My guest today is Jodi Daynard, author of The Midwife’s Revolt, Our Own Country, A More Perfect Union, and A Transcontinental Affair. Recently, Lake Union Publishers awarded The Midwife’s Revolt a “Golden Quill” for selling more than 250,000 copies. Ms. Daynard has also published many short stories and essays in prominent literary magazines. She has been a keynote speaker, alongside George R.R. Martin, at the Historical Writers of America conference and this June will head up a panel of best-selling novelists at the Historical Novel Society North America Conference, “Fact in Fiction: Bringing Long Lost Worlds to Life.” Jodi has taught writing at Harvard University, M.I.T. and at Emerson College and served for many years as the fiction editor at Boston Review. When not writing, she is an avid swing dancer and jazz musician.
You can also follow her on her Amazon page where you’ll find links to all her books including A Transcontinental Affair.
What or who inspired you to first write? Which authors have influenced you?
Honestly, I was inspired to write from the moment I began to read. I wrote my first “book” when I was five. It was called something like My Animal Friends and was deeply derivative of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. I pretty much plagiarised his epigraph: “From here to there, from there to here, funny things are everywhere.” And I guess you could say those words have been my guiding star ever since! Fast forward to my younger adult life, when I was profoundly affected by the 19th century American authors Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. They were my soulmates in recognizing the darkness in human beings (what a fun teenager I was!). In college, I had a Russian period in which I wrote like either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky depending on the week. It was only fairly late in life, when I was in my late twenties and began teaching at Harvard, that I made women writer friends who turned me on to other women writers. I soon began to know, love, and appreciate women authors like the Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre had a profound effect on me. I learned a great deal from that novel and can honestly say it responsible for helping to mature and master my craft.
What is the inspiration for your current book? Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?
I just finished a new book, actually, called Solo Flight. It’s really an homage to my life as a swing dancer and jazz musician. It takes place in Harlem in the 1930s and celebrates the birth of swing.
My most recently published work, A Transcontinental Affair, depicts the beginning of Modern America, specifically the robber barons, their greed and corruption in the building of the railroad and in the systematic annihilation of our Native Americans. I’d say that the overarching theme of all my novels is the great dichotomy between America in beautiful theory and America in not-so-beautiful fact.
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
I never thought about this before, because each new book takes place at a later date. I often joke that, at this rate, I’ll eventually write a contemporary novel. My first two books are set during the American Revolution. The third, the 1800 election. The fourth, 1870 and the railroad. The fifth, 1930s New York.
But, looking back on all of this, I see clearly that there’s a pattern: I have been choosing “nodal points” or crossroads, points where the future of America could go either way, where its fate hangs in the balance: Independence or oppression? Greed or Fairness? Solo Flight, I think, depicts an important moment of racial progress, thanks to the desegregation that began to occur among jazz musicians and dancers.
What resources do you use to research your book? How long did it take to finish the novel?
I start with secondary material to get a broad picture of the time and place: biographies, documentary films, scholarly or popular history works, and many photographs (or paintings, for the 19th century). Then, over a period of 3-6 months, I drill down to the point where I have discovered which actual restaurants my characters would have visited and what they had to eat! To accomplish all this, I use the Internet, finding libraries with digital collections where I can read primary materials—memoirs, letters, newspapers, etc. At some point I do need to see the to go to historical societies and archives to see and feel the artifacts.
Finally, for me it is absolutely essential to go to the places where I’ve set my novel. For the first two, that was easy enough, since those take place in New England, where I live. But for the third, A More Perfect Union, once I began to write I realized that, in order to do justice to my character’s background and voice, I needed to go to Barbados. Which I did, alone, leaving my husband to deal with one of the worst snowstorms in Boston history! For A Transcontinental Affair, we flew to Omaha, Nebraska, and then drove along the old rail line all the way to San Francisco. I could not have written that book without seeing those railway depots and those extraordinary landscapes for myself.
As to the question of how long it takes me: A first draft takes me three months. Almost exactly. Same for each book. Weird, eh? Then there’s about one year of revision.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
I am never stuck in this way, because I rely on the fact that I will be rereading the manuscript.
Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?
I have not written a novel without revising it at least fourteen times. The Midwife’s Revolt underwent more than twenty revisions because, as my first novel, I had a lot of time on my hands before it was published! So, let’s say that in the past decade, I’ve reread and rewritten about 9 million words. People should probably call me a rewriter, not a writer. Or maybe they’re the same thing.
Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?
