One of the peculiarities of the podcast is that although the episodes go live on Saturday...that's "Saturday" in South Africa where our fearless leader Sheena lives. Usually it makes for this awkward moment of "do I post the blog the day before?" but since I'm going to be out of the house all day tomorrow, it's a plus this time.
This month's author guest is Caren Werlinger, whose historical stories are often framed by a connection--either mystical or via objects--with a character in modern times. Listen to her talk about how she develops those connections with the past.
And remember that you can find links to all the past episodes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast (and to the transcripts, as I get them up) on the Index Page.
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(Transcript commissioned from Jen Zink @Loopdilou who is available for professional podcast transcription work. I am working on adding transcripts of the existing interview shows.)
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Episode 23 (previously 15b) - Interview with Caren Werlinger
(originally aired 2017/10/14 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: This is Heather Rose Jones with the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. Today, we’re talking with author Caren Werlinger, who writes a variety of historic takes on fiction with lesbians in it. Or with women who could be interpreted as lesbians. Welcome, Caren.
Caren Werlinger: Thank you, Heather, it’s nice to be here.
H: So, I’ve been going over your very extensive catalog of novels and there are two groups that I’d like to talk to you about. First off, you have a pair of novels, not a pair in a series sense, but they have a similar take on an approach to history where a relatively contemporary character encounters history through some artifact or family connection. That would be Miserere and Neither Present Time. Would you like to talk about what those novels are about and why you took that approach?
C: Miserere is a novel that’s set primarily in the summer of 1968, which was an extremely turbulent period of time in American history and the whole novel was actually inspired by a memory I had of a house that we looked at and my parents thought about buying when I was, maybe, 9 years old. I loved that house, I have a very clear picture of it in my mind. It was weather-beaten, had knee high grass, and it was apparently too much of a fixer-upper for my parents to want to take it on. But that house really caught my imagination and I had always wondered what kind of stories it could tell.
In setting up this novel, my main character is a ten-year-old girl named Connemara Faolain Mitchell. She’s of Irish descent. When her father goes MIA in Vietnam, she and her mom and her little brother pack up and move to the family home in West Virginia. She begins to experience these very vivid dreams that slowly start unspooling the story of her ancestor who came to America at the age of thirteen as an indentured servant with her older sister. It was at the tail-end of the famine, 1850s, and as the story unfolds, we go back to the 1850s and 1860s through Connemara’s dreams to learn what happened to her ancestors when they arrived in America. How the life on the plantation that they were indentured to unfolded, the things that happened as the country was veering into the Civil War, and then dealing with the after-effects of the Civil War. It’s part of what I really, really liked about that particular novel, is that you had these two story-lines that were a century apart but there were so many echoes of continued racial tensions, intolerance, hatred, which, ironically, are now being echoed all over again in this current political climate. That was the basic set-up for Miserere.
In Neither Present Time, that book was inspired by an inscription in an old book that I actually own. I used that inscription, I used that as a jumping off point for this novel. It’s a story of a woman who’s working in a university library, not using her talents and her doctoral degree to the capacity that she should be. She finds an old book with this inscription. It intrigues her, it captivates her imagination, and she begins a search to try and find the people who are mentioned in the inscription; see if she can track them down.
H: I’m interested that you’re talking about the historic settings, so where do the lesbian themes come into this? Are they from the contemporary characters or in the historic settings?
C: Actually, both. In Neither Present Time, the main character, Beryl Gray, this is a contemporary thread to the story, she’s in a relationship with a woman who’s kind of controlling and domineering, but part of her discovery, as the novel progresses, is that she needs to grow into herself. But when she discovers the addressee of the inscription in the old book that she had found, she begins to learn the back-story of a woman who is now in her 90s, who fell passionately in love with another woman in the early 40s, as World War II was dawning.
So, again, we kind of get these two threads woven together in this story. A lesbian love story that began in the 40s and has never, ever waned, and a more contemporary one where Beryl and the old woman, Corie’s, niece, Aggie, find each other and both of them are in need of healing and moving on. So, there are two lesbian stories there.
