Friday, April 14, 2017

Interview with historical fiction author Katherine Stillerman

Historical fiction author Katherine Stillerman joins me today and we’re chatting about In the Fullness of Time: One Woman’s Story of Growth and Empowerment.

After thirty fruitful years as a public school educator in North Carolina, Katherine Stillerman retired to take up writing as a second career. When she’s not writing, she’s reading or relaxing with husband Bill in their empty-but-cozy nest in Winston-Salem, or spending time with one of their nine delightful grandchildren, who keep her young and on her toes.

Welcome, Katherine. Please tell us about your current release.
Set in South Carolina in the early 1900’s, In the Fullness of Time is the story of Hattie Barton’s struggle to reconcile her life as a wife and mother with her passion for women’s suffrage. The book, a sequel to Hattie’s Place, is loosely based on the life of my grandmother, who graduated from Greenville Female Academy in 1906, got a teaching job in a neighboring community, and ended up marrying the man in whose home she was boarding, after his wife tragically died and left four young sons behind. Those were the circumstances around which the plot revolves in Hattie’s Place, the coming of age of a young woman into adulthood and independence.

In the Fullness of Time continues the story, with Hattie now married to Charles Barton, widowed father of four young sons and twenty-three years her senior. Hattie loves the boys unconditionally, though she longs to have a baby of her own. To complicate matters, her lingering feelings for Will Kendrick, to whom she was once engaged, resurface and threaten to undermine her relationship to Charles, when Will unexpectedly comes to town. As she struggles to keep her marriage on course and pursue her work for women’s suffrage, Hattie embarks on a second coming of age journey in which she searches for a way to have it all.

What inspired you to write this book?
When I began writing In the Fullness of Time, I wanted to thrust Hattie into the women’s suffrage movement, aware of the constraints that would have been imposed on her by the southern social order. I wanted to explore the quotation attributed to Cary Chapman Catt, who said, “No stronger characters did the long struggle produce than those great-soul southern suffragists. They had need to be great of soul.”

Excerpt from In the Fullness of Time: One Woman’s Story of Growth and Empowerment:
The following excerpt from Chapter 1 expresses it in Hattie’s words:

Hattie knew that woman suffrage was an uphill battle in her male-dominated state. Their politicians consistently praised the virtue of their women as keepers of the hearth and home, as well as guardians of all that is pure and good. They elevated their women up on pedestals, as high as the woman depicted in the Statue of Freedom that crowned the top of the Capitol dome—pedestals that were lofty enough to serve as prisons without bars.

Hattie thought that such an atmosphere was why strong southern women, such as Alice Barton Rivers and Lila Givens, became so pushy and aggressive. Their intellects and organizational abilities far exceeded those of most men. Forced up onto their pedestals, they were kept far from the reach of public decision-making, politics, and commerce. With their spheres of influence severely limited to “women’s work,” they had to satisfy their ambitions with trivial and mundane tasks.

Thus, they elevated the trivial and the mundane to the highest level of importance. They became obsessed with the running of their homes, organizing political events for their husbands, setting the most elegant banquet, and fretting over every detail—the color of the napkins and the arrangement of the flowers—as though the turning of the world upon its axis depended upon it. If these women had been born men, they would have inherited fortunes, been groomed to attend the finest colleges, managed vast resources, run local and state governments, waged wars, and made important decisions that could have truly impacted the outcomes and lives of others.

The denial of equal rights placed a restriction on all women, and of course it was devastating to poor and colored women. But Hattie thought it had a unique disadvantage for women of means like Lila and Alice. For the first time, as she compared them to these liberated women at the suffrage headquarters, she had a new respect for how they carried on anyway and how they operated within the constraints of the social order imposed upon them to get things done. She definitely wanted to be counted among them. Somehow, she would find a way to manage all of her marital duties and still make time for this all-important cause.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m working on the 50,000-word draft I finished during National Novel Writing Month (Na-No-Wri-Mo). The working title is Mountain Brook Memories: 1961-1963. It’s about a preacher's kid whose family moves to Birmingham, Alabama, into the affluent and highly segregated neighborhood of Mountain Brook. The main character, Harriet Elizabeth Oechsner, the granddaughter of the protagonist in my first two novels, is faced with the challenge of being an outsider and of finding her place in a society steeped in tradition and staunchly resistant to change. The story is played out against the backdrop of the Cold War and the American Civil Rights movement. My goal is to publish the novel at the end of the year or early in 2018.

This book would be the third in the series of the Hattie novels, only it skips a generation. Ultimately, I envision filling in the gap with one or maybe two more novels, taking Hattie through the Great Depression and World II, and then following her into her later life, in the 1970’s when she develops into a quirky and impulsive older adult, who learns to drive at 76, and is plagued with the onset of dementia.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve thought of myself as a writer for most of my adult life, having taught writing as a language arts teacher and having written numerous curriculum materials and guides during my career as an educator, as well as publishing articles based on my doctoral dissertation. What I wrote then was for very specific, limited, and sometimes captive audiences. It was not until I published my first novel in 2015, that I began to view myself as an author, with a much broader audience, none of which is captive and all of which is dependent for success upon my ability to engage and entertain my readership. And the scariest part in this writer-turned-author process is the potential to be critiqued, rejected, and worst of all ignored. Sometimes I think I’d be content to drop the author part and just be a writer, but then what would be the challenge in that? I’m in it now for the long haul.

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’m fortunate to have the luxury of being retired on a generous pension from the state of North Carolina, so I can pretty much write whenever I choose to. There are very few days when I don’t spend at least six hours at my computer, either writing, editing, researching, or working on a blog for my website. When I’m not actively working on a novel, I try to read and review as many books as I can.  

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
As a writer of historical fiction, I love reading newspapers from the era of the book I’m working on. The community columns are my favorite. One in the Keowee Courier in 1908 told of a church bake sale where each cook put a sticker with her weight attached to the bottom of the baked item she donated. Each item was priced according to that number, e.g. if the cook weighed 110 pounds, the pie would sell for $1.10.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a veterinarian or a ballet dancer. Instead, I got a dog and taught school.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Thanks for allowing me to share my work with you today.


Thank you for joining me today, Katherine.

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