Author Interview | Conversing with Biographical Historical Fiction writer Ruth Hull Chatlien whose narratives feature unknown women in History whose stories deserve to be told.

Posted Friday, 1 September, 2017 by jorielov , , 4 Comments

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Yesterday, I had the joy of sharing my ruminations on behalf of the second novel penned by Ms Chatlien which steps through the threshold of time and resides inside the footsteps of a woman who lived with a courageous heart and a fortitude of faith during one of the most arduous situations anyone could face – living captive during a conflict involving Native Americans and the fallout of a missing payment owed to them which would have provided means to live on throughout the Winter and coming months instead of facing food insecurity and the horrors of death through hunger and starvation.

Similarly, it was my honour to read this author’s debut The Ambitious Madame Boneparte wherein I felt an equally riveting attachment to Betsy Boneparte! Three years separate the two narratives but the critical eye given to the details of etching out a realistic portrait of these women’s lives is a credit to the creative eye for detail and biographical research embraced by Ms Chatlien. If you’ve missed my review for her latest (Blood Moon) let me share an overview of what I posted on my review – as this will give you a precursor of insight into why this narrative was such a convicting story to read:

about finding my spirit in sync with sarah:

Sarah is not afraid to share the realities of her marriage, her duties as a mother or her life on the prairies of Minnesota where tensions between the settlers and the Sioux are quite strenuous due to how the Sioux felt they were being cheated out of what they were due (in regards to payment) which put Sarah and her young family at risk. She has a calming sense of center in her spirit – she might have lurches of anxiety and the fears which assault anyone who was living in such a precarious time of ‘peace’ but she finds her will to stay on target with her duties and it’s how she puts her worries into her work which I think helped her the most.

Sarah was such a tall woman – six feet! I had to smile reading about her height, as the way in which she carried herself, you wouldn’t have guessed her height! In some ways, as we first get to know Sarah she doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in herself which I think is attributed to how she grew up and how she feels indifferent to those who have more education or had more opportunities to do more with their lives than she was allowed. Despite her insecurities – what is quite incredible is what she is able to accomplish, despite her fears and the obstacles soon to be standing in her path.

Sarah is a God-fearing woman – taking her faith seriously at all times, turning to prayer and seeking solitude to understand the harder issues of the day. Through these introspective musings we see Sarah twisting over the hardest aspects of faith, where not everything is understood as it is lived nor can all problems have a ready resolution. Her faith is tested quite often but she turns inward to seek understanding and mercy or grace for her own transgressions where she fears she has erred on the wrong side of her beliefs.

I truly loved how Ms Chatlien approached giving us a way into Sarah’s life – she took a very direct route, dropping us into Sarah’s life on the very fringe of the uprising, where things start to happen quite quickly. There were little nudges of insight of how Sarah’s view of the Sioux differed from her neighbours and her husband John whilst there were still personal impressions which Sarah was contemplating might not fit in step with her walk of faith. Chatlien added layers of depth and centreing to Sarah – to give us a more exploratory experience of her psychological state and the intuitive approach she took to guiding herself through trying times of adversity.

One thing which is a strong credit to Ms Chatlien’s passion for taking on these women in history is how she presents a realistic image of their lives. She holds nothing back – she let’s you into their life bit by bit – laying bare the facts of their days and how they would fill those hours either through work, duty or the intimate moments with their spouse. She sought to find a way to give these woman dimension in the present by re-tracing their footsteps in the past and I believe she’s done this twice over now and will continue to find the hidden voices who are clamouring for a writer like her to take up their stories and give them the freedom to be seen at long last.

-quoted from my review of Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale

Throughout my conversation with Ms Chatlien, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the heart of what inspires her to tell these heart-capturing stories of women whose lives can still inspire us today. I found equal inspiration by reading both Betsy and Sarah’s Historical Biographies as they were told through Chatlien’s narratives. When you can dive into the soul of a living person who lived whilst embracing everything they saw as they lived as readily and as real as they did themselves, we start to draw empathy out of their experiences and find what resonates out of their life experiences which leaves a striking impression on us; these many generations lateron.

