An interview with Sarah A. Chrisman

In this time of instant and universal email traffic, built-in grammar checkers, desktop publishing and online writing courses, do we ever stop and think just how writers got by in the olden days? Without having Wikipedia at their beck and call, or being able to drag their laptop to any muse-inducing neck-of-the-woods, how did the authors of yore ever get around to writing their timeless classics? Well, you need wonder no more; Today, American author, dedicated Victorianist and modern-day lady of letters SARAH A. CHRISMAN lets us in on everything we ever wanted to know about her series of Victorian Cycling Club Romance novels and her unique way of writing.

Especially across the pond, Chrisman has gained quite a reputation for her unconventional lifestyle; her unabashed commitment to living an authentic 19th century life as an alternative to mainstream culture has made her a figure of note. But her retrospective attitude certainly doesn’t mean that she’s necessarily a Luddite when it comes to using modern means of communicating – or indeed, processing text. All things considered, does she still prefer a more ‘hands-on’ approach to writing?

Sarah A. Chrisman: I draft my manuscripts by hand. When I’m at my desk, I like using my antique fountain pen, which I bought with a portion of my first book advance as a way of celebrating the fact I was finally reaching my lifelong dream of being a real writer. It is from around the year 1900, and gets filled with ink using an eyedropper. When I’m away from my desk, or wearing something I would worry about staining with ink, I use a pencil —still period-appropriate, but cleaner!

At the end of each day (or sometimes the next morning if I’ve really been on a roll and gone on writing quite late) I type up what I’ve written as a necessary step in the final publication process. I consider the act of handwriting manuscripts to be very important, and there have been some quite interesting studies done showing that the human brain works differently when writing things out by hand than when typing them. 

After I’ve typed up a scene, my husband Gabriel reads through it and offers editing advice, feedback, and suggestions. The Victorians advised husbands and wives to ‘consult and advise together in all that comes within the experience and sphere of individuality.’ This is good advice in all aspects of life, and I’ve found that having Gabriel’s insights is truly invaluable when writing scenes from the perspective of male characters. 

I carry a notebook and pencil with me nearly everywhere I go; I write pretty obsessively and will do it just about anywhere when I have a spare moment. My favorite place to write, though, is my den. It’s really my sanctuary, where I can pull my thoughts together. I’ve got my very best books there, handy for easy reference, and I have antique photos in there that inspire my various fictional characters. 

My stories all require a lot of research. Samuel Johnson said, ‘The greater part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book.’ This is incredibly true!

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“My favorite place to write is my den. It’s really my sanctuary, where I can pull my thoughts together.” –Sarah A. Chrisman

Through her life, her work, as well as her online presence, Chrisman has been able to reach out to many; inspiring kindred spirits, but also unavoidably gaining some detractors along the way. So, it might come as no surprise that the first part in her Victorian Cycling Club series, First Wheel In Town, follows Kitty, a heroine whose less than ideal circumstances and uncompromising attitudes set her at odds with the deeply conservative world around her. Would Chrisman agree this a case of ‘writing what you know’?

Sarah A. Chrisman: Yes, I would. When I was first writing the story I went into more depth on this, but I later cut some scenes and toned things down so the story wouldn’t seem too dark. I’m glad it still comes through, though! 

I think a lot of people feel set apart from society or from their peers, for a large variety of reasons. Sadly, a tendency to attack difference has plagued our species since before we were walking upright. The seeds of that tendency are in every epoch, every society, and even every individual.

Just as we owe a duty to our bodies to refrain from activities that increase the likelihood of illness, so too do we owe it to ourselves, our communities, and our species to resist thoughts, sentiments, and especially actions, which discourage individual difference. Only in that way do we promote true diversity. 

These are themes that tend towards painfully dark stories, but I work hard to keep things subtle. And I make sure to give my characters a happy ending because as a writer I have that prerogative, and because I truly believe that focusing on the sunshine in life is the only way we can ever banish its shadows.

