I’d like to welcome C. S. Harris today to talk with me about her new release, Good Time Coming, novel of the American Civil War. C.S. is the bestselling author of more than twenty novels including the Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series and the standalone historical Good Time Coming. Under her own name, Candice Proctor, she is also the author of seven historical novels and a nonfiction historical study of women in the French Revolution. As C.S. Graham she writes the Tobie Guinness contemporary thriller series.
A Former academic with a PhD in European history, Candice has also worked as an archaeologist at a variety of sites around the world and spent much of her life abroad, living in Spain, Greece, England, France, Jordan, and Australia. She now makes her home in New Orleans with her husband, retired Army intelligence officer Steve Harris, and an ever-expanding number of cats.
Hi, Candice! Thank you for talking with me today about your newly release novel, Good Time Coming. It is a true honor to be talking about what I think is the most important work of fiction of the American Civil War I have read this year and in a long time. Please tell your audience about the premise of your story?
Hi Stephanie, thanks so much, and thanks for having me! Good Time Coming is the story of Amrie St. Pierre, a young girl forced to grow up fast in Civil War-torn Louisiana. This is a side of war we don’t often hear about—the struggle faced by the women and children left alone to survive in the face of starvation, disease, and the ravages of an invading army. War looks very different when seen through the eyes of a child learning hard truths about personal strength, friendship, and the shades of good and evil that exist within us all.
Rarely do I hear people talking about what the women endured during this war. I believe many are uncomfortable talking about it for many reasons. Neither do many people realize the starvation that was taking place because of the blockades and soldiers taking food for their own needs. You really touched on this and I am glad you did. Were there any moments while writing about this that you thought that it might not be well received? Also, what were your own emotions about this while writing your story?
When I first started thinking about this book, I simply wanted to tell a story about a dramatic, compelling aspect of the Civil War I felt had been neglected for some strange reason. (Yes, you can call me naive!) I’d never lived in the South until I moved to New Orleans shortly before Katrina, so I had no idea just how horrible the war was for the women and children of Louisiana until I started reading their surviving letters, diaries, and memoirs. Although I’m a historian and therefore should have known more than most about the brutal realities of warfare, I was frankly stunned. I was also disturbed to realize just how effectively the truth has been glossed over and hidden.
All nations mythologize their past, but I have a sneaky suspicion Americans do it more than most. The brutal realities of our Civil War don’t fit well with the stories we Americans like to tell ourselves, so we tend to ignore them—or try to. Slavery was a vile institution, and anyone who tries to excuse it (as some, amazingly, still do) by saying most slaves were well treated hasn’t read the numerous extant journals and letters of the period, or the Slave Narratives from the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project. The simple truth is that slaves worked because they were whipped. Full stop. And because a statistical percentage of any population has sociopathic tendencies, any institution that allows one group of people absolute power over others is a recipe for sadism. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the North did not go to war against the South to end slavery. Their war aim was to preserve the Union, and their motive was the same one that led to the Mexican-American War and the virtual extermination of the Native Americans. The army that marched against the South was the same army that perpetrated the massacres of Native American women and children at Sacramento River and Harvey and countless other sites, a well-understood reality that terrified Southern civilians. To turn the Civil War into a morality play in which one side equals good and the other evil serves only to distort history and perpetuate the dangerous divisions that still exist in our country over 150 years later.
But breaking that taboo and telling a story that portrays what really happened is dangerous for a writer. I knew the book would probably provoke discussion; I didn’t realize it would be so controversial that it would be hard to get published. As for its effects on me, writing this book was a wrenching, highly emotional experience. It’s a powerful story and I still cry when I reread it. I poured my heart and soul into this book, and I am not the same person I was before I started it—it was that life altering.
I believe you have truly captured the diversity of people and social standings and showed different views of the war in a concise way. The attitudes of the war and government were so complex. It wasn’t as straightforward as people would like to believe. Without giving too much away will you tell your audience a little about how you portrayed people’s attitudes during that time?
I carefully studied the people who were living in St. Francisville and Bayou Sara before the war and made a determined effort to be true to their profiles (many of the minor characters in the book are real historical figures). A surprising number of residents were recent immigrants either from the North or Europe. There were a few wealthy, large plantation owners, but most people were small farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen who owned no slaves. Some, inevitably, were eager for war (as was the case at the outbreak of WWI, most people assumed the war would be over quickly and their side was sure to win). Many were swept up in a patriotic fervor that sounds eerily similar to that of the Revolution. Others, like Amrie’s father, opposed secession but felt compelled to step forward and defend their homes and families. And some, like Amrie’s uncle, a West Point graduate, made the agonizing decision to remain in the Union army and fight their own people.
And then there’s the fact that a huge percentage of the people in the area were enslaved. The antebellum South was also home to over a quarter of a million gens de couleur libres or “free people of color.” Louisiana, especially, had a large population of free African-Americans. Some owned plantations and slaves themselves. Some formed units that fought for the Confederacy; others formed the Corps d’Afrique and fought for the Union. As the war continued and more and more slaves walked off the plantations, those numbers increased.
