Donna Walsh Inglehart began her professional life in Maine, where she founded a wilderness camp for teenagers. After earning an M.A. in English at Middlebury College, she taught writing for many years to students of all ages. Donna wrote professionally in a variety of contexts before turning to fiction, and in 1992, Little, Brown published a novel she’d written for her young daughters, set in the Thousand Islands. Years later, Donna returned to that locale with Grindstone, a historical novel based on documented accounts of a Confederate spy ring operating in the region. Grindstone centers on the island world of a young Irish immigrant and a soldier returning from the war. Donna then teamed up with award-winning photographer, Ian Coristine, and together they wrote One in a Thousand, Ian’s memoir, released by McClellan Interactive Publishing as an iPad App eBook. Donna is currently working on a prequel to Grindstone, set in the Thousand Islands during the War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837.
Stephanie: Hello, Donna! Thank you for chatting with me today and congrats on winning the B.R.A.G Medallion. That is wonderful! Please tell me about your book, Grindstone.
Donna: Thank you, Stephanie. I’ve looked forward to our conversation. I am pleased to be honored with a Medallion and appreciative of the recognition indieBRAG is giving to us indie authors. Grindstone was inspired by documented accounts of a Confederate spy ring based in Toronto in the final year of the Civil War. Grindstone is one of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River, which marks the boundary between the States and Canada. During the war, the area was rife with espionage. Grindstone is told from the perspectives of a Confederate spy and an Irish woman living alone on the island. Totally isolated from their families and cultures, Jonathon and Anya are drawn to each other and become caught in a web of espionage.
Stephanie: What period does it take place in and can you tell me a little about what you know of the Civil War during this time?
Donna: Grindstone begins in 1864, when almost every family in northern New England and New York had suffered losses in the war. The Confederates were losing, and in a desperate strategy, set out to overthrow the Union by firebombing the northern cities, creating havoc, then freeing imprisoned Confederate soldiers. At the same time, many thousands of Irish immigrants were traveling to the region under the direst circumstances. Anya’s brother joined the Union Army a few days after he crossed the border into the States, because he could find no other work. He was paid three hundred dollars to stand in for someone else.
Stephanie: What is some of the research that went into this book and how long did it take you to write your story?
Donna: It took several years to write Grindstone, because I was teaching full-time and the novel kept growing and changing. Initially I had focused solely on the Civil War, and kept discovering more information about the Confederate operations in Canada. Then, in the middle of the project, it happened that I traveled to Ireland a few times on unrelated business. I already knew a bit about the famines (an Gorta mor), but it wasn’t until I was in Ireland that the implications of those devastating years began to resonate. I also realized that the Irish were settling in the River villages and islands during the period about which I was writing, and I soon understood that an Irish woman would have a major voice telling the story of what was happening at that time, when such huge forces were shaping our culture and history.
Stephanie: Tell me a little about the Island.
Donna: As I mentioned earlier, the border for the States and Canada runs through the Thousand Islands, and with eighteen hundred islands in a fifty-mile stretch, the region was notorious for piracy, smuggling, and bootlegging. Downriver from Lake Ontario, it’s still a wild place, shaped by fierce winters and storms that drive downriver. (The island pines bend toward the east.) You can easily lose your way among the islands, especially at night. Grindstone is one of the largest islands; it is still farmed, and although winters on the River are hard, families still live on Grindstone year-round. Its cemeteries contain the gravestones of Union soldiers and generations of immigrants, who cleared its fields and mined the quarries. It seemed logical and natural to tell a larger story in the microcosm of Grindstone Island.
Stephanie: Was there a particular scene you found a challenge to write?
Donna: When choosing to write about the impact on my characters from the Famines and the American Civil War, I felt strongly that I had to show respect for those tragic periods, that I must not trivialize nor exploit them. My initial decision was to make reference to the past without dramatizing particular episodes. It was a mistake: it wasn’t until the novel was all but ready for press that I realized that I had to add some flashbacks of battle scenes so that the readers could understand the veterans’ suffering in the aftermath of the war.
Stephanie: What are Anya McGregor’s weakness and strengths?
