I am thrilled and elated to share with you the news that Jeannie Mobley, with whom I used to be in a critique group, is celebrating the release of her first published novel this week.
KATERINA’S WISH is already well-reviewed and causing a stir, having hit several “best of” and “books to watch” lists for middle grade fiction this fall, and with good reason.
Jeannie Mobley is a very talented writer.
I asked Jeannie if she would take time out of her busy pre-launch schedule (that’s book launch; she’s not going into space) to talk to me about her experiences in bringing KATERINA’S WISH from first draft to published novel. She graciously agreed.
MLF: Did you set out to write a story about this time period and then find your way to Katerina, or did her character come to you first?
JM: Neither one, really. I tend to have a sense of the themes of a story and then pick the historical time and place best suited to tell that story. Specific characters often comes late in that process.
For Katerina’s Wish, my original concept was of an immigrant family trying to overcome the poor conditions so many experience when they first come to America. And I liked the idea of a “magical wish” underlying the effort, but with ambiguity as to whether it was the wish bringing about the changes or whether something else was going on. I had recently read My Antonia, by Willa Cather, one of the great, under-emphasized American novels, and I chose to make my characters Bohemian as a nod to that book. Once I had made that decision, the early 20th century in the southern Colorado coal mines was a natural fit, as the mines recruited heavily from eastern and southern Europe in that time.
MLF: How did you find historic details about day-to-day life, such as what people ate, what tools they used, what games the children played and what everyone wore?
JM: I used old photos extensively, especially focusing on the background details. People got dressed up for portraits, but street scenes capture everyday life: ordinary clothes and objects, houses, trash and weeds, ads in windows, etc.. I also read a number of oral histories. The Spanish Peaks Public Library District’s library in Walsenburg, Colorado has wonderful oral histories on line, and the Denver Public Library’s Western History Archives has many historical photos online as well. And finally, when I couldn’t find prices for foods I needed, I resorted to a trip to my local library to use the trusty microfilm machines and actually scan newspapers of the era.
MLF: I know you had some difficulty settling on a title. Can you share some of that with us?
JM: Are you sure? Because it’s not pretty. My working title was “Magic Carp,” which I never liked, for several reasons (not least among them being the easy transposition of letters in CARP, which is sure to cause great hilarity among middle grade readers.) One of the first things my editor said to me was “I hope you won’t be offended, but we here at Simon and Schuster don’t really like the title.” I just laughed.
After that, I spent months, with the help of friends and critique partners, trying to come up with a title. I finally sent a list of about thirty possibilities to my editor, none of which I really liked. As I recall, the last title on the list was “If Wishes Were Fishes, then Miners Would Farm,” just to prove that I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. I had included “Trina’s Wish” on the list, which my editor changed to “Katerina’s Wish.” I can’t say I ever became madly in love with the title, but by that time, I was ready to say yes to anything. Now that it’s finalized, I do like the way it looks on the cover.
MLF: Authors of historical fiction are often asked, “Would you like to live in the time period you write about?” I write about the middle ages, and while there’s a lot I love about that time, I would never want to live then. Do you feel that way about Katerina’s time? What do you love about then that we have lost?
JM: As a kid, I often daydreamed myself into the past, but really that was just because I was crazy about horses, and I figured if I lived in the late 1800s, my parents would have let me have one.
Largely, though, I wouldn’t want to live back then. When people look back and remember “a simpler, purer time,” they are forgetting all the racism, sexism, and hard work that we have overcome since then. Do I wish I lived in an era where corporate bosses could virtually enslave their workers, where women couldn’t vote, and where the laundry had to be scrubbed by hand and you couldn’t order out for dinner? Not so much. Also, I am a terrible speller, so I can’t imagine writing without spell check. Jane Austen, you amaze me!
MLF: What was the hardest part of the process of taking your book from idea to manuscript to published book? What was the easiest part? What was the best part?
JM: The hardest part was that I didn’t believe in it this story for a long time. On its first time out in the world, it didn’t sell because it was under-developed. It also hadn’t turned out to be the story I had originally set out to write, and I lost interest in it. I put it away for several years, but my agent and my critique group kept urging (or nagging–pick your word) me to get it back out. When I did, I still didn’t like it. I rewrote it unable to see any merit in the character or the story. It is the only thing I’ve ever written that I felt that way about (and I hope it remains so, because it wasn’t pleasant.) I kept asking my critique group, “are you sure this isn’t boring?” I think, however, that since I wasn’t deeply into the character’s head, it did allow me to focus more consciously on the craft of writing, and I learned a lot.
As to the best part, there are many answers to that question. Of course, the moment when you realize that you are finally going to be published is amazing. For me, it was a moment more of relief than joy, but the joy found its way in too. But the moment that really stands out was receiving the first-pass pages. These are formatted exactly as they will be in the book, with interior art work, final font selection–everything. It was the first time I saw my dedication in print, and I cried. Also, it was the first time I read the story with a sense of detachment– as a reader instead of the writer. That’s when I finally saw the appeal of the story that my critique group, agent, and editor had been seeing all along. At last, I could put away my worries and just celebrate the book.
Many thanks to Jeannie for taking the time to chat with me, and best wishes for great success with this novel, surely the first of many!
Jeannie is an archaeologist and professor who lives in Colorado. She is represented by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and KATERINA’S WISH is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. You can visit Jeannie’s website at http://www.jeanniemobley.com/.