Interview with Bestselling Historical Novelist C.S. Harris
I am so excited to bring you today an interview I recently had with bestselling historical novelist C.S. Harris. You may know her from her wildly popular Sebastian St. Cyr thrillers, or maybe under her other names Candice Proctor or C.S. Graham. Now she’s out with a new Civil War-era historical novel, Good Time Coming, which I was fortunate to be given a copy of through the Historical Novel Society. I’ll be writing a feature article on it that I’ll share once it’s published, but I was also lucky enough to get to sit down with C.S. and ask her a few questions. And I have to say, this is one of the best interviews I’ve ever had here.
Most people know you for your Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. What made you want to change from writing Regency historical thrillers to straight historical fiction set during the Civil War?
I am still writing my Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series—the twelfth installment, WHERE THE DEAD LIE, will be out in April 2017, and I’ve almost finished #13, tentatively entitled WHY NOT THE INNOCENT. But it’s all too easy for an author to get into a rut writing the same kinds of stories with the same characters and settings. So I think it’s important for any writer—and especially one with a long-running series—to occasionally venture outside her safe zone and try something different. For a while I was also writing a contemporary thriller series, but I found keeping two series going at the same time too stressful. So a standalone seemed the best answer.
What was your inspiration to write Good Time Coming?
My very first historical mystery, Midnight Confessions, was set in Occupied New Orleans (the book has been revised for republication and should be available early next year). In the process of researching that story I became fascinated with the effects of the Civil War on the population of Louisiana (spoiler: it was pretty horrific), and I’d been wanting to write a straight historical about that ever since. What happened to civilians in the Civil War is a virtually untold story.
Why did you choose to make your protagonist a 12-year-old-girl?
Some of my favorite books have been coming of age tales, and it seemed the right way to tell this story. Children bring an unblinking honesty to their experiences that I felt was particularly appropriate for the complexity of the issues I wanted to explore. The journey from child to adult is basically a loss of innocence, and to watch that development happen to someone in the midst of an experience as horrendous as war is truly gripping.
And Amrie is a girl because we already have countless books about the experiences of boys and men in war. This is about war as seen through the eyes of the women and children left behind to cope with a world falling apart in every way imaginable.
What kind of research did you do to make the book historically accurate?
I researched this book for almost a dozen years. I read hundreds of letters, journals, and memories, along with general histories of the Civil War and more specific monographs. I visited the story’s various towns and battle sites—Port Hudson and Camp Moore, Bayou Sara and Jackson—and spent many a day wandering around St. Francisville’s haunting churchyard. I basically took the real incidents recorded by people who lived through the war and wove them into a story. With the exception of the central incident in the book—Amrie’s killing of the Federal captain and the events that flow from it—I made up very little of what’s in this story. And that is truly terrifying to think about.
How hard was it for you to work from the point of view of the South when traditionally history is told by the victors, and therefore our country has glorified the role of the North? How did this influence the way you told your story?
I had to make Amrie’s family staunch abolitionists; I simply could not have been sufficiently sympathetic to them as main characters otherwise. Plus I liked the way this shifted the dynamic of their interactions with their neighbors, both white and free people of color. But when it came to the actual events in the story, all I did was stay true to what actually happened to the women and children of St. Francisville. It really was brutal. As a professional historian, I’ve always been irritated by our cultural tendency to both glorify war and forgive the sins of one side while focusing endlessly on the sins of the other. This book doesn’t shy away from the sins committed by either side.
And I should probably state for the record that the only Civil War veterans on my personal family tree fought for the Union; one great-great uncle even died at Andersonville.
One of the things that struck me the most about this book was your willingness to challenge long-held beliefs and viewpoints about the Civil War (i.e. President Lincoln was a hero, he abolished slavery out of the goodness of his heart, the Northern soldiers were the good guys and the Southern the bad, etc.) Can you please tell me a little about your motivation behind this and what kind of a reaction you’ve received so far?