I asked some deeper questions too about perspectives and opinions inter-related to the stories themselves whilst allowing Ms Chatlien to share a bit about her writerly process to pen the stories which motivate her own spirit to create. She revealled she has survived Breast Cancer in our conversation, and I am at a loss to remember if I had known this at the time I first crossed paths with her in [2014] however, to the best of my knowledge, I did not know of this health crisis affecting her at that time. I definitely understood why she is appreciative of living in our era of time for the advancements in modern medicine; not just for surviving Cancer but for overcoming Stroke such as my father’s journey these past nine months.

I also understood her hesitation to reveal too much about her current writing project even though I admit, I have my curiosity piqued! In some ways, I think Mrs Madison still qualifies as ‘unknown’ from our historical perspectives as the bits of her life Ms Chatlien wants to highlight are not part of the well-known bits all of us might have come across at one point or another whilst studying American History or the US Presidents in school.

Remember – the best way to enjoy the conversations I present to you here on Jorie Loves A Story is to brew your favourite cuppa, settle into a comfy chair and gleam new insight into a writer you may or may not have come across previously!

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Blood Moon by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Southern Minnesota, August 1862. Smoke fills the horizon and blood soaks the prairie as the Sioux fight to drive white settlers from their ancestral homeland. Sarah Wakefield and her young son and baby daughter are fleeing for their lives when two warriors capture them. One is Hapa, who intends to murder them. The other is Chaska, an old acquaintance who promises to protect the family. Chaska shelters them in his mother’s tepee, but with emotions running so high among both Indians and whites, the danger only intensifies. As she struggles to protect herself and those she loves, Sarah is forced to choose between doing what others expect of her and following her own deep beliefs.

Converse via: #HistFic, #HistoricalFiction + #BioFic & #BloodMoon

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One of the key reasons I love reading Biographical Historical Fiction is because we can take an interpersonal and emotional journey alongside persons who lived and who might not be as understood as they ought to have been whilst they were living. Either this, or they might be hidden from sight; tucked into a niche of History which is yet unknown. I think you share this sentiment – of pulling forward the lives of characters who still have something to say but perhaps, were not given ample time to have their voice heard or understood.

What draws you to each of the characters your finding populate your novels? Is there a process you go through to focus on those who are a bit marginalised from History’s focal points? Or do you feel the characters find you – whilst your rooting out History itself and stumble across their lives?

Chatlien responds: I would say the characters find me. I learned about Betsy Bonaparte watching the Horatio Hornblower television series on A&E, and I learned about Sarah Wakefield listening to a radio broadcast on NPR about the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War. In each case, the story immediately grabbed me with this palpable sense of excitement: “Why didn’t I ever know about this before?”

As you have now written about two women from different backgrounds, both are Americans living through periods of the historical past which were strife with adversity and sudden changes – yet neither of them Betsy nor Sarah backed down from being individually unique – what do you you think motivated them to be authentic to themselves even during periods of time where ‘standing out’ from their peerage would generally have led to scandal or being shunned by society status?

Chatlien responds: I think their motives were different. From an early age, Betsy Bonaparte believed in her own “talents.” She wanted to be somebody, and she also decided early on that life in Baltimore did not suit her at all. Although I found Betsy to be infuriating at times because of her vanity and self-centeredness, I could relate to her desire to make something of herself. I come from a working-class family, and from the time I was about three years old, my mother kept telling me that I was going to go to college, I was going to be somebody.

In contrast to Betsy, Sarah was not a self-confident person. She was someone who was an outsider to the religious establishment, and yet she had faith and wanted to live according to her own conscience. That was what spoke to me about her character. Integrity has always been very important to me.

Bridge characters such as Sarah in “Blood Moon” offer us the introspective and realistically captivating experience of understanding how Sarah made the choices she made whilst captured but also, what motivated her actions prior to capture; in this case, of having compassionate understanding for the Dakotas and their way of life.

What do you think inspired Sarah to find compassion and empathy when everyone else around her was fuelled by hatred? Did you find anything in your research which served as a moment of enlightenment to understand why someone like Sarah chose to accept her Native neighbours whereas others chose to dismiss them?

Chatlien responds: I didn’t find a single “lightbulb” moment of enlightenment. In her memoir, Sarah was very evasive about her past life before the war, and the explanation I give in my story for what she was fleeing is fictional speculation on my part, as I mentioned in my author’s note. Whatever it was that she was running from in Rhode Island scarred her emotionally and made her feel like something of an outcast long before the war. I think that was one reason she was so sympathetic to the Dakota. She saw how society wronged them, and she could relate to it. And quite simply, they seemed to accept her. She was kind to them, and in turn, they called her “Large Good Woman.”

