Please help me welcome Jessica Brockmole, author of LETTERS FROM SKYE (Ballantine Books, July 2013)!
Jessica Brockmole spent several years living in Scotland, where she knew too well the challenges in maintaining relationships from a distance. She plotted her first novel on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. She now lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.
LETTERS FROM SKYE is a love story, spanning two continents and two world wars, told through letters. When an American college student impulsively sends a fan letter to a reclusive poet on Scotland’s Isle of Skye in 1912, they strike up a correspondence. As they share their favorite books, their wildest hopes, and their deepest secrets, their exchange blossom into friendship, and then love, right as World War 1 begins. A generation and another war later, the poet’s daughter, in the midst of her own wartime romance, uncovers a hidden cache of letters, and sets off to discover both her mother’s and her past.
I met Jessica through Twitter, and had the opportunity to meet her in person at the Historical Novel Society conference in St. Petersburg last June. She’s a lovely person and a talented writer – I’m delighted to have an autographed copy of LETTERS FROM SKYE, and so happy that Jessica could join me for an interview today.
On with the questions!
Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?
I grew up in a quiet suburban area outside of Detroit in a house edged in flowers and brick. I remember a red-letter day being when I was first allowed to ride my bike the dozen or so blocks to our little library. I’m sure it was because my parents were tired of driving me, but I celebrated the freedom. In the summer, I’d ride out first thing in the morning with my bike basket full of books to return and wait impatiently for them to unlock the doors. The librarians would always have new books that they thought I’d like tucked behind the counter. I was a regular. I’d refill the bike basket and head home for an afternoon of reading up in the branches of the apple tree with a pocketful of Jolly Ranchers. The next morning, I’d repeat the whole adventure.
What inspired you to start writing?
I don’t really remember a time that I wasn’t writing. I still have stapled and crayoned masterpieces that my mother saved—books about pioneers and time travelers and ghosts (not all at once). After a brief detour in college and graduate school to study linguistics, I returned to writing (minus the crayons). My ghosts are now much less literal.
If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?
Cut back on the caffeine.
Wait, a lesson about writing?
New Writer Me, relax. Although outlining and profiling and planning works for some writers, it doesn’t work for us. So just lean back and let the words flow. Meet your characters as they meet each other. Enjoy watching the story unfold. (And, seriously, enough with the caffeine. It’s not a requirement for a writer.)
LETTERS FROM SKYE is an epistolary novel that spans two generations of women impacted by love and war. What inspired you to write your novel in epistolary rather than narrative form?
Many reasons (including a hunch that it just might be plain fun), but I think the era did play a strong role in the decision. As you said, it’s a novel of women impacted by war. To have those women waiting on the home front would have felt like only half the story. The men they waited for were off near the battles, and yet they had struggles that went beyond the physical dangers. As far apart as those couples might be, they were never really separated. Letters, sometimes written daily, kept couples together and gave them a way to work through those emotions and fears and wishes for the future. I wanted to explore this in a novel.
Do you have a favorite author or book? If so, who (or what) is it, and why?
In Letters from Skye, David talks about his favorite book being Huck Finn, though not for any great literary reasons. It’s a book that came into his life at a time when he needed something, and then, like a good friend, stuck around. He opens it any time he’s in need of something familiar. Along those lines, my favorite book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I have a battered first edition that I rescued from a garage sale box. That book has been by my side for moves, hospital stays, anxious trips away from home. If pressed, I could cheerfully discuss its literary merits (raw characters, delicate layers of detail, well-chosen bits of history), but it’s my favorite because it makes me feel safe when my world wobbles.
What did you find most challenging about writing LETTERS FROM SKYE? How did you push yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing?
Letters from Skye was the first novel I completed, so there were many aspects of writing I was still fumbling my way through. Perhaps that was also a blessing, though, as I was too inexperienced to know that such a thing as writer’s block existed. Once I finished that first draft, though, and started to learn more about the craft of writing—all of those lovely lists of do’s and don’ts—I began to worry. Could I really write a book in nothing but letters? Could I give characters some of the difficult choices I did without losing reader sympathy? Was I fooling myself in thinking I could actually write poetry? I had to convince myself that, for the moment, I could write it just for me. There would be time to worry about the rest.
What is the last book you read, and why did you choose it?
I’m in the middle of reading Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. While I was visiting Lake Forest Book Store for an event, I asked who else they’d had visit. They were very excited about Will’s recent visit and his book. Their enthusiasm was infectious and so I came home with a copy!
Do you have a favorite scene in LETTERS FROM SKYE? If so, what makes it stand out for you?
Absolutely the last, which has remained virtually unchanged through all the drafts. In it, a character waits in a church. More than that, I can’t say without giving away the ending! I don’t know if I project onto the scene or if I’m doing something right, but, despite having read it an embarrassing number of times, I still always cry.
Do you have any upcoming signings or readings?
Tonight I’ll be at the Canton Public Library in Canton, Michigan, and then will be taking a little drive through Michigan the rest of the week:
Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor on the 23rd
Schuler Books in Okemos on the 24th
and Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord on the 25th.
On the 30th, I’ll be down in Houston at Murder by the Book. Hope to see you there!
And now, the speed round:
Plotter or pantser?
Pantser. I like surprises, even when it comes to my very own books.
Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
Socks or no socks?
No socks. It’s entirely possible that I don’t currently own a pair of socks. I don’t like sweaty toes.
Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
Reptiles. Keep the snakes, but lizards are irresistible!
For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?
Definitely Mexican. I find it hard to resist a meal smothered in cheese and spices.
Thank you, Jessica, for joining us today! It’s been a lot of fun learning more about you and LETTERS FROM SKYE!
You can find out more about Jessica at her website, on Twitter (@JABrockmole), or find her on Facebook. LETTERS FROM SKYE is available at a variety of online retailers and at bookstores everywhere. This is a book–and an author–you don’t want to miss!