Janet please tell us about your book, Saint Maggie.
Saint Maggie tells the story of a widow, Maggie Blaine, who has two teenaged daughters and runs a boarding house on the square of a NJ small town in the year 1860. Maggie’s collection of boarders is eclectic, ranging from an undertaker’s apprentice, an unsuccessful writer, an aspiring lawyer, and an elderly indigent Irishman. What really upsets town folk, though, is the fact that she also lives with her two closest friends, Nate and Emily, who are African-American. To make matters worse, Maggie begins to court Elijah Smith, the free-thinking, abolitionist editor of the town’s newspaper. (It’s a good thing the town doesn’t know that Emily, Nate, Eli and Maggie manage a stop on the Underground Railroad.) Enter Jeremiah Madison, the new Methodist minister. Maggie is asked to provide him with a room because there is nowhere else for him to lodge. Both Maggie and her church have high hopes for Jeremiah – and he appears to fulfill them: he is charming, respectable, and an inspiring pastor. But when he makes the acquaintance of Maggie’s niece, Leah, things take a wrong turn – and the town, the boarding house, and Maggie are abruptly ripped out of their predictable way of life.
Janet, I’m an avid reader of Historical Fiction I would like to know if there was a particular reason why you chose the 1860’s as the period of time to write about.
There is a very practical reason that this novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century: the historical event on which I based Saint Maggie occurred between 1858 and 1860. You’ll notice though that I did change the date of the events in my book to 1860-1861. That was deliberate. It gave me the opportunity to set the story on the cusp of the Civil War. I was writing the impact that betrayal, fear, anger and revenge had on the people of Blaineton. The upheaval in their town foreshadows what it will experience when war finally breaks out.
Were there any challenges you faced writing this story?
Creating a realistic, historically correct environment was a challenge. I think I learned how to use description and atmosphere while I was writing Saint Maggie. A writer friend of mine read an early draft and told me that she wanted to know what the characters were eating, what the houses looked like, what things smelled like, sounded like and tasted like. I remember thinking, “How am I going to do this?” It meant a couple things: doing more research and doing more writing. But it was good advice in the end.
What is some of the research you had to do for this book?
I was lucky in that I had done the bulk of the research for a graduate school paper. But once I started writing I had to do more! In all, I used primary sources such as newspaper articles, memoirs, a book on ministerial etiquette, a manual for organizing and holding camp meetings, hymn books, and a nineteenth-century cookbook as well as secondary sources about murder and execution, abolition and the Underground Railroad, and clergy ethics. I found Karen Halttunen’s book, Confidence Men and Painted Women and her essay, “Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror,” to be especially helpful because they gave me a frame of reference. Doing historical fiction not only means reading primary sources, but also understanding how historians interpret the era about which one is writing.
What is your next book project?
Right now I am involved in writing a screenplay for Saint Maggie. There is a possibility that it might become a movie, probably for television. However, I also have a group of fans who want a sequel. I had not considered writing a sequel, but I had left some things unanswered at the end of the novel. That’s life, though, isn’t it? Things keep happening. As a result, people are now asking what happens to Frankie, Maggie, Eli, and the others. I thought about it, realized that the characters have some more life in them and, frankly, now I’d like to see what happens! So after the script, I’ll most likely be working on a sequel.
What is your greatest strength as a writer?
Good question. I think it is curiosity. That is what got me writing the novel in the first place. All the time that I was working on the research paper, I was thinking, “What an interesting and disturbing story. I wonder how someone would turn this into a novel.” Curiosity also is what spurs me to wonder what drives certain characters and what their lives are like. My parents used to say I was a perpetual student. That’s not a bad thing for a writer.
What do you think contributes to making a writer successful in self-publishing?
Persistence! You don’t just write the book, sit back and collect the royalties. Going through the entire process from writing, to editing, to formatting (I did hire help there), publishing, and marketing/publicity has been an enormous education. It’s hard work. Making contacts and doing self-promotion is another must. I have to admit that I’m not very good at self-promotion – chalk it up to twenty years working in churches as an educator and assistant minister – but I’m learning how to do it without seeming egotistical. Will I be successful? I have no idea. But if someone has a good idea and a good book, it makes sense to try to get it out there. Don’t hide your light under a basket.
Who is your favorite author and why?
I am a huge Mark Twain fan. He was able to create vivid, believable characters and tell a good story. He had a wicked sense of humor, which sometimes could be quite dark. He also questioned the commonly accepted state of things, whether it was politics, religion, or life in general. What I like most is that his work transcends time. I have an old paperback of some of Twain’s unfinished writings. I crack up every time I read the “Unfinished Burlesque on Books of Etiquette,” especially the part describing how a “Strange Young Gentleman” should rescue “A Strange Young Lady” from a fire. It’s hilarious.
What is your favorite quote?
This quote from Socrates has resonated with me for quite a while: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
I taught a college course that required the students to read Plato’s Apology. We talked about this quote every semester so it really sank into my brain. The upshot is that if you do not examine your life – what you do, what you say, what you believe – you will not grow to embrace your potential (or as Socrates might say, attain excellence). Simply put, you have to know who you are. Don’t just barge through life like a bull in a china shop.
Who or what inspired you to become an author?
If I go way back, I have to say it was my parents. They read to me and my sister all the time. They also took us to see movies and watched TV with us. In addition, they would tell us stories about their lives as kids and about their families. So I learned to love stories and storytelling at an early age. Then I started telling stories to my first grade classmates. I wrote my first “book” when I was in second or third grade. My parents encouraged me to follow my interest in storytelling, probably never thinking that I’d ever self-publish a book! I wish they were here now so I could say “thanks” to them. But somehow, I think they know I’m grateful.
Janet R. Stafford was born in Albany, NY, but spent most of her childhood and all of her teen years in Parsippany, NJ – so she thinks of herself as a Jersey Girl. She went to Seton Hall University (South Orange, NJ) where she received a B.A. degree in Asian Studies. After getting her B.A., Janet worked as a secretary/administrative assistant for several companies. Years later, after finally giving into rather persistent nudging from the Almighty, she went to the theological school at Drew University (Madison, NJ) for an M.Div. degree, and ten years later returned to pursue a Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture. Janet has served six churches over the past 20 years, working predominantly in the area of education, as well as ministry with children and youth. In 2001, she began teaching as an adjunct professor in the interdisciplinary Core Department at Fairleigh Dickinson University (Madison, NJ), and for the past two years has taught part-time for the History Department of at Kean University (Union, NJ).
For as long as she can remember, Janet has been making up and telling stories. She began writing these stories down as soon as she could form words on paper. However, dreams of being a writer faded as she entered her adult years and faced the facts of economic survival. Although she wrote, it was usually in the form of church-related papers, articles, curriculum materials, and publicity. However, almost three years ago, she felt that divine “nudging” again – this time to “tell the story.” The story she had was a draft of Saint Maggie, a fictional work based on a research paper she had written as a graduate student. Suddenly her worlds of religion, history, and fiction came together.
Janet lives in Hillsborough, NJ with an energetic Mini Australian Shepherd named Tippy. She enjoys spending her free time with her boyfriend, Dan, his daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons, who know her as “Mimi.” Janet also loves going to Provincetown, MA to hang out with her sister
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Janet Stafford who is the author of Saint Maggie one of our medallion honorees at http://www.bragmedallion.com. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. MedallionTM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Saint Maggie merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.
Thank you Janet Stafford and IndieBRAG for the pleasure of this wonderful interview!