Good morning and welcome to another round of chats. This great spring morning, the birds are singing right outside my window, I’d like to greet a wonderful historical novelist, Carol Bodensteiner, author of Go Away Home.
Hello Carol and welcome to my Round Table Chat. Can I offer you an espresso, a cappuccino, a latte, regular coffee, some tea?
Carol – Good morning, Annamaria. Regular coffee laced with skim milk and sweetener for me. My husband says I don’t really like coffee if I add all that. He may be right. I do like the concept of coffee. And sharing a cup with friends. The birds are singing here this morning, too. Cardinals, black-capped chickadees, and robins. A regular symphony.
Annamaria – For this special morning I’ve baked some cinnamon rolls and flaky croissants. Can I offer you one of each?
Carol – Yum. I didn’t know you’d provide treats, so I brought blueberry scones. Enough to share, if you’d like one of these.
Annamaria – Don’t mind if I do. I always like tasting other peoples baking goods. You never know, I might need to improve my recipes.
Now that we are settled, won’t you tell us a little about your new book?
Carol – Delighted. Set during World War One, Go Away Home tells the story of a young woman who wants to make her own decisions and decide her own future in a time when family and society usually set the boundaries for women. She wants a career, not marriage. When she finally gets her chance, she discovers that the choices are not so clear-cut as they once seemed, and getting what you want can be a two-edged sword.
Annamaria – Where does the story take place? I know during the time frame of WWI, women in the States were fighting hard for voting rights and other rights, something that was not happening in Europe.
Carol – The story is set in the rural Midwest United States – on an Iowa farm where my main character Liddie Treadway grew up and in the county seat, Maquoketa. At first Maquoketa seems like a big city to Liddie, but in reality it’s fairly small – only about 6,000 people. The early 20th century is an interesting time for women. The suffragettes are marching for the vote. Ragtime music is signaling a change in society.
In larger cities, women are already stretching their wings, but in rural areas family, society, and the religious background of many people set the rules for what women could and couldn’t do. Media surrounds us today, but in that time, there was no radio or television or Internet. Only newspapers and the telegraph. Women weren’t exposed to many options for their lives. They were expected to marry and raise a family. Marriage was the route to stability and respectability. Liddie is really pushing the boundaries of the time when she says she doesn’t want to get married and she does want a career.
As I wrote this, I often wondered if things had really changed so much. As I was growing up, family, society, church, all exerted a strong influence on what I thought I could do in life. Coming from Italy with all its history and tradition, did you see life this way? I love Italy, by the way. I spent an inspiring month in Tuscany working on this novel.
Annamaria – I’m a rebel, always have been. Therefore, even the strong bonds of Roman Catholicism and growing up in Italy didn’t keep me chained. I had my own ideas and statements to make and drove my family a little crazy. But, how does Liddie’s family respond to her unconventional beliefs?
Carol – Good for you for following your own path. Liddie would be proud! She faced a variety of reactions. Her father and brother are very protective of her and want her to stay close to home. Her maiden aunt is the one who exposed Liddie to the suffragettes and finds opportunities for her to pursue her career interests. Liddie’s mother Margretta is an interesting combination – traditional and protective on the surface but also looking out for her daughter’s happiness. I hadn’t made the connection until just now, but Liddie’s mom is a bit like my mom who was very conventional when it came to marriage but was also one of my greatest supporters when it came to my writing. I’m really quite surprised to realize this about Margretta. Have you ever found yourself creating a character who turns out unexpectedly to be like someone you know?
Annamaria – Yes, definitely, but I believe it happens because when we write we are pulling from our experiences and the people surrounding us. Even if we write fantasy or sci-fi, we are still pulling from our pool of knowledge.
I’m glad you’ve made this realization. Does the character have other qualities like your mother?
Carol – You’re right – we all have a well of experience we draw from. Margretta does mirror my mother in a couple of other key ways. She defers to her husband. If she disagrees with him, any discussion of that is out of sight. In public, they’re in sync. Also, she shows her love of family with food. A characteristic of many farm wives I know.
Even though Liddie wants to set her own path, the influences of her farm home and family continue to exert a strong influence on her. She has a “soundtrack” of the things she’s been taught running through her head all the time. Does a rebel like yourself have those tugs from your childhood?
Annamaria – The tugs are always there, even now that I’ve raised four daughters, at times I feel the tugs of the old Sicilian culture that I’ve rebelled against. Certain things from your upbringing just cannot be erased.
