Novelists Sara Gruen and Sarah McCoy in conversation: "I study history through a kind of 'Alice in Wonderland' looking-glass"

Two writers discuss McCoy's "The Mapmaker's Children," writing historical characters, families, dogs and more

Published February 8, 2016 11:57PM (EST)

Sara Gruen, Sarah McCoy   (Paul M. Howey)
Sara Gruen, Sarah McCoy (Paul M. Howey)

Sarah McCoy's novel "The Baker’s Daughter" was a nominee for the 2012 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction, a New York Times and international bestseller, and perennial book club favorite. She returns with her third novel, "The Mapmaker’s Children," for which Sarah spent three years researching abolitionist John Brown’s family history — most notably, his daughter Sarah Brown.

Praised as ingeniously plotted and magnificently transporting, "The Mapmaker’s Children" highlights the power of community and legacy, illustrating the ways in which history and destiny are interconnected on one enormous, intricate map. "The Mapmaker’s Children" was hailed by the Washington Post as "lovingly constructed" and "passionately told.” The Dallas Morning News raved, "McCoy mined the archives for information about Brown's daughter Sarah, an artist who is the titular character of her latest novel … The lacing of the two plots is seamless."

Gruen also happens to be my dear friend and fellow fan of pajamas and fascinators. I’m delighted to sit down with her in pajamas (the official uniform of our writerly sisterhood) and chat about her book, releasing in paperback Feb. 9.

Sara Gruen: Welcome Sarah! 

Sarah McCoy: Hello, dear friend, I’m equally thrilled and PJ-ed to be here with you!

Yes, but I’m in footies, so I win. Moving on, let’s talk about your book. "The Mapmaker’s Children" moves back and forth between Eden Anderson in 2014 New Charlestown, West Virginia, and Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown in 1859 West Virginia. What was the spark of inspiration that connected these two over 150 years apart?

The "spark" for each of my historical novels has come to me differently. Is it the same for you? Other author friends have told me how they are inspired through a consistent mode: a visual image, historical character, political agenda, emotional struggle, color, food, etc. My muse likes to throw her bolts in various forms. I’ve never had a story come to me the same way.

"The Mapmaker’s Children" began with a sentence being spoken: “A dog is not a child,” the woman Eden Anderson said. And it was the way she said it that wouldn’t let me be. Confident, irked and, yet, deeply wounded by the words she spoke. I couldn’t shush her no matter what I did. Months of hearing this over and over in my head produced a wicked case of insomnia. I was worried I’d developed schizophrenia! (Hush, I read your thought bubble, sister.)

I didn’t say a word! (LOL—in silent thought bubble.)

(Moving on…)

In an effort to reclaim my compos mentis, I wrote the sentence and its corresponding scene in my journal. I realized then that the statement was echoing through and out the front door of an old house. The house in New Charlestown was calling me to research its past and solve its Underground Railroad secret. A mystery set between Eden in present-day West Virginia and Sarah Brown 150 years ago.

Looking back, I realize that from the first sentence, I was playing mapmaker to the Mapmaker. Sarah to Sarah, as creepy as that sounds. I methodically outlined both characters' narrative trajectory start-to-finish. Using that as my guide, I wrote the back and forth chapters, allowing that outline to guide me but also to transform, meander and lead me to new territory as the characters commanded.

While we’re on the subject of structure—now from Sara to Sarah to Sarah—"The Mapmaker’s Children" weaves two dynamic voices, Eden and Sarah. A dual narrative, multiple POVs. How did you decide on that specific form: alternating chapters between 2014 and 1859. What challenges did you face?

As a writer and reader, the historical-contemporary dual narrative is often my organic way of processing the past. Collectively, as human beings,  we view history through our present-day lens and make connections and judgments based on that reflection. It’s similar in the fictional worlds I’m working in. I study history through a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" looking-glass with an eye to how the quiet details tell a greater story that then has a macro impact on the future. I wrote that way for "The Baker’s Daughter" and now again in "The Mapmaker’s Children." I’m fascinated by how the people of the past can reach across generations and impact the present; how mysteries of the present have their solutions in the past; how issues we face and decisions we make today are strikingly similar to ones our forbearers made—with good and bad outcomes. I’m riveted by this interplay.

