April 20, 2009
It’s no secret that I have a penchant for history. Whether it is learning about the trials and tribulations of Louis XIV or the brave soldiers from the American Civil War, there’s something quite fascinating about discovering little-known facts from the past. Take Henry David Thoreau, for example. Did you know that he accidentally set fire to three hundred acres of woods before building his cabin on the nearby Walden Pond? No, I didn’t either! But this month’s Jen’s Jewels, John Pipkin, most certainly did!
In his debut novel entitled WOODSBURNER, he takes this real-life incident and spins it into a gripping tale of four extraordinary men whose lives are forever changed by this catastrophic event. Through his vivid depiction of these mystifying characters, he takes the reader on a riveting journey with many surprising twist and turns. Without a doubt, this novel raises historical fiction to an all new level.
As part of this interview, Doubleday Books has generously donated five copies for you, my lucky readers, to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of reading adventure.
Jen: It’s quite refreshing to speak with a debut novelist because you are somewhat of a mystery to us. Quite often, an author’s background helps fill in the gaps in terms of why you chose to pursue a certain genre. So, please share with us a brief overview of your educational and professional background prior to becoming a novelist.
John: Since the summer of 2000, my wife and I have called Austin, Texas “home,” but I am originally from back east—born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. As an undergraduate, I attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia and then went to UNC-Chapel Hill for my M.A. in English, before moving out to Houston to earn my Ph.D. in British Literature from Rice University. (For some reason I gradually migrated southward during my college years.) My first job after graduate school was teaching English at Saint Louis University. Later I worked for several years as an assistant professor of Rhetoric and Humanities at Boston University, before moving back to Texas, where I worked for a time as a freelance editor for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, and then as a standardized test developer for Pearson Educational Measurement, and most recently as the Executive Director of the Writers’ League of Texas, which is a non-profit, literary arts organization. I have been writing fiction steadily since 1995, but WOODSBURNER is my first novel and my first published piece of fiction. All of my jobs have been related in some way to education, publishing, and the literary arts, so I think they all contributed in their own way to my writing career.
Jen: What was the driving force that led you to a career in publishing? And also, how would you best describe yourself as a writer?
John: You know, I have always wanted to be a writer, but I guess I took a fairly circuitous route to get to where I am now. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment or motive in my childhood that led me to pursue writing, but I can identify the main reason that I returned to the idea of being a writer as an adult. In my academic career I did a great deal of archival research, and what I often found most intriguing were the coincidences and historical concurrences that seemed somehow connected in ways that are not empirically verifiable. Fiction, especially historical fiction, gave me the opportunity to speculate, to make intuitive leaps between events and people. How would I describe myself as a writer? I guess I would say that I am drawn first to idea. Different writers begin at different places. I know some writers who first begin with a character, or a particular point of conflict, or a setting, or a historical event. I think I tend to be drawn toward ideas first: a message or theme or tone that I want to convey to the reader. The writing process is largely the development of all of the other elements necessary to communicate the larger idea to the reader. I’m a pretty disciplined writer; in fact, I often feel more like a mechanic or an engineer than an “artist.” I take writing very seriously (even if what I am writing at the time happens to be comic) and I trust in the transformative power in words. I truly believe that people are rendered better versions of themselves through the act of reading.
Jen: As my readers know, my column welcomes most genres, however, this month’s selection took me way out of my comfort zone. (I’m happy to report that it was a fascinating educational journey for me. I highly recommend the book!) In your first release, WOODSBURNER, you masterfully take a real- life historical incident and turn it into a fictional story. Please describe its metamorphosis. How did you arrive at the premise? And, why did choose to write about Henry David Thoreau?
John: In the summer of 2003, I had no intention of writing a novel about Henry David Thoreau. But around that time that I picked up the July 2003 issue of Harper’s and came across a brief line in the Harper’s Index:
Estimated acres of forest Henry David Thoreau burned down in 1844 trying to cook fish he had caught for dinner: 300.
