I had the great pleasure of interviewing Erin McCabe, author of the novel I Shall Be Near To You, which follows Rosetta, a strong willed woman who disguises herself as a man to fight alongside her husband in the Civil War.
There aren’t enough strong female heroines in literature. Especially, when it comes to female characters who choose to push past the social conventions of their time in order to make a difference. The fact that Rosetta was inspired by a real female soldier’s letters home makes McCabe’s novel even more genuine.
The Booklist compares Rosetta to another strong female character, the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. After reading this review, I knew I had to get my hands on the novel. Katniss Everdeen was the first female heroine in literature that left me feeling empowered, and proud to be a woman in society. I know that once McCabe’s novel comes in the mail, I will find myself equally empowered by her heroine, Rosetta.
Jasmeen Bassi (J.B): What sparked your interest in writing, and or when did you start writing?
Erin McCabe (E.M): I remember enjoying writing from the moment I learned how. I started keeping my first diary when I was seven years old (it was a birthday present), something I kept up until I was about 22. I would write my own magazines, complete with articles and illustration, and send copies to my grandparents. All through school I wrote stories and poems and was an avid penpal letter writer (I had 100 penpals at one point in middle school—I’m not even exaggerating). I remember wanting to write a novel from the time I was in middle school, though I also remember thinking that I had no idea what I’d write it about.
I wrote my first novel (which no one will ever see) while I was teaching high school English, and it was as I was working on revising it that I got the inspiration for I Shall Be Near To You. As soon as I heard Rosetta’s voice, I knew I had to ditch the other novel.
J.B: Who are your writing influences, and how have they helped you as a writer?
E.M: I feel like I learn something from every novel I read. But the first historical novel that really blew me away was Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, for the way she incorporated the historical record right in the novel and yet used it to really explore the unknowable—what history left out. Another historical novel I love is called Away by Jane Urquhart. It’s beautiful, with gorgeous, poetic, melancholy writing. I went through a phase where I read and admired a lot of Canadian women writers—I really loved the way they wrote about the land. True Grit by Charles Portis. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons for their use of voice. I am a sucker for a strong, quirky voice. I love Molly Gloss and the spare, straightforward way she writes in The Jump Off Creek and The Hearts of Horses. Likewise with Alyson Hagy’s novel Boleto. Both those writers can break your heart with the simplest language. I so admire Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and also Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, for the way they explore the war experience in challenging ways. I admire Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov for the character development (somehow he makes you sympathize with a pedophile!) and the word play. I wish I could do funny like George Saunders. I don’t read tons of short stories (and I’m not a writer of short stories at all—every time I try they just keep getting longer and longer…), but my favorite short stories to teach are ones that all just grabbed me immediately—“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (the heartbreak and characters in this one just get me every time I read it, not to mention the lovely descriptions and imagery), “Brownies” by ZZ Packer (the complexity of characters here is brilliant), “The Sun The Moon The Stars” by Junot Diaz (the voice and character on this one!), “Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore (the whole thing, but especially the ending!), “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway (the way he develops characters with dialog is impressive). I could go on (and on and on), but I’ll stop there.
J.B: What is your process as a writer? In other words when writing your novel I Shall Be Near To You, what kept you writing and did you ever experience writer’s block when writing it?
E.M: What kept me writing was (and is) sheer determination. There are lots of days when the writing doesn’t come easily or when it’s painful. I love the days when it just flows from my fingertips or when I get a flash of inspiration, but the days when it feels like work are more common. Things that help me keep going: having a schedule (the best one I had was writing for a couple hours each morning, 5 days a week. That was very productive for me, and the inspiration came more regularly), setting a word count goal (500-1000 words in a sitting is my current daily goal when I’m writing a first draft. When I was writing I Shall Be Near To You, my goal was 1000 words a day), doing research (research always inspires new ideas), and writing the scene that is begging to be written (even if it’s out of order or if I don’t know where it goes in the story).
J.B What is your most memorable experience/achievement as a writer?
E.M: Seeing my novel on the bookshelf in the bookstore for the first time. That was an absolute dream come true. I’d spent years imagining it.
J.B: What is your worst/embarrassing writing experience, and how did you grow/ learn from it?