Like Liddie, you grew up on a farm. How much of your upbringing is reflected in this novel?
Carol – Probably more than I realize, given this latest observation about my mother and Liddie’s mother. Other aspects of my own upbringing that show up in the novel are an affinity for special places, a connection to the land, and close family. Another big one is attention to food, in particular bread baking. One of the proudest accomplishments of my life was winning the 4-H Bread Baking award one year. No one wins any baking awards in my book, but the book opens with Liddie making bread. Is it any wonder that I brought scones to this get together? And also finished off one of your cinnamon rolls?
Annamaria – Glad you’re enjoying them. Please, have another?
Growing up on a farm had to be hard. Did you have to get up very early in the mornings to do chores around the farm? What about Liddie?
Carol – When people hear I grew up on a dairy farm, they say things like, “Oh, you worked hard!” I suppose we did, but it never felt like work to me. I enjoyed being around the livestock, even at 5 a.m. Tasks my parents entrusted to me and my sisters felt necessary and important. To me, work was almost like play. Probably sounds unbelievable, but that’s what I felt. My memoir Growing Up Country has stories about that time.
Liddie was in a different situation. She was the youngest child in her family by several years. Not only did she have an older brother and sister, they also had a hired man who lived with them. She learned sewing and cooking, but aside from baking bread, she always felt as though she had no responsibility of her own. She felt she just took orders from others. That’s one of the reasons she wanted to get off the farm.
In general, it seems children today have far fewer responsibilities around their homes. I know that was true as I raised my son in town. But Liddie’s reaction to her situation may be the general reaction of children as they grow up. They want to make their own decisions, figure things out for themselves. What do you think, Annamaria? Is that just part of growing up?
Annamaria – I believe it’s part of growing up; it’s the part when kids feel it’s necessary to rebel against all that the parents are trying to teach them. All my girls hit that stage when they never wanted to clean their bedrooms. The struggle, the fighting, almost unbearable, and then they see the light, the rebellion dies out and their rooms are clean. Not all teens go through it, I never did, my sister did, but eventually, I think they all come to appreciate what their parents taught them.
As my girls learned to appreciate what Mom and Dad taught them, does Liddie come around to appreciating what her folks did for her?
Carol – I’m chuckling, Annamaria. My recollection is that I was always the perfect daughter. (snicker) My younger sister, though … Of course memories can be skewed …
The things her parents taught her run regularly through Liddie’s mind. At first those teachings seem clear-cut, but as she grows older, she sees her parents, particularly her mother, as being more complex. I think that is true for most of us. What seems very black and white when we’re children is more layered as we gain life experience and deeper understanding.
Character growth is one of the things we talk about in our book club discussions. We always want to see the characters learn from the challenges they face and become more nuanced human beings by the end of the book. I believe that’s true for Liddie. At the beginning of the book she’s a teenager. By the end I hope readers will see that she’s an adult with a better understanding of the implications of her choices and possessing the tools to live with those choices.
You write YA fiction. Is character growth something you’re particularly aware of as you write?
Annamaria – It’s something I’m very preoccupied with. Most of my main characters go through a large learning and maturing curve during the unfolding of the novel. I love taking a naïve teenager through tough times and developing her into a strong young woman. Also the choices she makes during this journey help shape her personality.
Good strong characters are very important in a novel and I believe that even secondary characters need to show a certain amount of growth. What do you think?
Carol – (Takes a sip of coffee, shifts in her chair, looks out the window.) That’s an interesting question. I’ve had to think about it for a moment, Annamaria. In general, I agree secondary characters need to grow, too. Because the novel POV is in the head of the main character, Liddie, we have limited understanding of how events affect others. Without adding a spoiler, I think of one character who initially is very non social, but when he meets the right woman, we begin to see him in an entirely different light. Then when life throws him a curve, we see yet another side of him. He definitely adapts and grows. We observe it happening and only understand how he thinks about it through his actions and dialogue. It must work because readers have told me they like this man quite a bit.
It’s interesting to me that while I consciously thought a lot about Liddie and her life and development trajectory, I didn’t think so much about the other characters, yet their growth happened anyway. You’ve triggered thinking on a topic I know I’ll return to. Thanks for that.
Now I’m curious how consciously other authors think about growth of their secondary characters. What’s your process as you write?
Annamaria – For my most important secondary characters, I think about how I want to develop them, in what direction I want them to go. Although, many times, like my main characters, they take on a life of their own and dictate to me where they want to go. But it certainly is something to think about to make sure all characters are well developed.
