Interview: February 6, 2014
Leila Meacham is a writer and former teacher who lives in San Antonio, Texas. Now, she returns with SOMERSET, a prequel to her 2010 bestseller ROSES. Here, we learn of Mary Toliver's ancestors, including a couple married under unusual (possibly curse-inducing) circumstances who set out in 1836 for promising new land in Texas. In this interview, Meacham opens up to Bookreporter.com’s Terry Miller Shannon about what inspired her to write a prequel to her beloved debut novel --- against her initial instinct --- and how that inspiration matured into a book. She also addresses the frequent ROSES/GONE WITH THE WIND comparison, why she’s grown to love researching novels rather than following the “write what you know” guideline, and how her characters sometimes decide their own fates, often much to their author’s surprise.
Bookreporter.com: What first inspired you to write about the Tolivers, beginning with ROSES? I have the impression that these stories might be reminiscent of your own family's history. If so, did you research your family history, or was the inspiration based on tales told by your family members?
Leila Meacham: Though my novels are set in Texas, the state in which I’ve lived all my life, they are not based on any personal experience, persons I’ve known or places I’ve lived. There is one little-known exception. Back in the early ‘80s, following the guideline of “Write what you know,” I wrote a romance novel and set the scene in West Texas where I grew up. It was published, along with two others I had to write in order for the company to buy the first. The other two romances were set in states I had never even visited and featured characters whose professions I had no knowledge of. I disliked the publishing process and vowed never to write again when I fulfilled my contract, but writing those last two little romances introduced me to research and the thrill of learning something new. I loved the challenge of creating a believable story from what I heretofore did not know that had the ring of personal experience. So it was with ROSES. The story of the Tolivers, Warwicks and DuMonts sprang strictly from research and my imagination.
BRC: I have to join the chorus of readers who say these books remind us of GONE WITH THE WIND (needless to say, this is a huge compliment). I'm wondering what your relationship might be to GONE WITH THE WIND. Is it a favorite of yours?
LM: I never read GONE WITH THE WIND. I can’t tell you why, since I believe I read every book in our small county library during my elementary through high school years. Perhaps it was because it was set against the Civil War, a tragedy that saddens me to this day. I never saw the movie, though I see snippets of it on TV reruns now and then, and of course I am familiar with the story line. When I set about writing ROSES, Margaret Mitchell’s story never entered my mind. I was shocked at the comparison and immensely flattered, but at the same time I was resentful of some critics’ view that I had deliberately patterned Mary Toliver after Scarlett O’Hara. Not so. The only “flaw,” if you will, that the two share is their obsessive love of family land and protection of the family name, but their lives, from what I know of GONE WITH THE WIND, play out entirely differently. And, trust me, Percy Warwick in ROSES would never have said to Mary Toliver, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
BRC: I love that your husband was so fascinated by the characters in ROSES that he implored you to write a prequel in order to discover how the Warwicks, Tolivers and DuMonts came to reside in Texas. When he made the suggestion, did you immediately think "YES. I'm going to do that."? Or did you have to mull it over for a while?
LM: Actually, I said, “Oh, honey, I don’t think so!” when he proposed I write a prequel. ROSES had taken a period of five years to write. At my age, I wasn’t sure I wanted to devote another five years to a single book. I doubted I even had the ability to write a prequel, but then I began to think about it and my curiosity was stirred. I even went so far to think that I would call the novel SOMERSET. When I mentioned my husband’s suggestion to my agent, he said immediately, “You can do it!” And so I did. The book took only a year and three months to write, and I enjoyed some lovely breaks in between.
BRC: Jessica is such an intriguing, strong character. Is she based on someone you know? Where did you get the inspiration for her? Or did she arrive in your imagination, just as she was?
LM: Well, of course when you write a prequel, you have to find the common thread that connects the book to the first. In ROSES, Jessica (long deceased) is mentioned as the great-grandmother of Mary and author of the family history titled ROSES. She made the perfect choice to serve as the tie that binds. And no, Jessica is not based on anyone I know. One great thing about creating characters from the imagination: The writer is not restricted by any boundaries. I would think that to fit someone an author knows personally into the framework of a fictional character would limit the range and scope of development because of the subconscious desire to stick to the truth. But that is only speculation.
BRC: I was puzzled by the expression "black waxy," which you use to describe their destination when Silas Toliver and Jeremy Warwick set out for Texas. Can you tell me where that description came from and what it means?
LM: The “black waxy” is located in the Blackland Prairies of Texas, so named because the soil in that area is very dark, deep and loamy, and is the most suitable and desirable for farming. These grasslands begin south of the border of the Red River and run through the Dallas-Fort Worth area into the southwestern part of the state.
BRC: I'm taken by the way you weave so many plots together, following several characters' lives and skillfully intertwining them, over many generations and at many important historical junctures. This seems like it must be challenging to write. Do you outline your books, write out a timeline, or use some other means of organizing your thoughts in order to form these stories into one epic tale?