All my first drafts are written in long hand. Not only that, but I must use the same exact type of notebook, pen, and if possible, chair. This was difficult when I was living in England when I was writing A More Perfect Union and couldn’t get American-size paper. I had it sent to me from America, because I was superstitious that I just couldn’t write on British-size (is it A5?) paper. I’m certifiable! But Truman Capote was much the same say, with many hilarious self-restrictions. So I take some comfort in that.
All my edits are by hand, on a printed manuscript that I then need to input back into the Word document. This is such ridiculously arduous work that I often hire an assistant to help me. She can never read my handwriting, though, so I have to dictate MP3 files for her along with sending the manuscript.
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
Do you mean in general, or in relation to each book? I have profound attachments to many works of art and photographs. They often provide a key source information as well as inspiration. The entire inspiration for A Transcontinental Affair came when, looking through my mother’s book collection, I found the most amazing book, one volume from the massive 12-volume set of Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Vol. III.. This was a government report on the first excursions across America to determine the best transcontinental route for a railroad. But what moved me profoundly enough to write a whole novel were the lithographs included: portraits of Native American tribes, flora and fauna, and vistas the likes of which white people had never seen before and which they were, unbeknownst to anyone, about to annihilate. These surveys had been commissioned by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, and were produced largely under the direction of Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Smithsonian’s first curator. My favorite art is by a European artist named was Heinrich Baldwin Möllhausen. You can read a bit more him and others in my attached article about the Union Pacific.
Right now, I’m utterly in love a photograph of bandleader Chick Webb staring back adoringly at young Ella Fitzgerald as he plays the drums at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. I discovered this photo at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. I made a copy, and it now sits in a frame on my desk and fills me with joy every time I look at it.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Looking back, I see clearly that I owe a lot of my success not to talent but to other qualities of character, persistence being the most important. I received a lot of rejections in my life. When Midwife didn’t sell at first, I became so depressed I thought, “Okay, I’ll just stop writing.” That didn’t work out so well! Instead, I channelled my depression into writing several more drafts of Midwife. I thought glumly, “Well, what else do I have to do?” It went on to sell over 250,000 copies.
I would add to this: Be open to feedback. Without it, you won’t grow. Let people you trust see you work. It’s very painful to hear criticism, I know. And one tends to avoid pain. Also, when you’re a new writer, you have no faith that you can make the changes you need to make. I cried for a whole week the first time my husband gave me feedback on Midwife. When he gave me feedback on Our Own Country, I cried for three days. One day for A More Perfect Union. By the time he read A Transcontinental Affair, I was like, “Just gimme what you got and let me get on with it.”
Tell us about your next book.
I just finished my fifth novel, Solo Flight, which is out on submission. Can I say that I love this book so much?! It takes place during 1937 and is about a young New York City debutante, Edie Hammond, who flees her coming-out party at the Ritz Carlton because she has found out some terrible news about her beau, Archie. She runs up to Harlem, where she has been doing volunteer work (all “society” girls did such work, primarily so that newspapers snap their photos) at a music school. She plans to stay one night at a musician’s Harlem apartment but winds up staying an entire year. It is a year in which she discovers her calling as a music critic, meets and befriends Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, and tours the south with a group of black musicians, with eye-opening consequences. Finally, it is a year in which she will fall in love with someone amazing and wholly unexpected. The novel, despite the fact that it depicts serious issues of racial inequity, is ultimately a celebration of American jazz music and dance.
A sweeping tale of adventure and danger, innovation and corruption, and two women whose lives intertwine in unexpected ways on America’s first transcontinental train trip.
May 1870. Crowds throng the Boston station, mesmerized by the mechanical wonder huffing on the rails: the Pullman Hotel Express, the first train to travel from coast to coast. Boarding the train are congressmen, railroad presidents, and even George Pullman himself. For two young women, strangers until this fateful day, it’s the beginning of a journey that will change their lives.
Sensitive Louisa dreads the trip, but with limited prospects, she’s reluctantly joined the excursion as a governess to a wealthy family. Hattie is traveling to San Francisco to meet her fiancé, yet she’s far more interested in the workings of the locomotive than she is in the man awaiting her arrival. As the celebrated train moves westward, the women move toward one another, pulled by an unexpected attraction.
But there is danger in this closeness, just as there is in the wilds of the frontier and in the lengths the railroad men will go to protect their investments. Before their journey is over, Louisa and Hattie will find themselves very far from where they intended to go.
Thanks for sharing insights into your inspiration so generously, Jodi. Cross fingers Solo Flight is hitting the bookshops soon!
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