An Interview With the Author of
ONE WAS ANNIE
by Kelly Fish-Greenlee, Cultural-Anthropologist
Q: What is your novel about?
A: Well, for one thing, it's about the settlement of the west after the Civil War, especially the midwest and, in particular, Kansas. For another, it's about a man, a surgeon in the Union Army, who is very disturbed by the events of his life and who hopes to rebuild his shattered self by moving west. But most of all, it's about this girl, Annie Sherwood, who doesn't initially have much control over circumstances. She finds herself married to the surgeon and moving with him from Tennessee to Kansas. She's so beautiful and gentle, Annie is, and she struggles so to survive, raise her children, deal with the men who love her, and find meaning in a world she didn't choose. Annie is the focus. And in the end, she becomes, unbeknownst to herself, the heroic representative of thousands of pioneer women.
Q: Would you call it a romance? An historical novel?
A: Well, though it has "romance" in it--if by that we are talking about men and women and love and sex--it's not a romance if we take that to mean only men and women and love and sex.
And certainly it has lots of the historical in it. It's based on some people I know about, my great grandmother and great grandfather, actually, insofar as family myth has revealed them to me. He was a Union Army surgeon, and she was a girl from the mountains near the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee. They migrated to Kansas after the Civil War, and some of the novel's events have come down to me from stories about their lives. In addition, the book has some Civil War scenes, particularly the battle at Chickamauga, and I tried hard to be factual about historical aspects, steamboat travel, for instance, or the practice of medicine at that time, or how the wagons were packed or the wagon trains were run. I did a lot of research for the book. And because many of its scenes take place around the area where I grew up, I have the book bringing you up the Mississippi on a variety of steamers, one like the "Arabia" that went down near Kansas City. It takes you to old St. Louis, old Kansas Town, through the fabulous Kansas Flint Hills on the Oregon Trail, and into the Solomon Valley. But most of all I hope It will take you into Annie's heart and soul, a voyage which may be surprisingly close to your own life journey.
Q: Yet you're not quite comfortable calling it a romance OR an historical novel?
A: Right. I think the book avoids categories. At least I hope it does. In a way, although it is a pretty realistic book, both in the historical details and in the psychology of the characters, it also has some moments which are much less realistic, and maybe once in a while it verges on an idea or two.
Q: Can you give me an example of the "less realistic" part you're referring to?
A: Yes. For instance, there's a crow in this book. One very, very strange morning when the prairie seems transformed by dew-covered spider webs, Annie finds it as a fledgiling all tangled up in bindweed, takes it home, makes a pet of it, and it seems to take on a life of its own that no one can quite account for.
Q: How so?
A: Well. Not to give the story away--for I think the story, itself, is the most important part of this bok. I mean, it's a good read, I hope, and I don't want to destroy that for anyone. But this bird is front and center at various moments which are critical to Annie, and it becomes really important toward the end of the book. Crows are very intelligent, you know, and long-lived. And Crow (that's his name) is viewed differently by different people. One woman thinks he operates between the worlds of life and death--kind of an emissary of the gods. And perhaps he does. Others see him as a good luck charm. Then again, he's sort of a clown or jester-bird, and he brings liveliness and humor to the family. I think he brings an element of mystery and spirituality, too. None of that is partiularly "realistic," I guess.
Q: What about the ideas you mentioned? Does this book have "themes"?
A: I guess I'd say that the book wasn't written to pursue any particular ideas. I just wanted to write a readable story about people who interested me. But when I was writing it, I found that ideas did emerge through the characters and the events, and two or three of them seem to me to become motifs, though I'm not sure I'd call them "themes." For instance, religious questions, Annie's spiritual quest, certainly surfaced, and that wasn't anything I'd planned. And Annie's life, itself, has an aura of feminism even though Annie, herself, would be chagrined to hear me say that. That is, the circumstances of her life force her to reflections and decisions that pose challenges to many of us as we think about what a woman can do, should do, must do. Then in her sense of herself and of others, especially the men who love her and her children, Annie confronts lots of issues that we might hear Oprah or Dr. Phil discussing: spousal abuse; individuality vs. responsibilities as wife and mother; economic independence and freedom as bases for self-respect; self-expression, including sexual expression, at the risk of social disapproval. Those kinds of things. Other questions--of ethnic discrimination and racism--enter, too. But none of the "ideas" dominates, I don't think. I'm hoping they're just part of the fabric of Annie's personality and life experiences.
Q: What most pleases you in the book?
