Before she was famous (hehe!) and the winner of three Christy Awards (Book of the Year/First Novel/Historical), Lori Benton graciously responded to my Book Club’s questions following our selection of Burning Sky for our May Book Club this year. It’s my pleasure to post the interview (minus a few spoiler Q&As) so you can catch a glimpse of the creation of this magnificent story, and the delightful woman that is Lori Benton.
Once you have enjoyed this in-depth interview, be sure to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway for your chance to win yourself one of five copies of Burning Sky I’m giving away, thanks to Wynn-Wynn Media.
NJBC: How did the story of ‘Burning Sky’ come to be?
Lori: Before I wrote Burning Sky (originally titled The Quiet in the Land, anyone know where that title came from? :)), I wrote another story set in the late 18th century. It was while writing and researching that story that I had my introduction to the types of characters, European, African, and Native, who populated the 18th century American frontier (basically a line zig-zagging its way along the crest of the Appalachian Mountain range). I became fascinated with the meeting of cultures that happened across this line, or middle ground, and the way in which some were able to live in both worlds, or were born to one yet adopted the other.
Once I finished that novel, I began looking for a setting that would allow me to explore this middle ground and all its associated themes. Around this time, the image of a woman journeying across a rugged terrain, with a heavy pack basket on her back and a heavier burden in her soul, sprang into my head. That image became the opening of the story, and that woman was, of course, Willa.
How did Willa’s journey impact you?
Digging deep and writing about difficult emotions and situations is always impacting, because in a purely emotional sense I live those journeys with the characters. I feel what they feel, so you can bet I left the computer feeling emotionally wrung out some days while writing Burning Sky.
I also poured a lot of the life lessons I learned through my cancer journey and the following years of struggle when I was unable to write, into the character of Neil MacGregor. I’m thankful for the chance to have done that.
But what was most impacting in writing this novel is that it cemented my passion for 18th century history, particularly that middle ground where the cultures of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans met, wherever that happened to be, however it unfolded.
Which was your favourite character in this story, and why?
Oh, that’s a hard question to answer. I loved so many of them for various reasons. Even relatively minor characters grabbed my heartstrings and tugged, and I know so much more about them than the small bits that appear on the page. For now I’ll say Neil MacGregor. He was great fun to write. His self-deprecating sense of humour made him a lovely man to spend so many of my days with.
“I remember the borders of our land, though I have been gone from them nearly half the moons of my life. But who there will remember me? What I have seen, what I have done, it has changed me.
I am the place where two rivers meet, silted with upheaval and loss.
Yet memory of our land is a clear stream. I shall know it as a mother knows the faces of her children. It may be I will find me there.”
Abducted by Mohawk Indians at fourteen and renamed Burning Sky, Willa Obenchain is driven to return to her family’s New York frontier homestead after many years building a life with the People. At the boundary of her father’s property, Willa discovers a wounded Scotsman lying in her path. Feeling obliged to nurse his injuries, the two quickly find much has changed during her twelve-year absence—her childhood home is in disrepair, her missing parents are rumored to be Tories, and the young Richard Waring she once admired is now grown into a man twisted by the horrors of war and claiming ownership of the Obenchain land.
When her Mohawk brother arrives and questions her place in the white world, the cultural divide blurs Willa’s vision. Can she follow Tames-His-Horse back to the People now that she is no longer Burning Sky? And what about Neil MacGregor, the kind and loyal botanist who does not fit into in her plan for a solitary life, yet is now helping her revive her farm? In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, strong feelings against “savages” abound in the nearby village of Shiloh, leaving Willa’s safety unsure.
Willa is a woman caught between two worlds. As tensions rise, challenging her shielded heart, the woman called Burning Sky must find a new courage–the courage to again risk embracing the blessings the Almighty wants to bestow. Is she brave enough to love again?
Is your writing process a highly organised and planned work, or is it more character driven with things happening you didn’t expect? Or a combination of both?
It’s both, but I’d say I lean more toward the organized plotter. I have to, because there’s often a lot of historical facts and events that I’m weaving my story through, and of course they can’t be changed (barring the minor literary license, which I try to avoid taking).