I think it’s important we don’t just read and compartmentalize the past as an “interesting story.” As writers, we want readers to see that history is a key, a manual, a lesson guidebook for us to learn and implement change in our present lives.  In essence, Eden Anderson in "The Mapmaker’s Children" is being guided by Sarah Brown in 1859. Their struggles are mirrored and connected via significant and minor decisions. They develop each other: Eden’s life is changed as she (and we) discover Sarah’s secrets.

That all being said, two books in one does not make for easy or simple novel writing. There were days when I could’ve sworn I really had fallen down that the white rabbit hole and lost my mind.

Being the illustrious historical fiction writer you are, you know well that the challenge to writing historical fiction is being faithful to the facts while developing the fiction. It’s hard work—amen?


The cardinal sin is to misinform or trick readers. We want readers to learn truth from our stories, be it a sequence of historical events or an emotional education. The characters must be authentic to their place and time.

Sarah Brown was our kind of gal. A get-down-in-the-trenches pioneer woman who didn’t mind that her fingers were ink-stained with her life’s work. Eden Anderson is a manifestation of many women I know in real life who’ve struggled with infertility, having a career, maintaining a home, loving a spouse, and wanting to do it all at 110 percent! Both of these women sound uncannily familiar, right?

I believe the key is to ensure that the storytelling is authentic to the characters’ spirits and honors their true lives transcribed into make-believe.

While we have Sarahs on the brain, was it strange writing a character with your own name? Seeing “Sarah” everywhere you turned for the next three years while you researched and wrote the book? Not that anyone’s complaining … it’s a fine name, if I do say so myself. Ahem.

It is a darn fine name, I wholeheartedly agree with you, Sara. Our mommas were obviously women of brilliant taste. Though, technically, Mary Day Brown (Sarah Brown’s momma) claimed it long before either of ours.

It was a little bizarre writing “Sarah this, Sarah that” for all those years, but as an author, you sort of put on this Other Objective Person hardhat when it comes to your characters. I lose myself and become a conduit—a listener and translator—to their lives and not a direct participant in their business.

The name commonality was one of those goosebumps experiences: fate unquestionably at work. Had John Brown’s only unmarried, artist daughter been named Dorcus, that would’ve been one of "The Mapmaker’s Children’s" protagonists’ names. It just so happens my name is Sarah, too. Perhaps that’s what made her story spirit seek me out—a sister Sarah. But I can confidently say she was and is her own autonomous person. I learned from her; I admire her greatly for the legacy she left behind. Through the writing of this novel, I’ve integrated aspects of her into my own life that I didn’t have on page 1. She inspired me to be a braver, bolder, stronger woman, unafraid to map my own life outside of the constraints of convention. She told me, You’re OK, Sarah. You’re OK, readers out there. We’re OK, sister women. That was her inheritance to me, and I pray to everyone who picks up this book.

Well, I can tell you, she’s branded on my memory now, too. Sister Sara(h)s: I think we should form a club— a book club! Pajamas mandatory, fascinators still open for discussion. Speaking of, I think this novel would be a hit with book clubs. So many topics of discussion. What issues do you hope readers take away from the novel?

That’s a tough question — there’s so much! I'll limit my answer to one of the overarching themes: nurturing and defining a family. As a global community, I believe we've allowed a worrisome stereotype to become the high mark of good family model. We've constructed a rigid mold for what a happy family looks like and anything different is somehow ... less. It weighed heavily on me and continues to. So I asked: Can you be a devoted parent without physical procreation? Does a loving, fulfilling family have to consist of children? Does being a parent only apply to humans or can you parent/nurture animals or a righteous cause? Who wrote the prototypical happily-ever-after and might each of us have the power to rewrite it?

