Talking with . . .

Elsa Watson
An interview conducted by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    Reviewed by Alan Boyd (Ethiopia 1964–66)

    Elsa Watson served with her husband in Guinea-Bissau (1996–98) where she began writing her novel Maid Marian — rumor has it . . . in long hand and by lamplight. After her Peace Corps tour she worked at Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program before moving to her home state of Washington. She lives now on beautiful Bainbridge Island in a small home she and her husband built, and where we found her alone with her dog and cat looking out at the soft rain and the green hillside that might remind one — especially if one has a novelist’s eye — of Sherwood Forest.

    Tell us a bit about your college experience.
    I graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, with a degree in classical languages.

    Are you from Minnesota?
    No, I grew up in Seattle and wanted to return to this part of the world. On days like today, I sit at my desk listening to the wind howl and watching the drizzle. I like the rain, but no one else in our household (dog and cat included) feel quite the same.

    Elsa, what was your assignment in the Peace Corps?
    We were assigned to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, just south of Senegal. We lived in Galomaro, a village in the eastern, rural part of the country, so we learned both Fula (the language spoken in the east) and Kriolu (the country’s primary language). My husband and I worked as Agriculture Volunteers the first year, focusing on community gardens and livestock health. The second year we transferred to the capital, Bissau, and became Environmental Education Volunteers. There we worked with IUCN, the World Conservation Union, documenting the country’s first national park and writing forest valuation grants.

    You were married before you joined the Peace Corps?
    Yes. We weren’t married when we applied to the Peace Corps, and it came as something of a shock that we would have to be married to be placed together. We got over the shock, however, took a trip to the court house, and have now been married for eight years. The other PCVs referred to us as “the married couple” since we were the only ones in our group. Silly as it sounds, that was a big help during those days when we were still getting used to saying the words “husband” and “wife” without laughing.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps?
    We joined for a host of reasons: to improve the world; for adventure; and to feel that genuine connection with humanity that you find around people who speak a different language and live in a different culture. In part, I was looking for what’s common to all people, and I found it in parents’ love of their children, in the universal impulse to laugh, in curiosity and kindness.

    What was your village like?
    Galomaro was the end of the public transportation line, so it was a hub of sorts for the smaller villages in the forest around it. It had a small market, a tiny school, and two tailors. Like many places in Guinea-Bissau, it contained a mix of people: most were Fula, but our host family was Mandinka, and the girl down the road who sold us millet porridge was Serekunde. It’s a very rural town, right next to the rice fields, with goats and cows wandering through the market and monkeys within sight of our yard.

    Have you thought about writing about your Peace Corps experience?

    I’ve written a few short stories set in Guinea-Bissau, but I find the Peace Corps experience very difficult to write about. Even five years after returning, my memories are so full of emotion that it’s hard to pull them apart. A good story requires just a few, well-chosen details; it’s almost impossible for me to winnow my memories down sufficiently to make a story. At the same time, because turmoil was such a real part of life there, it’s painful to frame a story that’s tense and full of conflict. My mind rebels every time (that’s not fiction, that’s reality!). I find it much easier to let my imagination roam in a place and time I’ve never seen (medieval England, say) than to write about problems and people that are all too real in memory.
         I intend, however, to keep trying. One day, with enough distance, I hope to write something that reflects at least one aspect of either the Peace Corps life or of Guinean life. At the moment I content myself with weaving bits of my experience into my other stories. For example, there is a section in Maid Marian in which our heroine spends the night with a poor, farming family. As she meets the family, Marian is struck by much of the awkward shyness I felt when I went to my first host-family. At night, she combats more mundane problems: sharing a bed with the rest of the family; rats racing around in the roof-thatch. All of this was drawn from things I remember in Guinea-Bissau.

    Well, with that segue from the Peace Corps to Maid Marian, let’s talk about your novel. What inspired you to retell the Maid Marian/Robin Hood story?
    Maid Marian has intrigued me since childhood. I’ve always been a fan of the Robin Hood story, but I could never understand why so much of the attention went to Robin, and so little to Marian. It struck me as strange that her name is so well known, yet no one has a sense of her character beyond her role as Robin Hood’s consort. Once it occurred to me to write her story myself, I couldn’t let the idea rest. I wanted to show how complex her own life might have been, and how she might have struggled with the choices she made.