E.M: I honestly can’t think of one. A lot of my stories—certainly my first novel—are embarrassing, but I didn’t ever share them with enough people to really feel embarrassed about them. They just aren’t as good as I wanted them to be. As Ira Glass puts it, there was a gap between my taste and my skill. But I learned tons from writing that first bad novel—what my process is like, what it feels like to work on a novel. The thing is, all writing is practice and as long as you’re revising and trying to make things better, the writing is going to start improving. I still get embarrassed by my first drafts, but I also know that with enough revising I can probably get it to a point where I’m confident in what I’ve written.
J.B: If you could give your younger writer self any advice, what would that be?
E.M: Keep writing. Write the story you want to read.
J.B: What advice can you give to writers who are trying to get their writing published or recognized?
E.M: Probably the same advice I’d give my younger self. Only send things out that you feel you can’t revise any more, and only send out pieces you love. Find someone to read your work who will give you honest criticism but also enough encouragement to keep going.
J.B: What is your favorite writing project you’ve worked on, and are you working on any projects right now?
E.M: I Shall Be Near To You is probably my favorite, although I have an essay I really love too that I’ve sent out a few places and hasn’t gotten picked up. I’m currently at work on a new historical novel, set in Northern California in 1905, and its characters are really starting to grow on me. Moving from one novel to the next is kind of like breaking up with someone you still love. It takes awhile to get over it. I still really adore Rosetta and Jeremiah and Will from I Shall Be Near To You. I keep waiting to hear from them again.
J.B: What writers have you worked with or, who would you love to work with and why?
E.M: I’ve worked with Glen David Gold, Katherine Noel, Lysley Tenorio, Marilyn Abildskov, Rosemary Graham, Brenda Hillman. They each gave me wonderful insights, both practical and theoretical, that have really stuck with me, that I still find myself turning over. All of them introduced me to writers I admire.
I write alongside Andrea Kneeland, who was in my first writer’s group. She reads my very first drafts and encourages and inspires me constantly. I’m also very lucky to know writers like Mary Volmer, Sarah McCoy, Elizabeth Silver, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Erika Mailman, Jennifer Laam, Lois Leveen, M. Allen Cunningham. While I haven’t exactly worked with them, their friendship is a huge support.
I’d be pretty thrilled to work with any of the writers I admire, who I mentioned before as influences.
J.B: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could pick one book, one fictional character, and one famous author of your choice to bring along who and what would you bring?
E.M: Oh dear, let’s see. I’d bring along Anna Karenina because I haven’t read it yet and I feel like I should. I’d bring Jamie Fraser from Outlander (because of his hunting skills, of course), and Mark Twain because he’d keep us laughing.
J.B: What keeps you grounded and or sane as a writer?
E.M: I’m a pretty grounded and sane person by nature. But being outdoors, riding my horse, going for a walk or a run, spending time with my family and our pets all help keep me happy.
J.B: If you were to spend a day with Rosetta from your novel I Shall Be Near To You what would your plans be?
E.M: Ha! It’s weird I’ve never thought about this before. We would definitely be outside, probably working with our hands, building a fence maybe. I could use her help on a couple projects I have planned.
J.B: What is your motto as a writer or favorite quote that inspires you whenever you read it?
E.M: I have a couple mantras. One is something my artist friend Michelle Nye said to me, that the important thing about art is doing it. That’s what I tell myself when the writing feels hard—that just the act of creating–even if it’s terrible, even if it doesn’t seem remotely like art– is progress.
My other mantra comes from Andrea Kneeland and goes along with the first one. It’s “lower the bar.” It means not berating myself if I don’t hit my daily word count goal. It means just writing one sentence. Or working for ten minutes (an idea I stole from an Aimee Bender interview). Or trying not to worry too much if a scene isn’t right yet because I can always fix it in the next draft (or try again in the one after that). It basically means tricking myself into at least getting something on the page, because anything is better than nothing.
J.B: In three words describe the kind of writer you are?
E.M: Slow, determined, thoughtful
J.B: Lastly, can you give me a sneak peak of your WordSpring workshop?
E.M: I always start a story with a character, so that’s where I’m planning to start my WordSpring workshop. I’ll be talking about elements from quite a few of the short stories I mentioned above, and exploring character development through narrative techniques.
Many thanks to McCabe for taking the time to answer my questions. To find out more about her novel and her upcoming projects, visit her website: erinlindsaymccabe.com, which includes a writing blog and fun ways to interact with McCabe, including Twitter chats on writing topics.
To find out more about WordSpring, including registration information, and McCabe’s workshop, visit www.buttewordspring.org.