Donna: When the novel begins, winter is setting in, and Anya is struggling to survive on her own. She has already lost a great deal; the journey to America was terrible, and her parents are dead, her brother gone for a soldier. Further, as an Irish immigrant, she faces real discrimination. As a result, Anya is brittle, wary, and, initially, unable to recognize suffering beyond her own. Her strengths are her resilience, her ability to grow, to seek connection.
Stephanie: Are you currently working on another Historical Fiction? If so, please tell me a little about it.
Donna: I originally planned to write a sequel to Grindstone, especially when readers write to ask what happened to the characters! It’s tempting, because just ten years after the war, the Thousand Islands region was already becoming a center for tourism, with castles and hundred-room cottages being built on the islands. The Gilded Age brought with it so many cultural changes and contradictions, with the very rich landing in this rugged, wild place for the ephemeral months of summer. I realized, though, that I was more interested in the period before the Civil War, during the War of 1812 and the Rebellions, in those who settled the area and fought in the wars. Again, it’s using the microcosm of the islands to create a story from the competing forces that were shaping both countries.
Stephanie: It would be wonderful for you to have a sequel! Your book sounds really good and I will be adding it to my reading list. What advice would you give to someone who wants to write Historical Fiction?
Donna: Learn as much as you can about the period, obviously, so that you can imagine how your characters travel, what they read, listen to, believe. (I had no idea how dirty steam trains were until I returned from a ride with charcoal bits imbedded in my hair and clothing!) My husband, Dave, a Civil War historian, was a tremendous resource and source of encouragement. Still, you can make a mistake in the smallest detail, an anachronistic phrase, weapon, boat, destroying that fragile sense of reality novels strive to create. But if your story is worth telling, get on with it! Be clear, in your own mind, why this story must be told, by you, at this point in time. Do the best you can, trusting that the truth of the story itself, of what your characters care about and are fighting for, will carry you and your readers forward. And stack the deck in your favor! I avoid urban settings because I’ve lived for most of my life in the country, and in houses the same vintage of those my characters inhabit, so it’s easier to envision their lives. For example, the daily tasks of hauling wood, of building fires, are familiar, and so I include them in my stories.
Stephanie: Solid advice. Where in your home do you like to write and do you have a certain time of day you write?
Donna: There’s no question that I write best on the porch of our cabin on a wilderness lake in northern Maine! Because I set my fiction in rural 19th century, it’s easier to connect with that world. Mornings are usually best, but when I’m on a roll, I’ll work late into the night.
Stephanie: Writing at a cabin sounds wonderful.
How did you discover indieBRAG?
Donna: When Geri contacted me to inform me that I’d been awarded a medallion!
Stephanie: Where can readers buy your book?
Donna: Readers can purchase Grindstone at fine independent bookstores and online, through www.troubadourinteractive.com and Amazon, where it is also sold in Kindle-format.
Thank you, Donna!
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Donna Walsh, who is the author of, Grindstone, one of our medallion honorees at www.bragmedallion.com . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, 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, Grindstone, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.
Praise for Grindstone
“…a historical novel bound to hook you from the start… an exciting read with finely drawn, believable characters caught in a dangerous world … Critics hail Grindstone as ‘an astonishing piece of historical fiction’ with ‘spellbinding descriptions of the river and islands.’ I agree. It’s a gem of a novel.” Portland Press Herald
“Highly Recommended” The Midwest Book Review
“… a must for every cottage library, one of those books that will be treasured by generation after generation.” Thousand Islands Life
Praise for One in a Thousand http://www.oneinathousand.ca
“… combines lyrical prose, stunning visuals and evocative melodies to open up a window on [Ian Coristine’s] favorite place in the entire world—tiny Raleigh Island on the St. Lawrence River.”
“Every once in a while an entry comes across the judging table that totally enthralls us. We quickly forget where we are and what we are doing. We become spectators, not judges. Such was the case with One in a Thousand. With the first image you drift away to that place in your brain where you see and feel pure beauty and nirvana. Instantly the images and words infiltrate your imagination.” MARCOM Awards
(One was awarded two Platinum MARCOM Awards for Excellence in Publishing)