A: Annie! I came to love this woman, and I missed her very much after I'd finished writing. I wish she could be my friend, really. But then other parts, too. I am a Kansan, born and bred, and I love the spaces, the landscapes and the animals, especially the Flint Hills around Alma and especially horses. So it was a lot of fun for me--no that's too flip--it was gratifying to me to be able to create scenes which I found very beautiful and evocative: the spider-web morning, the ice morning, the goose morning, then to weave the description into the plot and characters. And I found ways to make animals other than Crow participate in all this. There's a splendid chestnut mare named Doll, for instance. And, oh yes, the Kansas weather! I'm phobic about storms--therefore fascinated by them, and I managed to get two or three of them in here--but no tornadoes, thank you!
Q: What was hardest for you to write?
A: Strangely enough--or perhaps not--I think it was Will, the main male character. I had not intended for him to be half as important to the book as he became. I intended him to be a tool, a means for Annie to come to Kansas and have her children. That may sound harsh, but I just wasn't as interested in him as a character as I was her. But then I started doing the character sketches, you know, and asking myself why he would choose her, why he drank too much, why he was as he was, and I had to invent personality and background and conflict for him--all that. What came out of it was a man, essentially good but dreadfully wounded, tortured, even, and his psyche, his psychology, became extremely interesting to me--and just as hard to deal with, to create. I have a degree in psychology, but nothing quite prepared me for the complications I faced in this man, and he was difficult to make come alive, then to control--at least insofar as characters must be controlled.
Q: Did you come to like him, too?
A: Yes, I did. Very much, indeed. Will is such a powerful combination of intelligence, innocence, and stubbornness. Will. It's the name he chooses for himself. And it is his will which compels him to his self-destructive behaviors--and to his sometimes awful treatment of others, as well. I was kind of buffaloed by him, and I sometimes wanted to make him stop. But I was always interested in him, and, in his better moments, I liked him very much.
Q: You say you have a degree in psychology. Has that been your main interest?
A: No. I got that degree sometimes after I'd finished my work in English. Most of my work has been with literature--American and English. But I'm one of those people who seems to be interested in about everything from philosophy to bird songs.
Q: Have you written other books?
A: Yes. I have several collections of poetry, a drama, some short stories and essays. But One Was Annie is my first novel.
Q: Do you have others in mind?
A: Yes, though I'm not sure about writing another novel. This one took me seven years, and that's a very long time to concentrate on one piece. I think short stories and essays are more likely now, and I do have some in the works. I hope to bring out the prose collection next, then one poetry collection. In the meantime, I'll be writing a second essay collection--all personal essays, this time.
Q: What did you learn when you were writing this book?
A: A huge and wonderful question. . . . I always start dividing things when I'm trying to think about something big. This question makes me think of two big kinds of responses: What did I learn about writing? And--What did I learn about life? Maybe a third is: What did I learn about myself? Are any of those what you have in mind?
Q: Yes. Take the first for starters, why don't you?
A: OK--about writing. What did I learn about writing? Well, first, and maybe most importantly, I found out that I could do it. I could actually write a novel. I wasn't sure I could, you know. It's very different from writing the short stories or poems or academic pieces I was accustomed to. It's a kind of endurance contest. Everything is so much bigger and more complex. That's both a boon and a burden. You have the leisure to work out ideas or characters on a big canvas. That's good. But then you have to do it! And that's hard.
Then I also learned that. . . however much control you think you have, you're not really that much in control. I had a good sense of what the novel was going to do, maybe both plot and character-wise, but I didn't know how all that would occur. I knew the geography; I knew the time frame; I knew the means of travel; I knew the ending. But I didn't know how any of that was going to come to be. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. Sometimes you can't see the trees for the forest. What I mean is that you must constantly invent what you need in order to get where you have to go. It's like going up a mountain. You see the top, but you can't see the rocks or trees or cliffs or ditches or streams you may have to get around or over in order to get to that top. Sometimes in the writing, you have to create characters or events or conflicts that you couldn't imagine creating at the start. Or sometimes some event will cause a conflict for one of the characters you've already drawn, and unforeseen complications can arise.
I guess what I'm saying is that the writing process is very alive. It has its own dynamics that you can't predict. And problems arise for you as the writer as you confront those dynamics and create what you have to in order to make them work. Of course that can be the most exciting part of the process, too, when the work starts making its own demands on you. It's kind of like a relationship, then, a relationship you really want to make work.
Q: Could you mention a character or two you hadn't thought about at the start?