The first thing I’ll do is research the main events I know my story will encompass (with Burning Sky there weren’t many, but in books I’ve written since there have been), and create a historical time line (in the case of the book I’m working on now, the time line is thirty pages long, single-spaced). While creating the time line, I’ll also begin creating a rough plot outline for the story. I like to know where I’m going and where I think I’ll end up, but this leaves room for many surprises along the way, including characters popping up that I hadn’t expected, enriching and complicating things.
I related to Willa’s experience of belonging to two worlds and not really fitting in either anymore. Have you ever had your own experience of feeling like you were caught between two worlds?
I think on some level this is common to most people. I’ve only ever lived in one culture, with people who are, by and large, like me, yet still I’ve felt caught between. I grew up going to church, and was there every Sunday and Wednesday evening. I do not remember a time when I did not believe in God, and that Jesus died for my sins. I’m thankful for that upbringing. But as you probably know, a person can’t inherit salvation. It has to be received fresh by each one of us. Until I understood what it means to have a personal walk with the Lord, to the degree that it affects me daily, in everything choice I make, I felt caught between the Church and the World. I didn’t fit comfortably in either, although I was saved and baptized when I was about ten years old. Not until I was 17, and finally came to understand what it meant to have a relationship with the Lord that went deeper than belief—and pursued it—did that sense of being caught between two ways of living vanish.
As writers do, I took my memories of what that felt like and projected it onto Willa, in her particular circumstances. Personalities and life situations differ, but emotions… we all share those.
Do you plan to jump to more contemporary genres and use some of your own journey with cancer in your novels?
There was a time I’d have shaken my head at the idea of writing historical fiction set on the 18th century American frontier, so I’ll never say no to possible genres I might one day write. But at the moment I have no plans to write contemporary fiction. That doesn’t mean my journey with cancer doesn’t inform what I write. Neil MacGregor’s journey through long-term debilitating injury is something I could easily relate to, and much of what he struggles with in the pages of Burning Sky came out of my cancer journey. In fact, I originally wrote the character of Neil MacGregor as the hero of a contemporary romance I was working on when I was diagnosed with cancer, back in 1999. I never finished that book. Though he was experiencing the same debilitating challenges that Neil in Burning Sky experienced, that contemporary version of Neil was a very different person. Defeated. Self-pitying. Raging at God. At the time, I couldn’t fathom that a person who had come through what he did could possibly react in any other way. It took my own experience with cancer, and the resulting five years of chemo fog when I was unable to write, to understand how a person finds peace and triumph in surrendering their will to God, and trusting Him completely with one’s heart’s desire and passion.
God gives us grace when it’s needed, not necessarily before that point.
So when I needed a hero for Burning Sky, and knew he would be a Scottish botanist, it made perfect sense to let Neil MacGregor “time travel” to the 18th century, and that’s where he became the hopeful, undaunted character I feel he was always meant to be.
There was such a contrast between ‘Joseph’ and ‘Neil MacGregor’ and I enjoyed the contrasting portrayal of strength in each. Are these characters based on people you know personally?
I’ve never consciously based a character on anyone I know, but that’s not to say that bits and pieces of people I know, or have known, haven’t made it into my writing. The creative well a writer draws from is fed by many springs. Every person I’ve known, every experience I’ve had, every book I’ve read, movie or TV show I’ve watched, Bible teaching or sermon I’ve heard at my church or on the radio, and music that particularly moves me, are springs running into this well. It all goes into the same well, though, so when I draw out to create a story, sometimes it’s not possible know where every character or theme or story situation originally flowed from.
Why did you give ‘Willa’ different coloured eyes?
It occurred to me one day that it would be a fun and unusual thing to do, but I also realized it was a way of underscoring that “woman of two worlds” theme I was exploring. Maybe a bit “on the nose,” but it struck my fancy at the time. J
Was the abduction of white children by the Indians a widespread practice? Is there any indication from that time that most of the children abducted would then return to their previous homes as adults, like Willa?
Taking captives (men, women, and children) in war or raids and adopting them to replace deceased family members was a common practice among the eastern woodland tribes of Native Americans. It had been going on before Europeans arrived on the continent. Because, in the eyes of the tribes that did this, the adoption process washed away the blood of whatever people group the person had been born to, it didn’t matter whether they were Native, white, or African. After the adoption they were considered as much a part of the clan or family as if they were born to it. In some cases the adoptee took the name of the person they were replacing, and their role in that family.