The longer the war went on, life became increasingly desperate, and society simply broke down. What happened to the people of the area during those years had repercussions that lasted for generations. For many decades after the Civil War, the Feliciana Parishes (in Louisiana, the civil administrative districts known elsewhere as counties are called parishes) had by far the highest murder rate in the country—higher even than the wild, wild West! To be frank, in a very real sense I don’t think it has recovered yet.
What are some emotional triggers for Amrie and her mother and how do they act on them?
One of the things that made the war particularly hard on Southern women was the fact that nineteenth-century Southern culture really did treat women differently—and expected them to behave differently. For example, it was not unusual for women in the North to become schoolteachers and nurses, but that was not true in the South; in fact, it was powerfully discouraged. So when the men all marched off to war (and died at a shocking rate: something like a quarter of the male population) it was even more of a stretch for their women to take over the farms and start running shops. Amrie St. Pierre is what we would today call a tomboy, while her mother defied expectations as a young woman by attending medical lectures in New Orleans (women were allowed to attend lectures even though they could not be licensed as doctors). Yet despite these advantages, they still face enormous hardships in an increasingly dangerous world. And of course one of the truths this story confronts is the reality of rape in war and how Southern women handled that. Two important themes are women finding strengths they don’t know they possess, and the bonds that can form amongst a community of women undergoing hardship together.
Please tell us a little about the supporting characters.
One of the most interesting characters for me to write was Amrie’s mother, Kate St. Pierre. At the beginning of the book Amrie sees her the way all children tend to see their mothers, with little understanding of the hardships and strains Kate is facing. But as the war goes on and Amrie grows up, their relationship subtly shifts, and Amrie begins to realize just how much there is to admire about her mother—and the ways in which they are and are not alike. The mother-daughter dynamic is always a powerful one, and when it is played out against the strains of war and extreme hardship, it’s fascinating.
A very different character is Adelaide Dunbar, Amrie’s grandmother. Adelaide is a hard woman who has done some terrible things in her life (Amrie discovers just how terrible as the story progresses), and yet she has an inner grit that can’t help but inspire respect. She forms a distinct contrast to Castile Boudreaau, a freed slave who serves as something of a mentor to Amrie. He’s an evolved soul who has already lived through so much pain and hardship that he has the calm and wisdom that Amrie lacks—and sorely needs as the war progresses. I could go on and on, talking about Finn, Amrie’s childhood friend, and Hilda Meyers, the enigmatic German shopkeeper; they’re all so real to me that since I’ve finished the book I find I miss them the way you miss friends you haven’t seen in a while.
For those who are not familiar with Civil War battle sites like Port Hudson, Bayou Sara, and Camp Moore, could you talk a little about that?
It’s hard to overstate the strategic importance of the Mississippi River in the Civil War. The Union knew that if they could take the river, they would effectively cut the Confederacy in two and stop the influx of cattle, horses, and other vital supplies coming into the South from Texas. Once New Orleans fell, the last two Confederate strongholds on the river were Port Hudson and Vicksburg, which became the scenes of horrific sieges. The once prosperous town of St. Francisville and its port, Bayou Sara, lay in between the two, so they suffered grievously from the depredations of Union troops trying to overrun both those two fortifications and Camp Moore, an important Confederate training ground that lay just to the east. The entire area was constantly raided and burned, and guerilla attacks on Union supply lines led to brutal acts of retaliation against area civilians. The things done to the women and children of Louisiana were abominable.
This is a big leap from your Regency England St. Cyr series. What prompted you to write this story and will there be any more like this from you? I hope so!
One of the hazards of keeping a series going for years and years is that there’s a risk of the writer becoming complacent or bored working always with the same characters, setting, and types of stories. For a while I was also writing a contemporary thriller series (under the name C. S. Graham), but I’m a slow writer and it almost killed me trying to keep two series going at the same time. So for me, standalones like this are a better solution.
I’ve actually wanted to write this book for over a decade, ever since I wrote a historical mystery set in occupied New Orleans (Midnight Confessions: currently out of print but due to be reissued soon under my real name, Candice Proctor). That’s when I first learned something about how hard the war had been on the civilian population of Louisiana, and I started thinking about looking at those events through the unblinkingly honest eyes of a child. Then Katrina hit, and one of the ways I survived those first horrible months of living in a devastated city was by reminding myself of how the residents of other destroyed cities throughout history pulled together to survive and rebuild. And that experience put a new spin on the story I wanted to tell.
I’m currently writing a novella set in Kent during World War II that will be part of an anthology by four authors called The Jacobite’s Watch. This is a new venture for me in two ways: it’s a time period I’ve never tried before, and I’ve never written a novella. I do think it’s important for a writer to keep challenging herself.
How would your characters describe you?
Ha! That’s an interesting question. I guess it would depend on the character. Amrie and I have much in common—she has a lot of my faults along with a number of characteristics I’d like to have but don’t. Ironically it wasn’t until I was reading the galleys for the published book that I realized Amrie’s mother is in many ways a blending of my own mother and grandmother with parts of me, too. I suspect all writers do this—put parts of themselves in their characters, including parts they don’t have but wish they did.