In Miserere, Connemara’s ancestor, Catriona, disappeared. Nobody really knew what happened to her. There’s a curse on the family and one of the things that Connemara learns through these dreams is that only one female child has survived from each generation since Catriona disappeared. She learns that she is the one who could finally break this curse. We don’t know immediately why it is that she is the one who can break the curse, but as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the reason she will be the one to understand what happened in the past and to be able to break the family curse is because she’s the only one who has come along who could understand the love that Catriona had for another girl.
H: Uh huh. I have this note on my interview sheet saying, ‘Never, ever, ever waste peoples’ time by asking, So, why do you write about lesbian characters?’ Because, I kind of assume that’s a given with the people that I’m interviewing. But, so, why write about historic stories? What does that do for you as a writer to pick historic settings?
C: I have always wondered more about… When you read stories as a kid, when you read Robert Louis Stevenson, when you read some of the other classics, unless you’re into the Brontës, you’re not getting any female characters. The adventures were all boy stories, they were all full of men and boys doing these exciting things, but girls and women hardly figured into the stories at all. That always kind of bugged me. Like a lot of us, that’s probably why I devoured all the Nancy Drew stories.
C: But it just seemed to me that, when I started writing, we’ve always existed, lesbians have always been around. We may not have called ourselves that, we didn’t have that identity necessarily, but that doesn’t mean that we weren’t there. It just seemed like a natural extension of storytelling to include and find ways of telling lesbian stories set in historic settings.
H: Have you always been interested in history, from way back? Or was there something in particular that started you writing historic stories?
C: I’ve always enjoyed writing stories, but… I grew up in Ohio. When I was in 7th grade, my Ohio history teacher, Mr. Black, gave me a book to read called The Frontiersmen, which is by Allen W. Eckert. It was, I think, the middle book of his Wilderness Empire trilogy, which chronicled the early settling of America so most of the books are set in the 1700s. They’re heavily footnoted at the backs. He did an enormous amount of research. He wrote these books, fictionalizing the parts he needed to as far as conversations and things like that, but set within the known historical context. That, to me, I think that was big jumping off point for my love of historical fiction. His writing was compelling, but the fact that everything was so heavily annotated and footnoted at the back of the books – you could look up as much or as little as you wanted – that he took these characters and filled in the missing bits in between the pieces that we actually knew, from letters, or from diaries, or from whatever other form of documentation. I just was like, ‘You know, that’s… I could do that.’
H: Yeah. That sounds a lot like my early experiences with historic fiction because I found that learning history through the stories of specific people, even fictional people, just anchored all the events so much better in my head.
C: It did. I mean, it makes it come alive in a way that it doesn’t when you just read chronicles.
H: Tell me about the most difficult thing you encountered when research the historic backgrounds for your books.
C: A lot of it is just trying to get the small details right. For Miserere, I’ve lived in West Virginia and Virginia for almost 30 years now, so I live in the middle of a lot of that history. The town I live in currently, in Virginia, changed hands 76 times during the Civil War, so we’re right smack in the middle of Civil War history. Half an hour outside of town is an old stone iron furnace that the early settlers used to smelt and make iron. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of that history for decades. Still, trying to figure out--you know Virginia had one of the earlier canal projects along the James river, but it coincided with the coming of the railroad, so the canal never went as far as it was supposed to, as far as it was originally supposed to. But having to look up if my Irish teenagers sold into indentured servitude were being ferried up the James along this canal system… How far did they go? Where did the canal system stop? What kind of tobacco did they grow in Virginia? Which is different from the kind of tobacco they grew in the Carolinas and Georgia. What kind of crops did they grow here? How did plantations work in terms of the division of various levels of the slaves? There were house slaves and they were field slaves. Even though Catriona and her sister were white and Irish, they basically fell into the same category of having been sold. For that book a lot of it was just trying to get little details right because, as you know, Heather, I’m sure, there’s always somebody out there who knows the subject matter you’re writing about as well, if not better than you do, and if you don’t get those little details right, they’ll call you on it.
H: I try to sign those people up as my sources and beta-readers.
C: (Laughter) That’s a good strategy.
H: What about the lesbian side of things? How did you research how these women in history would have understood their desires and their sexuality?