I have always been interested in Thoreau, and in early-nineteenth-century American literature and philosophy in general, but I was not aware of this incident. The fire is not a secret, and it is mentioned in all of the major Thoreau biographies, but no one, as far as I can tell, has ever really considered what impact this fire had on Thoreau’s development as a philosopher and a naturalist. At first, I was simply attracted by the irony that one of America’s iconic environmentalists might have been driven—at least in part—by his remorse over having caused the destruction of the very thing he so loved. But the details surrounding the event are even more intriguing. The forest fire takes place at a time in Thoreau’s life when his own future was uncertain: he had not yet written any of the great works for which he would be remembered; his various attempts at teaching and tutoring had ended in disappointment, and he had not yet built his famous cabin at Walden Pond. In 1844, Thoreau was a relatively unknown pencil maker with great intellectual promise (according to his close friends) but little to show for it. Could it be possible that an accidental forest fire—one that burned for only a single day—may have helped changed the landscape of American literary history?
The more I researched, the more I began to feel that America was also at a crossroads in the period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. America was still searching for its identity and had not yet developed its own literature or art or philosophy. It is a fertile, exciting, and transformative period in American history, and I eventually decided that I wanted WOODSBURNER to deal with the promises of the New World, the seemingly unlimited resources of early America, and the sense of possibility and uncertainty present in a young country that—for all its potential—could not yet lay claim to a cultural or intellectual tradition of its own.
Jen: Please walk us through the writing process. Did you outline first? Did you have a vision as to where you wanted the story to lead you or did it take on a life of its own?
John: I always outline, repeatedly and obsessively. I don’t always stick to the outline, but it’s there for reference if I start to wander too far off track. There are four interwoven plots in WOODSBURNER, as well as a good deal of back-story, so I had to keep the plot lines organized. Each character has his or her own history and his or her own story of what happens on the day of the fire. I wrote each of the four stories individually, from start to finish. Then I went back and broke the stories apart and wove them together. I originally kept all of the chapters relatively short so that I could link events in each character’s story to the overall structure of the novel. I kept track of the various stories on a chart and on index cards, so that I could make sure the timelines matched properly. My office at home was not pretty sight.
Jen: Approximately how much research went into the writing of this book? Besides Henry, did any of the other characters you mention in the novel truly exist?
John: I did quite a bit of research into Thoreau’s life, and, of course, I researched life in 19th-century America. For the most part, I tried to rely on Thoreau’s own writings for the main source of information about his life and the world of 1844. But, to be honest, I also tried very hard to limit my research, because WOODSBURNER is—first and foremost—a work of fiction, not a biography or a history of the period. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of including historical facts for their own sake. I only allowed myself enough research to support the fictional stories I created. I wanted to make sure, to the best of my ability, that every action and thought and spoken word in WOODSBURNER is historically plausible. There is little documentation of what exactly happened on the day of the fire, so I felt relatively unconstrained as far as what I could imagine actually happened. But I made sure that nothing I imagined in the book contradicts known facts.
Thoreau is the only real-life character in WOODSBURNER, and I limited my research to what happened up until 1844, because I wanted to avoid attributing thoughts or details from his later life to his earlier period. The other main characters of the novel are completely fictional, although there are a few references to other historical figures (such as Emerson, and the landowners Thoreau encounters in the woods). The other main characters are not based on any real people and they are not composites of historical figures. I wanted to create characters representative of different aspects of American society at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Jen: Roughly how long did it take to complete WOODSBURNER? What was the most challenging part of the entire process? The most rewarding?
John: I began writing the book in November 2003, one week before my son was born. In terms of the process itself, one of the most challenging parts of the project was simply finding time to write with a full-time job and a newborn. I woke at 5:00am every morning and wrote until 8:00am before heading off to work. I did this for three years, and I completely re-wrote the manuscript three times. As far as the content is concerned, the most challenging part was keeping myself focused on the story when there was always a temptation to digress into quirky anecdotes about little historical oddities of the time. After I had rewritten the book a second time, I put it aside for three months and then came back to it. When I reread it, I found passages that I had completely forgotten I had written—when I read them they felt like been written by someone else—and that was probably the most satisfying experience of the whole process.
Jen: In the novel, you chose to highlight four very different men. Let’s talk about each one and how his persona contributed to the execution of the plot. As you mentioned, the catalyst of the story is the fire accidentally set by Henry. I was surprised as to Henry’s blasé attitude towards the impact of his actions. Would you agree with my observation? And if so, why did you choose to portray him in this way? And if not, what were your intentions?