    How did you reimagine the love story between Marian and Robin?
    Through all its variations, the Robin Hood/Maid Marian romance is about opposites who attract. Each version describes the story in a different way — in some, Robin Hood is the noble, in others it’s Maid Marian — but most open with these two characters on opposites sides of the medieval “tracks.” Their romance, then, has immense obstacles to overcome. Concessions will have to be made on both sides. Their love for each other will, without question, leave both of them permanently altered. That, I think, is the bedrock of a moving story, and one that allows for serious risks, bravery, and genuine sacrifice — the elements of a touching romance. Since this is told in the first person, I also wanted to include the internal doubts that accompany first love. Marian is inexperienced when she first meets Robin Hood, and she has to feel her way through the situation — something she isn’t accustomed to.

    What is it about the story and the Sherwood Forest characters that continues to be popular?
    What we love about the Sherwood Forest characters is the freedom they’ve found in the midst of oppression. Robin Hood epitomizes this idea — we love his disrespect for authority and his drive to maintain a “merry” lifestyle right under the Sheriff of Nottingham’s nose. When I began Maid Marian, I wanted to demonstrate this in her story as well. I wanted to show the restrictions on her life, and then let her break them in pursuit of her own course.
         Robin Hood is also beloved because he is the champion of the little man, the independent spirit who looks after the poor even when they’ve been abandoned by their own rulers. He and his men fulfill our need to find goodness in typically bad characters. The notion of a civic-minded band of thieves is inherently charming. Between their hunting skills and their boisterous laughter, they strike us as being very much alive and in touch with their world — something our society increasingly covets as we find ourselves becoming more removed from our natural environment.

    In the book you have many of the historical conventions women struggled with during those times. Was that important to the story?
    The situation of women was critical to this story. In the Middle Ages, very few people — of either sex — were truly independent, but women were certainly the worst off. Noble women were practically sold as marriage prizes; common women toiled as serfs. As I imagined Marian living in such a society, I felt intense frustration over her situation. I wanted her to feel that frustration too, to such an extent that she was willing to take grave risks for a chance to change her future.
         Marian is the sort of person who wants to be the decision-maker, the one in control — it made sense to me that she would do nearly anything to gain autonomy. Also, beyond the restrictions of planned marriages, I wanted to show the tedium of women’s lives: rich women endlessly spinning and sewing; poor women caught in the drudgery of fieldwork. I thought these elements gave important background texture to the story and helped explain why Marian felt so eager to break free of the mold.

    You mentioned in the novel the tensions between the Normans and the Saxons. How important is this to the main story?
    In some ways I mentally compared Norman England of 1190 with the United States today, 140 years after the Civil War. Despite the time that’s passed, no one would say racial conflicts have evaporated in this country — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved that, 100 years after the war, tremendous division still existed between the races. England experienced similar racial blending after the Norman invasion of 1066. The Normans, led by William the Conqueror, became the rulers of the English, who were primarily Saxon. It seems reasonable to me that, 120 years later, when my story begins, tensions would be nearly as high as they had been in the years after the invasion.
         The Robin Hood legends, passed down to us through songs, are folklore — the stories of the common people. I wanted, therefore, to emphasize the issues they would have cared about, such as the prejudice and injustice of the Norman elite. It seemed natural to make Robin Hood a Saxon-speaking character who came from laboring people. And I purposefully chose to make Marian a Norman noble, knowing that each would bring a set of biases to their meeting and that this would increase the tension of their romance. Annie, Marian’s Saxon nurse, also plays an important role by introducing Marian to both Saxon culture and its language.

    How does your book differ from others?
    In the 1800s, Thomas Love Peacock wrote a novel entitled Maid Marian, in which both Marian and Robin are nobles. There have been some young adult books on the subject, but the overwhelming number of Robin Hood retellings dwarfs the number of stories specifically about Maid Marian. In most versions of the Robin Hood legend, Marian is relegated to a minor character’s role. I wanted to bring her story to the forefront, to give her a voice of her own. I chose to write it in the first person so readers could enter into her thoughts and feel personally involved in her journey.

