“Every family has what we genealogists call a brick wall—that one person no one will talk about. There’s always an aura of taboo around ‘the black sheep’ or the ‘fallen angel.’ It took years of digging and a grain of luck to find out why the silence” surrounding Annie Rushton. From my interview with Rose City Reader:
How did you come to write The River by Starlight?
In my many years of genealogical work with families around the world, I’d learned that every family has what we call a brick wall—that one person no one will talk about. There’s always an aura of taboo around “the black sheep” or the “fallen angel.” In our family tree, a woman I call Annie Rushton (not her real name) stood behind a century-old brick wall. I felt pulled to her, as a woman and a mother. It took years of digging and a grain of luck to find out why the silence—Annie faced recurring postpartum psychosis at a time when neither medicine or society understood it.
Given the frontier-era social stigma and ignorance surrounding women’s mental health issues, not to mention the gender-biased laws of the day, what we now know to be a bona fide medical condition threatened to cost Annie nearly everything that forms the core of what we build our lives and values upon. I wanted to tell both her story and that of her husband, Adam Fielding, in a way that would heal prejudices and injustices. Maternal mental health is rarely in historical fiction. It’s foremost a woman’s story, to be sure, but the male partner’s perspective, with its profound grief and desperation, is a story even less told. Adam is an equally riveting figure in a love story that extreme adversity did its best to destroy.
How did you research the social and medical history you relate in such detail?
To be able to build Annie and Adam’s world with authenticity, I had to go the places they lived and experience the land and the sky and the water and the people for myself. I made six trips over several years, spending some time on their actual Montana homestead, exploring the city of Edmonton, meandering the back roads of northeastern North Dakota. Over the course of the research I visited or consulted more than forty libraries and archives, and read miles of microfilmed newspapers, and numerous kinds of records: birth, death, separation, marriage, divorce, adoption. School, military, prison, church, land purchase and sale, judicial, census, voter registration records. Immigration, border crossings, naturalization. Business licenses. Insurance records. County and state fair entries.
The medical information came from Montana State Hospital public records and conversations with the superintendent, and from histories of similar facilities of the early 20th century, from newspaper accounts of how those with mental illness were handled by their communities, and from medical texts of the day. The most intriguing of those is a 1916 book entitled Who is Insane? by Stephen Smith, who served as State Commissioner in Lunacy (yes—a real title, real position) of New York in the 1880s. He deliberated the societal boundaries of so-called insanity and put forth the idea that all of us have it within us to, at a given moment, be neurologically or emotionally triggered into a lapse resulting in “derangement,” “peculiarity,” go “wrong in the upper story” or “out of gear.” Dr. Smith was appointed by Governor Alonzo Cornell, who believed that many “insane” individuals had simply never had the opportunity to talk through their experiences with a professional who gave them any credence.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
Many things about the subject matter were striking—the depth of societal stigma and ignorance surrounding postpartum mental illness, the lack of meaningful treatment, the disregard for doctor-patient confidentiality, the callous laws. It also struck me how the law and the community, so unforgiving of women with mental health issues, seemed to look the other way in other matters of family. Several of my characters are beset by circumstances driving them to leave marriages, which also meant abandoning children and other significant responsibilities. Those who left and those left behind went on to create new family relationships, with no evidence of divorces, remarriages or adoptions. They presented as families, and were accepted as families, like an early version of don’t-ask, don’t-tell.
As to the writing process itself, nothing drops more people’s jaws than hearing that I wrote most of the book, more than 500 pages of drafts, in pencil in spiral notebooks, mostly in pre-dawn hours. I felt the sensory elements of pencils and paper connected me to Annie’s time, the smell of the lead and wood, the smear of the eraser. And writing longhand made the emotion of the words I was forming seem more immediate—grief, ecstasy, anxiety, frustration, hope, betrayal, forgiveness. Writing by hand in the still and the dark of the wee hours (no keypad clacking, notifications pinging) opened me to hearing, feeling, and perceiving a whole other-dimensional world that I may not have otherwise “heard.”
You dedicate your book to your “once-in-two-lifetimes man.” Will you explain that one for us?
Wow, people read book dedications? Who knew? But nope, not gonna explain that one. He knows who he is. A little intrigue is a good intro to the rest of the story, don’t you think?
Learn more about my “reading sutra,” what’s next in my writing queue, and the most valuable advice I’ve been given as a writer. Read the full interview here.