John: Thoreau’s character is based very closely upon the content and tone of his journal entries for 1837 to 1844 (including his sole account of the fire in 1850). I tried to avoid including any information or interpretations that applied to Henry’s life post-1884, which was difficult, since most of the what he is remembered for are writings and events that came after the fire. I don’t think that Thoreau’s attitude toward the fire is blasé, but I definitely tried to make his perspective appear vexed and ambivalent. I truly believe that Thoreau felt guilty and that the defensive (sometimes indignant) tone in his journal entry for 1850, in which he tries to rationalize away his guilt, is indicative of how deeply he felt responsible for what he had done. At the same time, I felt that it would be inaccurate to depict him as overtly penitent since this would contradict the way he presents himself through his own writings. My intention was to portray Thoreau’s character with a certain ambiguity so that readers can draw their own conclusions as to whether or not the impact of the fire was significant enough to alter the course of his life. Despite all of the writings that Thoreau has left us, Thoreau the man is still somewhat enigmatic, the subject of much debate and speculation, and I didn’t want to do anything to alter that character.
Jen: On page 173 you write, “After twenty-six years, Henry has accomplished little, and the burden of his empty history weighs heavily on him.” Is this a true portrayal of Henry David Thoreau? Did he spend the first part of his life in state of purposelessness?
John: Well, yes, I believe that this is an accurate portrayal of Thoreau’s indecisiveness and his frustrated ambitions in the spring of 1844. But I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that Thoreau spent the first part of his life in a state of purposelessness. By 1844, he had already been writing for several years. He had already begun his journal and was recording observations about nature that would figure centrally in his later works. He had already run his own school with his brother John for three years, and for a time he had helped edit the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. He had also lived in New York for several months in 1843, trying to break into the publishing world, but he could not find anyone willing to publish his writings. At the time of the fire, Thoreau he had not yet succeeded at any of the ambitions for which he is now well known. In fact, at this time Thoreau himself had begun to worry if he was ever to achieve any of his literary goals. Ironically, in the spring of 1844, the one thing at which Thoreau appears to have worked the hardest and enjoyed the greatest success is something that has been forgotten altogether: he helped his father make what were then regarded as the best pencils in America. Thoreau invented and refined several devices for manufacturing of pencils and his innovations contributed substantially to the financial success of the family business. I can’t help but wonder: if it weren’t for the fire, would Thoreau be known today as a pencil maker instead of our first great environmentalist?
Jen: The second man in the story is Oddmund Hus. What an interesting character! First of all, what is the significance of his dead infant tooth? Does its existence have some deeper meaning? Or does it simply personify his infantile demeanor?
John: Thanks. I have been simply overwhelmed by the powerful way that readers have responded to Oddmund’s character. The dead tooth! Many readers have asked about that. It does hold an important significance in the story, but I’d rather not assign it a specific symbolic meaning, since I want to give readers the freedom to consider the meaning for themselves. But I will confess that I am fairly obsessed with teeth and, for that matter, all things dental. In the 21st century, in America especially, we place such a high emphasis on perfect, straight, unnaturally white teeth, and yet, even today, teeth can still be a source of great pain. In no other time in human history have smiles looked anything like what we regularly see today on television and in the movies. But when we’re trying to picture what people looked like in the nineteenth century, I think we seldom consider what people’s teeth looked like, or at least we don’t think about it until after we’ve thought about dress, hairstyles, etc. Even less consideration is given to the discomfort that people must have regularly experienced a few generations ago. Many people in Thoreau’s time lost teeth at an early age. Thoreau himself needed to have all of his teeth pulled at thirty-four! Much has been said about the eyes being windows to the soul, but I think that the way a person smiles is just as revealing. Even today, the appearance of a person’s teeth often subtly influences the way they are judged by others.
Jen: Secondly, his attraction to Emma Woburn is painstakingly sorrowful. What makes Emma such a femme fatale in his eyes?
John: The love story between Oddmund and Emma really occupies the heart of the novel. I wanted to create a hero who was filled with self-doubt and wholly unaware of his own strength. Oddmund is a man who is frightened by his own urges and spends much of his life denying and ignoring his desires. But for Emma overpowers his own resistance to himself. I think Odd sees a kindred spirit in Emma, someone who, like him, arrived in the New World alone, forced to find her own way. Odd admires her for this strength.