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Read an Excerpt from ‘Blood Moon’ which hints towards the symbolism behind a ‘blood moon’ and how sometimes these can be harbingers of precognitive insight about future events yet to be known. Excerpt used with permission of the author Ruth Hull Chatlien.
I walk to the eastern window, hoping for fresh air and a glimpse of sky. When I went out to the privy before retiring, the moon was rising above the treetops—large and full, a glowing ivory orb that resembled a lustrous pearl nestled in black velvet. Its beauty made me glad to be living out here on the Minnesota prairie where we have such a fine view of the heavens.

Now, however, when I glance outside, only a thin crescent moon rides in the sky. My chest squeezes with dismay. How is this possible? Leaning out the open window, I notice that the interior curve of the crescent is blurry. Then I see the faint circular outline of a shadowy full moon against the black sky.

An eclipse.

I exhale in relief. I’ve read about lunar eclipses but never seen one. How wonderful to witness such an unusual event.
The shadow creeps so slowly across the face of the moon that its movement is impossible to discern, yet as the minutes pass, the area of darkness grows and the crescent shrinks to a glowing sliver. When Nellie falls back to sleep, I put her in her cradle but do not return to my own bed.

The heavens declare God’s glory, I think and wonder what our neighbors make of this celestial event. John is one of two government- appointed physicians on the Sioux reservation in southern Minnesota, and Indian villages surround the Upper Sioux Agency where we live.

I doubt that the Indians have enough scientific learning to account for this phenomenon. No doubt their medicine men have an explanation, most likely one that will increase their hold over the poor, superstitious people.

The still-changing satellite mesmerizes me. At the very instant the last threadlike arc of light disappears, the moon turns the color of rust. The entire orb becomes visible once again, so that a red-orange disk dominates the sky. I clasp my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out. Shadowy areas pulsate across the surface. Sometimes the moon grows darker, but then the angry color reappears.

Is it the end of the world? Some warning phrase pokes at my memory, but I cannot call it to mind.

This was one of my favourite passages in the novel because it hugged close to how a woman’s intuition and the signs which can alight on one’s path as foreboding insight can intersect in such a way to allow someone to hone in on something that is about to radically affect their lives. I also loved how this story released so close to a real-life Eclipse – where the curiosity and allure on such phenoms is readily in mind for readers (this is true of me!) granted another layer of keen interest to read about this ‘eclipse’ observed by Sarah! Ms Chatlien truly gives you an alarmingly real account of how observation, faith and the murmurings of a mother’s soul can guide someone towards understanding how sometimes in life, the unexpected adversities can arrive in the blink of an eye.

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Even in your early adventures as a reader, you happily sought out the stories of strong women who might not have a ready audience or following – as their stories take awhile to be told and to be told well. What inspires you forward to finding as many unsung heroines as you can whilst seeking out your next muse for a character? Do you know which time period your going to dissolve inside to find the next character you’ll write about or do you simply drift through time and allow inspiration to find you? Do you know where your going next after “Blood Moon”?

Chatlien responds: I’m researching another possible protagonist now, and if I stick with this idea, she will not fit the mold of an unsung heroine. It’s Dolley Madison, who is quite famous, mostly for what people consider an extraordinarily heroic and patriotic act. But that’s not why I’m intrigued by her. She appears as a character in my first novel, and when I was researching her life for that book, I learned that she went through some very difficult experiences that most people don’t know about and that her character is more layered than most people realize. If I tell her story, I will have to tackle issues every bit as morally complex and challenging as those connected to the Dakota War. It’s a bit daunting, really, and I still have no idea if or how I can pull this off.

Due to all the layers you research once you find your character, is there anything about the elements of how a life was led during their era of time which surprises you or makes you thankful you were born in the century you were – perhaps a change of convenience in ordinary life or something which is readily available now but not then? And, of course the reverse could be true – Is there anything in the past you wish was still present today?