How much time and research did you spend on Good Time Coming and what was the process in getting a publisher to take it on?
I researched this book for years. I read hundreds of letters, memoirs, and journals, along with countless histories on various aspects of the war. I visited the historic sites that are important in the story—Port Hudson and Camp Moore, Jackson and the site of the vanished town of Bayou Sara. I even bought a weekend house not far from St. Francisville, between Jackson and Clinton! I went to Civil War battle reenactments, toured plantations and slave quarters, and spent days and days in dusty museums learning everything I could about how things were done and what objects actually looked like. And then I sat down and wrote the manuscript in five months in a white heat of eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. I’m normally a painfully slow writer, but this book just came pouring out of me.
Because I’d never written anything like this before—a coming-of-age story told from the first person viewpoint of a young girl—I was more than a bit apprehensive about my ability to do the story justice. But I honestly believe it is the best book I have ever written, and my agent was so excited when I sent it to her. Then she sent it out, and we received the most glowing, lyrical rejection letters ever penned. The problem was the subject matter—the effect of the Civil War on Southern civilians, plus, oddly, the issue of rape. New York editors were afraid to touch it. There’s a reason this book was published in England.
What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?
As a professional historian, I find it frightening how little so many people know about the past. History has so much to teach us, not only about past events but also about human nature. As the saying goes, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme (a truism attributed to Mark Twain although he actually wrote something slightly different). For those who may not enjoy reading nonfiction histories, well-researched historical fiction offers an accessible window to the past.
Who are your influences?
I’ve long believed that the books we read as children influence us the most, and as a child I read Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Alexandre Dumas. Plus we lived in Europe when I was young, and our weekends and summers were spent crawling around crumbling castles, abbeys, and Roman ruins. So it’s no surprise I grew up fascinated by history, and that when I started writing I gravitated to historicals.
Other writers that undoubtedly had an influence on this book are James Lee Burke, both because of his insight into human nature and his lyrically beautiful prose, and of course Harper Lee. It’s impossible to write about a young girl coming of age in the South without consciously or unconsciously referencing Scout.
When writing, do you use visuals to give you inspiration?
I’ve never been one of those writers who makes collages with photos of characters, houses, clothes, etc. But I do like to go to the places I’ll be writing about and look at objects—a Civil War surgeon’s instruments, for example, or a real nineteenth-century homemade bow (I was so excited when I actually found one hanging on the wall of an outbuilding of a St. Francisville plantation house; they were common in the South in the years after the Civil War because former Confederate soldiers were not allowed to own guns). I tramped all over the extensive battlefields of Fort Hudson, waded through the swamps of Cat Island, and stood in St. Francisville’s churchyard to watch the annual reenactment of what they call the Day the War Stopped (a commemoration of the time Federal and Confederate Masons joined together to give a Union captain a Masonic funeral). When I sit down to write, those are the things I draw on.
What is your writing process and how much time during the day do you write?
I do the bulk of my research before I start writing because I find my plots and characters grow out of what I’m reading and learning. I’ve heard some authors say they plot first and then research only what they need as they’re writing, so they don’t “waste time” learning what they’ll never use. The problem with that approach is that it risks turning history into mere window dressing. When I’m writing, if I come upon something I need but don’t know, I will stop and look it up. I’ve spent half a day chasing down information to get one word right—it’s the hazard of having been a history professor.
Ever since Katrina (when I had no choice) I’ve learned to love writing my books by hand in a legal pad. Recent studies have shown that there is something about holding a pen that stimulates the creative parts of your brain, so I’m not just imagining it. When I finish a chapter, I type it up, print it out, then find a comfortable chair to reread and edit. I constantly go back and edit the chapters I’ve written, so that by the time I finish a manuscript it is virtually in its final state. Yet I have a good friend who composes entirely on her computer, never edits until she’s finished, and never prints out her manuscripts. À chacun son goût.
As for how much of my day I spend on writing, I feel as if I’m always working, that I’m never free to just relax the way someone with a 9-5 job can. The problem with working for yourself is that you feel as if you should always be working. And yet because you’re operating on this long deadline—in my case, usually a year to write a 440-page manuscript—it’s all too easy to waste time, to tell yourself you need to think more about your plot or that the article about sociopaths you want to read is “research.” And then there’s the Internet. Publishers push their writers to be active on Facebook and Twitter, but I think it’s a mistake—soooo many writers I know are now locked in a constant battle against the distraction of social media. It’s a huge time sink.
There was a time I was rigorously self-disciplined. Now, not so much.
What is up next for you?
The twelfth book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series, Where the Dead Lie, will be out in April 2017, and I’ve almost finished #13 (which unfortunately still doesn’t have a title). Then I’ll be moving on to #14, which does have a title: Who Slays the Wicked (love that title!). The anthology with the World War II novella I mentioned will probably be out in 2018. And I’ve also been revising four of my out-of-print historicals; they should all be available early next year.
Where can readers buy your books?
The Sebastian St. Cyr series is available in virtually all outlets in the States and online elsewhere. Good Time Coming is available in hardcover and e-book through various outlets online and can also be ordered through independent bookstores.