Monday, April 3, 2017

Q&A with J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats is the author of the new novel for kids The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming. She also has written the young adult novel The Wicked and the Just. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming?

A: My academic training is in history, and I’m especially interested in the lived experiences of girls and women in the past.

The historical inspiration for this book actually came from research I was doing for a whole different project, but the more I learned about “local promoters” in the 19th century who encouraged people on the East Coast to move West and how they often intentionally misrepresented the West Coast to make it more appealing, the more this particular story emerged.

There are a number of fictionalized accounts of the Mercer emigrations in the 1860s from the East Coast to Seattle, but I wasn’t as interested in the romantic aspects of these trips.

I was much more interested in that mismatch of expectations--specifically, how the women coming from the East were told about “limitless opportunities” and a Mediterranean climate, but they were really heading for a gray, misty, timbered place where the men all figured they just wanted to get married.

Jane has her own set of expectations, and when her hopes are derailed, she has to work out a way to move forward regardless.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book, and was there anything that especially surprised you?

A: I started with written accounts of the voyage of the ship the party traveled on; several people kept diaries while on board, and a few more wrote up their experiences as memoirs later in life.

Then I read a selection of histories of Seattle; the “traditional” histories written by the descendants of the first white settlers, Native accounts, and modern accounts that deconstruct and analyze those traditional settler histories.

All the while, I read newspaper articles put out by Puget Sound newspapers in the 1860s to get a feel for how people used language during this time.

The most interesting thing I learned was how much an integrated town early Seattle was, especially during its first 20 years. The official law forbidding Native people to live within the town boundaries was largely for show, and people from a number of coast Salish tribes worked and fished and traded there.

Seattle would not have survived without Suquamish and Duwamish people helping the white settlers figure things out and working to physically build the town. There were also several black settlers; one married a niece of Chief Seattle.

By the end of the 1860s, there was a small but growing Chinatown. It wasn’t until the coming of the railroad that there was significant racial and ethnic tension in Seattle, and even those sentiments didn’t go uncontested.

Q: Did you know how you'd end the book before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I knew basically how the book was going to end. It was the middle that went through a lot of changes and additions during the process.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: Every reader is going to have her or his own relationship with the story. That’s the best part of reading. That said, one of my favorite aspects of the story is the nature of learning--how everything you know how to do will help you at some point, and there is value in learning lots of different kinds of things.

Intellectual curiosity and the willingness to grow and change as you learn is vital, but sometimes gets overlooked in a scramble for formal education. Learning can and should happen anywhere and everywhere.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book is a middle-grade historical fantasy coming out in early 2018 called R is for Rebel. It’s set in a fictional occupied country, and it’s about the daughter of known subversives who is sent away to be reeducated and must walk the line between resistance and survival.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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