Chatlien responds: When I was working on The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, the difficulty that made the strongest impression on me was how long it took to travel and to communicate with people who lived in another city—or worse still, across the ocean. Today because of our communications technology, I can easily swap messages with friends in Australia or South America or Europe, but in the early 1800s, it literally took months for letters to go from the United States to France and back again. That delay was one of the factors that caused problems for Jerome and Betsy. When I was working on Sarah’s story, I was struck by a different problem: how primitive medical treatments were in the 1860s. That alone makes me glad I live in the present. As you may know, I’m a breast cancer survivor; I was diagnosed four weeks after The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte was published. If I had received such a diagnosis in the 1800s, I probably wouldn’t have lived long enough to write my second book.

I do agree with you about the limitations on American History – I oft felt it was quite strange how we focus so little on our back-stories – of who came before us and of the churning tides of societal opinions and political beliefs intermixed with how each generation and century brought about not only great changes to how we lived but what I felt was missing most are the ‘stories’ of those who had lived.

What they did and what they were able to accomplish, despite the odds or the limited resources – it feels like a vacuum of lost information at times if you look back at American History with a more critical lens against the commonly known overview. Do you feel Historical Fiction authors in particular are helping to change this ‘absence’ and gap of our country’s heritage by finding their muses in rooting out the stories such as you have been doing with Sarah and Betsy? What would you like to see in the next decade as far as literary exploration to help encourage more readers and literary scholars learn more about these time gaps in American History?

Chatlien responds: Unfortunately, American Historical Fiction still has a hard time getting published unless you self-publish or go with a small publisher as I did. The stunning success of America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie makes me hope that readers—and publishers—will begin to realize we have wonderful stories in our own history that deserve to be told.

Being a fellow Ancestry Sleuth on your own ancestral historical origins, do you think you might re-explore your Swedish ancestors journey from Sweden to Canada in a novel? Wherein instead of focusing on historical women you would pull history through the threads of one of your ancestors’ lives? I was thinking you could even add-in key words and phrases in Swedish, if your pursuit of the language goes well to where you have a conversational understanding if not become partially fluent? How excited to you get when you find a ‘new’ piece of information which links you to your ancestral past?

Chatlien responds: Studying Swedish, which I’ve been doing daily for about six months now, has been a wonderful experience. My grandparents were born in Sweden, but they emigrated as very young children and did not pass on the language to their own children. The idea of somehow using my ancestors’ lives for inspiration for a novel has occurred to me, but it’s still a very nebulous thought, and I don’t know if it will mature and bear fruit. However, one wonderful experience has come out of it.

A woman in Sweden who shares my grandfather’s surname contacted my cousin on Facebook to see if we were related. They couldn’t find a connection but became Facebook friends anyway. Once I started studying Swedish, my cousin introduced me to her. A few weeks later, this woman and her husband took a day trip to a very quaint village in the central part of the country, and she posted the photos to her Facebook page. I recognized the village as the one where my great-grandmother was born, which I was able to explain to her in Swedish. She then went online to search the Swedish church records and found four generations of my grandmother’s family. I was able to translate them for my family, and we learned things we never knew. So maybe there’s a story in there somewhere, but it hasn’t grabbed me by the throat yet. Perhaps I’ll have to visit Sweden first.

I read you were considering focusing on Dolley Madison and the War of 1812 as your next project – has this gained the traction you were hoping to find or have you shifted into a new lead protagonist? Aside from her connection to Betsy, what part of Dolley’s life were you most inspired about focusing on?

Chatlien responds: As I mentioned above, I am still researching Dolley to see if I want to write about her. But I’m superstitious about saying too much about my projects until I have the first draft done, so I’m going to beg off this question.

As you have an innate way of focusing on the psychology of your character’s choices – etching out insights into their humanity and their inner conflicts of how they deal with what life presents them to survive – do you ever find yourself emotionally overwhelmed by how far you must go as a writer to dig into their internal framework of thought? How do you pull back and reset the distance between muse, writer and character?

Chatlien responds: Definitely. There were times during the writing of both books that I felt really weighed down by what was happening to my characters. Both women went through some very hard struggles. One thing I do when I need to give myself a rest is to color mandalas in an adult coloring book. It’s very meditative for me. Another thing is that my husband is also a writer, so he understands both the process and the challenges. He’ll listen if I’m struggling with a particular scene or event, and he’ll help me get away from it all if I need to. We live in northern Illinois, but we’re only about 20 minutes from the harbor at Kenosha, Wisconsin, and we love to drive up there and walk by the water and stare at the lighthouse and then go to a local coffee shop. We call those trips our two-hour vacations.