A: Sure. One of my favorites is Ruth, the daughter of slaves belonging to one of the books's main families. I had no thought of such a person, then when I needed someone to tell part of the story, Ruth came into being--and I'm honestly not sure how. It was like: there she was! And I came to have such respect for her. She surprised me more than once by her responses, and I think she has one of the most important scenes in the novel--when she explains her sense of how her father finds the couage to help Will go to the cemetery to locate his wife's grave. It's a very dangerous time near the end of the war, and rebel sympathizers have reason to kill the two of them. Ruth is wonderful at this moment--and throughout, I think. But she is not a character I ever thought of in planning the book.
Q: What else about the writing?
A: Well. One important thing I learned was that I couldn't make everything work I wanted to. For instance, point of view. I had the sense that I didn't want any one perspective on this story. I didn't want an omniscient narrator, as they say, to explain anyone or anything. So I decided that I would have dozens of narrators. The book would be like a pointillistic painting--one story or point of view laid right beside another like dots of color--all separate but, in combination, united. I guess I wanted that because it seems to me that no one of us ever understands the whole. I think I figured that whatever truth the novel contains might be best achieved if lots and lots of people contributed to it but nobody quite knew it, nobody except the reader, that is.
Does that makes sense to you?
However, after I'd written sixty or seventy pages and created five or ten narrators, I began to see the endlessness of what I was trying. I really liked the directness and variety I was getting, but I couldn't seem to make the story move. It was like having five runners on 1st, all at the same time! So I had to let that go. And I hated to. It was very lively!
Q: What about "life," I think you said, as one of the other "things" you learned about in writing this book?
A: Did I say that?
Q: Yes, you did!
A: Mmmm. Well. Maybe sometimes I speak too quickly! No. I don't mean that. It's just a harder question. Of course I learned about life in doing this--certainly the lives of these characters. And insofar as they are true, they taught me truths about being: being human, being in that time and place. . . being. It's kind of funny, but as an author, you're constantly trying to achieve an equilibrium of sorts between what you know you have to do to bring the plot and people to fruition and what you have to just let happen because, as you form the action and characters, they take on their own necessity, their own momentum. That's what I was talking about earlier relative to trying to control what you're creating while it develops its own life.
It became clear to me that that whole set of affairs is lots like what happens in our own lives. We have our plans; we see the currents we're part of; but we can't always go with them. Or we might hit a sandbar we haven't seen. Annie talks about this--how we have our dreams and plans, but the daily forces us to revise all the time. We never quite have a grip on who we are, where we're going, or why we encounter what we encounter. There's a randomness, an element of chance and the irrational, that dominates us, no matter what we may plan or think. I think I clarified that for myself in writing this.
Q: What audience do you think this novel will reach?
A: The audience may be somewhat broader than I'd originally thought it might. At first, I'd thought it would appeal primarily to women--who tend to read more novels, I think, than men do. I'd also thought it would appeal to young adults, eighteen on up. But my en route readers have reponded in such a way as to suggest that both men and women warm to the book, and older adults have very much enjoyed Annie's questions and insights. I think, too, that that latter group has memories from their families, memories still very much alive, of the time frame of this novel and of the rigors and joys of that period.
Q: I have a feeling we could go on like this for a day! I guess we'll wind it down by asking you if you'd like to add anything more.
A: Only that I hope Annie and Will become interesting to lots of people. I can't do anything more to or for them, so it's up to them, now. I wish them well.
|What people are saying about ONE WAS ANNIE--|
"I love this book!" Sarah Ngoh
"This is a wonderfully well-written book filled with compassion for the people who inhabit its pages--people who could be us. Reiter keeps it plain as she tells the story of a mismatched couple: a pretty fifteen year old girl married to a tortured Civil War veteran. But the book becomes spiritually exalting and heart-wrenching as Annie, one of thousands of pioneer women, struggles to raise her children and create her own identity apart from the men who love her and the terrible hardships she endures. Then there's that crow. . . ." Dex Westrum, author of Thomas McGuane and Elegy for a Golf Pro. (Milwaukee)
"Lady! You sure do know how to do death scenes!" Margaret Vaughan (Wichita)
"I liked Cold Mountain, but I like this book better." Erma Leaton (Houston)
"I can see these people. You make the historical come alive." Jeff Wicks (Lincoln, Ks.)
"This has got to be a TV mini-series. I've never read anything more visual." Robin Pearson (Beloit, Ks.)
"Fascinating! Can't wait to buy a book. Nell MClain (Dodge City)
"Narrative . . . [is] excellent." C. J. Morris (Dodge City)
"Beautiful presentation. . . . enthralling tale. . . ." Robbie Cline (Dodge City)
"Beautiful. . . ." Joyce S. Day (Dodge City)
For more (lots more!) comments about the book and programs on it, use the publishamerica link.)