The Next Big Thing from Marian Szczepanski

The Next Big Thing continues with a reply from Marian Szcsepanski, author of the forthcoming novel, Playing Saint Barbara. Here are Marian's answers to the questions posed by The Next Big Thing: Copious thanks to Virginia for generously offering to host my interview post. I have always admired authors who take on stories that require significant research to be ground in a bygone era, far-flung locale, or both, so I’m looking forward to reading Virginia’s novel, River of Dust, forthcoming in May from Unbridled Books.

My debut novel Playing Saint Barbara will be published this spring by High Hill Press.

Where did the idea come from for your book?

Years ago, I read a piece in Poets & Writers that exhorted: write the story only you can write. Ridiculous, I thought, believing it hubris to imagine there was a story out there waiting for me and me alone. At the time, I volunteered at the Houston Area Women’s Center, doing a weekly shift on the domestic violence hotline. The calls ranged from heartbreaking to horrific, and all of them challenged me to empathize with women in demeaning and often dangerous situations that most couldn’t bring themselves to leave. The prospect of writing such a conflicted character intrigued me, but I was leery of appropriating hotline material, even unconsciously, in a contemporary novel. Meanwhile, “the story only I could write” idea resurfaced, and I found myself thinking about my Pennsylvania childhood and stories about my parents’ and immigrant grandparents’ lives in coal mining towns. Everything came together then. I’d go back in time to a landscape I knew well and explore the life of a woman married to an abusive miner, whose violence impacts her and her daughters in very different ways.

What category does your book fall under?

I’d call it a historically based literary novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This question made me laugh, because my daughters have long enjoyed the dinner table fantasy of “casting” films based on my fiction. I’d give the lead role of Clare Sweeney to Tilda Swinton, who so fully inhabits complex women characters, especially those exerting prodigious will to keep their pain from bursting forth and annihilating everyone around them. Liam Neeson has the bulk and workman-like face—not to mention a genuine Irish accent— to play Finbar, Clare’s husband, a miner renowned for his strength. Their daughters: Emily Blunt as dutiful Norah, ever her mother’s protectress; Jennifer Lawrence as headstrong, rebellious Deirdre; and Mia Wasikowska as shy, romantic Katie.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Playing Saint Barbara chronicles the secrets, struggles, and self-redemption of a coal miner’s wife and her three daughters set against a turbulent historical backdrop of Ku Klux Klan intimidation, the Great Depression, and Pennsylvania Mine War of 1933.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft took two years to write, preceded by two years of research, including three trips to archives in Pennsylvania. When I started to write, I stopped constantly to look up details about daily life from 1929-1941—everything from car models to popular radio programs. I watched old movies, sketching costumes and jotting down slang. I challenged myself to authenticate everything from streetcar routes in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, to the actress on the May 1941 Screen Guide magazine cover. It took five more years of targeted research and countless revisions to produce the final draft.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Two novels that examine historical events through their profound impact on ordinary people come to mind. The focus of fellow Pennsylvanian Kathleen Cambor’s In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden is the Johnstown Flood that caused more than 2,000 deaths in 1889. Such historical figures as Andrew Carnegie are characters in the novel, but the book’s heart belongs to the imagined lives and loves of the flood’s victims. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible explores the Congo’s postcolonial struggles through the fictional experiences of a misguided Georgia missionary and his family. Kingsolver also employs a similar structure, devoting each chapter to a different point of view so that events are interpreted by distinctly different sensibilities.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always been interested in social history and women’s roles in shaping culture. When the ideas for Playing Saint Barbara started to coalesce, the clincher was realizing I knew very little about my grandmothers’ lives.  I’d heard many stories about coal patch life, but when I considered them from an adult perspective, most had an unnaturally rosy glow. I knew there was much more to tell, so I resolved to focus on the lives of Depression-era patch women, about whom little is written. I had to read between the lines while doing research, constantly asking myself how every aspect of miners’ lives might affect their wives and daughters. The more I reflected on this, the more inspired I became to bring those women’s stories to light. While the novel is in no way a family history, writing it gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by my grandmothers and deep respect for their ability to raise families and forge a sense of community under often grueling circumstances.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Early in my research, I was stunned by my mother’s offhand comment: “I remember when they burned crosses on the hill near the schoolhouse.” I had no idea the Ku Klux Klan operated outside the South. Pure serendipity led me to a used bookstore a few blocks from the University of Pittsburgh, where a volume about right-wing extremists in Pennsylvania fairly toppled off the shelf into my hand. The book opened my eyes to the xenophobia sparked by post-WWI immigration and gave me a powerful issue to help propel the story’s narrative arc.

Watch for upcoming posts about The Next Big Thing from these emerging writers:

On January 20, novelist and playwright Sam Havens will post on his blog about his recent coming-of-age novel Farr Point.On January 24, Lane Devereux will post on her website about her memoir The Requirements of Love, an in-the-trenches account of coping with her own grave health issues while adopting and raising an abused child who becomes mentally ill.On January 27, Gretchen Havens' interview about Lean on You, her debut memoir, forthcoming later this year from Timberlake Press, will appear as a guest post on Sam Havens’ blog.