We’re so happy to have frequent contributor Sarah McCoy here today. She’s the author of three novels, and has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post and other publications. She’s here to talk about her latest novel, The Mapmaker’s Children.
Q: What’s the premise of your new book?
The Mapmaker’s Children is the story of two dynamic women, Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson. Told through alternating POVs in a historical-contemporary dual narrative form, each chapter adds a story thread, weaving these two women together as they experience transformative love in the same house, 150 years apart.
When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril.
Eden Anderson, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the DC suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance.
Sarah and Eden’s lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to boldly define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.
Q: What would you like people to know about the story?
The Mapmaker’s Children is more than a historical account, more than an interesting mystery, more than a whimsical visit to small-town America. It’s all those things, yes, but moreover, my aim in writing this novel was to honor the legacy of Sarah Brown and her impact on all of us—the Edens and Jacks of today.
What do I want people to know about this story? Gosh, the answer is in the question. I want to people to simply know this story, to know Sarah Brown, to deeply feel the connection to her through Eden. I want her life remembered by the world. If that comes to pass, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller. Yeah, no pressure, right?
Q: What challenges do your characters have to overcome in this story?
While these characters have many external (war, social constraints) and internal (physical, emotional, spiritual) challenges, I’d say one of the driving concepts for me in writing was how we define ourselves as women, how we appraise our life worth, how we create families. Must we ascribe to the social precedents or can we make our own unique legacies?
My characters raised these questions and sought to find answers for themselves. I hope readers are open to doing the same. This isn’t a book singularly about Sarah Brown or Eden Anderson. The power of their worlds colliding is what catalyzes the author–character–reader conversation. The unconventional narrative form, continual chapter shifts from past to present, provides a counterbalance to each storyline. I believe this kind of hybrid book creates active reader participation. The imagination is continually being asked to question, to learn, to wonder alongside Sarah and Eden, and to help them puzzle together the mysteries—of the Underground Railroad doll, yes, but more significantly, their own belief systems.
Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you while writing?
Writing a dual narrative is a maniacal creative process. I’m sure my agent and editors wish to God I’d just go on and write a straight contemporary or straight historical novel but… alas, ’tis not my style. For The Baker’s Daughter, I wrote back and forth chapters as I pleased and in the end, had to tear the entire narrative apart and line up the plots to ensure the seams fit.
For The Mapmaker’s Children, I tried to be more methodical by first outlining each character’s narrative trajectory—their start-to-finish story. I sat down to write using that as my map (no pun intended). While the outline was my guide, I wanted to give the story the freedom to transform, meander, and lead me to new territory as the characters organically commanded.
While it was a more organized creative process from The Baker’s Daughter, it proved evermore daunting in my inclusion of historical information. At one point, I handed over an 800+ page manuscript to my agent (bless her heart) who lovingly read and helped me shave off some areas before giving it to my publisher. My editor was brilliant but ruthless. She told me to halve the book with whole sections highlighted in tracked red: “Lovely prose but extraneous. Cut.” And I did: down from 800 to under 400 pages over the course of six months. It was a page bloodbath to say the least.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?
The most rewarding aspect of writing The Mapmaker’s Children was meeting Sarah Brown, Eden Anderson, and all the residents of New Charlestown, past and present. Their voices filled my mind and bolstered me during the three, long years of in-the-trenches writing. I felt their spirits with me: equal parts encouragement and mighty weights of responsibility. It’s an entirely different beast to write a book that you feel called to act as the conduit of memory… the real-life spirit of a person hovering by your side saying, “Remember me. Help them remember me.”
The storyteller goals were different during the writing of The Mapmaker’s Children. It wasn’t about me, the author indulging in an entertaining fable-scape. For the first time in my career, I truly felt as if I were merely the hands and feet—the intermediary between the characters and readers. I pray I did them justice and honor. I pray I do you, friends, justice and honor as readers of the book. There is no greater reward than that.
You can learn more about The Mapmaker’s Children on Sarah’s website.