Speaking of characters and development, do you think if the characters of a novel are well developed they can sustain the story?
Carol – I’ve heard of plot-driven novels and character-driven novels, so at the very least there are books written that lean one way or another. But even if you had a plot-driven novel, I’d be hard-pressed to stay interested if there weren’t characters I cared about. And if it was a character-driven book, the characters still have to be doing something interesting. So in my usual act of balancing firmly on both sides of the fence, I say a writer has to have both well developed characters and a well developed plot.
The Harry Potter series is character-driven. Harry, Ron and Hermoine all develop well through the series. But they’d just be kids without the plot that keeps them doing something and the challenges that give them reasons to grow.
Thinking of my novel again (which I seem to do an inordinate amount these days!), Go Away Home is more character driven. What does Liddie want? How does she overcome the obstacles? What twists of plot give her reasons to grow and cause us to care about her and her challenges?
As far as plot-driven novels, The Da Vinci Code comes to mind. Robert Langdon is an interesting enough guy, but the murder and chasing down the clues to find the Holy Grail are what keep readers turning pages.
How do you assess your novels on the character-driven/plot-driven continuum, Annamaria?
Annamaria – Primarily character driven. A world without growing and changing characters to me is boring. A plot-driven novel is exciting, like The Da Vinci Code because there is so much movement and chasing. To be honest though, I have not read the book. I always need character development to keep my interest. If characters don’t grow and change because of their experiences and the world around them the story won’t keep my interest. And then, there is world building to consider, especially in fantasy and sci-fi. But how much world building should there be?
Carol – I admire fantasy and sci-fi writers for their ability to build worlds. Creating new languages, bending the rules of physics. You folks really run with a free imagination. To answer your question, though, I think there should be as much world building as the situation requires. In historical fiction, there is considerable attention to creating the world of the day. In a way historical fiction writers are un-building the world that we know today so that readers experience a much different time and way of life as completely credible. In the very early 20th century, most places did not have electricity and all the conveniences that come with it. Most did not have cars. The world I was building for readers of Go Away Home involved horses and trains, wood stoves and kerosene lamps. I was very mindful of eliminating words and allusions that would be anachronistic for the time.
Annamaria – That’s a good point. With historical fiction you need to be worried about pealing off the layers to bring forth a more simple world where all the commodities we can no longer live without, did not exist. But with both the historical fiction and the sci-fi/fantasy I don’t believe in world building for the sake of building a world. Only the parts that are essential to the advancement of the story should be built.
Carol, I can’t believe how fast time goes by. Before we conclude our chat can you tell us what you’re working on now?
Carol – New writing projects are on the back burner as I’ve prepared to launch Go Away Home. (It’s available right now on Amazon – Yeah! – if this discussion has spurred your interest.)
In a previous life, I worked in public relations and marketing, so I’ve dusted off those skills to share my novel as widely as possible. This discussion begins a month-long blog tour, and I have a number of in-person events scheduled. It’s going to be a busy, fun time. More details on my website.
Thanks for letting me sit and chat with you about writing and life, Annamaria. This has been fun, and the cinnamon rolls were spectacular.
What reviewers had to say:
“Go Away Home is all about evolution, change, and transition … a tale of choices, dreams realized and rejected, and how values evolve … gently compelling and highly believable.”
– D. Donovan, Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
– Kara Logsden, Iowa City Public Library
“Go Away Home is a well done piece of historical fiction. … so engaging it was hard to put down.Bodensteiner … writes characters with depth … she’s captured the era … with meticulous historical detail.”
– J. P. Lane, author of The Tangled Web
“In a poignant, romantic tale, Bodensteiner takes us on a journey inside the heart of … an Iowa farm girl trying to steer her own independent path through the conservative attitudes of America on the eve of World War One. If you enjoy a good love story and … wonderful characters, then Go Away Home is one book you will not regret reading.”
– David Lawlor, author of Tan and The Golden Grave
“Go Away Home is full of interesting, well-drawn characters … a captivating coming-of-age story, set in a time of incredible change and turmoil.“
– M.K. Todd, author of Unravelled
About the Author
Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. She published her memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY in 2008. GO AWAY HOME is her debut novel.
Connect with Carol
Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Growing-Up-Country-Memories-Iowa/dp/0979799708/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
Go Away Home is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon. LINK TO BE PROVIDED BY June 21