I think it probably comes down, again, to my training as a historian. I have long been bothered by the all too common tendency to turn history into a series of comfortable myths that we as a nation tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good about our past. It’s incredible to me that here we are 150 years later and both sides of that war are still telling themselves “feel good” distortions and outright lies. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a wonderful thing, but that shouldn’t lead us to distort the explicit reasons he gave for doing it, or overlook the truly heinous things he also did. Likewise, too many Southerners still stubbornly refuse to acknowledge just how horrific the institution of slavery was both in theory and in practice. I don’t spare either side in this book. I guess in a lot of ways this story was an expression of my frustration with myth-making. I wanted to write about what really happened because it is so important to acknowledge that and finally have a real conversation about it. Unfortunately, myth busting is not popular!
In the Author’s Notes to the book you talk about a reticence of history to admit to rape being employed as a weapon of war during the Civil War. (I came up against a similar circumstance when depicting Guinevere’s rape by Malegant in Arthurian legend – most people either don’t know its part of the myth or don’t want to think about it.) Can you please talk a little about your reasons for including it and how you came to understand it would be important to your story?
When I first started plotting this book, I believed the commonly accepted “truth” that rape in the Civil War was rare. But as I read all those original sources written by the women who actually lived through it, I realized that was just one more myth. Rape has always been a part of war. What we’ve seen in our own lifetimes in places like Bosnia and the Congo isn’t something new; it’s the reality of war, and it has always been. But historically, women who were raped in wartime did not talk about it. Why would they, given their societies’ traditional ostracization of women who were raped?
As I read these women’s accounts, I also came to realize the importance of the fact that the people of 1860 weren’t very far removed from the time of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. That meant they knew exactly what had happened to their mothers and grandmothers in those wars (something else we don’t talk about). It’s one of the reasons the people of the South were so afraid of those armies of men marching against them. And they were right to be afraid. The North’s battle cry was “Beauty and Bounty!” In other words, Rape and Plunder! Yet 150 years later we still don’t like to admit it.
To be honest, I didn’t realize just how controversial this aspect of my story would be. Many of the editors who read the manuscript cited the rape part as their main reason for rejecting it. I guess as a writer you can kill people by the thousands, but you’d better not have a woman raped by American soldiers.
What do you think are the key themes of this novel? What do you hope readers walk away from it knowing/believing/feeling?
This book is about women’s resilience in the face of crushing adversity, about the way friends and neighbors can come together to survive great hardships, about love and loss and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit.
But the main theme of this book is the idea that there is good and bad in every person and every nation. I am frankly shocked by some of the things I am seeing in our country today. I never thought I’d see Americans screaming “Sieg heil!” and panting swastikas on tombs, or hear talk of the Nazi-style registration and internment of a religious minority. Somehow we have failed to learn the right lessons from history, and I think the tendency to mythologize the past is one of the reasons for that failure.
If you could summarize your experience writing Good Time Coming in one sentence, what would it be?
Oh, wow; that’s hard! I’d say writing Good Time Coming forced me to move outside my comfort zone in many different ways; to confront my own prejudices and assumptions; and to think long and hard about what it would be like to experience things I hope I’ll never have to face.
Do you plan to write more straight historical fiction like Good Time Coming? What can readers expect from you next?
I do plan to continue writing other things as I also write my Sebastian St. Cyr series. I’ve just finished a novella set in World War II that will be part of an anthology due out probably in 2018. That was a new experience for me because I’d never written anything that short before. It’s a very different format, so that was a challenge.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t touched upon?
I find it unfortunate that coming of age novels these days tend to be seen by the publishing industry as “young adult novels.” They don’t have to be, and in fact some of the best were never written to be. I also find it curious that editors think young adults can handle large-scale massacres, zombies, vampires, and the end of the world, but not non-graphic rape. What does that say about us?
Thank you, C.S. Harris for being with us today. Good Time Coming hits stores December 1, so you don’t have to wait long to read it for yourself. Pre-order or order it today! You won’t regret it; it really is a great book.
Questions for the author? Leave them here and I’ll let her know she can get back to you.