Meet Sharon Lovejoy
Sharon Lovejoy is the award-winning, bestselling author of nonfiction books about nature and gardening for children and adults. Running Out of Night is her debut novel. It draws on her ancestral roots in Virginia, and her lifelong interest in nature, herbs, ethnobotany and early American arts and crafts. Her other books include the children's gardening classics Sunflower Houses and Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots, which have introduced hundreds of thousands of children to nature. She lives on California's Central Coast and on a little green island in Maine. Visit her website and her blog.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Running Out of Night for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Posted on 03/06/2015
You're a bestselling—and I think it's fair to say—beloved author of many books on gardening for children and adults including Sunflower Houses and Trowel & Error. What prompted you to take the risky path of writing your first novel?
I never really thought that Running Out of Night would be published. Honestly. I did it for the love of literature, of reading, of writing. Every morning, when I walked to my studio and sat down in front of my computer and touched my fingers to the keyboard, I felt like a clear mountain stream flowed out of me. It was a totally new experience, creating a story, characters, events. I made a fresh world every day.
Writing my non-fiction works never left me feeling vulnerable—never left me feeling flayed open with the world passing by and examining my inner workings. Ouch. It felt wonderful to write Running Out of Night, but it hurt to offer it to the world. So, you're right. It is a "risky path," but since I didn't have expectations, which are deadly, I didn't have any fears as I wrote.
I remember a Mary Oliver quote about Whitman that describes what writing does for me. "The fetch of his breath and the fetch of his ambition began on the shores of his loneliness." After my Grandmother Lovejoy died, I was a lonely and lost little girl. I turned to nature, to books, and to writing my own thoughts. Death is so hard for a 7 year old to comprehend and Grandmother had been my world. So, I picked up Heidi, Little Women, The Little Lame Prince, the entire Wizard of Oz series, and so many others. I both lost myself and found myself in those musty, old pages. When I turned 11, I tried my own version of book writing and loved the feeling of losing myself (and my loneliness) on a piece of paper. What power! What magic!
Running Out of Night is not only a novel, it's a novel for young adults set in 1858, the distant past for most Americans. Why that period of time, and why write for young adults?
Nine times out of ten when I go to the library I check out books for middle-grade and young adults. I love them. Perhaps it is because of my grandmother exposing me to these in childhood, but they are still my pick of the shelves. Like most writers I often dreamed about writing a work of fiction for children, but like most writers—life got in the way.
One of my favorite college classes was children's literature. Our professor assigned us the requirement (oh joy!) of reading 55 books and writing a synopsis of each one. I blew through those books like a spring tornado. That semester (1977) I wrote and illustrated my first book for children, which still sits in a drawer!
I chose 1858 because it was a time of such great changes, strife, love, courage, loyalty, and oh so much more. I wanted children to realize that people didn't live as freely as we do today. I wanted children to learn about people taking life-threatening risks to save others and to flee to freedom. Freedom. What a word.
In the late 60s, I traveled around the United States in the tire tracks of John Steinbeck and his dog Charley. For a couple of months, I lived in Loudoun County, Virginia, with my elderly cousin Margaret Macdonald. One night she shared a leather suitcase/trunk of letters and memorabilia with me. My family's letters, stretching back to the 1700s, spilled out on the old farm table. I began to copy them and to learn about life in Virginia and Pennsylvania during that time period. Later letters told the story of the Civil War, but I became ensnared in the pre-Civil War history.
The story is set in the Catoctin Mountains of northeastern Virginia, a long ways from either your Little Green Island in Maine or your California home. What led you to that particular place?
I returned to Loudoun County, Virginia, an ancestral family area, many times. I loved my elderly cousin and wanted to record/remember her stories of life in that area. Also, I reconnected with my Quaker heritage and attended Goose Creek Friends Meeting in Lincoln, Virginia. I was involved in the peace movement, and we had gatherings in an old stone house in Waterford, Virginia, where much of my story is set.
The book opens inside the head of your nameless main character, 12-year-old, "Girl," with a dramatic revelation, "Mama gave her last breath just as I took my first." A few pages later, Girl gives food and shelter to Zenobia, a runaway slave about her age, and before long, both girls are running for their lives into and out of the night of the title. How did you find Girl and Zenobia and their courageous journey? Did they come to you as whole characters, or develop gradually as you began to see the story?
My Nonie, Augustine Elizabeth Clarke (Feller), was born just as her mother took her last breath. It influenced her entire life. I know that she felt the emptiness of not having a mother and she also felt the guilt of being the inadvertent cause of her death during childbirth.
First I got to know Girl [who later in the book is given the name "Lark" by Zenobia]. I loved her courage and her knowledge of nature and its workings. I couldn't understand how she survived under such heartless circumstances. I would talk aloud to Lark and soon, Lark spoke to her Mama, which is something she did throughout the book. I wrote a few chapters, and then somehow without planning, Zenobia arrived on the porch, peeked through the door with her big, golden eye, and changed Lark's life forever. Though Lark wanted no part of Zenobia she finally owed her for saving her life. The two girls, despite their differences, became sisters.