At the end of most of the colonial American wars, the terms of peace called for the Native nations who had fought against the British, later the Americans, to return all their white captives. Many adopted children had become assimilated and didn’t wish to return. Some were kept and hidden, some were forced to return, some returned happily by choice. Most who grew to adulthood in the Indian culture, having been abducted as young children, showed a preference for remaining with their Native families.
Imagine a capture/return scenario, and it most likely happened. The stories were as individual as the people they involved.
Joseph’s family loyalty and the desire to hunt for his ‘sister’ was so reassuring and a duty of love. Is this indicative of ‘family’ life in their culture? Is there anything from Indian culture that you would want to emulate within your own family?
Yes, it is. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) had a broader sense of family than we tend to have today. Each clan was closely related, usually the female descendants of one “grandmother,” their children and husbands. A woman’s brother was actually a more important person in her children’s lives than their father, who didn’t share their clan and still had responsibilities to his own clan (perhaps to his sister’s children). Every woman in a clan was a child’s “mother” in a sense. No child who lost her parents would ever be orphaned, unless the loss was as widespread and devastating as Willa’s.
Long before there was “women’s liberation” the Haudenosaunee gave high status to women in their clans. There was a balance to the roles of men and women unknown to Europeans at the time. Women owned the land, the crops, and their homes, and could refuse to feed a war party if they didn’t think going to war was a good idea. Women also chose who would be sachem, or chief. A child’s clan affiliation was passed down through the mother’s line. When a man married, he left his home and moved into the home of his wife’s clan or family.
An aspect of the Haudenosaunee culture I admire is the honouring of elders, something lacking by and large in today’s culture. But I hope that characteristics of pre-contact Haudenosaunee life is reflected in my own family today. It’s certainly something we strive for.
What was your favourite part of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains?
I actually grew up east of the Appalachian Mountains, but had plenty of opportunity to explore them before I moved to the west coast, in my early twenties. I’m grateful I was such a tomboy growing up, and spent my days playing in the woods near my home rather than inside with dolls or video games, so I have a rich well of sensory memories to drawn from now when writing about the eastern woodlands of the Unites States.
I seem to have been born with a love of mountains in my soul and always felt a lift in my spirit when we travelled near them, or among them. I live among them now in Oregon, and usually get out into the mountains here once a week for a hike or a stroll, and can’t imagine not living within sight of mountains ever again.
When did you discover your love of writing?
I was nine years old. My best friend Leah announced one day that she’d written a story. It had never occurred to me that a nine year old girl could write her own story, though I loved to make up stories using my little animal figurines. It sounded like the coolest idea ever, so I gave it a go. I still have that first story, called Yellow Feather and the Wild Mustang. It was about a Plains Indian girl and her horse. Funny how my interests in writing circled back around to Native American settings after some thirty-odd years.
Burning Sky has been nominated in two categories for the Christy Awards ~ when writing the story did you ever imagine, or hope, it would be so well received? (We interviewed Lori before her 3 wins!)
I’m honoured by the recognition, but it’s not something I thought much about years ago when I was writing Burning Sky (2008-9). What I most wanted then, and now, is to tell the best story I can, and for readers to connect with the story on whatever level that may be. Writing is a circular endeavour, begun by the writer but closed by the reader. Between the writer, the story, and each reader, that circle looks a little different—something I find endlessly fascinating now that I have readers, and hear from them. Awards nominations give that same sense of closure only because I know behind them is a reader, or several readers, who connected with the story and characters.
The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn
Frontier dangers cannot hold a candle to the risks one woman takes by falling in love
In an act of brave defiance, Tamsen Littlejohn escapes the life her harsh stepfather has forced upon her. Forsaking security and an arranged marriage, she enlists frontiersman Jesse Bird to guide her to the Watauga settlement in western North Carolina. But shedding her old life doesn’t come without cost. As the two cross a vast mountain wilderness, Tamsen faces hardships that test the limits of her faith and endurance.
