Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Q&A with Ashley E. Sweeney

Ashley E. Sweeney, photo by Karen Mullen
Ashley E. Sweeney is the author of the historical novel Eliza Waite, published two years ago, which focuses on a woman who travels to Alaska in 1898. Sweeney is a journalist, teacher, and community activist. She lives in La Conner, Washington.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel, and for your main character, Eliza?

A: The story of Eliza Waite evolved after discovering an abandoned cabin on a hike on largely uninhabited Cypress Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands in the fall of 2008. I decided that day that a novel set in that locale could be both mysterious and intriguing.

Eliza grew on me during the writing process. I liked her from the beginning, but I can honestly say that I admire her even more now that I’m finished with the novel.

It’s interesting how a fictional character can help an author grow. I’m confident now that if I had been confronted with the same challenges as Eliza faced that I would be able to dig deep into faith and resolve to emerge on the other side as a stronger and more successful woman. Although I wouldn’t have relished living alone for three years on a remote island in an unheated cabin!

Q: You note in your acknowledgments that the book includes some historical figures. What did you see as the right blend between the historical and fictional in the novel?

A: Writing historical fiction hinges on weaving a story in and around actual events and characters. Although Eliza Waite, Pearly Brown, Shorty Richardson and others are purely fictional, placing them in historical context with real persons is necessary for authenticity.

Because Part Two is set in Skagway at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, it was imperative that I inserted actual events and characters—especially Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and the story of his infamous murder— into the narrative.

What many people don’t realize is that Skagway was a true boom and bust town, and most of its storied history happened in less than one year. I would have loved to have been there during that time!

Q: This novel takes place in the late 19th century in Washington State and Alaska. How did you research the time period and that particular setting?

A: I’ve lived in Washington since 1978 and know Northwest Washington and the San Juan Islands well. That said, it was still very interesting to research early days in the area, especially on Orcas Island, where some scenes in the novel are set.

Orcas Island has a great little museum of reconstructed 19th century cabins and shops. Just walking through the museum was a visual delight and provided fodder for several scenes.

Researching for the Alaska portion of the novel was brand new. In 2013, I traveled to Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Anchorage to do archival research.

Of special help were the historian at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park and the research librarian at The Anchorage Museum. At both locales I pored over journals, photos, diaries, newspapers, and books of the era. Don’t ever underestimate the help of museum and library staff!

Q: Eliza's story highlights the role of women in that time period and that part of the country. Do you think she was typical of many women in that time and place, or was she more unusual?

A: Eliza Waite is both a product of her time and upbringing and an example of a modern woman. As the eldest daughter of a prominent judge, Eliza’s marriage outlook could have been bright, although her appearance and demeanor did not fit society’s mold.

After an incestuous rape and out of wedlock pregnancy, Eliza’s father brokered her marriage to a pastor leaving for remote Cypress Island north of Seattle. Here Eliza found herself in the short-lived role of wife and mother, but the smallpox epidemic of 1895 claimed the lives of both her husband and son and left Eliza grief-stricken and alone.

After living in an abandoned cabin on Cypress Island for three years, Klondike Fever had grasped the country, and Eliza jumped at the chance to try her luck in the far north. She was now free to make her own decisions in business, relationships, politics, and love. In this way, Eliza breaks the mold of the typical Victorian young lady and emerges as a new woman at the dawn of the 20th century.

Q: How have readers reacted to the book?

A: Since the release of Eliza Waite in May 2016, I've encountered many women and men who've been touched by Eliza's story. Of the 60+ events since the novel's release -- bookstore signings, historical lectures, extensive travels, book club events -- the most memorable encounters have been in intimate conversations with readers.

One reader expressed her gratitude to Eliza for helping her move through her three-year struggle with grief after losing her husband; she said that she was glad to be "on the far side of grief" after reading Eliza's story.

Another reader told me that Eliza helped her grieve the loss of her adult son, and that seeing the moon each night was a reminder that her son was still with her. Powerful words! In these instances, fiction truly transcended reality. I am honored that Eliza was able to touch these readers so deeply.

Two Alaskan readers also pointed out two minor errors in the novel. Goes to show you that all the vetting and editing in the world won't prevent one or two small glitches!

The novel has also been named the 2017 winner of the Nancy Pearl Book Award and placed as a finalist in the Sarton Women's Book Award and WILLA Literary Award and two other contests.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: My favorite contemporary authors are Geraldine Brooks, Paula McLain, Sue Monk Kidd, Barbara Kingsolver, and Paulette Jiles, whose News of the World was my favorite book of 2017.

I have a long TBR list and try to read 10-15 novels per month. I just finished reading an advance reader copy of a sister She Writes Press author, Ellen Notbohm, titled The River By Starlight. I loved it. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Since my interview with you two years ago, I've finished that second novel, now titled The Illustrator. It's out on review at present. I'm halfway through a third novel centered on the Donner Party and have a fourth in the research stage (that novel will be set in rural Arizona in 1900).

Also, in the past two years, I have added three more grandbabies to my incredible family, bringing the number to six. I'm blessed beyond words.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love gardening, reading, art quilting, traveling, wine tasting, and chocolate. And my three new grandbabies!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A.

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