Jen: In the book you write, “Odd had sought only to remove himself from the paths of other people, but he had not expected that he would find in the woods companionship of a different sort.”(pg.138)
In what way has society scorn him so deeply that he feels that his only saving grace is a life of solitude? Is this a self-imposed sentence?
John: Yes, his solitude is self-imposed, and, in fact, I think that most of the scorn he feels is actually the product of his own imagination. He views himself much more harshly than do any of the other characters. He is left abandoned and alone in the New World, and he carries with him a terrible family secret, but it is his own diminished sense of self-worth that leads him to believe that the world has rejected him. In America, after all, he is free to remake himself into anything he wants, but he has to realize this potential for himself first, and then, of course, he needs to finds the motivation to transform himself.
Jen: Let’s move on to the ambitious bookseller named Eliot Calvert. Why is he so quick to give up his freedom and marry Margaret Mary Mahoney even though her father comes along with the package? Has he taken on more than he bargained for? Why or why not?
John: Eliot is not only an ambitious artist; he is socially and financially ambitious as well. These conflicting desires play themselves out internally, and though Eliot tends to blames others for his lack of artistic success or his overwhelming financial responsibilities, he alone is responsible for the man he has become. He gives up his freedom and marries Margaret Mahoney because, although he clings to romantic notions of art, he cannot ignore his own hunger for material success.
Jen: Without giving too much away, the sale of some rather unconventional items in his store seemed to illicit a much deeper meaning. Yes, the extra income was needed, but also I felt as if he were striking back at Margaret’s father. Would it be fair to say that his resentment towards both of them played a role in the way he conducted his entire life?
John: Eliot, I think, is essentially striking back at himself throughout the book. To cite a cliché, he is his own worst enemy, though he probably doesn’t see it this way. Although he resents Margaret and her father for distracting him from his art and burdening him with the responsibilities of maintaining a business and a big house, the truth is that he actually resents himself for embracing the world that he wants to think he is somehow above. Eliot’s thwarted ambitions are his own fault, although he tries repeatedly to blame them on others.
Jen: Finally, the villain of the story, if you will, is Caleb Ephraim Dowdy. In my opinion, he is the minister without faith. What has driven this lost soul to such a self-destructive journey of being?
John: The doubts that Caleb Dowdy feels are really some of the most basic human doubts and fears. But because he refuses to face them directly, openly and honestly, they fester within him. He is so desperate to believe that his religious views are correct, that he is willing to do some truly terrible things, just to prove himself right. He clings so tightly to dogma to help him resolve the contradictions that he sees in the world, that his beliefs ultimately push him away from the world.
Jen: The scene with the man on the verge of being hung was chilling. Without giving too much away, do you think Caleb came to regret his decision? Why or why not?
John: That’s a great question. Here again, I don’t want to preclude readers from drawing their own conclusions, but I do think that it is important to consider whether Caleb regrets his decision because he realizes it was morally wrong, or because he realizes that the consequences of his decision, once he learns the truth, undermine his rigid system of beliefs.
Jen: Looking back on the entire process, how have you grown as a writer?
John: I think the most important thing that I have learned about writing is actually something incredibly obvious that I probably should have known before I started, and that is that the most important elements of any story are the characters. Of course, it is important that all elements of a story be well-constructed, but characters are what really draw a reader in, elicit sympathy and understanding, and it is through the characters that readers truly connect to the themes and ideas in the book.
Jen: Please tell us about your promotional plans for WOODSBURNER. Do you have a website? Will you be participating in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about arranging one? Will you be on a book signing tour?
John: I will be on tour in May and June, and all of those dates will be posted on my website: www.johnpipkin.com. Some highlights: the official book launch will be at BookPeople in Austin on May 7, and I will also be at the Concord Bookshop in Concord, MA on May 17, and at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore on June 29. I will be scheduling phone chats with book clubs during the summer, and the best way for a book club to schedule one would be to contact me via my website.
Jen: Thank you so much for sharing WOODSBURNER with my readers. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with you and wish only the best in your career.
John: Thank you for your insightful questions. I’ve really enjoyed discussing them.
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with John. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy today. Better yet, would you like to win one? Be one of the first five people to e-mail me at email@example.com with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win.
Name the villain in WOODSBURNER.
Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with the authors of SOMEDAY YOU’LL THANK ME FOR THIS…The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Being a ‘Perfect” Mother. You won’t want to miss it.
Until next time…Jen