Thursday, November 10, 2011

More Ask the Author: Anna Lee Waldo

Your debut novel, Sacajawea, was a #1 New York Times bestselling novel. What did you learn in the process of writing Sacajawea that still helps you in your writing today?

I had written a number of scientific articles and knew the rules for that kind of writing, but a novel was something completely different. At first, I tended to put everything in a story that I thought was unusual or interesting about background, people and their thoughts. That's too much good stuff for any reader! I learned to pare down my description of a landscape, how to skin an animal, or people's behavior and thoughts. I began to read novels in a critical way, so I would understand how good writers stated facts.

I learned not to let anyone rewrite my work. I learned not to believe all answers about historical happenings. After something has taken place, there are many ways to interpret the facts. I look for answers in more than one place. I go to the places I write about. I ask my local library to borrow books they don't have from other libraries, just for me. I watch the way people talk, use their hands and facial expressions, and how they dress.

I learned to let characters show their feelings by words or actions, not by me stating how they feel. I do not stay in a dramatic scene too long. I learned to plant an idea or the way a character thinks or acts early in the story, then I use those plants in a dramatic situation later so the reader thinks, "I knew that would happen." Though he really doesn't until he reads it and the plant has grown.

No matter how much I think I know about any subject, there are still so many things I don't know and sometimes my readers will tell me.

What are some of the more interesting responses you've received from readers over the years?

"I'm related to Sacajawea," "I'm related to Jean Baptist Charbonneau," "We have that book at home and it was written by Sacajawea herself." One time in Portland, Oregon, a young man said, "I have an original painting of Sacajawea, I call Birdwoman." I said I'd like to see that, and about an hour later he came back carrying a very large framed picture. I pointed out the name, "Pocahontas," printed in small letters at the bottom of the picture. He shook his head and said he didn't know what that word mean, but he was going to put a little strip of paper with the words, "Sacajawea, the Birdwoman," over the top of that Indian word so people would know the beautiful maiden's name.

I hear all kinds of pronunciations of the word Sacajawea. "Sack-a-jaws," "Stack-a-gooey," "Skith-a-jewy," "Sock-a-jaw," etc.

Once in a radio station in Boise, Idaho, I was interviewed by a newsman. I enjoyed talking with him because he seemed to be familiar with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. At the end of the broadcast, he moved his chair closer to mine and we continued our conversation for an enjoyable hour. When I was leaving, he called me back. Some of his radio fans were calling in to say how much they'd learned and how they appreciated his extra-long program talking with such an interesting author. He'd forgotten to turn his communication off and bring in music after our thirty minute interview. Boise and other nearby listeners sent me letters about the special broadcast for weeks afterward.

One of my sons, then a teenager, told me that whenever I gave a talk on radio or TV I must remember not to leave any "air space." I thought of him when I was in Paris to talk about the French edition of Sacajawea. One night I was with a group of French historians. We wore earplugs so that a couple girls could translate the French for me and translate my English back to French for the historians and the TV moderator. Things seemed to go well until my English translations went dead and the moderator asked me a question. Of course I did not understand his words. I began with, "A--when I was writing Sacajawea--" and went on with a story I knew well. Afterwards the girls giggled and said that was the best part of the show.

I have been at libraries and bookstores where lines of people were around the block waiting for me to autograph their books. And, more than once, I have sat alone at a table with a stack of books and no one came to have a single book autographed. In a bookstore in St. Louis, Missouri, I saw a woman with half a dozen of my books in her arms. I went up to her and said, "I'm Anna Lee Waldo, author of those books. I'll autograph them, if you like." Her husband ran up and said, "Ignore her! She's out-of-her-head crazy."

I never did that again.

When I was researching the first Circle book, about Madoc's boyhood, a woman called me by telephone to tell me she wanted me to write about her grandfather, a prominent rancher in Wyoming, and ended by saying she would send me clippings and other material about him. I told her I was not ready for that, but a week later I received a box full of most interesting things, which was the beginning of Prairie, the book about Charlie Irwin, the Y-6 ranch in Wyoming, cowboys, Sioux Indians, rodeo performances, and politics.

After Circle of Stones came out, a Welshman sent me copies of old maps showing places where English families crossed over into Wales during the reign of King Henry II and told me his relatives were druids who left England for Dubh Lunn. He was not happy with today's druids. He said the old-timers were peace-loving and highly intelligent.

What draws you to write historical novels?

When I was little, I was told many times that a culture's history shows its strength and weakness. I played among Crow and Blackfoot children. My father and the Indian grandmothers told us stories which made me think about how a childhood background, ideas, feelings, thoughts, actions, situations, or even artifacts influence people. I became an organic chemist, a scientific researcher, an instructor, and an author.

Thus, I am interested in history because of my childhood and background, and science makes me stick to facts as much as possible. I am curious and search for something different in settings, landscapes, and people. Novels are large enough to tell the whole story.

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