LM: I do not make an outline because it is restrictive. In my non-writing life, I generally stay within the box. I’m not a spur-of-the moment person. I arrange my days according to plans and schedules and stick to them. If I were to write by outline, I’d adhere to it strictly and not have the surprise of the unexpected and the thrill of discovery. So I simply begin a story by setting a time and place (subject to change) and let it fly. Only recently, with the book I’m currently writing, have I made a timetable of the action and a mileage chart. I’m finding them not only handy, but also necessary because two lives are going on simultaneously in the novel, and a timetable is essential to keep the balls in the air.
BRC: How much research (and what kind) did you undertake in order to delve into the historical events spanning the time between 1835 and 1900? Have you always been fascinated by history?
LM: I am fascinated by history only in how it relates to my characters, but at the time of the writing, I read and study everything associated with the period and time in which they live. I find that doing a lot of preliminary reading in isolation, without first having a character and setting in mind, yields little to the story. I take notes, but generally I research as I write. For instance, if I’ve decided to make a character a member of the Delta Force, I create him first, and then I read about Delta Force. Regretfully, I cannot retain all the information I’ve taken such pains to double-check and work into my stories. I am like T.B. Aldrich who wrote, “My mind lets go of a thousand things, like dates of wars and deaths of kings.”
BRC: What was your favorite part of the book to write and why?
LM: I loved writing about Thomas’s feelings for his three children and about Joshua, that sweet child. Readers are always surprised to learn my husband of nearly 48 years and I have no children, since they appear briefly but prominently in my books. I’ve been told I write “with authority” about them. Such a compliment. I taught high school sophomores for many years, but that is not the same as having one’s own children. I suppose I enjoy writing about the little ones because it gives me a chance to be a mama.
BRC: Did these characters live and breathe in your imagination? Did any of them take on such lives of their own that they began dictating their stories to you, changing your idea of how the plot unfurled? (If so, I'd love to hear an example.)
LM: Once my characters are created, they live with me. They eat, sleep and play with me until we bid adieu at the end of our time together. And, oh, my yes, those rascals often take off on their own, dragging me behind them. One such surprising example occurred in SOMERSET. At the onset of the story, I couldn’t see Jessica, an abolitionist, and Silas, a slave owner, ever coming together, let alone living happily ever after. Before I knew it, those two were head-over-heels in love with each other!
BRC: I just loved Jessica's special writing project (I won't give away the title, because it's so delightful to come across it). Without giving away too much, can you tell us how that idea came to you?
LM: I do believe I touched on that in the fourth question and may have given away what you kindly wished to remain concealed. But I can add that the symbol of the roses came to me out of the blue and may have been the inspiration for the first saga. The idea of the red rose symbolizing the asking of forgiveness, the white rose the granting of pardon, and the pink the withholding of forgiveness simply struck me one day while I was watering a house plant.
BRC: Can you tell us about your path to publication for both ROSES and SOMERSET? Was writing each book a uniquely different experience? Or was it easier somehow to write SOMERSET after already writing/publishing ROSES (and so already having inhabited that world)? How long did it take to write and then publish each book?
LM: My path to publication was a miracle, no doubt about it. I asked the Almighty one morning what he wanted me to do with the rest of my life. I was 65 and had run out of all those things you do in retirement. I was bored. I distinctly “heard” that I was to finish a book I’d started 20 years before, put away on a shelf, and forgotten. Well, that was not what I had in mind at all, but you do not argue with the Almighty. However, I did say that I would do absolutely nothing to get it published. Going through all the time-consuming, arduous wickets to get an agent to even look at my book, let alone read it, then the dreary submission process to get a publisher to consider it, the wait and anxiety, and the little monetary reward for all my hard work weren’t for me. I was too old for that nonsense. But then I heard: You write the book, and I’ll do the rest.
It took me five years, but the day I wrote “The End” on the final page of ROSES, that evening --- ‘twas a Saturday --- a friend asked if I’d finished my book. Yes, I said. On Monday, she called to say that her niece was married to David McCormick, a prominent literary agent in New York. She informed her niece that David was to read the book a friend of hers had written down in Texas. That dear man followed Aunt Louise’s orders, loved ROSES, and after revisions, submitted it to Grand Central Publishing who offered a pre-emptive bid for the book, and within six days of publication, ROSES went on the New York Times bestseller list. It has now been translated into 22 languages. A miracle for sure.
My other books --- TUMBLEWEEDS and SOMERSET --- each took a year and few months to write. Experience makes things go faster and easier.
BRC: What is your writing process? Do you write a certain number of pages or words a day? Do you write in longhand or on the computer? Where do you write?
LM: I write from 8:30 in the morning until noon and am back at my computer around 3:00 and write until 5:00. I have no set number of pages to write. I write in my own study surrounded by books and photographs of framed polar bears. It is an airy and quiet and secluded place.
BRC: What inspires you? Are there any favorite authors, music or movies that boost your creativity?
LM: I am inspired by the creative spirit that lives within me --- and within all of us --- given by the Creator.
BRC: What can your many fans look forward to seeing from you in the future? Are you working on your next book now?
LM: I am now working on another Texas saga --- and my last set in the state --- called TITANS. It is a working title and may be changed. The novel is set against the background of oil and cattle, a subject that has been done to death about Texas, but I have taken a new approach. I should have it completed by the end of the year.