“In the summer of 1860, when slavery ruled the heart of America, two young abolitionists discover how dangerous it can be to believe in freedom for all.” From the book jacket of Firebrand by Texas author Sarah MacTavish (Dove Hollow Books).
Q&A with the author:
Kathleen: Welcome, Sarah. Your story is so well crafted. The writing is tight, and from the opening sentence until the closing scene, you pull the reader along at a breathless pace. How did you breathe life into this emotionally charged story where your characters rise up off the page fully formed? I’m in awe of your talent.
Sarah: Wow, first of all, thank you! Well the first thing that comes to mind is just time–I started writing this book when I was a teen, so I’ve spent so many years with these characters, and I got to know them pretty well. But I think I just focused on knowing their hearts–who they were at their core. And at risk of sounding cliché, after I gave them a historical framework, I just let them drive the story. After many many revisions, they finally took on lives of their own with their own distinct voices.
KMR: The story alternates between two teenage narrators, Saoirse Callahan in North Texas (longing for a lost brother and her native Ireland) and Westleigh Kavanagh in Pennsylvania (longing for the truth about his parentage). How did these two characters come to you? Did they appear as voices in your head demanding to be heard? Did they first show up together or separate?
SM: Westleigh was definitely first. He came from a very old draft that bears little resemblance to Firebrand now, and I don’t remember much of how he first came to me. But even as the story changed over the years, his quiet voice stayed pretty constant. Saoirse sort of barged in–as is her way–many years later, after I discovered that there were women in history who disguised themselves and fought in the Civil War. I knew I had to tell that story. So then the original book I started became a series, and Firebrand became the background for why these characters will go on to fight in the war to come.
KMR: Can you talk about your process? Did you plot out the novel chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, or did you scribble a few notes and let the characters lead you on their journey?
SM: I did a little of both. The characters really shaped the story early on, but after a while I had to give myself an outline to keep track of the alternating POVs, and the historical timeline, etc. Plus it helped give the story focus. So I did a one-page overall outline with one sentence chapter summaries, then I would do chapter-by-chapter outlines that could be 2-3 pages of notes, character dialogue snippets, historical background, etc.
KMR: Do you revise as you go or do you complete a first draft straight through and then go back and revise?
SM: I did some revision as I went. I had an amazing critique group that met weekly, and they helped push me along by getting a chapter to them every week. And their feedback definitely helped me shape the story as I went. Later I got an editor who helped me to revise it even further.
KMR: About midway through the story, there’s a scene that grips the reader by the throat. I found myself stopping to catch my breath in places. Although you wrote about an extremely cruel act of violence, you handled it with class and didn’t push the reader over the edge. Without giving too much away, can you describe how you created this vivid scene where so much is at stake for Saoirse, her beloved cousin, Jack, and Abigail, Jack’s secret sweetheart?
SM: Oh, that scene. I absolutely hated writing it–I still cringe every time I think about it, sometimes I wish I had not written it at all, but I didn’t want to sugarcoat just how awful slavery was. And it was a way to stress how helpless these characters were, and how much power men like Reeves (the antagonist) had. It’s really a character-testing point for everyone involved–even Saoirse’s father, Brian. I think we all, when we look back at history, like to think we’d act or do things a certain way, that we’d stand up for injustice and be heroic, but it’s not always that simple, or easy, and this is the point where idealistic Saoirse begins to understand that.
KMR: There’s a lot going on in the story between Saoirse and her family in Texas and Westleigh and his Da, David, in Pennsylvania. How did you keep track of your fictional family tree?
SM: I had a literal family tree! I kept notes with names, dates of birth, places, family timelines, even a little chart with how old everyone was in certain years (because math is definitely my weakness). I referred to those notes quite often! I’m probably going to include some of this information in the second book, too, for readers’ reference.
KMR: What advice can you give writers who are struggling to write a book, be it fiction or nonfiction? Most writers deal with self-doubt about their work. How do you push through it and get your work done, especially if you’re working on a story without a deadline?
SM: Find a critique group. Make sure it’s full of encouraging, challenging writers who will push you to finish, cheer you on, and help you improve along the way. I never would have finished without mine, especially since I did not have a deadline. My group made me brave enough to believe I could do it!
KMR: At what age did you proclaim, “I am a writer?” And how do you handle the naysayers who tell writers, “You’ll never make a living at it?”
SM: I was probably a teenager–13 or 14, but even younger than that I knew I wanted to be one. I’ve never really had to worry about naysayers per se, I’m usually my own worst enemy when it comes to discouragement. I have had an incredibly supportive family, and as a teen I had a few powerfully encouraging teachers. They probably called me a writer before I called myself one. So it’s their words I usually try to remember whenever I’m feeling like a fraud. And I try to remember that this is my passion, this is who I am, and even when I’m feeling discouraged, I couldn’t imagine being or doing anything else.
KMR: Please tell us about the writers’ conference you hosted in Roanoke, TX two years in a row.
SM: Well, I’m also a librarian, and for years at work I’ve had this idea to put together a sort of local mini-conference for aspiring writers in our area to come and network, learn, and get fired up with their own writing… and to give them this for as little cost to them as possible. Writers conferences can be so pricey. So our library finally made this happen in 2015, and it was successful enough that we expanded this year, and hopefully will continue to expand each year. We bring in a keynote speaker and other local authors and offer classes, workshops, one-on-one critique sessions, and plenty of chances for networking. We’re also trying to offer more writing related programs like small workshops throughout the year, contests, NaNoWriMo events, grow our local critique groups, and really just make our library a hub for writers.
KMR: You end the book on a bit of a cliffhanger with “to be continued…” I saw on Instagram where you recently visited Andersonville Prison, a former Confederate prison camp located in southwest Georgia. You mentioned that you were on a research trip for the sequel to Firebrand. Can you tell us the name of the sequel and hint at things to come?
SM: Shh, spoilers! Kidding. Well, Firebrand is the first book of four, and I’m currently working on book two, which will pick up right before the Civil War starts. I haven’t released the title yet but I’d love to do that for you–Book Two will be called Paladin. Concerning my trip to Georgia, my research in Andersonville will probably be making its way into Book 4, but that’s all I can hint at right now! I can say that the next three books (including Paladin) will be following some of the main characters–Saoirse especially–as they fight in the Union Army.
KMR: In closing, is there anything else you’d like share?
SM: Just want to point out my short stories on my website–if you want to read a little more, I have three “prologues” for Firebrand available for free online, and I plan on writing three short stories for in between each of the rest of the books. So check out the ones I have now, and stay tuned for more to come before Paladin releases next year! *fingers crossed*
BIO: Sarah MacTavish is a small-town Texan with Yankee roots and a heart that belongs to Ireland. In addition to being a writer she is also a teen librarian, incurable Star Wars nerd, and proud Hufflepuff. When she isn’t writing, she’s either gaming, watching British television, or chasing down “just one more hint” on her family tree. Sarah is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and finalist in Novel Rocket’s 2014 Launch Pad Contest in the Historical Fiction category. Firebrand is her first novel.
Twitter & Instagram: @sarahmactavish