One of the ways in which Chrisman has found success bringing her fascination with the diversity of the Victorian era to life with lively storytelling, is by imbuing each character and their backdrop with all the small details that make up everyday life; shedding light on the sort of things others would perhaps take for granted.

Sarah A. Chrisman: I think my favorite aspects to describe were the little things that people do without necessarily thinking about it —like the way Doc Brown fidgets with his watch chain when he’s nervous, or when Kitty sadly runs her fingers through the bristles of a clothes brush as she thinks about her late husband. Even in a story largely driven by the characters’ feelings and their dialogues about those feelings, there still has to be some sort of action to keep the story engaging, and it made sense to me to include the actions people would naturally be doing in a given circumstance.

It also gave me an opportunity to hint at very subtle references which I hope add to the atmosphere even if not every single reader catches them the first time they enjoy the story: for example, the dust which floats down from Kitty’s clothes brush as she thinks sadly about her late husband is an allusion to the phrase “dust to dust”. 

I also really enjoyed asking myself how each character would look at a given situation, and what they would notice first about it. When Dr. Brown is talking with a patronizing and judgmental tailor, the doctor keeps finding himself distracted by how outdated the man’s eyeglasses are —’the conservative lenses through which he viewed the world.’

This attention to minute details makes for some pretty interesting interaction between characters, highlighting the kind of subtle signals that were a necessary part of communication – especially in 19th century courtship.

Sarah A. Chrisman: Writing about clothing was fun, because it was a way to communicate a lot of information indirectly. For example, Kitty uses her skirts to very good effect as a flirting device. It’s very contextual: imagine growing up in a society where all females wear skirts, all the time. Think about how associated skirts are with femininity. Every girl, every woman, wearing a skirt every single day. Imagine the intimate knowledge every female would have of exactly how skirts drape and ripple. Consider going through adolescence exploring how your own skirts (of every fabric) moved, watching how other girls moved theirs, and watching all the boys’ reactions to all of this, and how teenage girls would compete with each other to get everything just right — while carefully working to make it look as if they weren’t trying. A woman would become really skilled at such little tricks by the time she reached adulthood. 

Add to that the fact that Kitty is a dressmaker, and spends all day working with fabrics – such as sensual silk –and studying how they move and drape, and you can just imagine the effect she has on Dr. Brown when she flashes a glimpse of her silk petticoats at him, or gets close enough for him to let him hear them rustling!

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“I write pretty obsessively and will do it just about anywhere… A writer never knows when inspiration will strike and an idea has to be jotted down.” –Sarah A. Chrisman

With all this audacious flirting with handsome doctors going around, you’d be permitted to think this was a more modern story; especially in the British consciousness, Victorianism has almost become condensed to a kind of byword for severe emotional and moral restraint, which so inform our image of the 19th century. An unmarried young lady associating herself so freely with an unmarried man? Why, this would affront even the sensibilities of Jane Austen, by the sound of things! So what’s going on here? Does Chrisman perceive Kitty as just being a particularly modern young woman, or does she believe  social etiquette to have been comparatively less restrictive Stateside?

Sarah A. Chrisman: The fact that Kitty is a young widow is hugely important to understanding her personality. Her husband died in an accident when she was only twenty-two and they’d been married less than a year.

This meant two very formative things for her, one practical, one personal. She suddenly found all the plans she’d had for her life derailed and she had to immediately find a way to support herself: the brutal practicality of bills still needing to be paid, even when one’s heart is breaking. She managed by selling the one asset of any value her husband had left her and using the proceeds to start a dress shop.

On the personal side, she’d been a young woman just discovering her sexuality when she’d abruptly lost her partner. That left a lot of frustrations and complicated yearnings which I tried to express in her flirtations with Dr. Brown without letting things get graphic. I prefer sweet scenes. Rather than getting explicit, the way that Kate Percival did or many authors do, I find it far sexier and more satisfying when an author couches things in metaphors or leads a reader just to the perfect point for their imagination to take over. 

