Talking with . . .

Lucia St. Clair Robson
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    ACCORDING TO HER WEBSITE Lucia St. Clair Robson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in South Florida. She has been a Peace Corps Volunteer (Venezuela 1964-66) and a teacher in Brooklyn, New York. She has also lived in Japan, South Carolina, Miami, and southern Arizona. After earning her master’s degree in Library Science at Florida State University, she worked as a public librarian in Annapolis, Maryland. She lives today near Annapolis in a wooded community on the Severn River.
         The Western Writers of America awarded Lucia’s first book, Ride the Wind, the Golden Spur Award for best historical western of 1982; the book also made the New York Times Best Seller List and was included in the 100 best westerns of the 20th century.
         Since then she has written Walk in My Soul, Light a Distant Fire, The Tokaido Road, Mary’s Land, Fearless: Novel of Sarah Bowman, and Ghost Warrior: Lozen of the Apaches (a finalist for the 2003 Golden Spur). Her newest, Shadow Patriots: A Novel of the Revolution, has already won critical acclaim.
         When we caught up with Lucia, we asked —

    What was your Peace Corps assignment in Venezuela?
    I was an Urban Community Development Volunteer.

    Looking back, what was your tour like?
    It was the best experience imaginable. It made me feel at ease wherever I happened to be in the world. It gave me confidence, knowledge, and insight.

    Have you written anything about your Peace Corps experience, fiction or non-fiction?
    Not yet. That experience is percolating, but my group, Urban Community Development II, got back together via the internet and had a reunion a couple years ago. I’ve been encouraging them to write their memories down and send them to me — by e-mail if necessary. I have a whiskey carton in my office where I throw what they produce. There’s quite a stack. One day I want to get them to collaborate with me in putting their thoughts, memories, and experiences together in a book. Like all PCV groups, they’re a funny, smart, socially-committed bunch.

    What about your writing, when did you start writing novels?
    I began my first novel, Ride the Wind, in 1979. And much of what I had experienced in the Peace Corps found its way into that book, which was about a young girl trying to assimilate into another culture, learn another language.

    Give us some examples of what you mean.
    Well, I described the main character standing in the Comanche encampment of teepees at night and thinking how familiar it had all become. That was my exact experience, standing in the street of Los Cerritos, Caripito, Venezuela, with the lights in the windows of the row of houses. Later on, a neighbor’s baby died and I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of her keening. When I had to describe mourning in the Comanche village, I knew what it sounded like.
         Then there was my initial experience in Lost Cerritos. People crowded into the house when we first arrived in country, everyone curious to see us. That’s how I described it for Cynthia Ann, waking up in a teepee that first morning. And also, certainly, just the experience of being dropped into a different culture and having to learn the language and the customs.

    For those who haven’t read you novels, could you tell us what your books are about?
    Sure. Let’s see! Ride the Wind is about Cynthia Ann Parker who was captured by Comanches in Texas and grew up with them. By the way, it has been in print 23 years and has 90 five-star reader reviews on Amazon.com. Walk in My Soul is about Sam Houston’s life among the Cherokee; Light a Distant Fire is the story of Osceola and the Second Seminole War in Florida; Tokaido Road is based on the famous event in Japanese history that took place in 1702; Mary’s Land is on the settlement of Maryland in the 1630s; Fearless is set during the Mexican War of 1846–1848; Ghost Warrior is the story of the Chiricahua Apaches and Lozen, the only single woman that I know of to ride with the men as a warrior.
         My latest book, Shadow Patriots: A Novel of the Revolution is about the Culper Ring, a group of spies who gathered intelligence for George Washington through most of the War. Central to the story is 355, the Culpers’ code for “lady,” but whose real identity is still unknown.

    Clearly you have done a tremendous amount of research for the variety of fiction that you have written. In terms of % how much time is done on the research? How much time on the writing?
    Hard to say. Maybe 25% research, 75% writing. But we’re talking about a book that can take years, because I’m a slow writer. So that means a lot of reading over time. Usually I go through 150–300 sources with the requisite note-taking and filing of cards with info.

    Do you do all the research before you start to write?
    No. I find enough information on the subject to write a proposal that consists of a summary of the story. Once I have a contract I research as I write, trying to keep a chapter ahead of the class as it were. And I can’t stop even after I mail in the manuscript. I keep reading through the galley process. Years after the book comes out I collect books and other material on the subject.

    Do you have any “tricks of the trade” with regard to doing research?
    I have a Master’s in Library Science, so my first trick of the trade is to utilize my local public library’s interlibrary loan system which gets more amazing as technology advances. For Shadow Patriots the library found me a microfilm copy of a jest book published in 1739. Fantastic period humor to add to my story. The Internet can answer simple questions, but for details you didn’t even know to look for, books are the place to go.
         The other trick is never to assume you have enough information. There’re always more fascinating facts and insights out there, and even when I think I have enough, I’ll come across some odd incident or phrase that will kick-start the writing process.

