April 23, 2015 | Feature
The Mapmaker’s Maker Comes to Brown
An Interview With Sarah McCoy, Bestselling Author
Q: Your two most recent novels, The Mapmaker’s Children and The Baker’s Daughter, both feature interwoven narratives that stretch across time and space. What led you to this form? What do you think are the challenges and advantages to juggling multiple settings and multiple narratives in a single novel?
SM: Writing a dual narrative in historical-contemporary hybrid form seems to be my organic way of processing whatever fictional worlds I’m working in. History seen through this kind of Alice in Wonderland looking-glass filter of the present. I wrote that way for The Baker’s Daughter and now again in The Mapmaker’s Children. I’m fascinated by how the people of the past can reach across generations and impact the present; how mysteries of the present have their solutions in the past; how issues we face and decisions we make today are strikingly similar to ones our forebearers made—with good and bad outcomes. I’m riveted by this interplay.
I think it’s important we don’t just read and compartmentalize the past as an “interesting story.” I want my readers to see that the history is a key, a manual, a lesson guidebook for us to learn and implement change in our present lives.
That all being said, it does not make for easy or simple novel writing.
Q: How do you feel that your writing and writing process have evolved since your first novel, The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico?
SM: As a novelist, I consider myself a perpetual student of the craft. I learn so much with each story. From the research and creative process to the editing and revising, writing a novel is like a master class in narrative invention. I come away knowing so much more than I did from the start—so many nuanced techniques and lessons that I didn’t yet know or have a full grasp of utilizing when I began my writing career. The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is a precious gem to me because it radiates the passion I have for my Puerto Rican heritage and the earnest yearning I had to become a published author during the writing of it.
Q: You currently live in El Paso, but your stories are set all over the world. Do you travel to the settings of your novels, or do you imagine them from El Paso? How do you feel that travel has influenced your writing?
SM: I believe my military child upbringing developed my love of experiencing new cultures. I was born in Kentucky but lived in various regions of the United States and abroad in Germany with my mother’s family firmly rooted in Puerto Rico. So packing a suitcase and traveling was standard practice. It’s ironic considering I’m a notorious homebody. As much as I love exploring unknown territories, I love my old comforts even more! I suppose this lends itself to my stories. I’ll do boots-on-the-ground traveling for awhile, but I always crave my home. I’m happiest in my writing office where I can reflect on the places I’ve been. When I’m in the foreign setting, I’m too busy experiencing all the sights and wonders as Sarah McCoy. Only when I remove myself from the shiny newness and return to my routine can I discover the fictional characters hidden in the daily seams of that “other” place.
Q: What’s on your bookshelf? Do you have a current favorite novel or an old standby that you can’t live without?
SM: I’m currently in the middle of reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and it is astounding. The Mapmaker’s Children shares a birthday with Kate’s sequel A God in Ruins, and I couldn’t be more honored or excited to read a fellow May 5 book baby.
Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?
SM: Persevere. This writing life is hard. Ninety percent of your work is in solitary confinement where no one sees your toil, your tears, the sleepless nights, and writing sores from being enslaved to the story realm. And that’s exactly what you are as a writer—a slave to your characters, a humble minstrel to the masses, a pleading peasant to a kingdom of critics. But if you know for certain you could not be happy doing anything else, then join our gypsy tribe and persevere, young friends.
Q Where did you get the inspiration for The Mapmaker’s Children? How did you research the novel?
SM: The “spark” for each of my novels has come to me differently. Author friends tell me how they are consistently inspired through one particular medium: a visual image, historical character, political agenda, emotional struggle, color, food, etc. I can’t say that I have one. I guess my Muse likes to throw her bolts in various forms. I’ve never had a story come to me in the same way. The Mapmaker’s Children began with a sentence being spoken …
“A dog is not a child,” the woman, Eden Anderson, kept saying. And it was the way she said it that wouldn’t let me be. Confident, irked, and yet, deeply wounded by the very words she spoke. I couldn’t shush her no matter what I did. Months of hearing this over and over in my head—it could drive a woman nuts!
So in an effort to cure my insomnia from the haunting, I wrote the sentence and its corresponding scene in the journal. I realized then that the sentence was echoing through and out the front door of an old house—the house in New Charlestown calling me to solve its Underground Railroad secret. A mystery set between Eden in present-day West Virginia and Sarah Brown 150 years ago.
To be honest, before then, I was familiar with the abolitionist movement by virtue of being a history nerd. The Underground Railroad was a fascinating component, but it wasn’t until Eden and Sarah’s home called to me that I became completely absorbed in it. The research for this story took me from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Concord, Massachusetts, to Red Bluff, California. I followed Sarah’s trail, piecing together her legacy map. I wrote about that extensive research process in the “Author’s Note” in the back of the novel.
Q: Familial relations—specifically the relationships between parents and children—feature prominently in your work. Have you always been interested in parent/child relationships? Has your understanding of the dynamics in those relationships changed over time as you’ve written about them and had your own experiences?
SM: Family dynamics are essential the heart of all storytelling. Stories are inheritances passed through the generations that know no social prejudice or economic bias. Each family has its saga and may freely share. History books record the facts but the voices and hearts of people are echoed in story form. So, of course, the dynamic between those characters will infuse the material.
In The Mapmaker’s Children, I specifically wanted to tackle the issue of nurturing and defining a family. As a global community, I believe we’ve allowed a worrisome stereotype to become the high mark of good family modality. We’ve constructed a rigid mold for what a happy family looks like and anything different is somehow … less.
It weighed heavily on me, and I began to ask questions: Can you be a devoted parent without physically procreating? Does a loving, fulfilling family have to consist of children? Does being a parent only apply to humans or could one be a parent/nurturer of animals or a righteous cause? Who wrote the prototypical happily-ever-after and might each of us have the power to rewrite it?
I noticed that a majority of my friends (men and women, couples to singles) were uncomfortable—even disgruntled—by my questions in group settings. Yet in private, they admitted that they internally battled these very constraints. Again, it perplexed me. Why weren’t we able to have an open conversation about this? Why were people afraid to challenge the norm? And what happened to those who didn’t attain the set parent-child-family vision—was their family and legacy not as good as those who did?
Being an author, I sought answers through my characters. I learned from Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson. I changed through my journey with them, and I pray readers pick up The Mapmaker’s Children willing to ponder the questions and possibly discover keys to opening their own hearts.