There is still a dividing line in our American Ancestry and History – between those who settled this country by immigrating from Europe, the UK and all points East and those who first claimed the land and lived here long before we ever step foot on American soil.

In your research for “Blood Moon” did you find hope for change in the future where Native History and European History (choosing one continent for discussion) will find equality amongst readers, historians and conversations on American History or do you fear there will continue to be a line drawn between both backgrounds? What will it take to unite all of us and have all of us embrace the open approach towards empathy and acceptance Sarah felt herself?

Chatlien responds: I don’t know what it will take to heal those wounds. They run very, very deep, and I don’t really see it as part of the novelist’s task to tell society how it must change. I think a novelist’s mandate is to paint the clearest picture she can of particular individual stories and hope that they reveal broader truths without the writer having to get preachy. Instead, it is up to the readers to draw their own conclusions about what the story means and what should be done.

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About Ruth Hull Chatlien

Ruth Hull Chatlien

Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for nearly thirty years, specializing in U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders for middle-grade readers. Her award-winning first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, portrays the tumultuous life of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte. Her latest novel, Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale was published in June 2017.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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This author interview is courtesy of: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Blood Moon blog tour via HFVBTsSimilar to blog tours where I feature book reviews, as I choose to highlight an author via a Guest Post, Q&A, Interview, etc., I do not receive compensation for featuring supplemental content on my blog. I provide the questions for interviews and topics for the guest posts; wherein I receive the responses back from publicists and authors directly. I am naturally curious about the ‘behind-the-scenes’ of stories and the writers who pen them; I have a heap of joy bringing this content to my readers.
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{SOURCES: Cover art of “Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale”, book synopsis, author biography, author photograph of Ruth Hull Chatlien and the tour badge were all provided by HFVBTs (Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours) and used with permission. Excerpt from “Blood Moon” is being used with permission of the author Ruth Hull Chatlien. Post dividers by Fun Stuff for Your Blog via Pure Imagination. Tweets embedded by codes provided by Twitter. Blog graphics created by Jorie via Canva: Conversations with the Bookish and the Comment Box Banner.}

Copyright © Jorie Loves A Story, 2017.

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About jorielov

I am self-educated through local libraries and alternative education opportunities. I am a writer by trade and I cured a ten-year writer’s block by the discovery of Nanowrimo in November 2008. The event changed my life by re-establishing my muse and solidifying my path. Five years later whilst exploring the bookish blogosphere I decided to become a book blogger. I am a champion of wordsmiths who evoke a visceral experience in narrative. I write comprehensive book showcases electing to get into the heart of my reading observations. I dance through genres seeking literary enlightenment and enchantment. Starting in Autumn 2013 I became a blog book tour hostess featuring books and authors. I joined The Classics Club in January 2014 to seek out appreciators of the timeless works of literature whose breadth of scope and voice resonate with us all.

"I write my heart out and own my writing after it has spilt out of the pen." - self quote (Jorie of Jorie Loves A Story)

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Posted Friday, 1 September, 2017 by jorielov in 19th Century, Biographical Fiction & Non-Fiction, Blog Tour Host, Book Cover | Notation on Design, Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, Indie Author, The American Frontier

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4 responses to “Author Interview | Conversing with Biographical Historical Fiction writer Ruth Hull Chatlien whose narratives feature unknown women in History whose stories deserve to be told.

    • Good afternoon,

      It was my pleasure – I love bringing interesting conversations to my readers and this is one interview I truly loved putting together because the novel itself (ie. “Blood Moon”) was so very thought-provoking in of itself, the questions almost knit themselves together! It was a wonderful sophomore release by a beloved author of whom I continue to look forward to seeing where her muse will lead her next! She has a way of capturing historical women in such a realistic layer of insight – you feel as if your walking right beside them, gleaming bits of the historical past as you walk and finding more empathy from your experience spent by them. I am very blessed to have found Ms Chatlien’s collective works and I’m delighted you’ve continued to publish her stories!

    • Hallo, Hallo Ms Chatlien!

      I had a lot of joy putting these questions together as I love thought-provoking narratives but I also like stimulating conversations which are inspired by the texts I am reading! “Blood Moon” simply gave me a lot of things to think about and the questions were a genesis of what percolated inside my mind! I am wicked happy you enjoyed responding to my enquiries as much as I had joy in putting them together for you!

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