Every morning new facets of Lark and Zenobia revealed themselves to me. Remember, it just took my fingers on the keys of the computer for the stories and journey to spill onto the page.
A lot of Running Out of Night is written in dialect that sounds quite authentic, as in this passage in the second chapter, "'Girl!' Pa shouted, and slammed his fist on the table. 'More scrapple. I tole you plenty of times I don't want nothin useless on my farm. You'd best start earnin your keep.' 'My farm,' he'd said, but as long as I were alive, it would always belong to my grandpa. Pa never worked the farm; he were born tired and raised lazy.'" Sometimes dialect can be so thick that it slows the story down. Did you have to balance authenticity with readability?
I'm a listener. Sometimes, when we are in a restaurant, my husband Jeff will ask, "Do you want me to move to the next table so you listen to what I'm saying?" Guilty as charged. I am an eavesdropper and that is how I first got to know the dialect of the region. Also, my family letters are written with the Quaker thee and thy. This helped me during the writing of Auntie Theodate's speech.
I found, on my many eavesdropping forays in Virginia, a certain cadence and pattern that is still prevalent in some groups. Perhaps by simplifying some of the speech, it also made it more readable, but I always tried to be authentic.
Since the release of my book in mid-November 2014, I've received nearly 200 letters and e-mails about it. Most of the adult letters said that they worried about the dialect stopping their reading, but all of them said that after a few pages they didn't even notice it.
The scenes of the two girls' flight up the creek (literally, since they keep to the water as much as possible so that Pa's hounds and the slave-catcher's hounds can't pick up their scent) are so vivid, full of the sensory details that make a scene come alive—the sounds of birds, the feel of the water, the smell of "wet earth, wild mint and skunk." Is Catoctin Creek a real place, and have you spent time there?
Yes, Catoctin Creek is a tributary of the grand Potomac. My cousin Margaret lived beside the South Fork of the Catoctin, and I could step outside and have my toes in the water in less than a minute. A kingfisher would rattle along just inches above the flowing stream, sometimes she/he had to dodge me. I loved walking barefoot through the muddy creek, tossing skipping stones, watching birds, and smelling all the scents—even skunk, which is the scent of childhood to me. That is how these things insinuated their way into my book.
The story circles around strong female characters, Girl [Lark], Zenobia, Auntie, the Quaker woman whose house is a shelter on the Underground Railroad, Emma, and even the Slave-Catcher, horrible as she is. Did you set out to write strong women into history, or did the story just write itself that way?
I wish I could take credit and say that I set out to write a story about strong women, but...those strong women just jumped aboard and held on for the ride. I have always known and gravitated toward strong women/girls and see them in every imaginable life situation. I feel their pain as they walk with their babies and children across the desert in search of peace. I feel their pain as they try to break the bonds of poverty and violence, for their children sake if not their own. I couldn't write about women without making them tough, resilient, strong, which is the only way to survive and thrive.
The story also tackles issues that unfortunately are just as relevant today as they were in 1858, including domestic violence, poverty, women's rights and racism. Did you realize you were writing about issues that would resonate with today's readers?
My book came out after the sorrow of Ferguson, Missouri, and fifty years after Selma, Alabama. I think that hatred, poverty, violence, all these circumstances are interwoven in every society on earth. We fear what we do not know and understand. I wanted Lark to reach out and touch Zenobia's skin. I wanted her to look at her own hand and realize that the color wouldn't rub off; it was just Zenobia. I wanted Zenobia and Lark to know that they were exactly the same despite their skin color. I hope that my story resonates with readers. Stories and poems are bridges from one person to another. We find that common thread that interweaves our lives and from that common thread we can better understand others. We still have a long way to go, but every step, no matter how small, helps.
What did you learn from researching and writing Running Out of Night that surprised you?
Every day taught me so many lessons. I spent time perusing records from the Library of Congress; I listened to the recordings of former slaves to hear their stories and absorb their dialect and cadence; I delved through family letters and read hundreds of books. What surprised me was that though the circumstances may differ, in essence, our stories are always the same. We may be in the most technologically advanced eras of all time, but the fabric of life doesn't change. We always look for love. We always have conflicts, hope, dashed hopes, hatred, obstacles. Whether it is 1858 or 2015, we're still the same.
What are you working on now? Another book?
Always. I am writing a book focused on the area of Maine that I know and love. It is a middle-grade novel set on an island in 1928. My main character, get ready for this, is a strong, competent, nature-wise 14 year old girl. I love her. She has a great family (unlike Lark), and she is stuck in the middle of a big problem.
After I wrote Running Out of Night, I swore that I would never write fiction again, but when I sat down at my computer, well, you know the story—that clear mountain stream just started flowing!