I’m at the gym, that means focusing on my workout. When I’m at home by myself, that means either writing or cooking and cleaning. And really, that’s about all that I do. I’m pretty good at saying no. Well…now that I think about it, I must be good at looking like I’d say ‘No’, because I haven’t been asked to volunteer for anything lately. Huh. How about that!

If there’s any secret to my life at all, it’s that it’s been pared way down to the extent that we’ve chosen to live in a small house with a small yard and live quite close to where my husband works (less time spent in the commute means more time to spend together).

I am an American living in Tokyo. I have lived in Japan off and on for 4 years. I have had many funny experiences here with things getting lost in translation. What is the funniest experience you had living in Japan?

My funniest story is also one of mistranslation. I always had a problem distinguishing between kakigori (shaved ice snow-cone like treat) and gokiburi (cockroach). This provided ongoing hilarity every summer when I often suggested that we walk down the hill for some refreshing cockroaches. It’s not that I didn’t think (hard) about my word choice…it’s just that I always chose the wrong one… Readers of Moon Over Tokyo will probably recognize that mistranslation from a scene in the book J

Siri ~ you have our deep appreciation for the time and effort you took to answer our many questions. It added to our discussion of you book and was a wonderful way to end our evening! Thank you from all of us at the RBC Book Club!

Aussie Giveaway

I have a copy of Love's Pursuit to give away to an Aussie

To enter, post a comment before Sunday 27th September,
2009 and be sure you leave contact details and you have an Australian postal address.

Relz Reviewz Extras

Reviews of
A Constant Heart, Chateau of Echoes, The Cubicle Next Door & Moon Over Tokyo

Character spotlight on Love's Pursuit's
characters and A Constant Heart's Marget & Lytham

Visit Siri's

Buy Siri's books at
Amazon or Koorong


rachel said...

that made me relive the story of Love's Pursuit all over again!

I adore Siri Mitchell's work. This sounded like a lot of fun!

Jenny said...

You and your ladies come up with some really insightful questions, Rel. Thanks for letting the rest in on a such a great 'interview'. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this great interview - very insightful & informative, makes me like Mitchell's work even more! :)

Laura Frantz said...

Great, insightful questions and answers here. I love Siri's work and really hope she writes that 18th-century novel as that's my genre. I read Love's Pursuit this summer and hated for it to end. Usually I give books I buy away to friends but this went on my keeper's shelf. What a wonderful novel! How wise of you to select it for your book club! Bless you both!

Tracy said...

Thanks for posting the interview Rel. It was really nice to be able to sit and read through it all once again.

Leola said...

What a great interview Rel! The questions you asked definately gave us a whole new 'look' at the book. I have enjoyed reading several of Siri's books - I'd love to enter the draw for this one please!

Laetitia :-) said...

I'll be packing my house in a month or so - maybe I shouldn't get another book. ;-) But this could be just the book that'd be good to take a break with - reading about other people always thinking that they have to work, work, work.

Please enter me in the draw.

Laetitia :-)

Jen said...

Pop me in please Rel. I always enjoy Siri's books. Thanks.


jaana said...

Please put my name down too. I love Siri's books!


Alex said...

Thsnk you for sharing thid wonderful interview! I would love to be entered in for this book please Rel!



Unknown said...

Rel, I think I'm going to have to revisit Siri's new series...I didn't really care for it...but now you've made me question my own judgment:-)

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