Thursday, April 3, 2014

Interview with historical fiction author Lissa Cowan

Historical fiction author Lissa M. Cowan is here today sharing about her new novel Milk Fever.

Lissa M. Cowan is the author of Milk Fever and founder of Writing the Body. She speaks and writes about storytelling, creativity, work-life balance and creative spirituality. She is a Huffington Post blogger and writes regularly for Canadian and U.S. magazines and newspapers.

She is co-translator of Words that Walk in the Night by Pierre Morency, one of Québec’s most honoured poets. She has been writing and telling stories in one form or another since she was six years old and has received awards for her writing from the University of Victoria’s Writing Department and from The Banff Centre. She is an alumna of The Banff Centre and The Victoria School of Writing. She has had some wonderfully talented teachers along the way such as Nino Ricci, Jane Rule and Daphne Marlatt who have helped her hone her writing craft.

Lissa believes that inspiration for writing can come from anywhere and that lifelong creativity begins by cultivating a deep awareness of ourselves, and the world around us. She coaches her students to develop the skills to tune in and trust their intuition. She believes that true creative work begins with a loving relationship to self and spreads outwards to encompass all living beings.

When she’s not writing or teaching, you can most likely find her in a cafe working on one of her stories or book ideas. She just started work on a creative non-fiction book, though it’s too early right now to spill the beans on that one!
She holds a Master of Arts degree in English Studies from l’Université de Montréal and lives in Toronto, Canada.

Welcome, Lissa. Please tell us about your current release.
Milk Fever takes place at the time of the French Revolution. In 1789, Armande, a wet nurse who is known for the mystical qualities of her breast milk, goes missing from her mountain village.

Céleste, a cunning servant girl who Armande once saved from shame and starvation, sets out to find her. A snuffbox found in the snow, the unexpected arrival of a gentleman and the discovery of the wet nurse’s diary, deepen the mystery. Using Armande’s diary as a map to her secret past, Céleste fights to save her from those plotting to steal the wisdom of her milk.

Milk Fever is a rich and inspired tale set on the eve of the French Revolution–a delicious peek into this age’s history. The story explores the fight for women’s rights and the rise in clandestine literature laying bare sexuality, the nature of love and the magic of books to transform lives.

What inspired you to write this book?
I first came across the term wet-nursing in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy while researching for my Master’s thesis. I looked up the word, and shortly after began to see it in many other books I was reading from the eighteenth century—mostly ones written by French novelists. I picked up a copy of George Sussman’s Selling Mother’s Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France and was astonished to discover that wet nursing was an industry in France similar to textiles or porcelain.

What particularly intrigued me was a widespread belief at the time that the thoughts of the mother who breastfed could become impressed upon the child. I thought, what if a wet nurse existed who was educated (most of them were not)? What would her milk be like and how—in the fantastical world of the novel—might this influence the babies she nursed?

Armande handed me a book that felt clumsy and stiff in my hands. I pressed it with all the strength I could bring to bear. She said the pages of books were made from cotton and linen rags stamped into pulp, then pressed into paper and hung to dry. I laughed at her for telling such a lie because I thought maybe she was just like my father who told tall tales to make me behave. Rows and rows of lines she called words looked odd to me. Many times I searched hard within every letter, every sound to find meaning. The letters cut my tongue as thorns on a rose bush, each one sticking to me. I could not speak the next letter until the one before it came unstuck. Soon after the word was finally spoken, my lazy tongue quit my mouth.

Months later, the wet nurse asked me to read a passage aloud. The first line was, Bodies gliding on morning’s cloak of dew, lit up as iridescent insect wings they flew. When I came to the word iridescent, Armande said to say it slowly, one letter at a time. She told me it was from the word iris for the flower, and escent for colours of the rainbow that change as a dragonfly in the sun. Finally, when my tongue began working with me and worrying less, she asked me to say other words like deliquescent, effervescence, and florescence. These newfound words were as rare gems dug up by the wet nurse solely for me. She wrote them out with big stokes that filled a whole page. I rubbed my eyes to make the words go away, yet they only stayed there waiting for me to say them.

In the days and months that followed, I learned to read and write well, and I learned first-hand about the miraculous effects of Armande’s milk on babies. Before, I was a mere servant watching from afar as the wet nurse suckled. Then I was part of her life, holding and changing babies, burping them, and rocking them to sleep. Armande cared for three babies during this period yet not all at once. She would also tend to others from time to time, reassuring worried mothers in soothing tones as gentle and sweet as the milk itself. First there was Jacques who she still cared for. His mother died in childbirth and Armande stepped up to nurse him without a thought about payment. Caroline came after, then Héloïse. The first time I watched from up close as Jacques drank her milk was in the drawing room.

Armande was on her favourite oak chair with the sagging blue leather seat and worn arms while I sat on the sofa. Suddenly Jacques stopped sucking, then gazed at me knowingly, his eyes full of light. In that instant, a slim ray of sun gleamed through a crack, lighting up the darkness inside me. My hands shook. Sweat ran down my cheeks and the back of my neck. Just as she said her father sometimes described it, we were entering a new age driven by light. And I, a peasant girl whose father and mother never held a book, would be there to witness the change.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m playing around with a few ideas, both of them potential novels or novellas. The one I’m particularly keen to write takes place in Victorian England; another century and country to explore!

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I knew I was a writer when I was about seven years old. I won a short story contest for a story about animals such as tigers, lions and a monkey, and never looked back.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your workday like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I write full-time and write fiction part time. So in other words I work as a copywriter for my day job, which I love, and write fiction the other part of the time. I begin my workday writing for myself in the morning until about 1 pm. Then I do my client work for the rest of the day. I don’t answer email in the morning and try not to answer the phone during this time otherwise it’s hard to get back into what I’m writing.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I water the plants in between writing spurts and I usually talk to the plants as I go. Obviously I don’t water them everyday, but when I do, it’s usually when I need a writing break to let something percolate. My plants know all my deepest thoughts and worries.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A writer.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Just that writing isn’t easy. I love what I do, but it’s hard work and takes dedication and commitment to stick with it. Sometimes people think that if you’re good at writing, then it must come easily. I did about 30 revisions of my novel and so I might even say that it becomes harder to write because each time you produce something, you set the bar higher.

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