Personally, I don’t consider Kitty modern: we find heroines just as bold and audacious in the novels of Wilkie Collins (who lived from 1824—1889 and is one of my very favorite authors) and in the title character of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audlay’s Secret (1862). Females in genuine 19th-century fiction are often considerably more liberated than their counterparts in modern historical fiction set in the period, and one of my ongoing goals for my series is to take my cues from original sources, both fiction and non-fiction.  

Coming back to your question, it’s true that the 19th-century American West had a freer atmosphere in many aspects of life than most of Europe at the same time, or even our Eastern American states. This was one of the main attractions of the West to Easterners and immigrants alike. For women in the West, there was the added zest of a favorably skewed population demographic: there were considerably more men than women in this area. In times and areas like the post-Civil-War South, where there were more women than men, mothers worried about their daughters’ reputations because men were at a premium and only the savviest young women could get husbands. However in the West the situation was reversed: the women got to play around a bit and then be choosy. Because a wife was a rare prize, the women out here were placed on pedestals —and they had quite a bit of liberty as to what they chose to do up there.

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“The greater part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; one will turn over half a library in order to make one book.” –Sarah A. Chrisman

It’s careful considerations such as these that show Chrisman’s intuitive grasp of the real world history behind her novels. Of course, being a seasoned hand at writing non-fiction work on the same era has some clear advantages – infusing the three novels she has published to date with a keen sense of accuracy. Still, does she feel working in both genres comes with its own challenges? Does writing in one genre informs writing in the other?

Sarah A. Chrisman: I’d say the most challenging difference comes from the publishing process. People won’t take a non-fiction book seriously unless it is printed by a mainstream corporation in the publishing industry —and Gail Hamilton (another one of my favorite authors) was already writing about the trials and tribulations of dealing with big publishing houses as far back as 1870. People are more ready to accept a work of fiction on its own merits, which opens the field to independent printing. This allows authors far greater freedom in everything from subject matter to specific word choice. 

Some people think that fiction requires less research than non-fiction, but to this I would respond that it’s not the case if the fiction author really cares about their craft. Even Ray Bradbury, whose wonderful science fiction tends towards pastiche, advised potential writers to ‘read intensely’. This is even more necessary for writers of historical fiction. 

The books on the various shelves in my house are roughly organized by subject, and many of the groupings contain notebooks, binders and large manilla envelopes full of notes and articles in that category which go beyond the materials in the books in that category. Some of these are notes and articles collected while researching for non-fiction works which later became useful again when writing fiction, and vice versa. Some of them are bits of information which haven’t found their way into anything I’ve published yet but I have no doubt they’ll become useful in future projects. 

With Chrisman having tapped such a particularly rich seam of potential stories filled with characters and plots just asking to be put to paper, it comes as no surprise that fans of her writing will have plenty to look forward to. Can she share some teaser of what kind of things she is working on at the moment?

Sarah A. Chrisman: Well, First Wheel in Town is the first book in a series that will follow a group of friends through the 1880s and ’90s. Book II (Love Will Find A Wheel) and Book III (A Rapping At the Door) are already available, and I’m currently working on Book IV. This one focuses on Lizzie Bray’s romance; Miss Bray is the schoolteacher who was mentioned in passing as Kitty’s absent roommate in First Wheel in Town, then made a couple brief appearances in Book II. Incidental to this story, we get to meet some children who are Miss Bray’s students in 1883, but will become important characters in their own right as the series moves into the 1890s. 

At the same time I’ve been working on these first four books, I’ve been developing ideas and working out plots for future books in the series. Next to my desk there’s a large Amish-made wicker basket where I keep a collection of notebooks, each one containing ideas and notes for a future book in the series. Thinking things out multiple books ahead like this lets me drop little hints and bits of foreshadowing as I go along, which I always enjoy both as an author and as a reader. I’m truly enjoying creating a complete world with these characters!

Want to stay on the trail of Sarah A. Chrisman’s exploits? Be sure to check out her website at www.thisvictorianlife.com, and watch this space for more news on her upcoming work. To get you started, read our earlier review of First Wheel In Town.

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