    The rumor is that you started to write this book by candle light while living in the village — true?
    Well, I started writing in Peace Corps, though not this book. At some point in the first year, probably when I was sick of reading the true crime books I’d picked up in the PCV library, I decided to write a book, just to see if I could. Thinking that romance novels were pretty simple (so untrue!), I wrote one on a couple tablets of paper I’d scrounged from somewhere. When we went in to the capital, I’d type up whatever I had until it was done, at maybe 200 pages.
         My husband and some other PCVs were kind enough to read it and give me some encouragement, so I started on a second one. The second book caused me a lot more trouble, and I learned some tough lessons about plotting and story structure — it was a really rocky sophomoric attempt. By the time we left, I think I had two and a half books done, none of them really worth anything except the writing lessons they’d taught, one of which was that romance novels aren’t simple at all. I have them here in my “never to see the light of day” folder.

    Are you working on another novel?
    I’m between novels at the moment. I’ve just finished editing the two I wrote while Maid Marian was in production, and those are floating around right now in search of buyers. One of those is a King Arthur saga, about his mother, Ygraine. The other involves Anne Bonney, a pirate who sailed the Caribbean in the early 1700s. I have a topic chosen for my next book, but I’ve decided to stick with freelance work until I sell another book, since that earns a paycheck.

    You say you are free lancing . . . what sort of writing?
    Right now I’m writing travel guides, non-fiction articles on historical figures, and camping articles. It’s quite fun, but I honestly can’t wait to get back to fiction. Doing the freelance work has shown me that part of what I love about working on fiction is the way it involves you so completely. When I’m planning a novel or in the middle of writing it, I think about it all the time — when I’m out for a walk, or sitting around, or falling asleep at night. Non-fiction, I find, is work I need to do at my desk, not something I can — or need to — spend time dreaming on. I find I miss that deep immersion.

    Have you read any Peace Corps books?
    Only Under the Neem Tree by Susan Lowerre (Senegal 1985–87) which seems to be the quintessential African Peace Corps book.

    A couple questions about process: How long was your first draft of Maid Marian?
    I wrote the first draft in about three months, writing about six pages (or 1800 words) a day. I probably spent another month editing it, then turned my attention to finding an agent.

    How did you go about getting an agent?
    I made a huge, tiered list using the listings in the Writer’s Market, then sent out batches of queries, some with chapters, some without. I think received forty or fifty rejections, a few of them very kind ones (but mostly curt), before anyone showed any real interest. In the end, my book caught the eye of one person in my agency who championed it around the office. The lesson there, I think, is that you shouldn’t give up on your project if you really love it. Keep sending it out and hope for that good bit of serendipity.

    Then what happened?
    Once I signed on with my agency — a good four or five months after finishing the book — they took charge. They sent it around to various houses, forwarding the rejections, until it found a home a Crown one or two months later. That was in the summer of 2002. I would guess I spent another two months editing the manuscript with my editor’s guidance, then the book came out in April, 2004.

    Do you have any suggestions for would-be writers who were in the Peace Corps about writing novels or non-fiction of any sort?
    I’d say jump in there and give it a go. The first hurdles you have to overcome are hurdles of confidence: you have to learn that you can write a whole book, that you can come up with a plot that’s large enough to carry a story, and can build characters that are interesting. Once you have that confidence, you can focus on other things — your narrative style, the book’s point and purpose, the changes your character will go through, etc.
         Also, if your first attempts don’t receive much attention, don’t give up. Take the lessons you’ve learned and apply them to your next project. I don’t want to sound discouraging, but I wrote five “practice” books before the one that was published. I believed in each one as I was working on it, but I didn’t really find my voice until Maid Marian. I should add one caveat here, though: I think I could have produced a better book earlier if I hadn’t neglected the editing process. I had a tendency to dodge the hard work of editing, choosing to move on to something new instead of rolling up my sleeves. I’ve since learned that what they say is true, that the real quality of a book comes from its re-writing.
         Last of all — and this is key — when you’re feeling serious about your writing, go to a writer’s conference. The conference speakers and attendees will teach you what you need to know about finding an agent and surviving in the publishing industry.

    Thank you, Elsa. Good luck on the next novel.
    Thank you so much, John, and thanks for your help, and to Marian and you for the great website. I love reading all the wonderful writing by other RPCVs, especially on rainy days. And we do have a lot of rainy days on Bainbridge Island.