Novelist Martha Conway is visiting today to tell us about her newest novel, a historical fiction work titled Thieving Forest.
She’s in the midst of a virtual book tour through Wow-Women on Writing’s The Muffin.
Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.
Welcome, Martha. Please tell us about your current release.
My husband describes Thieving Forest as “Little Women meets Last of the Mohicans.” It’s historical fiction, which is a departure from my last novel (a mystery), and it follows five sisters when their lives in pioneer Ohio are disrupted by an abduction. Four sisters are kidnapped by a band of Potawatomi Indians, and the younger sister, Susanna, goes after them. Meanwhile the man in love with Susanna—who is part Potawatomi himself—follows as well. It’s a tale of survival and self-creation as each one of these characters undergoes a kind of transformation as the journey progresses. And it’s also a romance. Seth, the man in love with Susanna, re-discovers his Potawatomi heritage, while Susanna transforms from a younger sister nicknamed Princess to a woman who can fend for herself.
What inspired you to write this book?
I have five older sisters, and I was interested in sibling dynamics. At the same time I was reading a lot of quest or adventure stores — Patrick O’Brian and Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), to name a few—and wondering why there were never any females who went off on a journey. I wanted to flip the genre. At first I thought my protagonist, Susanna, would go off to California or Oregon, but when I was doing research I found a book called “Tales of the Great Black Swamp.” This swamp was in northwest Ohio, near Toledo, and it was huge —nearly the size of Connecticut. I grew up in Ohio, and I had never heard of it! It’s almost all drained now, but at the time it was a serious obstacle to travel. I wanted a place that my characters could get lost in, and the Black Swamp seemed perfect for that. And since I grew up in Ohio, the setting resonated for me.
Excerpt from Thieving Forest:
Susanna grasps the tree trunk in front of her with her bare hands, feeling for any small holds in the rutted bark. Her mouth is so dry that it hurts. She can’t see her sisters’ faces but wisps of their red hair, each one a different shade, lift in the wind. Their black mourning collars and dark dresses bleed into the color of the trees, and only Beatrice has a cap on her head. One Potawatomi wrenches Naomi’s violin out of her hands and ties it up to the bundle of dead chickens. Then he pushes her with the handle of a spade—their father’s spade—and drives her and the others into the bracken and trees and the vines of small, unopened roses that mark the edge of Thieving Forest.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m working on the next installment of my Ohio trilogy, called The Floating Theatre. It takes place in antebellum America along the Ohio River, which was the natural separation between the North and the South. After being abandoned by her cousin, May Bedloe, a socially awkward seamstress, gets a job on a ramshackle riverboat theatre and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Very, very early in my childhood. I loved to read, and from there it was a natural leap to wanting to write. I liked writing on wallpapered walls if no paper was at hand, much to the annoyance of my mother.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’m not sure I could write forty hours a week even if I had forty hours a week to write, but I do write every day for two or three hours in the morning. I also teach creative writing. Since I’m a very habitual person, I’ve found what works for me is to make writing a daily routine. If it’s eight o’clock in the morning, I should be writing.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
If I’m feeling sluggish or blocked I eat a couple of chocolate-covered espresso beans. That always gets the juice going again.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A writer! Although I did go through a period in high school where I thought it would be interesting to restore old paintings (I was given a back-room tour of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and it was fascinating).
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Just my thanks for taking the time to read this interview! And I hope you check out Thieving Forest. I’m biased, but I think it’s a pretty good read.
Thanks, Martha! Happy writing!