Having a mother with a past is never easy. For Ruthie Conoboy it becomes the struggle of a lifetime in 1900, the year Tobias Mortlock arrives in the gold mining town of Bodie, California. Ruthie is suspicious of this stranger, but her trusting father gives him a job in the stamp mill. Soon, Ruthie suspects that her mother and Mortlock have become more than friends. Can Ruthie stop this man from destroying her family?
Can you give us a brief overview of your publishing journey so far?
I was very fortunate that the first publisher I sent A Fence Around Her to accepted it right away. That publisher was Stephanie Taylor of Clean Reads Publishing. I think this happened because just as I was getting ready to send the manuscript out, I stumbled across another Clean Reads YA historical novel that was somewhat similar in tone to my own work, making me think that Stephanie would be interested in my novel as well. It turns out I was right about that. I believe the most efficient way of finding a publisher for your novel is to identify a novel that bears some resemblance to your own, and then submit your manuscript to that publisher. I have always heard this about literary agents, and I imagine it holds true for publishers as well.
The rest of the publishing process with Clean Reads has been pretty seamless. I have really enjoyed working with the editors assigned to my book, particularly Kimber Leigh Wheaton and Ellie Isenhower. All of that was done through track changes and email, but it really felt like a conversation. It was so fascinating to work with cover designer Cora Bignardi. Despite the time difference (Cora lives in Italy!) we had a lovely email exchange and she was so accommodating. I was simply blown away by the beautiful cover she made for my book. She even incorporated one of my own photos of Bodie, California into the background of the cover image. That was too cool for words!
What was the inspiration behind A Fence Around Her, and how long did it take to write this story?
The ghost town of Bodie, California is the true inspiration behind the book. Bodie was a gold mining town in the Eastern Sierra that boomed in the 1880s. On one of my trips there, I snatched up as many books as I could carry away from the museum bookstore. In one of those books, I read the heartbreaking story of Lottie Johl, a former prostitute who tried to become a respectable member of Bodie society. People were so cruel to her. They even forced her to leave a masquerade ball when they realized the beautiful masked woman was in fact, poor Lottie Johl. Spurned by the people of Bodie, she isolated herself in her parlor and painted wild, otherworldly landscapes. This story was the seed that grew into A Fence Around Her.
I started writing A Fence Around Her in 1998, but then, life intervened. At that time, I only had a few chapters completed. Once I came back to the manuscript around two years ago, it took about a year to finish it. I have more time and write a lot faster now than I used to, so hopefully it won’t take me so long to write my next novel!
Have you found that your love for theatre and playwriting strengthens your ability to write fiction, and vice versa?
This is a really interesting question, since I am always pondering the connection between my fiction and my plays. I’ll start with the fact that playwriting is much easier for me than fiction. For most writers, it would be the opposite, but I seem to have an innate talent for playwriting. So it is playwriting that tends to influence my fiction rather than the other way round. I have found that this can be a good influence in that playwriting allows me to build tension in a scene through dialogue. However, it can be a bad influence when I forget that I am writing fiction and get carried away with too much dialogue and not enough exposition. Of course, that’s where editing comes in.
One way that my theatre background really comes in handy is when doing public readings. The other day I was working at the Nebraska Writers Guild booth at York Author Fest, when a fellow guild member came out to tell me it was my turn to read. I rushed into the conference room with a chapter of my book and did a dramatic reading. Everyone told me it was the best reading they had heard there. My acting experience really helps in that respect.
Do you plan to continue writing books for teens?
Yes. As far as fiction is concerned, I’m a young adult historical writer. I even plan to continue to set my novels in Bodie. The place has so many more wonderful stories I look forward to weaving into fiction.
What advice would you give to aspiring teen authors?
While there are some teen authors who are still teenagers, most of us are adults. I would tell aspiring teen authors to stop trying to imagine what teens today are thinking or feeling. You will find an authentic voice if you get in touch with the teenager you once were. The world changes, but the hopes, dreams, and sorrows of young people remain constant. If you want to write for teens, share your own teen experience, even if it is filtered through the lens of fiction. If you do that honestly, teens will believe your story.
When I left the house that day to go to the Sawdust Corner Saloon to fetch my father, the day we met Tobias Mortlock, my mother was still lying in bed moaning as if from a mortal wound and threatening to do herself harm. While I was gone, she had gotten up and tried to console herself by working on her latest landscape. But something had gone wrong, for when we came through the front door into the parlor, we found my mother slumped on the floor. Her silk dressing gown lay in folds around her and her blond curls stuck to her head in a multicolored array. Little pots of oil paint were scattered across the floor dribbling the last of sky blue, forest green, and yellow ochre onto the Persian rug.“Lilly, what have you done?” My father reached down and lifted her to her feet, then walked over to where the easel lay collapsed on the floor and righted it also. He peeled the wet canvas from the rug and set it on the easel, then stepped back to have a look at it.Somewhat distracted by the bits of red fuzz from the carpet embedded in the wet paint, I fixed my eyes on the canvas, trying to sort out the swirls of color into a cohesive image. My mother waited silently for our verdict. She seemed, in that moment, as fragile as a sparrow. I was relieved when my father broke the silence with his jovial critique.“Why Lilly, it is the spitting image of Mono Lake. Yes, here are the islands in the center, and here the mountains rising up in the background. It is quite an impressive site, just as we saw it that day.” Two summers before, my father had taken us on a trip to the lake on the narrow gauge railroad that brought us firewood from the lumber mill on its southern shore. I remember how much my mother enjoyed that rare outing, saying over and over that the lake reminded her of the San Francisco Bay.“It’s a fine painting, Mother,” I said. She moaned.“What was that, Lilly?”“No, Father, she didn’t say anything. She only made a sound.”“Not good enough!” Mother wailed. Her sticky, colorful curls quivered like bunting in a light breeze.“That’s not true, dear,” my father said. “You are a fine artist. It’s these fools in this town who don’t appreciate it. Look around at all the beauty in this parlor! Every day, I come home and think, who else has so many beautiful works of art on their walls? Maybe just Leland Stanford, Randal Hearst, and me.” He reached out to brush back her sticky hair. She slapped his arm away, smearing paint on the cuff of his sleeve.“I’m not talking about the stupid painting," she said. “It’s me. I’ll never be good enough, not in Bodie.”“Of course you are. I married you, didn’t I?”At this she let out a wild scream and shook her head as if fending off a swarm of bees. Oil droplets sprayed in all directions, and I looked out the window to see if anyone could have heard. Mortlock had long moved on, and the street was deserted.My mother stopped shaking and screaming, but she was still furious. “I am so sick of hearing about how you did me this grand favor by marrying me. If you’d wanted to do something for me, you would have taken me away from this awful place. You would have taken me somewhere people didn’t know me, where I could have been a regular woman.”My father looked at the paint-spattered rug. “Ruthie, why don’t you go in the kitchen and start boiling water. I think your mother needs a bath.”As I lit the stove and poured water into pots, I could hear their voices in the parlor, still going back and forth as they always did. Hers was like a mournful violin, his like a jolly French horn hopelessly out of step with the violin. Together they made a dissonant sound like musicians trying to play a duet, but each playing a different piece of music. And it never mattered what they were playing since it was always a variation on the same theme.
Brigid Amos’ young adult historical fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, The Storyteller, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Words of Wisdom. A produced playwright, she co-founded the Angels Playwriting Collective and serves on the board of the Angels Theatre Company. She is also an active member of Women Writing the West and the Nebraska Writers Guild. Although Brigid left a nugget of her heart behind in the California Gold Country, most of it is in Lincoln, Nebraska where she currently lives with her husband.
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