Convinced that Tamsen has been kidnapped, wealthy suitor Ambrose Kincaid follows after her, in company with her equally determined stepfather. With trouble in pursuit, Tamsen and Jesse find themselves thrust into the conflict of a divided community of Overmountain settlers. The State of Franklin has been declared, but many remain loyal to North Carolina. With one life left behind and chaos on the horizon, Tamsen struggles to adapt to a life for which she was never prepared. But could this challenging frontier life be what her soul has longed for, what God has been leading her toward? As pursuit draws ever nearer, will her faith see her through the greatest danger of all—loving a man who has risked everything for her?
You have just released The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn ~ how did writing Tamsen’s story differ from writing Willa’s?
It went faster, for one thing. It took eighteen months to write Burning Sky and about nine months to write The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn. I began writing that book in early 2010, shortly before signing with my agent, which probably motivated me to write longer hours each day, which meant the book was finished faster.
Each book is its own writing experience,. Each book presents its own challenges, whether character or setting, research or plot. But I still sit down alone every morning around 9am and get to work, praying to be productive and inspired, but working even if I’m neither of those things, same as I’ve done every day for most of my adult life.
Please share something from your faith journey.
I’d been writing with serious intent to be published for about eight years before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, in 1999. I had every intention of continuing on that path as soon as the chemotherapy and radiation ended and I got the all-clear from my oncologist. The all-clear came at the end of that year, but no matter how hard I tried post-chemo, I couldn’t write the way I used to. It felt like half my brain had been left behind in that chemo room where I’d spent so much time the previous months.
I was experiencing what’s called chemo fog. After a year or two of fighting it, trying to find my way out of it—through discipline, prayer, better nutrition, exercise, anything I could think of to help my brain recover—I was forced to admit the loss might be irreversible. I surrendered my dream of writing novels to God. It wasn’t until 2004 I felt the Lord nudging me to try writing again. Turns out He still had a plan for me regarding writing. He just had some maturing He wanted to do in me first.
And again, this all fed into the writing, finding its way into Neil MacGregor’s character, most especially.
What novel are you working on now?
I’ve signed a new contract with WaterBrook Press for two more novels set on the 18th Century frontier. I’ll be revisiting the Mohawk Valley of New York in this two book series, the first to be released in 2015, the second in 2016 (no firm release dates yet, but probably early in the year). The first book is tentatively titled The Wood’s Edge (that could change).
This will be one story told over two books, beginning during the era of the French & Indian War (1757) and continuing on into the Revolutionary War (1777), so it covers approximately 20 years. A few familiar characters from Burning Sky will make appearances in the pages, but this story centres around a new cast of characters and, among other things, will explore the history of another Iroquois nation, the Oneidas, and their largely overlooked contributing role in the United States becoming independent of Great Britain.
When you are not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Reading! I also like to bake, but now that I’m eating mostly gluten free I don’t bake nearly as much as I used to. But my favourite thing to do on my day off is (after church) go hiking in the mountains with Brian, my husband, and our dog, Dargo. It’s become part of my Sabbath, and a great mental reset between one week’s work and another, since that work entails sitting inside at a computer for 4-6 hours a day (more during edits).
Any novels or non-fiction you have read recently and would recommend?
I always recommend the Brother Cadfael Chronicles, by Ellis Peters. I’m usually listening to one of those. Also the Mitford series by Jan Karon. I’m working my way through those again in audio book format.
I don’t like to pass up a chance to recommend a book by Connie Willis called To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last. And if you can find it in audio, read by Steven Crossley, so much the better. He’s brilliant. How to describe this book? Time travel, the Victorian era, WWII, romance, comedy of errors, cats and dogs, cathedrals, restorations, and a dip back to the Middle Ages… it’s as eclectic as its title promises. And it’s one of my favourite books.
Anyone interested in more stories like Burning Sky might want to check out a book called The Red Heart by James Alexander Thom. This is a general market book, so the content is grittier and more explicit than what you would find in my books, but it will give you a good picture of what it was like for white captives among the Native American tribes in the 18th century.
I’ve discovered a couple of “new to me” authors in the CBA this year. One is Julianne Donaldson. I enjoyed both her novels, Edenbrooke and Blackmoore. And I’m reading Tamera Alexander’s A Lasting Impression and enjoying that one as well.
Most of the nonfiction I read is research for my novels. I’m working through a stack of five of them on the British Army in North American during the 1700s.
Lori ~ Once again congratulations on your Christy Award wins, but mostly thanks for crafting a beautiful story and sharing it with readers like us!