I noticed that a majority of my friends (men and women, couples to singles) were uncomfortable—even disgruntled—by my questioning of the status quo in group settings. Yet in private, they admitted that they internally battled these very constraints. It mystified me. Why weren't we able to have an open conversation? Why were people afraid to challenge the norm? And what happened to those who didn't attain the set parent-child-family vision—was their family and legacy not as good as those who did?

Being an author, I sought answers through my characters. Likewise, I hope readers of "The Mapmaker's Children" are willing to ponder the questions and possibly discover keys to their own hearts, too.

So true. Latching on to your question regarding being a parent/nurturer to animals— can we please talk puppy love? I love animals! Earlier you said that the spark of the book was Eden saying, “A dog is not a child,” so I don’t think I’m giving away anything to readers by mentioning there is a wonderful dog involved.  You have a dog. In fact, he’s my Coco’s one true love! Tell us about him.

First off, I must mention that this was one of the first things that brought us together and solidified our forever friendship— we are fur mamas! I swoon over the photos of your pets and love hearing all of your escapades with them. They are our children, too.

As you know, I have a little king of the castle named Gilbert [Blythe]. We call him Gilly for short. He’s a 10-pound Coton de Tulear who rules our home with a furry fist. We adopted him from a breeder outside of Chicago after a heartbreaking experience with our much-loved first dog. His name was Gatsby, a darling cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel Poodle).

At 2 years old, he developed stomach lymphoma—a grapefruit-sized malignant mass. We chose not to put him down but nurse him with chemotherapy and love to the very last minute. We were there for that, too.  We held his tired body, rocked him, prayed over him, and watched as he slipped from this world to the next. It was an incredibly spiritual moment that neither my husband nor I will ever forget. It was sad, yes, but not in the devastating way we assumed. There was peace and beauty to it. Life so fragile, so fleeting, so powerful in its existence. About a year later Gilly was born on the day after my birthday. I have every confidence that Gilly met Gatsby before he came down to us.

I grew up with dogs. My family is a huge animal-loving clan, but I was surprised by how different and potent the experience was as the primary nurturer. Pets are children, family members, beloved friends and so much more. Gilly has taught me patience, unconditional love, not to put too much stock in anything material because it can always be chewed, inexplicable joy that comes from nothing remarkable but a tail wag, and that the definition of motherhood extends beyond all conventional molds.

You know I entirely agree. Another love we share is baking up fun dishes. I noticed there’s a dog treat recipe in the reading group activity packet in the back of the book.

Yes! I’m so excited for this new paperback edition. It has a bevy of book club goodies. The Original CricKet BisKet recipe, the Author’s Note, a discussion guide, suggested reading group activities, a special feature Q&A, and more! One book club leader and friend who runs a wonderful literary event program in San Diego introduced me to her term, “the multi-sensorial book experience.” A brilliant way to define what I try to provide in every book I write. I hope readers enjoy bringing a taste of New Charlestown to their kitchens! It’ll be like Eden, Sarah Brown, sweet Cricket, and I are right there, too.

Now, I want you to come over and help me bake up some treats for our pack. Before we go, give our friends a little teaser about what you’re working on next.

Now, Sara. Sister. Pajama Princess of my fur-mama heart. You know I don’t breathe a word about my book’s subject until it’s reached a certain developmental stage. Like a gestational baby. But, I can never say no to you… I’m pushing out of my comfort zone in this next novel by giving over entirely to the historical voices. There’s a dual narrative, yes, but from a real-life man and woman. It’s a sparring tale of art, politics and love at the turn of the 20th century, set across New York, Europe and wild territories beyond. This story has me obsessed.

By Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of "At the Water’s Edge," "Water for Elephants," "Ape House," "Riding Lessons" and "Flying Changes." Her works have been translated into 43 languages, and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. "Water for Elephants" was adapted into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz in 2011.

MORE FROM Sara Gruen

By Sarah McCoy

Sarah McCoy is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of "The Mapmaker’s Children," "The Baker’s Daughter," the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in "Grand Central" and "The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico". Connect with Sarah on Twitter at @SarahMMcCoy, on Facebook, Goodreads, or via her website.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Historical Fiction Sara Gruen Sarah Mccoy The Mapmaker's Children