    How do you decide who you will write about? What do you need to make it an interesting story for you, or a reader?
    Surprise. I like to be surprised. I like to find historical characters who are little known, and who have done the unexpected. That’s why so many of my main characters are women. One expects Andrew Jackson to take New Orleans or William Tecumseh Sherman to march through Georgia. That was their job. What intrigues me are people who did the unexpected (Ulysses S. Grant tried out for the role of Desdemona in the officers’ production of Othello before invading Mexico in 1846. That makes Grant even more interesting to me).
         When women went to war, or spied for George Washington, they were doing the unexpected. They were facing not only physical opposition from an armed enemy, but something more insidious, societal opposition.

    Your fiction has been called historical fiction as well as historical romance. What do you call it?
    My first book, Ride the Wind, opened with a massacre. I would not call it or any of the seven that followed “historical romance.” All of my books have a love interest somewhere in them because life does too. But I don’t do happily-ever-after endings. So, what I write is historical fiction.

    Since you do so much research, why turn it into fiction?
    Writing fiction is more fun. It’s more fun because I can speculate on why people do things as well as what they do. I prefer fiction because I like to add historical, cultural, and social tidbits that have no place in a non-fiction book. Because dialogue gives an opportunity to put in jokes and stories from the period, as well as attitudes.
         The result of all that, oddly enough, is often a look at history that’s more “accurate” in a way than just laying out the facts. I wouldn’t presume to make that claim except that readers have told me it’s so. As in the case of the Cherokee descendants of the family I wrote about in my second book, Walk in My Soul. One of them called to tell me that the incidents I wrote about in that book were stories only the family knew.
         And in my first book, Ride the Wind, the park ranger at Parker Fort verified that my description of the site was closer to the original than the re-creation built in the 1930s.

    What other historical fiction writers would you compare yourself to?
    Gads — I never compare. Others have compared me to James Michener and Jean Aul, but I would say our bank accounts show a great disparity.

    You appear to always have a female as the lead character. You are obviously doing this on purpose. Why?
    Well, that is not entirely correct. My third book, Light A Distant Fire, has a male protagonist, Osceola, war leader of the Seminoles. The "co-star" of Ghost Warrior, about the Apaches Wars is a guy named Rafe. Shadow Patriots features a Quaker named Robert Townsend.
         I don’t set out to choose women protagonists, but, as I pointed out, I like to write about people who do the unexpected. The one common factor with all my female characters is that they bucked the social restrictions of their time.

    Some practical questions for other Peace Corps writers. How did you get your first novel published?
    I ran into an editor at a convention and told him the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and the Comanches and he encouraged me to take a shot at it, so I did. I sent the first 80 pages to Ballantine Books and they gave me a contract. The finished manuscript was 996 manuscript pages and I was holding down a full-time library job while I wrote that novel.

    What kind of convention was that?
    The Baltimore Science Fiction Convention in 1979. A great gathering. Always fun. I read a lot of science fiction for escape before I started escaping into the past on a daily basis.

    Do you write full time now or are you still a librarian?
    I’ve been writing full time (If you don’t count the goofing-off hours) since I quite my day job in 1982.

    You mentioned science fiction . . . have you written science fiction novels?
    I’ve never written science fiction, but until his death, I lived with the science fiction writer Brian Daley (author of the first three Han Solo novels and the NPR serializations of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as numerous books of his own). Brian and I did a lot of cross-pollenization. (For more about him, go to www.brian-daley.com).
         Oh, and my book about feudal Japan, Tokaido Road, received a lengthy review in a magazine called NIEKAS: Science Fiction and Fantasy.
         Brian also talked me into writing a couple episodes for the 1980s Science Fiction animated series, Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. I hear they’re now coming out on DVD.

    Of course, you must have a website.
    Yes, with more information than anyone needs to know is at www.luciastclairrobson.com.

    What do you like the best about being a novelist?
    Being my own boss. Working at home. Hearing from readers. Feeling that I’ve produced something that will be around after I’m gone.

    What are you working on now (or day-dreaming about writing)?
    I’m halfway through a novel set during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917. I’m calling it Last Train from Cuernavaca.

    Lucia, give us an example of something that you wrote that you find particularly good.
    I wouldn’t characterize anything I write as particularly good. But here’s a descriptive passage from Chapter Eight, p.73 of Shadow Patriots:

    The American encampment sprawled across a wind-swept hillside bounded on three sides by two creeks and a bend of the Schuylkill River. Hundreds of women and children shared the soldiers’ huts, or they would when there were huts to share . . ..
         The engineers had marked out the arrangement of huts by companies, battalions, and brigades, but their efforts looked more like wreckage than construction. The temporary quarters of dugouts, leantos, and tents were hard to distinguish from the heaps of rubbish. No one had completed the first log hut, and the soldiers dragged the timbers across the survey lines, churning the ground to icy mud. The engineers swore at the soldiers and the soldiers swore back . . .. Kate smelled a lot of odors, but not the aroma of meat cooking.

Thank you, Lucia.
Thank you, John.