This fall, I had the great pleasure of meeting award-winning author, Ellen Notbohm, a fellow author in the She Write Press/Spark Press family. I am so pleased to share with you this interview about her latest release, The River by Starlight, a story inspired by her research into the secrets of her own family history.
What was/is your latest book release? Tell us about it!
The River by Starlight came about when I hit what genealogists call a brick wall in our research. Every family has one—it’s the person no one will talk about, and there’s always an aura of taboo swirling around that brick wall. The River by Starlight is the story of the woman I found behind my family’s brick wall, a story that took years of painstaking research to bring into the light. It’s literary historical fiction based on the true story of a couple whose passionate union and entrepreneurial success unravels in the face of little-understood perinatal and postpartum illness. Though set a century ago, the themes remain eerily and unsettlingly resonant today: the stigma of mental illness, the inadequacy of mental health care, stark gender inequity, climate disaster, ruinous real estate boom-and-bust. Maternal mental health is a subject rarely addressed in historical fiction, the undertold story of many women, but Riveralso plumbs the depths of a male point of view, a story even less told.
What advice would you give to your younger writing self?
Don’t find reasons not to write. I once confronted a profound question (I think it was from Oprah) that changed my life: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? When I read that question to my husband in a shaking voice, he said, “Well?” and I answered, I would write a book. And he said again, “Well?” And here I am, five books later, all of them award-winners.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? What made you decide to become one?
I always enjoyed writing and found ways to incorporate it into most of my so-called day jobs through the years. I believe that if one writes, one is a writer, so I had no sense of actually deciding to become a writer, I simply was one. The leap of faith was from writing articles and other short-form pieces to writing books, and then from writing nonfiction books to writing a novel. In the twilight zone between finishing the novel and getting it published, I wavered. I’d written a novel, so was I a novelist even though it wasn’t yet published? Could I take my own advice and say yes, I am a novelist? I struggled with that, but not for long, and then identifying my choices for the rest of the journey to publication became a bit clearer.
Who is your favorite character in your book(s)?
My mother always declared how lucky she was, that her children were so different from one and another, it meant that each could be her favorite in their own unique way. That’s proven true of my characters in The River by Starlight, many of whom I love, but in very disparate ways. And of course there are a few villains I and my readers don’t love. One of my favorite reviewer comments: “The characters are real and pop off the page. I have empathy, sorrow, joy, and want to choke a number of them!!”
Where do you do most of your writing?
I have two writing rooms—the room I’m supposed to write in, and the room I actually write in.
My office is spacious but always hopelessly cluttered with the business end of writing and other ongoing aspects of life. I work in my office many hours a day, but it’s not my writing room. I write in the pre-dawn hours, in a bedroom done in dark reds, a few feet from my office. Wee-hours chilly mornings are my best writing time. The red tones of the room feel life-sustaining, suggestive of bloodlines, carrying a sense of history. The multi-media artwork on the walls is a four-generation history continuum too, from watercolors by my husband’s grandmother to needlework by me and a quilt by a good friend, to a painting by one of my children. A writing room needs a live element too—here it’s a feisty old cat, dozing in a dappled knot, a true survivor who fell out of a 150-foot tree in a city park, stumbled into our yard, and never left. Quite a story. Maybe my first children’s book?
What inspires you?
People who continue to exemplify love, grace, humility, generosity, respect, and optimism even in the face of adversity, injustice, and hate. Many of these people are children. We have much to learn from them.
What else would you like your readers to know about you?
That I’m still a work-in-progress and I hope that never changes.
Tell us a little about your process. Pantser? Plotter? Mixture of both?
The process is different for fiction vs nonfiction. I wrote my four nonfiction books from what I knew, gathering more “know” as I went along through the years, interacted with more people both peers and professionals. For my novel, the process was the opposite. I had the nugget of a good idea, then I went far and wide to research—fifteen states and provinces—and the arc of the story grew from there. I’d say I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I seem to pull forth material that’s more raw, more organic, more emotionally nuanced when I’m pantsing. Plotting and structure are necessary to any book, but for me it comes later in the process when I see the general path the material is taking.
What are you reading right now?
Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams and Carrie La Seur’s The Weight of an Infinite Sky. We recently shared a panel discussion at the Montana Book Festival, discussing our books’ similarities in theme, one of which was how women who don’t fit easily into their communities find their place and their power.
What actor/actress would you like to play the part of your protagonist if your book became a movie/television show?
Someone we don’t know yet. Just as there are thousands of extraordinary writers whose work never gets the opportunity to come before the public, so are there actors whose exceptional talents go undiscovered. I’ve deeply appreciated the many people over the years who read my books even though I wasn’t famous, and told me in the most heartfelt terms how it had changed their lives. That’s the kind of actor I’d want to see play Annie. Someone who comes before viewers with no preconceived “Oh, I loved/didn’t love her in ______” notions, or “I liked her better in _______.”
Do you have any rituals that you practice before sitting down to write?
The ritual is—no ritual. Since my best writing is done in the dark before anything else happens in the day, the act of getting up with intention and anticipation seems to be all the ritual I need. In general, I find that rituals bore me fairly quickly—that thin line between ritual and rote—then the ritual becomes finding a new ritual, and I don’t find that enjoyable or productive.
What do you like to spend time doing when you aren’t writing?
Like many writers, I spend time lamenting how the business end of writing takes up so much time! I also have caregiving responsibilities that require a chunk of me. Trying to maintain balance is always a challenge, but I try to stay away from screens when I’m not working, doing a lot of reading, knitting, walking, cemetery prowling (great sources of story ideas), DIY projects. I love beach-combing and day-tripping to places that, even after a lifetime of living here, I have yet to discover. All of this eventually feeds the muse. And that muse is the ultimate renewable resource.
More about Ellen:
An internationally renowned author, Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed and delighted millions in more than twenty languages. Her books include her multiple award-winning historical novel The River by Starlight, and the widely beloved Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, a bestseller for over a decade. In addition to her other popular books on autism, her articles and posts on such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing and community affairs have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent.
More about The River by Starlight:
Set in the waning years of Montana’s homestead period, Annie and Adam Fielding’s dreams of prosperity and family shatter as an enigmatic illness of mind and body plagues Annie’s pregnancies and exacts a terrible price. Based on a true story researched across fifteen states and provinces, The River by Starlight weaves a sweeping tale of passionate love, unthinkable loss, resilience and redemption embodied in one woman’s tenacious quest for self-determination in the face of devastating misfortune and social injustice. Its themes of maternal mental health, gender inequity, climate disaster, and economic boom-and-bust remain powerfully and painfully relevant today.
Here’s what reviewers say about The River by Starlight:
“Magical storytelling . . . intimate and poetic language reminiscent of Paulette Jiles and Marisa de los Santos.” ~Booklist
“Graceful and unflinching.” ~Kirkus Reviews
“Captivating . . . exquisite.” ~Foreword Reviews
“As rich in theme and detail as the Montana sky is in stars . . . impressive. ~Brian Juenemann, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association
“Really well done. Don’t miss this.” ~Powell’s City of Books Staff Pick
Connect with Ellen:
Facebook Ellen Notbohm, Author https://www.facebook.com/ellennotbohm/
Twitter @EllenNotbohm https://twitter.com/EllenNotbohm
LinkedIn Ellen Notbohm https://www.linkedin.com/in/ellennotbohm/
Pinterest Ellen Notbohm https://www.pinterest.com/EllenNotbohm
Buy Ellen’s book: