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Readerly Chats: Sarah McCoy, Author of The Mapmaker’s Children

Sarah McCoy just celebrated the release of her latest work of historical fiction, The Mapmaker’s Children. We had the opportunity to interview author Sarah McCoy prior to her event at One More Page Books, an independent bookstore in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

Readerly: You are known for your ability to show unique perspectives of prominent historical events. Where does it start for you: An interest in the event, or a character behind the event?

Sarah McCoy: Each of my novels has come to me differently. Author friends tell me how they are consistently inspired through one particular creative channel: a visual image, historical character, political agenda, emotional struggle, color, food, etc. I can’t say that I have one. My Muse likes to throw her bolts in various forms. I’ve never had a story come to me in the same way. The Mapmaker’s Children began with a sentence being spoken.

“A dog is not a child,” the woman, Eden Anderson, kept saying. And it was the way she said it that wouldn’t give me peace. Confident, irate, and yet, deeply wounded by the very words she spoke. I couldn’t shush her no matter what I did. Months of hearing this over and over in my head, I finally wrote the sentence and its corresponding scene in the journal. I realized then that the sentence was echoing through and out the front door of an old house—the house in New Charlestown beckoning me to solve its Underground Railroad mystery, following the clues from Eden in present-day West Virginia to Sarah Brown 150 years ago.

To be honest, before then, I was only moderately familiar with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Movements. It wasn’t until Eden and Sarah’s home called me that I became completely absorbed in John Brown’s legacy and the secret stories of those who continued his work long after.

The Mapmaker's ChildrenReaderly: The Mapmaker’s Children takes place close to your Virginia home. Did this proximity in any way taint your perceptions of what took place, or did it enhance it?

Sarah McCoy: Being a proud Virginian enhanced the writing, absolutely! Of course, living 2,000 miles away in El Paso the past 8 years was an aid despite appearing as a hindrance. The distance allowed me to objectively study the landscape (tangible, cultural, historical, etc.) without being directly a part of it. I had (twist my arm) to go home for research. I had (twist harder while you got me) to spend days at Harpers Ferry with my dad as my story sidekick. My personal memories in making this book are treasures to my real-life legacy.

As well, I’m the kind of reader who likes to be totally submerged in a fictional landscape so that when I look up from the pages, reality feels blearier than the place I was just visiting. Those are the kind of books I write—the kind I’d like to read. Virginia/West Virginia became this escape for me. A place I wanted to return to day after day for the three+ years of writing this book. You have to love a place to do that. I don’t think I could spend too much time in any landscape I hated.

Readerly: Along those lines, what bit of information did you discover in your research that was most surprising?

Sarah McCoy: Truthfully, I can’t say one thing over another—the smuggling dolls, the Underground Railroad codes, Sarah Brown’s artwork at the Saratoga Historical Museum in California, the way Harpers Ferry frequently changed confederate to union hands during the Civil War… I could go on and on. For about a year, it seemed every day I was gasping in my office at some new bit of astounding information. So much so that I attempted to put it all in the first draft, weighing in at a whopping 800+ pages. God bless my agent and Crown editor who read that version. I’m even more grateful to them for helping me cherry-pick the essentials to include in the novel you hold now.

Readerly: Certainly you are an old pro by now when it comes to release day.  Do you have any particular traditions or ways to celebrate?

Sarah McCoy: When you sent me these questions, this one made me laugh out loud at my boarding gate. Here I was, about to start my book tour, and I was a neurotic mess! Bags hanging off my arms; can’t find my ticket that’s right in my pocket, spilled tea on my shirt in the first ten minutes, pecking on my iPhone frenetically… Old, I can agree with, but pro, I’m not so sure.

I’ve done a hometown El Paso party on release day (The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico). I’ve done an online Goodreads live video book release (The Baker’s Daughter). For The Mapmaker’s Children, I flew across the country for a big launch party at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. My only consistent tradition is praying my guts out every hour, basically.

Readerly: You are quite the queen of social media. How do you balance your time on Facebook and Twitter with your writing and “real” life?

Sarah McCoy: Oh, I’m queen of nothing but my own brush hairballs. Whether or not I appropriately balance social media and real life is entirely subjective to whom you ask. If you asked my publisher, readers, and dear book blogger friends, they might say, “Balance, check.” But if you asked my husband, Doc B, he’d laugh and say, “Y’all won a long time ago.” I good-naturedly tell book clubs on Skype that I have no social life, and I don’t seek one! It may surprise some, but I am on the far-far, extreme-extreme side of the introvert scale. I love being alone. Solitude invigorates me. When I’m home, I cocoon into my comfort zone with Doc B and my dog, Gilly. Just us. That’s my heaven. There’s nothing I love more than a quiet Saturday night in pajamas on the couch with computer on my lap, Gilly snuggled into my hip, Doc B watching some random movie (typically a cheesy 1980s classic) while I do social media. I’m chatting with my book pals! I read the tweets/comments to him and he enjoys getting to know my “Twitter friends” too.

So perhaps the trick isn’t doing one or the other but incorporating them. Social media is part of my real life. I put my real life out on social media. I’m blessed that I have a family that understands and appreciates that reality.

I’ll never forget doing a book event at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn, IL, years ago. I brought Doc B and my youngest brother Andrew. Afterward, the guys gushed, “We met a bunch of your Twitter friends—really cool ladies.” That’s the magic of our book-to-life social media community.

Readerly: Any words of inspiration for up-and-coming writers?

Sarah McCoy: I’m giving the same advice I gave Brown University creative writing students, because I think it applies across the board.

Persevere. This writing life is hard. Ninety percent of your work is in solitary confinement where no one sees your toil, your tears, the sleepless nights, and writing sores from being enslaved to the story realm. And that’s exactly what you are as a writer— a slave to your characters, a humble minstrel to the masses, a pleading peasant to a kingdom of critics. But if you know for certain you could not be happy doing anything else, then join our gypsy tribe and persevere, friends.

Readerly: And now the fun questions!!

Readerly: What was your favorite book growing up?

Sarah McCoy: Anne of Green Gables. Without any competition.

Readerly: What has been the most interesting part of touring?

Sarah McCoy: Referencing my answer to your social media question above: meeting online friends in the flesh. It’s amazing how close you can feel to someone when all you’ve seen of him/her is a Twitter avatar! Book tour is this enchanting journey where all roads merged under the banner of literature devotion. It’s a rare experience for me as an author to be able to hug and thank readers in face-to-face. I treasure it.

Readerly: Have you met any of your literary idols along the way?

Sarah McCoy: So many! But then, just about every author was a literary idol when I was first starting out in the business. Many friends who’ve grown beside me in their publishing careers have come to be writers I admire immensely.

On a daily basis, my stomach pinwheels when legendary authors who are now good friends say hello on email, Facebook, or Twitter. I’m perpetually a crushing geeky schoolgirl. Ever humbled to be in their company.

The Mapmaker’s Children is in stores now.