1. How did you originally become interested in the utopian communities that were attempted back in the 1800s? It looks like there's quite a history there. Is Daybreak based on any community in particular?Years ago, I was teaching "The Communist Manifesto" as part of a Great Books sequence in a class, and I noticed a disparaging reference in it to "Icaria." Curious about that reference, I looked up the term and discovered that a colony of pre-Marxian communists had existed in the American Midwest from 1848 to 1898. I was fascinated! And that's how historical research goes....you pull one little thread, and the next thing you know you've spent thirty years reading original documents and tracking down obscure sources. I based Daybreak on the Icarians in a general sense--a charismatic leader, a lot of internal dissent, a Midwestern setting. The original Icarians were mostly French, though, so I recast them as Americans to heighten my specifically American themes of Transcendentalism vs. realism, optimism vs. fatalism, and opposing views of nature. Emile and Marie Mercadier are disillusioned former members of the Icarian settlement, though.
2. I understand that you grew up in the general area where the story is set. How did you choose that particular stretch of land for the Daybreak settlement?When I was very small, my dad, who was a tractor mechanic, took me along on a repair trip to a farm on the St. Francis River in southwestern Madison County, Missouri. While he worked on the machinery, I fooled around in the fields, and the farmer showed us through some old saltpeter caves that had been worked there since the early 1800s. That combination--a rich valley, a steep mountain behind it, and some deep mysteries in the landscape--stuck with me, and for some reason it has stuck with me ever since.
3. In which of the characters do you see the most of yourself?Oh my! I think I'm in all of them, a little bit. I'm optimistic to the point of foolishness, a little like Turner; I have a rather grinding sense of moral obligation, something like Adam; and I'd have to say, I have Charlotte's dogged persistence. But maybe John Wesley Wickman is my nearest stand-in.
4. Do you think self-sustaining, egalitarian communities such as Daybreak could ever have worked back then? In today's society? Why/why not?Interestingly enough, they did, and still do. There's a commune north of where I live now that's been there for 25 years or more, and there are others across the country that have been in existence for just as long or more. I think the trick is to keep the size manageable and the principles simple. When you read the history of the utopias of the 19th Century, a lot of them had such eccentric ideas for daily life that it isn't hard to predict their demise in hindsight. The ones that have lasted tend to have a religious basis, like the Amish and the Hutterites.
5. What was the inspiration for making Charlotte such a strong character? Did you always intend to portray her as a feminist and a leader?Charlotte just kept growing and growing on me. The more I wrote, the more I loved writing about her, and she gradually took over the narrative. I have been fortunate to have had powerful, positive women in my life, and I guess Charlotte grew out of that experience. I always intended for her to be a strong counterbalance to Turner's impulsive charm, but her character developed way beyond that.
6. If you could travel through time, where and when would you go?Oh, the future! Like I said, I'm an optimist. Not too far ahead, because I'd like to be able to recognize things--say, ten or fifteen years. And I'd be right here.
7. Who are your favorite authors? Which do you think has most influenced your writing?The great American Romantics are the ones I return to read again and again--Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville. But in terms of influence, I think later American writers have a stronger pull on my style. Fitzgerald is one, John Williams (author of Butcher's Crossing, Augustus, and Stoner) is another. Both classical stylists who avoided too much ornamentation but could pull out a beautiful figure of speech when the moment was right.
8. What are you reading right now?One of the joys of being published by Blank Slate Press is that I get to be on the reader's panel for the next batch of books they are considering. So I've been looking over manuscripts that the Blank Slate people have identified as finalists. That's great fun! I'm also working on the sequel to Slant of Light, so have been upgrading my knowledge of Missouri after the Civil War--David Benac's Conflict in the Ozarks is an academic history of the logging boom that occurred in the late 19th Century, so it will come into play in the third book. There's also Missouri's War: The Civil War in Documents, which is a great resource for language and insights of the time.