It’s not every day you have a published author in the family. Oh wait! It will be every day, now that Ashley E. Sweeney, my mother-in-law, has published her first novel, Eliza Waite, with She Writes Press! The book, which has been 8 years in the making, hit stores on Monday.
Eliza Waite is the story of a woman homesteading on Cypress Island (in Washington’s San Juan Islands) at the turn of the 19th century. Having lost her austere minister husband and young son to smallpox, Eliza feels a sense of connectedness to the island, preferring to stay after all other residents flee. After a series of events open new possibilities and tear old wounds, Eliza — true to her pioneering spirit — determines to reinvent herself, venturing to Skagway, Alaska to open a cafe for miners. There, she finds baked goods and brothels, friends and old foes, happiness and healing. The book is peppered with real historical characters as well as authentic pioneer recipes.
Because of my proximity to the author, I can’t give the book an unbiased review; however, I did catch up with Ashley to interview her about her writing process and literary influences.
KG – Eliza is a complicated character. How did you get into her mind and encourage her to give up her secrets?
AES –Eliza grew as a character as I delved into her persona and psyche. This process took several years in real time. In that magical phenomenon that takes place as an author writes a novel, I allowed Eliza to grow in her own way, at her own pace. I count it a privilege that I was able to conjure a character and then let her take over. And some of her secrets surprised me!
KG – As early reviewers have observed, setting, both time and place, play an integral role in the novel. Why did you choose the setting? What were you hoping to achieve?
AES – Setting can be considered a character in novel writing. I spent much time and effort creating the atmosphere in Part One while Eliza lives on Cypress Island. I lingered in some scenes in Part One longer than others to allow the reader into the story. Part One evokes loneliness, and readers and reviewers have commented that they feel immersed in the scenes and feel the wind, the cold, and the desperation that the setting educes. I felt that Part Two would not be nearly as effective without the pain, grief, and desolation of Part One, and I hope I am successful in that assumption. Part Two is much more chaotic, just as Skagway was as a lawless boomtown filled with every conceivable fortune hunter and con artist. The setting in Part Two is therefore noisier, dirtier, and riotous.
KG – Eliza is heavily influenced by authors of her time like Kate Chopin. Who are your literary influences?
AES – My heroine—literary or otherwise—is Amelia Earhardt. Earhardt said that “the most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is mere tenacity.” I see that quote come alive in the character of Eliza Waite. Eliza’s decision to leave Cypress Island to join the hordes traveling north to the Klondike is nothing short of fool hearted bravery; but how she succeeds is step by step, or, as another literary influence of mine, Anne Lamott, quoted, “bird by bird.” It’s the putting one foot in front of the other that propels Eliza away from grief and toward happiness; away from failure and toward success. As for authors I admire: Geraldine Brooks, Sue Monk Kidd, Tracy Chevalier, Louise Erdrich.
KG – What do you hope readers take away from Eliza’s story?
AES – My hope is that readers will find the courage from somewhere deep inside to make life-changing decisions—no matter how great or how formidable—and move toward the life that they can only imagine.
KG – I’ve said since I first read the manuscript a year ago that Eliza Waite would make a great movie. Who would be your pick to play the title role?
AES – Hands down, Saorise Ronan. The “Brooklyn” actress has everything I see in Eliza—shy but feisty, and the ability to grow as a character. Ronan’s transformation in “Brooklyn” from a demure teen to a confident young woman mirrors Eliza’s trajectory from an unlovely widow to an enterprising and mature woman. I would also love to see Helen Bonham Carter play the role of Pearly, although a dear friend of mine said she would covet that part! In my dreams, Steiner would be played by Jude Law and Burns would be played by Daniel Radcliffe. Nice.
You can purchase Eliza Waite at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or several independent booksellers, such as Village Books. (Ashley will even be doing a reading and meet-and-greet there on May 25th!) Better yet, you can request that your library purchase it and spread the love!