Interview with “The Last Sister” author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker (Part 3)

courtneypic_1Welcome to Part 3 of my interview with “The Last Sister” author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker. You can read Part 2 of the interview here, Part 1 here, and read my review of the novel, Courtney’s debut, here.

Today, Courtney and I are going to talk about living in the past and identifying (or not) with our main characters.

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 Catriona’s time? What do you love about then that we have lost?

When I was a kid, I often wished I had lived earlier—I loved history and historical fiction and thought my own time was pretty dull in comparison. As fascinating as I find the eighteenth century, I definitely wouldn’t want to live then. I always think about whether or not I’d even be alive. It’s a strong maybe. I was a Caesarean birth, and my parents said the doctor told them that without it, because of the super weird way I attempted to come into the world, my mother would have died and I would have had irreparable leg damage, if I’d survived at all. My life would have been very different from the start if not for the wonders of modern medicine. I would never have known my mother and would have had a serious physical disability in a world without any accommodations. Single fathers rarely raised female children, so someone else would have brought me up. My younger brother would never have been born. So on and etc. Childbirth mortality shaped the scene then in so many ways. (This is also one reason I’ve never even considered giving birth outside a hospital.)

I love the physical comforts of modern life: I love my heating in the winter and my air conditioning in the summer. I would have lived before novels really started flourishing as an art form. Limited access to a small number of novels: what a horrible thought! That’s another thing I take into consideration: how many wonderful novels hadn’t yet been written! I would have missed them! I already regret not being able to read all the great books that will come after my own time.

That said, one thing I think we’ve lost is much suspense in daily life, and I think that’s one of the things that can contribute to a pervading sense of boredom and malaise—the good old ennui people have been whining about for a century. I’ve read studies about why young people join terrorist groups that conclude they’re looking for a sense of adventure. In our world, we know what everyone is up to all the time, whether it’s an individual, a community, or a government. We know what everyone is thinking, even if we don’t want to. Or at least it’s possible to know. The number of times I’ve been watching a movie or reading a book and thought, “Too bad you people don’t have GPS and smart phones,” is too many to count. But then there’d be no story. That’s the thing: without suspense, there’s not much story, and I wonder if in losing much of our sense of “What’s next?” we’re losing some of our ability to understand our lives through narrative.

Agreed on all counts, Courtney!

Sometimes, we inadvertently reveal ourselves in our main characters; other times we write against type. Right now I’m revising my “Taming of the Shrew” novel, and my main character is, um, a difficult person whereas I go out of my way to avoid conflict. I have to remind myself NOT to write her the way I would react but the way she would. This is the first time I’ve undertaken a main character who is so different from me, and it’s a real challenge at times.

Are you like Catriona, single-minded and determined? Do you think you would have reacted the way she did to the tragic events that spark the novel’s action? If not, what tools did you use to write her character with such deep understanding?

Wow, I’m glad you think I understand her so well!

First, I’ll say that I purposely made her look physically different from me because I didn’t want to write myself into the novel. There are definitely some things we share and some things I’m pretty sure I would have done differently.

One thing we do share is our ability to handle a real crisis. I’m sure my family would tell you that I can really upset myself over things I imagine happening (an occupational hazard?), but if anything actually does go wrong, I am remarkably clearheaded and able to react and do one thing after another until stability is reached. Only then do I let myself have a meltdown.

I’m also pretty stubborn, and I don’t back down. If I want something, I will do whatever it takes to get it.

I have no doubt that I would have wanted revenge on Campbell, especially if I’d grown up in Catie’s world, which is a pretty rough place. I would have wanted to make him pay dearly, but like her, I would also have wanted to expose him for what he was. And like Catie, I would have doubted my decisions at every turn.

However, I also have a strong practical streak, and I don’t think I would have pursued Campbell quite as persistently as she does. That’s partly because I don’t think I have her physical courage (though it pays off for her, since she probably would have been killed if she’d stayed at Fort Loudoun), but also because I would have weighed the risks against the real chances of ever tracking him down, which aren’t great. But this is a novel ;-).

Thank you, Courtney, for sharing your time and your insights with me this week! I have really enjoyed getting to know you better. I hope that readers of my blog will be inspired to go out and read your book, because it truly is a journey back in time (without risk of death) and a thrilling reading experience.
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in Greenville, SC and now lives in Peoria, IL with her husband, young daughter, dog/officemate/boss, and cat, where she is very good about working out and eating well and very bad about procrastinating and watching too much TV. Unable to stick to one genre like a good girl, Courtney just finished a young adult fairy tale based loosely on the Black Death and is considering returning to historical fiction with a companion to The Last Sister. As a writer who spends most of her workday alone, she loves (is desperate) to connect with other people: check out her website, her Goodreads page, or her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit.


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