C: That’s a really interesting question and I don’t know that I have a really good answer to that, except through my own knowledge and self-discovery of, well, not even self-discovery because I’m one of those who has always known, from the time I was very, very young. Before I had language for it, that it was girls that I was attracted to. I never pictured myself married to a man, I never fantasized about any of that kind of stuff like other girls do, I guess. But one of the first, before I started writing lesbian fiction, one of the first lesbian novels that I came across that I thought handled that historical aspect of discovering that you are in love with another woman was the novel Patience and Sarah by Isabell Miller.
H: Yes, I’m very fond of that one.
C: It’s set in the early 1800s. It’s definitely set in a period of time where people were not tolerant of any kind of aberration in what they considered to be normal relationships or anything that might have taken them outside the purviews of their very narrow, Christian interpretation of the world. The other thing that fascinated me about that story is that it is based on a real-life couple who apparently did settle in, I think, Western New York, eventually. They were kind of known to be together and it was accepted once they were out in the frontier. That novel was a big influence on my own interpretation and my own writing of women finding each other and falling in love with each other in historic settings.
H: Uh huh. I’d like to jump tracks a little bit here, because your most recent writing project has been very much a history and fantasy cross-over. This is your series The Chronicles of Caymin. You told me that the historic contribution to the setting is 8th century Ireland and then we have dragons and, well, you tell about it.
C: You’re right. I mean, there was a lot happening in Ireland in that era. The Christian monasteries had been established over the prior few hundred years, since St. Patrick started proselytizing in the 400 CE era. But the Vikings were beginning to come on down from the north. They were raiding Britannia and Caledonia, which we know as Scotland. And they were raiding Ireland. We know, from the historical chronicles, that several of the monasteries were raided and sacked several times. I can’t really remember now what gave me the idea of writing a dragon fantasy set in Ireland of this era, but one of the things that fascinated me was realizing that there were such animals in Ireland at one time as the Giant Irish Elk, which are extinct now. Part of the fun of writing this fantasy had been exploring, ‘What if there was a real-life basis for the dragon contribution to Celtic mythology?’
H: What if the dragons just got hunted to death, as it were, you mean.
C: Yeah, exactly. You know, maybe what happened is that we really did have dragons. We know that there was a strong culture of people who believed in magic, maybe practiced magic. You know, a lot of Celtic mythology and folklore is based on those beliefs in things that we would consider magic now, but to them probably were just every day kinds of things. What was happening as Christians tried to force their views against the people who were holding on to the old ways? That was kind of the mix that this fantasy takes place in. Again, from a writing standpoint, one reviewer likened this trilogy to reading a story about the Titanic. We know that the Christians were eventually successful, we know that Ireland became a Christian country, but you had to work within that framework, you know. As I’m writing, there were certain things I couldn’t necessarily violate. I knew I had to end up at a point at the end of the story where the Christians are probably taking over, the people who practice and believe in magic are kind of fading away, so how to write a story that can incorporate all of those elements? That was kind of the fun and the challenge of this trilogy.
H: Setting aside the dragons, because this is the history podcast, what are your three either favorite or most useful, let’s say: what are your three most useful resources for writing the historic aspects of those stories?
C: A lot of it is, as far as the Celtic folklore part, there’s a website and blog kept and run by a woman named Ali Isaacs, who, I mean, she covers almost every aspect of Celtic-Irish folklore that you can imagine, so her blog has been tremendously helpful. A lot of it was flora and fauna kind of research. I mean, what animals and plants. A lot of it was just using the internet, like crazy, to research what plant species were native, what animals were native, you know. At one point I referenced somebody looking like a turtle and then I had to go back to look and yes, there are no turtles native to Ireland, so I had to get rid of that.
H: I know you said that the characters, in terms of the sexuality aspects of these stories, that you have set-up the historic society so that there is not prejudices against particular types of sexuality. Did you try to root those aspects in history or is that part of the fun fantasy side of it?
C: That was more, I think, the fun fantasy side of it.
H: Caren, it’s been lovely to hear about your historic writing and historic fantasy. Why don’t you tell us about your fans and readers can follow you on social media or find out more about you online?
C: Sure. I am on Facebook under Caren Werlinger Author. I can be reached by email at email@example.com. And I have a blog which is cjwerlinger.wordpress.com.
H: Okay, I will include those in the show-notes for people to follow up. It’s been wonderful having on for the interview segment of our show and I hope that you will continue writing wonderful historic stories.
C: Thank you, very much. This has been delightful.
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Caren Werlinger Online